Vintage Commentary: ‘A Design Revolution’ – Chuck Jordan On The Styling Of GM’s Wild 1959 Cars

Sometime after retirement GM’s Vice President of Design Chuck Jordan took a writing stint at Sports Cars International, a now-gone auto enthusiast oriented magazine. Naturally, for someone who worked at GM’s “Art and Color Section” for over four decades, his monthly column Jordan’s Style addressed design matters of various sorts during its brief run.

On edition 118 from Dec. 1997, Chuck reminisced on the lead up to the styling of GM’s ’59 lineup. The story has often been told and while Chuck’s account basically confirms what’s commonly known, it’s nice to get the point of view from an active participant in the events. Chuck was a mere 30 when the ’59s were conceived, but the talented and impetuous Californian had risen very quickly at Harley Earl’s studio and was already Cadillac’s head of styling by ’59.

There’s no way to get around the fact that ‘fins’ are the first thing that pop into mind when these vehicles are mentioned, and Chuck goes into some detail on the aeronautical inspirations that gave rise to this very American -yet influential- fad.

While the P-38-influenced ’48 Cadillac can make the dubious claim for setting the fin movement in motion, it was Chrysler’s ’57 lineup that drove the trend to its apotheosis. Virgil Exner had been toying away with Italianate and classic cues on Chrysler’s styling exercises, adding only modest fins on production models; it was the work done on the ‘56 Dart concept car that made him a ‘fin convert’ and he took to the concept with a vengeance. Chrysler’s ’57 lineup now being a menace, it took Chuck and company to bring a mutiny of sorts against Harley Earl’s original ’59 proposals, with Chuck and team bent on outdoing Exner’s efforts.

The ‘fin’ rose to levels that even Chuck admits went too far. The fin -and the girth of those post ’58s- also took a pounding from the automotive press, and as the Eisenhower recession took hold, the whole trend died quickly by the early 60’s. Given its relative short life, it’s kind of ironic ‘the fin’ is the one styling cue solidly associated with American cars nowadays; and decades later the topic still fascinates to some degree or another.