Some say they were the height of automotive fashion; others insist they represent the gaudy excess of 1950s America. A special exhibit of classic cars from the controversial "tailfin" era will let the public decide for itself during the April 2-5 Food Lion AutoFair at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It was all happening so fast. The years following World War II rapidly introduced us to the unlimited power of the Atomic Age, the roar of the Jet Age and the infinite possibilities of the Space Age. America was becoming The Future, a promised land of lunar colonies and food capsules.

These three astounding technological revolutions occurred over a period of only a dozen years - from the first A-bomb blast in 1945 to Sputnik's short spin around the globe in 1957 - and they affected every aspect of our culture, including architecture, fashion and, of course, automobiles.

The idea of adding fins to the rear of a car was born in the late 1930s, when legendary General Motors stylist Harley Earl took a group of designers to the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan to see Lockheed's top-secret new P-38 fighter-interceptor. The "Lightning," as it was known, looked like no previous craft, with twin booms featuring supercharged V-12 engines at one end and vertical stabilizers at the other.

The pilot and armament rode in a separate fuselage between the two booms.

After the war, the P-38's twin upright stabilizers were incorporated into the 1948 Cadillac's rear.

That first hint of a tailfin - nothing more than a bump at the end of the body - housed the car's tail lamps and distinguished the Cadillac line from cheaper GM products through 1954. This treatment added some flare to what had traditionally been a neglected and visually dull part of any automobile. Because Cadillac was the trendsetter for the luxury car industry, competitors' vehicles quickly sprouted similar rear end bumps.

In 1955, Cadillac sprang ahead of the field by introducing the first true tailfins on its super-expensive, low-volume Eldorado convertible.

Indicating the end of our fascination with World War II-era aircraft, the P-38-inspired bumps evolved that year into razor-edged, chrome-tipped vertical stabilizers that mimicked the sweptback wings of supersonic jets, such as the new F-100 Super Sabre fighter.

From that point, GM, Ford, Chrysler and independent makes such as Studebaker and Packard spent the rest of the 1950s locked in a tailfin race.

Everything from luxury barges to stripper sedans and family station wagons were fitted with the must-have gimmick. Dodge went so far as to put fins on its '57 Sweptside pickup trucks. European manufacturers, such as Mercedes-Benz, incorporated tailfins - though much smaller and referred to as "sight lines" - into their products during this period. Some companies sold fin kits that could be attached to existing automobiles for Jet Age style on a Stone Age budget.

In 1959, Cadillac, the brand responsible for the trend, trumped everyone when its new Eldorado showed off an enormous pair of chrome-bordered fins, each of which housed twin, rocket-shaped taillight lenses. The tips of the fins stood more than two feet above the height of the Cadillac's trunk.

The summit had been reached, and the public's interest in jet-like automobiles waned, although Chrysler brands Dodge, Plymouth and De Soto produced some attractive finned models through 1962.

The tailfin did not entirely disappear, however; modern cars often wear wings or spoilers on their trunk lids to decorate what is so often the stubby, uninspiring part of an automobile's design. A special display during the April 2-5 Food Lion AutoFair will feature American cars from 1957-60 that epitomize the tailfin era, including the most notorious of all - the '59 Cadillac.

The spring Food Lion AutoFair annually attracts more than 120,000 visitors. It features more than 50 car club displays and more than 10,000 vendor spaces that offer a huge array of automotive parts and memorabilia.

More than 1,500 collectible vehicles of all makes and models will be available for sale in the car corral that rings the 1.5-mile superspeedway.

Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults while children 12 and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5.

For more information, contact the Charlotte Motor Speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.