Cadillac – the mere mention of the name conjures imagery of luxurious, extravagant automotive style. This despite the fact it’s been decades since the marque lost preeminence as one of the world’s great luxury cars. Yet today’s pop stars continue to make reference to Cadillac as symbols of coolness and style - as Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones did decades ago. Clearly, the mystique has survived despite the brand itself being considered second rate for much of the past forty years. When Cadillac is mentioned as a synonym for success and style, it’s implicit that what is being referred to are cars from the 1950s through to the 1970s – the years when style and road presence were as important to owners as luxury. The fact the brand has survived at all is arguably a testament to the aura that surrounds that magical name – Cadillac (named for the French explorer who founded Detroit in the early 18th century - Antoine Laumet de la Mothe de Cadillac)
Only those lucky enough to have owned a post war Cadillac from, say, 1949 through to the early seventies, can fully appreciate how good the automobiles actually were. Europeans may have scoffed at their size and soft suspension, but no European car could come close to Cadillac style. No true luxury car made anywhere could compete in terms of cost, features, power, size or numbers’ produced. During the peak years – the mid to late 1960s – Cadillac was churning out over 200,000 cars annually – an astonishing figure when you consider 98% were sold in the US alone. The real bumper year was the swansong for the 1960s, Cadillac shifting an incredible 278,000 units the same year as Woodstock and Altamont - 1969. Sales figures for the marque's only domestic rivals, Imperial and Lincoln, were less than a quarter of Cadillac’s output - combined.
What the Europeans didn’t understand was how advanced these American behemoths actually were. Without doubt, Cadillac's from the golden period were the most technologically advanced mass produced cars in the world. Not in the sense of pure engineering, for the Citroen ID19 and BMC Mini were more advanced designs that any Cadillac, but rather in the modern manufacturing methods and sheer array of factory options. American automobile production techniques were far ahead of anyone else until the Japanese & Germans caught up in the 1970s. Until then, Cadillac represented the absolute pinnacle not only of General Motors, but all Detroit.
To view these symbols of American success as nothing more than ostentatious displays of wealth is to do them a great disservice. For under the vast expanse of elaborately pressed metal, Cadillac's bristled with the sort of technology only the Americans were capable of producing en masse. Not only were the cars advanced, they were superbly engineered. Though hardly standard bearers for road holding or braking, for those were not high on the priorities of Detroit engineers, the technology fitted to these cars was thoroughly engineered and tested (a notable exception being the trouble prone air suspension of the late 1950s, Cadillac eventually withdrawing the option in 1960)
In 1949 Cadillac introduced the superb 331 cubic inch ohv V8 that gave it a performance edge over all other domestic cars bar sister division Oldsmobile (its’ own new V8 offering marginally quicker times due to the Rocket 88 sedan being lighter than the Caddie) For sheer horsepower – the Cadillac V8 was supreme, at least until the arrival of the Chrysler Hemi.
An all new V8 was released in 1963 that was lighter, easier to service and more powerful. Upped from 390 to 429 cubic inches in ’64, at 340 horsepower and a prodigious 480 lbs/ft of torque, for its weight it was the most powerful production engine in the world. A Car Life road test of the 1964 Sedan De Ville was timed at 8.4 seconds for the 0-60mph dash, covering the quarter mile in an impressive 16.4 seconds, all with a test weight of 5,230 pounds.
The list of Cadillac innovations is truly impressive, from being among the first to mass produce a V8 as far back as 1914, to building the world’s only V16 in the pre-war period. They were the first manufacturer to introduce a fully synchronised manual transmission – in 1928. If prospective buyers decided they didn’t want to shift gears, from 1941 Cadillac offered a 4 speed automatic. The automatic transmission (first offered by Oldsmobile in 1940) was hailed at the time as the biggest automotive advance since the introduction of the self starter (itself first offered commercially in 1912 by, you guessed it - Cadillac). The Hydramatic was so much better than anything else that from 1952 Rolls Royce built their own version under license (eventually deciding to purchase transmissions direct from GM shortly after the release of the Silver Shadow in 1966)
After being the first to pioneer a headlight dip switch that didn’t require a driver to get out of the car (in 1917) Cadillac was also the first, along with Oldsmobile, to offer an automatic headlight dimmer as an option on their 1952 model range. Known as the ‘Autronic Eye’ – the system was overly sensitive to light sources such as streetlamps and was replaced with a more reliable system in 1958 known as GuideMatic. The new version enabled a driver to adjust the sensitivity, or override it altogether. By the mid 1960s buyers could choose ‘Twilight Sentinel’ for fully automated headlight function – turning the lights on at dusk, and off again at dawn. It also incorporated a variable delay to allow the headlights to remain on for up to 90 seconds after the motor was switched off to see a driver safely to his or her front door.
