1949 Cadillac
1949 Cadillac
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Nineteen-forty-nine was an important year for the North American auto industry. After three years of warmed-over pre-war models, GM, Ford and Chrysler were anxious to offer something new. Smaller companies like Studebaker and Hudson had been quicker with new models. Of the Big Three, Cadillac had beat the 1949 watershed by a year, introducing some new post-war models in 1948, and Oldsmobile brought its new cars out in 1948-1/2.

The ’48 Cadillac introduced a new styling feature: tailfins. They were inspired by the Lockheed Lightning P-38 twin-engine fighter plane, and they started a styling craze that would sweep the industry, before dying out in the 1960s.

But the more significant news came in 1949 when Cadillac, and Oldsmobile, introduced the short-stroke, overhead valve, high compression V8s that would dominate in North America for the next quarter century.

In 1932 Henry Ford had brought V8s to the popular priced field. And while Cadillac and others had used V-type engines for many years, the 1949 Cadillac and Oldsmobile V8s set the modern trend.

High compression’s potential was no secret to engineers. Chrysler used it to advantage back in the 1920s, and its cars developed a reputation for spirited performance. But the limiting factor on compression ratios was gasoline quality.

Adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline in the 1920s had improved its anti-knock qualities, and then forced-development of aviation fuel during WW II brought better anti-knock to normal gasoline. General Motors research chief, the brilliant Charles Kettering, played a key role in developing leaded gasoline, and the high compression engines to take advantage of it.

For Cadillac, an outstanding new engine was not surprising. Cadillac had a proud tradition of engineering. In 1908, its interchangeable parts had won the Royal Automobile Club’s coveted Dewar Trophy. Cadillac won it again in 1912 when it pioneered the electric starter, along with electric ignition and lights, more Kettering inventions.

Late in 1914 Cadillac moved straight from an in-line four- cylinder engine to a V8, and during the 1930s, offered not only a V8, but also V12s and the worlds’s first V16.

Oldsmobile’s 1949 V8 was similar in design to Cadillac’s, although smaller. Cadillac’s V8 had oversquare dimensions with a bore and stroke of 96.8 x 92.1 mm (3.81 X 3.625 in.), which yielded 5.4 litres (331 cu in.) of displacement. Its 7.5:1 compression ratio helped it to develop 160 horsepower.

With the highest horsepower then available in domestic cars, sparkling performance was no surprise. Car tester Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated magazine (2/49) tested a Cadillac sedan, along with an Oldsmobile and a Buick. He said the Cadillac was “… unquestionably America’s finest automobile to date.”

Tom reported that the Caddy would sprint from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 12.1 seconds, a very good time for that era. He estimated the top speed at more than 168 km/h (105 mph).

In styling, Cadillac’s 1949 models, along with Oldsmobile and Buick, pioneered what would become a very popular model, the hardtop convertible. The idea was to make a hardtop car look like a convertible, so two-door coupe models were given pillarless side designs, and (usually) two-tone paint jobs to suggest that the top would really retract.

Cadillac offered the feature in the series 62 Coupe de Ville, Buick in the Roadmaster Riviera (the first Riviera from Buick), and Oldsmobile in its Holiday Coupe.

But in spite of the tailfins, and the advent of the hardtop convertible, the engine was really Cadillac’s big 1949 news. It was light yet powerful, weighing 85 kg (188 lb) less than the 5.6 litre (345 cu in.) side-valve V-8 it replaced.

It also proved to be a popular competition engine in such applications as drag racing, and in road-racing cars like the Cadillac Allard. It helped Cadillac win Motor Trend magazine’s very first Car of the Year Award, chosen by none other than John Bond who would go on to become owner/editor/publisher of rival magazine Road & Track.

The horsepower remained at 160 for three years, and then in 1951 Chrysler brought out its famous Firepower Hemi V8, which developed 180 horsepower out of the same 5.4 litres (331 cu in.) displacement as Cadillac’s.

Cadillac engineers went back to their drawing boards and come up with a new four-barrel carburetor, dual exhausts and bigger valves, and 190 horsepower for 1952. Chrysler countered with 195 in 1954, and thus began the famous horsepower race of the ’50s and ’60s.

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