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Custom Car Accessories

September 29, 2017

Customizing with early Cadillac Tail Fins

 

CUSTOMIZING CADILLAC TAIL FINS

 

When the 1948 Cadillac introduced the all new Streamline rear fender Tail Fin it was quickly adapted by the Custom Car World. Adding Cadillac Tail Fins gave your car an instant Classy look.


From the early beginnings of Custom Restyling the high end cars as Packard, La Salle and Cadillac’s have provided key elements to restyle, and upgrade lower end cars as Chevy, Buick and Ford models. Using Cadillac and La Salle grills as shown in our Vertical Custom grille article is a good sample of this. In the early years of Customizing some taillight of these high end cars were used as well, but when the 1948 Cadillac was introduced in late 1947, its totally uniquely streamlined fish tail shaped rear fender-taillight combination was an instant hit among Customiziers. The distinctive Cadillac rear fender shape with its upwards flow towards the end fitted the streamlined shape most Custom Builders were after perfectly.

Early Design sketches for the 1948 Cadillac’s show the first hints of the later approved design of the Cadillac Tail fin that was introduced in late 1947.

 



The distinctive Cadillac Tail-Fin shape started to develop in 1941. GM styling vice president Harley Earl took a group of senior stylists to Michigan’s Selfridge Field, to see a remarkable new aircraft. To Lockheed Model 22, better known ad the P-38 Lightning. The P-38 was an imposing and unusual sight, with its cockpit in a narrow pod between two turbo-charged Allison V12 engines, mounted in distinctive twin booms with short vertical fins. It was this line from the nose of the plane to the tail of both booms that would be the inspiration for the 1948 Cadillac lines.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was the main inspiration for the General Motors design team under supervision of chief Harley Earl. Many elements, including the tail fins were eventually incorporated in the production model of the classy and exclusive looking 1948 Cadillac.

 



Frank Hershey, then the head of GM’s special projects, developed various design studies, incorporating P-38 themes with rear fenders that had simulated chrome air intakes and stubby fins with integral taillights. In 1945 the Cadillac team had just started work developing the all-new 1948 models. The renderings and scale models that emerged over the next four months from the studio all sported P-38-inspired fenders and Tail-Fins, the fins added a rakish touch to a handsome car. For the 1948 model year, Tail-Fins adorned the rear of Cadillac cars for the first time. The Tail-Fin would grow in popularity for the next decade and a half. They finally reached their apex in 1959.

In the early days when these Caddy parts were still new, complete rear fenders, including taillights and bumpers, were ordered straight from the Cadillac dealers, and later these parts were highly sought after at the local junk yards. Using the complete Cadillac rear fender on some cars, and only cut off rear sections on other cars transformed the customized cars completely. The Cadillac parts added both optical as well as real length to the cars they were used on. Plus it disguised cars even further, making many people think the cars were based on a more expensive Cadillac.

Not only the tail fins of the ’48 Cadillac were highly desired by the late 1940’s Custom builders, the Caddy also offered a wonderful grille, dashboard, steering wheels, side trim and even more popular than the tail fins, the Sombrero Hubcaps.

 



The complete ’48 Cadillac Rear fenders assembly looked particularly good when used on ’39-’51 cars that had teardrop shaped fenders to start with. The shape of the Cadillac fenders were perfect for the streamlined Custom Car look. The overall teardrop shape with large radius soft flowing ends fitted perfectly in the molded in look the Custom Builders were after. And the flip upwards tail fin and light were the absolute icing on the cake. Using the Cadillac Tail Fin on your custom meant that your car looked more high end, longer, and lower in the back. All elements Customizers were after.

These are the three type of taillights we are concentrating in this article (Plus the aftermarket units, not pictured here). The ’48-50 units are nearly identical, with an additional chrome trim piece below the lens for the ’49-50 units. The ’51-’53 units have the clear back up light underneath the red lens, with additional chrome trim. The red lens on the this unit is more square on the top. The fender tail is pretty similar for the ’48-53 units, but the rest of the fender changed very much after the ’49 model.