Chrysler beat Cadillac to the punch by barely a year with the introduction in 1951 of the first commercially available (hydraulic) power steering option. In 1965 Cadillac offered variable ratio power steering on its’ crisply styled 1965 range. The new steering setup finally gave Cadillac the sort of straight line stability that gave a driver confidence to cruise at 100-plus mph. According to road tests of the time, the 5,000 pound (2,250 kilos) cars handled surprisingly well on all but the most uneven surfaces. Even if braking was not up to scratch by modern standards, safety wasn’t entirely neglected – Cadillac being the first to produce dual circuit brakes in 1963, this vital feature becoming an industry-wide standard by the 1970s.
In 1957 Cadillac introduced the very first speed control on its’ spare-no-expense, hand built Eldorado Brougham, the feature becoming an option across the Cadillac range for 1960. This now ubiquitous technology is universally known as cruise control – the name given to it by Cadillac (Chrysler called theirs Autopilot). The ’57 Eldorado was also the first car to offer power seats with a memory function – the system capable of remembering up to four separate seating positions. Within a few years this same system was offered as an option across the Cadillac range, and was standard on the higher spec models. In 1964 the company offered tilt-telescopic steering adjustment which, combined with opulently upholstered power seats and AM-FM self seeking radio, offered just about the most comfortable driving position in all autodom, provided buyers had another $500 for Cadillac’s truly impressive climate control system.
Called Comfort Control, it was the world’s first fully automated climate control system available in a mass produced automobile. For the driver it was simplicity itself – set the desired temperature, move a lever to ‘automatic’ and in theory, one needn’t alter the settings ever again. Before the days of computer chips, Cadillac relied on a complex engineering solution incorporating three thermistors to sense temperature inside, outside and at the under-dash ventilation outlets, a potentiometer, amplifier, transducer, and power servo.
A signal from any of four sources (three thermistors and the potentiometer actuated by the driver’s control dial) was fed into the amplifier where it was multiplied. Amplified voltage was then fed into a transducer – a 10 inch steel tube with a wire filament sensitive to heat. With the amplified voltage causing heat, the filament expanded or contracted depending on changes in temperature caused by the varying voltage. This action caused a needle valve at one end of the transducer to open or close. The valve controlled the amount of engine vacuum to apply to the servo, opening or closing the air door of the heater/air conditioner. The same servo controlled blower speed and shut off water flow to the heater coil when desired temperature was reached.
Whilst both Chrysler and Lincoln offered similar setups on their Imperial and Continental, the Cadillac system was more advanced, simpler to operate and more effective. The system was copied by various makes around the world, like many Cadillac innovations, and was so well engineered that many are still running today with nothing more than a regular service and a top up of gas. And if the fussiest of buyers still weren’t convinced of the system’s ability to keep them comfortable, in 1966 Cadillac offered one of the industry’s first electronic seat warmers for front passengers (and rears too in the Fleetwood 75 limousine)
Cadillac truly pampered its’ customers, not even asking of them that they break in their new purchase. All cars were thoroughly road tested prior to delivery, with engines run on a dynamometer under load for several hours while transmissions, brakes, alternators and rear drive components were run-in prior to final assembly. Before handing over the keys, all a dealer had to do was peel off the protective coating on the whitewall tyres. It was little wonder Cadillac had the highest rate of owner loyalty in the industry.
By refusing to change their styling drastically (note the slow, yearly minimising of the tail fin from the peak of 1959 to their disappearance in 1965) the resale value was kept high, so that purchasers of a new car would also get the highest resale value of any American car. Larger dealerships often had waiting lists for two and three year old trade-ins, such was the desire among Americans to be seen to be successful.
Innovation continued through the late 1960s, Cadillac introducing fiber optics for the monitoring of all external lights (as did the 1968 Corvette), magnetic shock absorbers in the rear that provided load leveling, and in the new Eldorado coupe – front wheel drive. Again, this innovation was first tried with Oldsmobile acting as a test bed, their Toronado front wheel drive coupe introduced a year earlier. When the system proved not only reliable but popular – Cadillac had no qualms about introducing their first ever front wheel drive. The all new Eldorado was an instant hit, and with no driveshaft hump was a genuine six-seater, even if head and legroom in the rear left a lot to be desired. With 472 cubic inches connected to a turbo-hydramatic transmission via a chain drive, the car was swift and stable...provided one adhered to the specified tyre pressures.
