“I Am A Tail Fin Road Locomotive” — A Journey Down Memory Lane To Yesteryear

David Wilcox is not a well known musician but he is pretty good at plucking a guitar. In 2002, he recorded a song entitled “Rusty Old American Dream.” It was an ode to the tail fin cars of yesteryear, the ones we grew up with when Ike was in the White House and the worst thing that happened all year was Sherman Adams accepting a vicuña coat from a foreign government and being forced to resign in disgrace. It is a music journey down memory lane from nostalgia to yesteryear.

It was the era of jet planes and spaceships, a time when no self respecting automobile left the factory without tail lights that looked like rocket exhaust and tail fins, the taller the better.  The genre has been captured perfectly by cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, who penned the comic strip Shoe for years. He created a parody of those tail fin road locomotives he calls the Belchfire 5000. It looks like a cross between a 1956 Dodge Royal Coronet and a 1959 DeSoto Sportsman. Here’s an example of his vision for that car:

Tail fin

I grew up in the 50’s. My family doctor drove a Jaguar XK120. One day, he took me for a ride in it on a warm summer day with the top down. It was white with red leather interior. The sky was blue with puffy white clouds. I didn’t see much else. I was too small to see out the windshield. But I remember the bark of that awesome straight 6 engine and the smell of hot oil that drifted back from the engine compartment. I have been an unreconstructed, die hard sports car nut ever since.

The Last Open RoadAn author by the name of BS Levy — who plays upon the obvious associations his initials conjure up — has written a fabulous book called The Last Open Road. If you are a car nut, I recommend it to you. Ignore the romance and the silly plot. It’s really the story of how the SCCA came into begin in post-war America, racing at the iconic Bridgehampton race track on Long Island, and America’s enduring love affair with sports cars.

Tail fins are a thing of the past. Some mourn their loss. Others were glad to see them go. In the end, they became caricatures of themselves, just like MacNelly’s Belchfire 5000. But they inspired David Wilcox to sing his iconic song about the love affair between America and gas powered behemoths with big, slow turning V-8 engines. Those engines became synonymous with America at a time when the nation was adapting to its new found role as the most powerful nation on earth.

It was a time when Dinah Shore encouraged us all to “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” Families piled into the car on Sunday afternoon just for the pure fun of driving somewhere. Whenever I listen to Wilcox’s masterpiece, I feel the strong pull of nostalgia tugging at my heart. Give a listen and see if it has the same effect on you. Be sure to turn the volume up while you watch.

It is heresy to say, I know, but I can’t quite conceive of electric cars inspiring the same level of passion as the waft silently along the highway. I know that all that gee-whiz technology that will let the cars of the future drive themselves is creating a lot of excitement, but it’s just not the same as the sound of a powerful engine resonating in your ears.

The car set America free; then it enslaved us. It made us crawl along in traffic and choke on noxious exhaust fumes. Electric cars may save us from some of those negative effects, but will they inspire any more of a connection between us and them than the average toaster oven? I was in Daytona, Florida recently and attended an enormous old car show while I was there. Early Corvettes and Chevrolet Nomad station wagons, Ford Falcons and Chevy Corvairs were thick on the ground. In 50 years, will people drive from miles around to see today’s Model 3’s and BMW i3’s? I wonder.

Hat tip to Jim Mitchell of McDonough, Georgia for sharing the Shoe cartoon with me on Facebook and getting me thinking about tail fins, rumbling exhaust pipes, and a time when America truly was a great country.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.