 



In this article we will concentrate on the use of the 1948-53 Cadillac taillights and rear fender fins as being used on Custom Cars from the Golden Era from the late 1940’s till mid 1950’s.



Publications

In the late 1940’s early 1950’s Car magazines were blooming, and helped spread the popularity of Customizing. The magazines were mostly published by California based publishers and the cars featured in these early magazines were mostly local CA cars. Motor Trend was one of the early magazines that started to feature Custom Cars, and getting your Custom Car inside, or even on the cover of MT was a big thing. But perhaps even more important than the personal publicity these magazines spread the good looks of these early Custom Cars all over the US. When the Custom Builders started to use the 1948 Cadillac rear fenders and taillights, the magazines soon followed with featured on Custom Cars using this new trend. The February 1950 issue of Motor Trend had the Barris restyled 1947 Buick for Ben Mario on the cover. A really beautiful glamor photo taken an a golf course showing the beautifully restyled Buick in all its beauty, and especially showed off the use of the 1948 Cadillac rear fenders. A new National trend was born.

From 1948 on Custom Car Builders started to use the Cadillac taillights and rear fenders on their Custom Cars. And magazines soon started to feature Custom Cars that used these Classic looking tailfins. Motor Trend Magazine and the Custom Cars Annual from 1951 showed the Cadillac tailfin being used on the magazine covers which helped generate this popular Custom Car trend.

 


From the 1951 published Trend Books first Annual Custom Cars #101 booklet.

 


The 1951 edition of the Dan Post Blue Book of Custom Restyling was the first of the Post publications that mentioned the use of the Cadillac Tail Fin’s and lights. The write up was not illustrated with photos or graphics.

 


The April 1952 issue of Motor trend mentioned that the use of Caddy tail fins had become standard Customizing trends!

 




Cad Fins on Full Customs

We do not know who it was that used the first ’48 Cadillac rear fender on a Custom Car, or when this was done. But my guess is that as soon as the ’48 Cadillac hit the dealers the minds of the Custom Builders must have started to work overtime. We know that Jesse Lopez already put an order in for a ’48 Cadillac after seeing an advertising ad, even before the car had hit the dealer. The same thing might have been the case with the beautifully designed rear fender/taillights combination on the ’48 Cadillac. One of the early Customs that had a set of Caddy fenders installed was Ben Mario’s 1948 Buick. And already very nice car stock from the factory, but with those long, slightly more bulbous rear fenders with the airplane tail fin the car became absolutely stunning. The soft round edges of the sides of the rear fender when you looked at it from the side, and the long vertical lines when you looked at it from the rear were elements that made the design of these Customs with Caddy Tail-Fins really special.

The Barris Shop used the complete rear fenders of an 1948 Cadillac on Ben Mario’s 1947 Buick Convertible. The earliest photo’s of Ben’s Buick show ’49 California License plates. We are not sure if this was the first Caddy Fin’s used by Barris, but it sure was an early one. The Caddy rear fenders completely changed the cars appeal. Making it look much more high end than the stock Buick ever did. Barris also used a grille, front and rear bumper and set of Hubcaps from the ’48 Cadillac.

 



The rear fenders of the Cadillac were longer than most of the rear fenders of the cars they were used on. Sometimes the fenders were moved forward onto the quarter panel, compared to the stock fenders. Other times extra length was added to the rear with molded in splash pans. The Cadillac fenders looked the best if they had been molded to the body, with a nice large radius, making them appear they were carved from warm butter. Usually the fenders needed to be modified a little to fit the quarter panels, and at the back there the rear fenders met the main body often some sheet metal work was required.

