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Classic 50s Cars - The tailfin and swivel seat

The 1959 Model Year

By Joseph RigoPublished 2 years ago 3 min read
Top Story - January 2022
The '59 Pontiac

As a lover of old cars I find it fascinating to look back at vintage advertisements, which are enlightening. The 1959 model year featured gas guzzlers, mostly with V-8 engines. Case in point the Pontiac Tempest 420E where the ad touts the fact that it gets better gas mileage than "economy engines." The front profile is also very stylish with the dual grills featuring two lights on each side, almost like a pair of snake eyes.

The 1959 De Soto Adventurer

The 1959 De Soto Adventurer featured classic tailfins in the rear, which they called flair-stream. It also had a V-8 engine.

When we think of dramatic innovations in the automobile industry we tend to think of the DMC DeLorean, with its gull-wing door. Or even the Tesla Model X with its modern rendition of the gull-wing. Predating them all was the innovative Swivel Seat, which DeSoto featured in its 1959 model, characterizing them as part of its Forward look. Clearly the marketing was geared toward men as is obvious when reading about their swivel seat feature, "At last--here's a car seat that lets your wife get in and out like a lady. Simply touch a lever and the front seat turns. She can swing in or out in one easy motion--even in a tight skirt." Could you imagine a car company marketing like that today? De Soto was a Chrysler brand.

The swivel seat in action

General Motors copied this innovation in their models from 1973-1977 with swivel seats in their Monte Carlo, Chevelle, Cutlass and Laguna models. Similarly, the 1977 Old Cutlass also featured swivel seats. A more recent revival were in Chrysler's 2008 minivans. Alas, swivel seats never seemed to stick, probably for two reasons:

1. It's not that hard to get in and out of a car's seat, so it seems like a solution in search of a problem

2. The seats were likely prone to more maintenance problems and the risk/reward of having the seats in a car ultimately wasn't worth it

The 1959 Cadillac

The 1959 Cadillac model featured a tailfin also, this one on steroids! Clearly going after the sophisticated customer, note the couple in formal attire checking out the Cadillacs.

The 1959 Oldsmobile Rocket

Oldsmobile's offering for 1959 also featured the tailfin, but in a more subdued fashion. Similar to the Pontiac offering, the front grill also features four different headlights, this before our modern era where you flick your headlights to turn your bulb into a high beam. Olds also had a crafty name for the car: the Rocket, which they describe as having a "Linear Look" and a wide-open "Vista-Panoramic outlook." Fabulous.

The 59 Fords

Ford's message in 1959 was straight to the point, with smaller tailfins up against the edges of the body. All the images we are using come from a copy of a 1958 Army-Navy Game football program, compliments of Collectable Ivy.

The 1959 Fiat

No tailfins for the Italians. The 1959 Fiat is substantially smaller than its American cousins with a fairly unsporty design.

The timeless Citroen

Like the Italians, the French also eschewed the tailfin in 1959. Their timeless design would be ruined with the harsh feature. Once a Citroen, always a Citroen.

Another feature that Chrysler tried in the 1950s is the push button gear shift to the left of the driver. An ad in the 1955 Army-Navy game program shows the feature and the ads says it will be in all their models including Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler and Imperial. Again, this appears to be over-innovating as the drive stick in the middle of the car seems to work perfectly well and is also less likely to develop problems than this design.

Looking at car advertisements from the 1950s provides a fascinating look back what what was important to consumers and how the car companies marketed to them. The process of innovation is never a straight line. Some innovations stick and others don't. But many come back around decades later. As the bible says, "there is nothing new under the sun."


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