1959 Cadillac Eldorado. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
Originally published September 3, 2010
The 1959 Cadillac, the self proclaimed “Standard of the World,” was a garish end to a garish decade, a period when Detroit produced some of the most flamboyant cars in its history. Ironically, it also produced some of the prettiest – the Studebaker Starlight/Starliner and early Hawk coupes and 1955 Chevrolets come to mind.
Cadillac epitomized an era of soaring fins, excess chrome, wraparound windshields, massive bumpers, fake air scoops and juke-box grilles. It culminated the period of unprecedented optimism that followed the ravages of the Depression and the Second World War. It was the last blowout before restraint began returning to car styling in the Sixties.
The ’59 Caddy’s most prominent features were tailfins that soared to unprecedented heights and were capped by chrome-plated points. They housed twin taillights in sculpted pods with a rocket plane theme that could have been the epitaph to Harley Earl, the soon-to-be-retired General Motors chief stylist. He had “invented” styling at GM, and had launched his futuristic jet and rocket emulation on the world with his 1951 Buick LeSabre “dream car.”
The tailfins, in fact, had an airplane connection. In the early 1940s Earl and his staff had become enamoured with the twin-tailboom stabilizers on the Lockheed Lightning P-38 fighter planes they saw at nearby Selfridge Air National Guard base.
With the Second World War shutting down car production in 1942, it took six years before the P-38-inspired fins could make the transfer to automobile styling. They appeared cautiously on the redesigned 1948 Cadillac as little more than raised taillights.
Although somewhat hesitantly accepted at first, Cadillac’s tailfins soon became its styling signature. They transformed the rear of the car, giving it as well as the front a distinctive appearance. It was the start of a styling revolution, and by the late 1950s fins were de rigueur on American cars. Studebaker spoiled its lovely coupes by bolting on tailfins, and the 1959 Chevrolet grew thin, bird-like horizontal appendages. The trend became so pervasive that even staid Mercedes-Benzes sprouted small rear fender blades.
When Chrysler’s 1957 products appeared with huge fins that threatened to wrench styling leadership from GM, it was a challenge that Cadillac couldn’t ignore. The grotesquely be-finned 1959 Cadillac was the response.
In addition to its fins, the ’59 Cadillac was overstated at every turn. Its front end displayed a sweeping, complex grille that in most Cadillac models was echoed in the rear with another grille. The front parking lights and turn signals were carried in pods at each end of the substantial bumper, and more jet-like pods housed the back-up lights in the rear bumper.
Cadillacs came in five series: 62; DeVille; Eldorado; 60 special and 75. All had a 3,302 mm (130 in.) wheelbase except the 75, which stretched to 3,805 mm (149.8 in.). And Cadillacs were a garage-busting 5,715 mm, or almost 19 feet long. That is, all models except the Series 75; its 6,223 mm (20.4 ft) length required a special garage.
Under the hood could be found the short-stroke, overhead valve V8 that Cadillac had introduced in 1949, now grown from its original 5.4 litre (331 cu in.) and 160 horsepower to 6.3 litres (390 cu in.) and a standard 325 horsepower. The Eldorado got 345, which was optional on other models.
Equipment was generous, but far from as complete as we now take for granted in most cars. A Hydra-Matic transmission was standard, as were power brakes, steering and seats. But still optional were air conditioning, power windows and door locks, and cruise control.
Passengers enjoyed a panoramic view thanks to Earl’s beloved and dramatically curved wraparound windshield and thin pillars all around. This, plus the high fins, enabled the driver to see all corners of the car, making it a little less likely that a hapless pedestrian would be impaled on one of those lethal fins.
After the outre styling statement of their 1959 models, even Cadillac stylists must have realized they had gone a little too far. For 1960 the fins were toned down and the taillights were nicely integrated. By 1965 Cadillac’s fins were gone altogether.
Depending on your perception, the 1959 Cadillac stood as either the pinnacle or the nadir of American automotive styling. It became reviled and vilified as the quintessential example of American decadence and excess in an era when inner cities were rotting and many went to bed hungry. Its kind would never be seen again.
But time changes all things and now the 1959 Cadillac has evolved into an icon of Americana. The result is that it has become very collectible, with good examples selling for many times its original price.