Famous Custom Builders the Barris and Ayala brothers had a strong bond with the Cadillac rear fenders. Both shops createdCustom Cars styled in a way the Cadillac Tail-Fin rear fenders would adapt to very good. There are multiple samples of those n this article. The Caddy rear fenders could be used in two different ways. One as a complete unit, and two just the Tail Fin section cut off and installed on the to be restyled car. This last version most often was used on the lower-end GM model from 49-52.

When Don Vaughn later owned the ’47 Buick, some updates and changes were made, including the addition of a set of ’51 Cadillac taillights. The rear bumper remains the 48-49 model.

 


This low angle photo of  Don Vaugh’s Barris Buick shows how nice the Cadillac rear fenders and taillights look on the Buick. The full fade away front fenders complement the shape of the rear fenders, and the flow of the Gaylord Padded top and smoothed trunk is accented with the upward flow of the tail-fin. Custom Car design at its very best.

 


The Barris shop also installed a set of ’48 Cadillac rear fenders on this ’41 Buick convertible. To make the Caddy fenders work with the Buick body the front section of the fenders, and the rear/top portion of the rear of the Buick had to be reshaped. Sadly there are no photos found of this car as a finished custom, but judging from these in-progress photos it must have looked stunning.

 


These photos taken at the Barris Kustoms Atlantic Blvd. shop show how the ’48 Cadillac rear fenders on the ’41 Buick convertible shown above were later modified with round rod to be able to french a set of ’51-53 Cadillac taillight lenses for an even smoother look.

 


The Ayala brothers Gil and Al were are also known for their use of Cadillac tail fins on their Custom Car creations. Gil used a set of complete ’49 Cadillac rear fenders and rear bumper on his 1940 Mercury. The full fade away front fenders matched the lines and shape of the Cadillac rear fender beautifully, and the lines of the chopped top, and smooth flowing trunk were nicely accented by the upward flip of the tail-fin. The extra height of the tail-fin, combined with the heavy looking rear bumper made the rear of the Mercury look even lower than it was, perfect for that desired speed-boat look. The Ayala’s used an image of the Cad-fin Mercury on their promotional material for year, helping the popularity of this Custom technique.

 


For Hank Griffith‘s 42 Ford, the Ayala’s created a set of full fade away fenders using a set of 1950 Cadillac doors and of course the rear fenders and rear bumper. The rear quarter panels needed quite a bit of work to adapt the longer and flatter ’50 Cadillac rear fenders. The result was a much modern modern looking custom.

 


The unknown builder of Hank Rains 1941 Ford also used a pair of Cadillac fenders and taillights to upgrade the Convertible. A set of ’48 Caddy fenders, lights and rear bumper were modified to fit the ’41 Ford body. The new rear fenders changed the look of the convertible dramatically, making it look much longer, lower and classy.

 



Harry Westergards used a set of ’48 Cadillac Tail-Fins and lights on Al Laurel’s 1941 Cadillac. The were a perfect companion for the full fade-away front fenders, and brought a bit of extra styling and movement to the rear of this mile long Custom. Harry used a set of ’47 Cadillac bumpers, which suited the car better than the ’48 bumpers would have.

 


The lower range GM cars from 49-52 are a natural for an Cadillac rear fender/taillight update. Many aftermarket taillights ended up on those, and in this case the white ’49 Chevy of Vern Gillingsprud had a set of ’49 Cadillac fins and taillights installed.

 


The installation of 1949 Cadillac tail-fins and lights on Bill Passavanti’s ’49 Chevy shows how the Caddy components are a natural fit on these cars. The shape of the rather high trunk on these Chevy’s make much more sense with the Cad-fins. Bill’s Chevy  also show that the Caddy lights work very nice without the use of the Caddy bumper as well. All body work on Bill’s Chevy was done by Paul Atwood’s body shop.

 


Another gorgeous sample of using the complete ’49 Cadillac rear fenders on a Custom is on the Jim Skonzakes 1949 Buick. Everything on this car is restyled just right, and the Caddy Tail-Fins give the car that extra bit of classy styling and extra optical weight in the back.

