Automotive History: Planes, Rockets and Automobiles – Aero Influence in Car Design

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(first posted 11/25/2014)    Flight has always been a major fantasy attached to driving. Since the first cars shimmied over dirt roads and cobblestones, motorists have imagined themselves at the controls of flying machines. And if they weren’t already of that mindset, advertisers and dealers made sure to drive the point home. They still do. Who among us hasn’t been told by a salesperson to “check out the cockpit” of a ride they were trying to sell us?

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In the 1950s, many an American kid riding shotgun with his father learned the legend of How the Cadillac Got Its Tailfin. “See that?”, Dad would say, taking a hands-free drag on a cigarette while making an upshift. “The guy who designed that was inspired by the rudders on the P-38 fighter.”

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Some manufacturers actually did make airplanes at one time or another, like Ford, Piaggio, Voisin, SAAB. Many others produced aero components: BMW, Rolls Royce, Packard. When I bought a repair manual for my ‘63 Imperial, I was pleased to find that inside the back cover was an intact pocket and card from the Chrysler Missile Branch library.

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However tenuous the connection a carmaker’s products might have to aircraft, few were shy about using aeronautic (and aerospace) references to spice up whatever land bound bucket of bolts they had to offer. Having no established design idiom for rocket ships, Hudson were free to employ art deco fantasy when fashioning a hood ornament for their aptly named Terraplane in the late ‘30s. A prospective buyer who slid behind the wheel sighted over a translucent ruby orb that appeared to have landed on Planet Terra after escaping a Buck Rogers film short.

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During WWII, the German V-2 set the standard for popular ideas of rocket design that would persist through the early 1950s. The Nazi wonder weapon‘s form was transcribed directly into chrome for the finned cigar heading toward a golden postwar world on trunk of an Oldsmobile Rocket 88. But the cold warriors–and war of the worlders–worried: If the rocket is flying TOWARD Earth, where did it come FROM?

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New designs for military aircraft proliferated as Cold War fears kept aeronautical designers busy. Aero technology advanced so fast and new warbirds arrived so often that they were sometimes mistaken for alien craft, or worse: secret Soviet super planes. These sleek weapons made their presence felt in automakers’ studios, where assorted side spears, light pods, fender crowns and hood ornaments took on swept wings and rocket fins, selling American Might to Americans. GM cast a modern Phoenix when they grafted an accipiter’s head to the nose of an F-7 Cutlass fighter and perched it on the hood of the mid-century Chevy, evoking a wartime propaganda animation in which an American bomber was transfigured into an arrow-wielding eagle.

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As late as 1959, Cadillac’s design brief included parking light pods lifted directly from the intakes of Boeing B-52 bombers.
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And its tail lamps suggested hot gases shooting rearward to help push 2 1/2 tons forward on low pressure tires. It brought the spaceship look to a place where geometry’s most magical shape, the circle, looked almost ungainly formed into wheels that broke he long sweep of a Caddy’s bodyside.

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By now, John Q. Public had an idea of what a real rocket looked like, and it didn’t resemble a winged cigar. The elongated cylinders atop the haunches of ‘59 Pontiacs and Fords would be among the last of the escape velocity styling cues. They referenced the dark side of rocketry: the intercontinental ballistic missile.

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But ICBMs cast dual shadows. Not only could they carry destruction, they also transported human explorers into space. Automakers certainly didn’t shake hands with warmongers in their boardrooms over a deal to sell symbols of nuclear annihilation. As before, they sifted through timely imagery to proffer symbols of power, speed, security–and hope.