The 1967 Eldorado is arguably the most intricately styled automobile ever manufactured on a standard production line. The elaborate, razor sharp front and rear quarter panels were at the cutting edge of what was possible with standard manufacturing technologies. There is an apocryphal story about Chrysler purchasing an Eldorado to tear down, their styling team so impressed by the intricate panel pressings that they deemed some of the Eldorado had to have been made by hand. Chrysler simply did not have the technology to press such finely sculpted panels. Neither did anyone else. Cadillac was not only the ‘standard of the world’ as their ads liked to boast, it was the pinnacle of achievement for possibly the mightiest manufacturing enterprise the world had ever seen – General Motors.
To look at a Cadillac from the late forties to the early seventies is to see the finest example of American manufacturing from the years when the country was at its’ peak as a world power economically, militarily, and culturally. The sheer size, power, extravagant styling and array of Cadillac technical innovations of this era are representations of the pinnacle of achievement of the most advanced and powerful nation the world had ever seen. The Cadillac was the ultimate consumer product at a time when America could seemingly do no wrong. Like viewing the great architectural relics of Rome – to look at post-war Cadillacs is to see history, the rise and fall of the tail fin are a bar graph of American consumer confidence and taste during an era when style was king. The outrageous use of chrome and excess metal can also be viewed as an in your face to the Russians, whom the Americans knew could never hope to match them for sheer manufacturing muscle.
For all Cadillac’s visual excess and dubious styling motifs, they were nevertheless highly influential on automotive stylists the world over. Even the normally conservative Mercedes Benz dabbled with tail fins, though theirs were so watered down as to appear an afterthought. Another questionable styling innovation made popular by Cadillac was the padded vinyl roof – first offered as an option on the 1963 Coupe De Ville. Within a few years, the vinyl roof would become a ubiquitous option on cars the world over (though as with tail fins, the Europeans were reticent to adopt such styling gimmicks). Cadillac used the padded vinyl top not only as a styling ploy meant to evoke a convertible, it was also intended to muffle outside noise and act as insulation against heat and cold. Such trends as the dual in-line headlights Cadillac introduced in 1957 became almost de rigueur by the 1970s. The universal styling trend of the 1970s for safe dashboard design, where the passenger is faced with a flat expanse of plastic and ventilation outlets, while the driver has a cowled instrument panel to shield it from glare – was first introduced on the 1967 Cadillac range. It was a time when the rest of the automotive world was always looking to see what the ‘standard of the world’ would do next.
The world’s great luxury marque took their eye off the ball in the 1970s, as did the rest of Detroit. Caught out by the Arab oil embargo and subsequent fuel crisis of 1973, Cadillac scrambled to introduce their first ‘compact’ in 1976 with the entirely new Seville. The same size as the Holden Statesman, the Seville offered Cadillac’s first small block V8 in years, and for the first time – fuel injection. It was a huge success, possibly saving the company but even so, it marked the beginning of the end of American dominance of its’ own luxury car market.
Downsizing their largest models in the late 70s did little to stop potential customers flocking to Mercedes, Jaguar, BMW and Volvo showrooms. There are all manner of theories as to why Cadillac lost their market leadership so rapidly. The simple answer is that by the late 1970s the baby boomers had come of age and the more successful of their number saw Cadillac as the sort of car their fathers drove. Ostentatious displays of wealth were out in an era when economy and practicality became paramount among luxury car buyers. Consumer tastes had simply changed and though Cadillac adapted and survived it would never again be market leader, or the standard of the world. Cadillac were selling a dream, but as John Lennon sang – the dream was over.
Before that, back in the 1960s heyday - when Rolls Royce was still producing vintage cars and Mercedes’ magnificent 600 limousine had to be made by hand (for more than twice the price of a Fleetwood limo) Cadillac really was the finest, best value for money luxury car in the world. And though styling is subjective – beauty being in the eye of the beholder and all – there are few more beautiful big cars than the mid sixties range of Cadillac sedans, coupes, convertibles and limousines. If you want to own a talisman of a time when the greatest civilisation the world has known was at its’ peak, you can chip off a piece of the Empire State and probably get arrested, or you can buy yourself a 1960s Cadillac for less than twenty grand. That’s a small price to pay for one of the world’s great cars, and you need only fire up that huge V8 to transport yourself back to a time when Detroit was the Camelot of the automotive universe.