 



Not all cars looked good with the Cadillac Tail-Fin rear fender taillights option. The otherwise very popular cars to customize, the ’49-’51 Mercury and the flat side bodied ’49-’51 Fords were not as suitable as other brand cars. The already high stock rear fenders looked a bit to high with the addition of the Cadillac fin, also the distance from bottom of the taillight to the bumper was to long to look very elegant. However there have been several Shoebox Fords and ’49-’51 Mercury’s that used the Caddy Tail-Fin.

Carlos Jenkins 1950 Ford coupe is perhaps the best known sample of the flat side Shoebox Fords that used Caddy Tail-Fins. The car was build in 1953 and is till around today.

 


Another car that did not lend very well to the Caddy Tail Fin use was the very popular to be customized ’49-51 Mercury. Again the high rear fenders made the Caddy find looks out of place, and they were not enhancing the body lines of the Merc. There are however a still a few customizers that tried to use them on the Merc.

 


Doug Thompson ChevyDoug Thompson used a set of 51-53 Tail-Fins and taillights on the 1950 Chevy he restyled for Larry Cochran. Doug’s creation is know as one of the very best uses of Caddy taillights on a the more recently restyled Customs.

 




Mild Customs

It is remarkable how many mild Customs ended up with the Caddy Tail-Fin treatment back in the late 1940’s to mid 1950’s. It was an relatively easy modification for a body shop to perform. If the owner of the car had found an wrecked Cadillac on the Junkyard, they would cut off the back of the rear fenders, and take them to the local body shop. Here they would cut the part to fit the fender, weld it to the rear fender, body worked it and matched the paint with the rest of the car. The end result made the car look like a Cadillac from the rear, and very welcome upgrade, for a relative low prize. It makes me wonder how many ’48-’50 Cadillac could be found in your local junkyard back in the early 1950’s that still had their taillights or rear fenders in place.

’48 Cadillac lights and Tail-Fins were adapted to his ’49 Chevy Fleetline, with shaved trunk. This nice on the road picture was taken around 1951. and shows a sample of how many 49-51 Chevy’s where updated with Caddy taillights.

 


Master Customizer George Cerny used a set of ’49 Cadillac Tail-Fin’s and lights to update his daily user 1949 Chevy four door.

 


Another sample of the use of ’49 Cadillac fins and lights on a ’49 Chevy Fleetline. The factory accessory bumper ends are a nice option to reduced the height from the stock bumper to the now much higher position of the Caddy taillight.

 


Kevan Sledge recently came across this 1950 Chevy Fleetline super deluxe with ’51-53 Cadillac Tail Fins installed. The story goes that these taillights were installed when the car was near new by a custom shop in Sacramento. Other than the rear fenders the car is basically stock.

 




Cad Fins on Sports Customs

The Cadillac Tail-Fin option was not only popular among the Custom Car crowd. The Sports Car Builders also saw the potential of the Art-Deco shaped Tail-Fin’s and taillights. For the Sports Custom scene the aircraft inspired fins were very welcome adding instant speed and style. Some Sports Car builders took the taillights even a bit further and installed a third find and light in the rear dead center of the cars trunk. Creating even more the feel of an aircraft.

Lon Hurley’s 1946 Cadillac based Sports Custom uses a complete rear fender assembly of an 1949 Cadillac.

 


Two unidentified Sports Customs using Cadillac taillights and rear fenders. The Cadillac units gave these Sports Custom instant class and style.

 


Perhaps better named obscure Custom than Sports Custom, Warren Dorrill 1949 Ford Coupe “The Shark” used no less than three 1948 Cadillac taillights housed in home made fins. There were quite a few Sports Customs that used a third Cadillac taillight mounted as fin on the trunk.

