1953 Cadillac Eldorado
1953 Cadillac Eldorado
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Cadillac builds a dream car

The 1950s were a wonderful time for Cadillac. The Depression had taken such luxury car rivals as Peerless and Pierce Arrow, and weakened competitor Packard.

The memory of the Second World War and its interruption in car production was fading. No foreign automakers were seriously challenging in the North American luxury market, and Cadillac was clearly ensconced as the vehicle of choice for those who had achieved economic success.

The 1948 model had tentatively explored the idea of tailfins. GM’s styling vice-president, Harley Earl, was inspired by the twin-tail Lockheed P-38 fighter plane, and carried the idea over into his Cadillac styling where fins immediately became a Cadillac trademark, soon imitated by the industry. Following the war, Cadillac, like other established automakers, had offered reworked pre-war designs. By 1948 it introduced fresh post-war styling, and in 1949 brought out a new high-compression, short-stroke, overhead valve V-8 engine that was both lighter and more powerful than the side-valve V-8 it replaced.

To celebrate its real post-war coming of age, Cadillac decided to build an ultra luxurious image model to counter such cars as the Packard Caribbean. To cash in on the cachet of the open car, it would come as a convertible only.

This new luxury Cadillac, based on the Series 62, was called the Eldorado and was introduced part way through the 1953 model year. It was like a dream car, but one with a difference; it could be bought by the public.

The Eldorado would carry all of Cadillac’s styling cues, such as tailfins, imitation vertical vents on the leading edges of the rear fenders, hooded headlamps, and a heavy eggcrate grille. The front was dominated by huge bumper guards nicknamed “Dagmars,” inspired by an amply endowed TV personality of that era, probably the only entertainer in the world to have her name immortalized in an automobile bumper.

For additional rakishness, the beltline slanted down from the lowered windshield to a point just behind the cut-down doors, before curving up and over to the rear of the car.

But the real piece de resistance, as far as stylist Earl was concerned, was his beloved wraparound windshield. As soon as he had conceived it for two GM concept cars, the 1951 Buick Le Sabre and XP-300, he couldn’t wait to get it into production.

Earl regarded the “panoramic” windscreen as one of his major styling contributions. It would, however, turn out to be a relatively short-term phenomenon, good more for show than practicality because of its tendency to distortion, and its knee-bruising characteristic.

But the windshield looked futuristic, and this plus the dropped beltline, gave the Eldorado a stance several inches lower than the standard Series 62 Cadillac.

Large gold-plated vees were mounted on the hood above the grille and on the trunk lid, but surprisingly the Eldorado name did not appear anywhere on the exterior of the 1953 car. It was on the instrument panel and the door sills only.

The Eldorado’s interior was luxuriously outfitted with leather and expensive cloth. It came with every conceivable appearance and convenience item, including automatic transmission, power steering, windows and seats, signal seeking preselector radio, whitewall tires, chrome wire-spoke wheels, and leather seats.

There were four colours: Alpine White, Artisan Ochre, Azure Blue and Aztec Red. When folded, the black or white fabric top was concealed by an almost flush metal tonneau cover.

The Eldorado had a 3200 mm (126 in.) wheelbase, stretched 5608 mm (220.8 in.) in over-all length, and weighed a hefty 2178 kg (4800 lb). Although large, the 62 was Cadillac’s smallest model. The Cadillac 60, for example, rode on a 3302 mm (130 in.) wheelbase and was 5710 mm (224.8 in.) long. The Fleetwood 75 had a 3727 mm (146.75 in.) wheelbase, and was a mind boggling 6007 mm (236.5 in.) long, just shy of 20 feet.

To haul all of this car around, Cadillac fitted a 5.4 litre, 210 horsepower engine. It breathed through a 4-barrel carburetor and exhaled through a dual exhaust system with through-the-bumper outlets.

Power reached the rear wheels through a 4-speed Hydra-Matic transmission, until the Hydra-Matic plant in Livonia, Mich., was destroyed by fire in August 1953. After a production delay of almost a month, modified Buick Dynaflow transmissions were fitted to Cadillacs until the Hydra-Matic plant resumed production.

The Eldorado was joined by two other flagship image cars from GM: the Buick Skylark and the Oldsmobile Fiesta, also convertibles. But neither would remain very long in the luxury field.

First year Eldorado sales were just 532 cars, due in part, no doubt, to a price $2000 above Cadillac’s formerly most costly vehicle, the Fleetwood 75 limousine. It was aimed at an exclusive audience, and limited sales or not, the Eldorado served its purpose: to marvellously enhance the image of Cadillac.

The nameplate has survived to this day, still a Cadillac favourite, although now smaller, and driven through the front wheels.

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