The 1959 Cadillac: Symbol of a Bygone Era
This week at the 2014 North American International Auto Show, Cadillac rolled out the all-new ATS Coupe. It has managed to take the crown from CTS Coupe as best-looking Caddy. But it is worth looking back at a time when there was no dispute as to the best coupe in the land. 1959 brought us one of the most iconic two-door luxury vehicles of all time. To understand any design trend or fad, it helps to first know something about the times in which it arose. Take the clothing fashions of the late 60s and 70s, for example: leisure suits with loud white stitching; platform shoes with giant gold buckles; shirts with butterfly collars and lots of poufy material. Looking back on them, it’s easy to just shake your head and say, “why would anyone ever wear that stuff?” The answer is that those times were characterized by rebellion against traditional norms, and clothing reflected that attitude. For example, businessmen traditionally wore conservative suits with narrow lapels (as fans of the show Mad Men can attest to), so the exact opposite was an outfit with giant lapels and dozens of loud colors. The idea was to dispense with old-fashioned standards and adopt bold new ones that reflected a progressive, changing society. Of course, looking back we can see that “tacky” is a better description for most of the styles than “bold,” but at the time it all made sense. PHOTOS: See more of the 2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe You may be wondering what any of this has to do with the 1959 Cadillac. The answer is that the car reflected the values and overall mood of its time. When looked at in that way, its apparent excesses (such as its Godzilla-sized tail fins) start to make sense.
The American Decade
The end of World War II brought earth-shaking changes to the United States, ones that would transform not only its economy but its values, culture, and tastes. The men who had defeated Hitler came home to a country where women worked outside the home, science was making extraordinary progress, and economic opportunity seemed boundless.
For the first time, most Americans had some money in their pockets, as well as nifty new gadgets to spend their cash on. Electric stoves, refrigerators, and televisions were “must-have” items by the dawn of the 1950s.
All of this seemed to confirm what most Americans had long believed: that the USA was the greatest nation on earth, and that free enterprise, bolstered by technology, was a sure path to prosperity. By 1959 this mood found its ultimate expression in that most quintessential of American vehicles: the Cadillac.
PHOTOS: See more of the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible
The War With Chrysler
Tail fins had been an integral part of Cadillac styling since 1948, when Harley Earl introduced them to that year’s models. But other automakers, noting their popularity, began adding them to their models as well. Chrysler in particular jumped on this bandwagon, and many of its late-50s releases, such as the Plymouth Fury, actually “out-finned” their rivals coming out of the GM factories.
For the suits at General Motors, this was a challenge that could not go unanswered. So they directed their design team to come up with a car that would be the ultimate expression of prestige, success, status, and power: in short, everything that the Cadillac brand symbolized. And the engineers took up their slide rules and drafting tables and set to work.
PHOTOS: See more of the 1948 Cadillac Coach 2-Door
Massive Tail Fins, Rocket-Style Rear, and a Helluva Lot of Chrome
Cadillac’s chief designer in October of 1956 was Ed Glowacke (Harley Earl was the official head of the department, but was away in Europe). He was determined to outdo the fellows at Chrysler and do it quick. So he assigned his team the gargantuan task of designing an all-new Caddy that could be rolling off the factory floors by October 1958, 24 months in the future. At the time such a feat was considered nearly impossible, and was only achieved at the cost of many long hours of sweat and toil
One thing that each designer on the project shared was a huge admiration of jet aircraft. So, inspired by the latest military fighters, they included nacelles in the vehicle’s rear that ended in twin cone-shaped taillights on each side. These were integral parts of the fins, which were the most obvious styling feature.
But the ’59 was distinct in other ways as well. The grille patterns shimmered like cut jewels and the windshield had a sleek yet spacious wraparound design. And anything that could be covered in chrome shined brighter than a new penny. This was a car that made no pretenses of false modesty. It drew attention to itself everywhere it went, and, by extension, to its owner as well. Elvis had one, and so did Dwight Eisenhower.
A True Land Yacht
The final product had a 130-inch wheelbase with 15” wheels and stretched 225 inches (a shade under 19 feet) from bumper to bumper. A 2013 Cadillac XTS Sedan, by way of contrast, is 202 inches in length.
The standard engine was a bored-out V8 with 390 cubic inches that gave the Cadillac 345 HP. A four-barrel carb fed fuel to the massive engine, and dual exhausts were standard features. So were power brakes and steering; windshield washers with two-way wipers; Hydramatic auto transmission; exterior rear view mirror; and twin backup lights. Air conditioning would set the buyer back between $475 and $624, however, depending on the model. Rear speaker radios cost $165.
PHOTOS: See more of the Cadillac XTS
The Fleetwood 60 Special originally had metallic fabric over the seats. But this was changed when women complained that it grabbed the hairs on their mink coats.
Prices ranged from about $5000.00 for the Series 62 models to around $7500 for the Eldorado. These amounts are roughly equivalent to $40,000 and $60,000 in today’s dollars.
An Inside Large Enough to Raise a Family In
The first thing that strikes most people who sit in the ’59 Cadillac is the sheer size of its interior, which is gargantuan even by the standards of the time. But much of the wide-open feeling is due to the surrounding glass. With the car’s thin pillars, high roof profile, and shortened sail panel, the driver could easily see in all directions.
Masterpiece or Monstrosity
Not everyone appreciated the 59’s styling. Maurice D. Henley. who wrote Cadillac: Standard of the World, The Complete 70 Year History, refused to include a picture of it in his book. He was a vocal critic of the model’s “literally ridiculous” looks, especially the tail fins. This view was shared by Walter McCall, who wrote 80 Years of Cadillac-LaSalle. He wrote, “by the late 1950s they (the tail fins) had reached ludicrous proportions and were of questionable taste.”
Similar sentiments were shared in later years by members of the design team itself. They stated that GM management overrode their input and insisted that the ’59 Cadillac be more of a tribute to the owner’s ego than a thoughtfully designed luxury car.
The Times, They Were A-Changin’
One thing never mentioned in the sources for this article is the car’s MPG ratings, probably because no one really cared. A gallon of gas set consumers back 25 cents in those long-gone days– around $2 in today’s money. But things would soon change, as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s. Vietnam, the civil rights movement, riots on college campuses, sexual liberation, hippies burning draft cards, and the first stirrings of the environmental movement would transform the nation over the next 10 years.
The vehicle that best symbolizes that turbulent decade had no tail fins, wraparound windshield, or air conditioning. The little bug-shaped contraption wasn’t even built in the United States. Nonetheless, the small size and fuel-stingy engine of the Volkswagen Beetle set the standard for the cars that would follow it.
RELATED: See photos of the 1963 Volkswagen Beetle
But, in the last days of the 1950s, the ’59 Cadillac, for one brief, shining moment, stood as a symbol of both our highest aspirations and our worst excesses. Such a vehicle will probably never be built again. And that’s a sad thought.