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February 13, 2009

G.M. Fender Evolution: 1936-1950

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Once upon a time -- the 1930s and 40s -- automobile styling followed a clear evolutionary path. I wrote an article on styling evolution in general here, asserting that the process essentially ended around 1950.

The present post deals with one aspect of that evolution: fender design as practiced by General Motors. From the later 1920s until sometime around 1970, GM called the styling shots for the industry in America. In part this was because the General attained and then maintained a market share of 50 percent or thereabouts. When half the cars one sees on the streets had their shapes emerge from one styling operation, that has to have an impact on the buying public. The other factor was GM styling supremo Harley Earl, creator (along with Alfred Sloan) of the practice of a styling studio whose chief reported directly to top management rather than to someone such as an engineering vice president.

Earl reigned at GM for three decades, losing his design touch only a few years before his 1958 retirement. I speculate he lost that touch because automobile styling progress had become random, as opposed to the evolutionary process it had been during most of his career.

To set the stage, below are photos illustrating fenders from GM cars before and at the completion of the process of their integration into the body of the automobile.

1936 Oldsmobile

1950 Oldsmobile 98

Styling of the 1936 Oldsmobile was influenced by the idea of streamlining. Although the car was objectively better streamlined than its 1930 predecessor, its streamlining was more stylistic than aerodynamic. Note that curves and roundness abound -- even including the side-window cut-outs. Fenders are separate and based on the classic teardrop concept of streamlining.

Top-line GM cars for the 1950 model year had integral fenders. Note that the top fender line falls a few inches below the crest of the hood and the bottom of the window cut-outs. Earl felt that his studio's experimental designs of that time with integral fenders reaching the hood and windows appeared tall and slab-sided. Dropping the fender line made his cars look lithe rather than ponderous.

Having established the bookends, let's see how Earl dealt with the evolution between these points.


1938Cadillac 60 Special
Stylist Bill Mitchell, with Harley Earl's approval, began the process by squaring up the aft of the fenders.

1941 Cadillac
This evolved into comparatively squared-off fender shapes. At the time, the term "suitcase fender" was used because the shape resembled that of luggage. In my opinion, the 1941 GM line, especially Cadillacs, represented the peak of Earl's styling career.

1942 Pontiac
For 1942 and the early post-WW2 years, GM cars' fenders extended onto the front door. This appeared on the 1941Cadillac 60 Special before being extended to most of the rest of the line the following model year.

1947 Buick Roadmaster
Earl did special favors for Buick president Harlow Curtis. One of them might have been the 1942 extension of the front fender of senior Buicks so that it touched the front of the rear fender, as seen on the 1947 car above. Note how low the front fender becomes at that point.

1949 Pontiac
The next, penultimate, evolutionary stage at GM was raising the top of the front fender so it it blended into the crest of the rear fender. Senior 1948 Oldsmobiles and the Cadillac line (save limousines) introduced the style at GM, though the 1947 Studebaker got there first.

Earl tested the concept of extending front fenders on the 1938 Buick Y-Job experimental car shown below (with Earl at the wheel).

1938 Buick Y-Job experimental car.

It all makes for a nice, clear evolutionary tale. First, the squared-up fenders, 1938-41. Then their extension onto the front doors, 1941-42. Followed by having them reach the rear fenders, 1942-49. And ending with the front and rear fenders totally blended, 1950.

Except that GM's German unit got ahead of the game -- a detail unknown by many U.S. car styling buffs (myself included, until a few years ago).

1939 Opel Kapitän

The photo isn't very good, but it clearly shows front fenders extending, Y-Job like, onto the front door. This was two years before GM introduced the feature for production in the U.S.A and three model years before it became the norm for GM cars.

I have no information on the genesis of this Opel's styling. One possibility is that the car might have been styled in Detroit and the feature was included as a test before its production in far larger numbers in America. Why the pre-test? From what I've read, extended front fenders presented a door hinge design challenge to the body engineers of the late 1930s. So perhaps GM thought it would be a good idea to try out the technology in (the then) low-volume German market before launching it here.

On the other hand, GM had sent ace stylist Frank Hershey to Opel in 1936 to establish a styling studio. Being familiar with the direction Earl was taking in the USA, Hershey might have simply beaten GM's American brands to the punch (with Earl's approval, of course).

Most likely the Opel got styling input from both Detroit and Rüsselsheim. Aside from some of the lower grille area, the car pictured above looks like a slightly smaller version of 1938-40 vintage bodies GM used in the U.S.



posted by Donald at February 13, 2009


A very informative and beautifully illustrated essay.

One extra point: the 1950 Olds is the first in which the lower body line wraps inward in front of the rear wheels, rather than flaring around them. The body flare slightly over the rear wheels, but well above the bottom edge. This tuck-under of the bottom edge also appears behind the wheel, again a first in '50 Olds.

This correlates with the disappearance of the running board from below the doors. In the '38 and '41 Caddies and the '42 and '49 Pontiacs it is reduced to a chrome trimline; in the '47 Roadmaster and '50 olds it is reduced to a faint crease. It was already gone in the "Y-Job". At the same time, the front fender also goes from a vertical bottom to an inward taper.

These are also visible elements of the reshaping of the fender.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on February 14, 2009 8:58 PM

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