Journey to the Land of Sprouting Cadillacs On Wednesday, our "Destination: Time Capsule" travelers have left the Wigwam motel in Holbrook, Ariz. They are headed for Amarillo, Texas, and a folk art installation known as the Cadillac Ranch. There, Charles Phoenix offers NPR's Steve Proffitt a brief history of the fin in mid-century automotive design.
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Journey to the Land of Sprouting Cadillacs

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Journey to the Land of Sprouting Cadillacs

Journey to the Land of Sprouting Cadillacs

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back stateside now, all this week mid-century historian Charles Phoenix and DAY TO DAY producer Steve Proffitt have been checking in from their road trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a time capsule will be unearthed tomorrow - a 50-year-old car. Today our "Destination Time Capsule" travelers have left the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona for Amarillo, Texas and the wide-open shrine to car culture known as the Cadillac Ranch. Here is Steve.

STEVE PROFFITT: So Charles, how did you sleep in that Wigwam last night?

Mr. CHARLES PHOENIX (Historian): The Wigwam was great. I've never had a better night's sleep in my life, quite frankly.

PROFFITT: Okay. We're going to head now to Amarillo, Texas. Pretty good drive, maybe 300 plus miles, where we're going to Cadillac Ranch.

Yes, the Cadillac Ranch. Back in 1974, a group of artists called The Ant Farm bought 10 old Cadillacs, dug holes in the ground of a cotton field along Interstate 40, and placed the front ends of the Caddys in the earth, all lined up in a nice row, looking as if they just sprung from the ground.

I believe they start at 1949, when the fins started, and they end at, I can't quite tell. Let's get out of the car and go look at them.

Mr. PHOENIX: All right.

(Soundbite of door closing)

PROFFITT: We walk a few hundred yards from the service road toward the wildly colored cars. Visitors are encouraged to bring spray paint. On our way we meet Craig McMurdy(ph). He's visiting from Washington state and we asked him what he makes of the whole thing.

CRAIG McMURDY(ph) (Resident, Washington D.C.): Surreal.

PROFFITT: Surreal?

Mr. McMURDY: It's a monument. Got to take some time and let it come down over here, a little bit of peace, you know.

Mr. PHOENIX: What is it a monument to?

Mr. McMURDY: It's a good question. GM products?

Mr. PHOENIX: That's good. That works.

PROFFITT: We continue walking toward the cars, and Charles, with his vast automotive knowledge, can identify each model year of Cadillac.

Mr. PHOENIX: Yeah. It's about 1948 to '63. How many Cadillacs are there here planted hood down into the ground? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10.

PROFFITT: And they've all been kind of spray-painted, graffitied. Lots of names and colors, they're pretty colorful.

Mr. PHOENIX: I know. They are beyond colorful. I've never seen more spray paint on anything. These are graffitied to death. But it's actually kind of beautiful. It's like American pop art.

PROFFITT: Okay. So tell me about fins. I mean we all know that cars had fins and even nowadays some cars have fins. What's the deal with cars and fins?

Mr. PHOENIX: Well, it all stemmed from wanting to go fast. And basically the first Cadillac fin started in 1948. I mean, if you have this little airplane tail on your car, that meant your car went faster than the guy who didn't have that on his car. And then they started to grow, grow, grow, grow. And starting at about 1956 some of the other automakers, you know, started putting fins on their cars.

PROFFITT: So in 1948 Cadillac introduces the fin. By the mid-'50s, they've completely taken over car design.

Mr. PHOENIX: And it was high fashion.

PROFFITT: Okay. What's the cultural significance of this place?

Mr. PHOENIX: Well, it is a monument to the Cadillac, which is the standard of the world - that's how they advertised Cadillacs back in the 1950s, and they were. They were, you know, big, giant, mass-marketed machines of elegance, grace, style and class.

I mean if you were rich, you had a Cadillac. A Lincoln - yeah, some people drove Lincolns. Imperials, yeah, but Cadillac was king. It absolutely was, and this is the period in which it was king - 19 - late 1940s to the early '60s. That was it; Cadillac was numero uno.

PROFFITT: Just outside Amarillo, Texas at the Cadillac Ranch, I'm Steve Proffitt.

Mr. PHOENIX: And I'm Charles Phoenix. "Destination Time Capsule."

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: We have some bad news from Tulsa, where Charles and Steve are headed. Yesterday, workers checked the vault where the car has been buried for the last half century and they found water - also evidence that the Plymouth may have been submerged over the years. Well, rusty or not, our time capsule guys are still on the case. We'll get word on the final leg of their journey tomorrow. And to catch up on their trip, to see pictures of the Cadillac Ranch, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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