 




The Aftermarket

The Cadillac Tail-Fin design was also well present in the aftermarket speed and dress-up shops. Several companies made bolt on versions to imitate a Cadillac fin, while others created cast brass rear fender fin extensions complete with working taillight assemblies, or even die stamped fins. Options that could be bolted on, or welded for an more finished appearance. There were quite a view options available, since making your lower range car look more like an high end Cadillac was big business in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Companies like J.C. Whitney. Honnest Charlie, Cal Custom, Eastern and many more offered these Cad Type Tail Fin taillight assemblies.

Two different type of aftermarket Cadillac Tail Fin inspired aftermarket items. Most of these were used on either “Mild-Customs”, or “Dress-Up-Customs”.

 


1950 Ford with polished aluminum aftermarket fender fins, which were obviously inspired by the ’48 and up Cadillac Tail-Fins. These were bolt on dress-up items available from several aftermarket companies.

 


Cad Fins were cast brass finds that could be welded to the rear fenders and came with working Cadillac lookalike taillights. This aftermarket product was very popular, but require some expert tools to be installed, plus a new rear fender paint job. This one was advertised by Auto Accessories Company in Los Angeles.

 


The same product was also available from Eastern Auto, as well as others. I have seen many snapshots of all kind of late 40’s and early 50’s cars using these aftermarket parts being used. The shape of the fin was slightly different and the actual taillight slightly smaller than the real Cadillac find and taillights. 

 


Just two samples of these molded in brass aftermarket fins and taillights. These two photos also illustrate that the Tail-Fins work better on the Chevy on the left, than they do on the Shoebox on the right.

 


Beautiful ’49-’50 Chevy Hard-Top with a set of the brass Cad Fins added. The assembly works particularly well because the rear bumper was dressed up with accessory bumper ends, extending the corners so the long vertical line of the rear of the fender is less obvious. The wide whites and Cadillac Sombrero hubcaps complete the theme.

 



Restyling with Cadillac Tail-Fins is still being done today. Even though it might not be as easy to do, as it was in the late 1940’s early 1950’s, when you could just order a set of rear fenders and taillights from the local Cadillac Dealer, or cruise over to the Local Junkyard. I still see the new generation of Custom Car builder look for the Cadillac Rear fenders and taillights and use them on their Period Perfect Customs, or new customs insfluenced by the Custom Car Icons from the past, mixed with new ideas.



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About the Author

Rik Hoving

Rik is the CCC editor in chief. As a custom car historian he is researching custom car history for many years. In 2004 he started the Custom Car Photo Archive that has become a place of joy for many custom car enthousiasts. Here at CCC Rik will bring you inspiring articles on the history of custom cars and builders. Like a true photo detective he will show us what’s going on in all those amazing photos. He will write stories about everything you want to know in the realm of customizing. In daily life Rik is a Graphic Designer. He is married to the CCC webmaster and the father of a 10 year old son (they are both very happy with his excellent cooking skills)






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5 Comments


  1. Great article Rik! I always loved the Caddy fins on the Hank Rains Ford and Jim Lagas Cadillac https://media.fotki.com/2vQFqcAFx2Kus1.jpg


  2. Great article indeed Rik.
    Hard to think of a Marque that donated more parts and Ideas to custom car builders then Cadillac.
    Torchie


  3. Great article on the very popular early customizing trend of adding Cadillac taillights to many different makes of cars. It is pretty hard to improve on Doug Thompson’s use of Cad taillights on the ’50 Chev hardtop that he built in the more recent custom era.


  4. Excellent article, several of my personal favorites here, thanks. I have always been intrigued by that in progress Barris Buick and I really wish some more photos show up som day.


  5. I really like the way you added the shot of the P-38 over the Cadillac- best illustration I have seen to show the influence on the original design. That Merc convertible with Caddy fins is a new sight to me! You can add that ’49-’50 Merc convertible (unchopped) that popped up in Arizona recently with Cadillac rear fenders…the one that could have had Ayala history but most likely didn’t.



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