The overhead-valve V-8 engine, in models like this 1949 Cadillac Series 62 convertible, was one of two major developments introduced in 1949.

1949 Cadillac

Following up on the launch of its landmark styling element, the tailfin, for 1948, Cadillac made more history with two stunning developments for 1949.

One was the Coupe de Ville, a $3,497 addition to the Series 62. It shares honors with that year's new Oldsmobile 98 Holiday and Buick Roadmaster Riviera as the first modern "hardtop convertibles" offered as regular factory models. Cadillac sold 2,150 of the first-year Coupe de Villes, a higher percentage of its total '49 production than either Buick or Olds.

Like most soft-top convertible coupes, the hardtop had no fixed central roof post, the "B-pillar" in stylist's lingo. Lowering the front and rear side windows thus provided a breezy convertible motoring experience, but with a fixed metal roof maintaining traditional coupe/sedan comfort and structural rigidity. This idea proved enormously popular, starting a trend that would dominate Detroit by the mid-1950s. (Cadillac also built one 1949 Coupe de Ville on the 133-inch Sixty Special chassis, strictly as an experiment.)

The 1949 Cadillac Series 62 Coupe de Ville quickly became a popular choice among luxury car buyers.

No less revolutionary was Cadillac's exciting new 1949 overhead-valve V-8, the second blow of a potent one-two punch delivered directly to Packard, Lincoln, and Chrysler's Imperial.

The product of 10 years' research and development, this engine was designed by Ed Cole, Jack Gordon, and Harry Barr, who aimed for less weight and higher compression (to take advantage of the higher-octane fuels promised for after the war). This dictated rearranged valves, a stroke shorter than bore, wedge-shape combustion chambers, and "slipper" pistons. The last, devised by Byron Ellis, traveled low between the crankshaft counterweights to allow for short connecting rods and, thus, low reciprocating mass.

Sized at 331 cubic inches, the new V-8 arrived with 160 horsepower, 10 horsepower more than the old 346 L-head despite less displacement, testifying to the design's efficiency.

The overhead valve V-8 had other advantages. Though a cast-iron job like the L-head, it weighed nearly 200 pounds less, thanks to advances in manufacturing techniques pioneered during wartime. Compression was just 7.5:1, yet could be pushed up to 12:1; the L-head couldn't stretch that high.

This 1949 Cadillac Series 62 sedan could go from 0 to 60 mph in under 15 seconds, a remarkable feat at that time.

The ohv V-8 also delivered more torque and 14-percent better mileage. Yet it was no less durable nor reliable. And it had room enough to be greatly enlarged, as indeed it was. A relatively light 1949-1950 Series 62 could do 0-60 mph in around 13 seconds and an easy 100 mph, which was vivid performance in those days.

Further proof of this V-8's prowess was provided by sportsman Briggs Cunningham, who entered a near-stock 1950 Cadillac in that year's Le Mans 24-Hour race in France. Driven by Sam and Miles Collier, it finished 10th overall, an achievement unmatched by any other luxury car. It tore down the track's Mulsanne Straight section at around 120 mph and averaged 81.5 mph for the race.

Cunningham himself drove a streamlined Cadillac-powered special the French called Le Monstre. He went even faster than the Colliers, but lost top gear and finished right behind them.

With its brilliant V-8 and best-in-class styling, Cadillac reached the top of the luxury heap by 1950, and would stay there for the next 40 years. To learn why, check out the next installment in our story, Cadillac 1950-1959.

For more infomation on Cadillac, see:
  • Cadillac: Learn the history of America's premier luxury car, from 1930s classics to today's newest Cadillac models.
  • Consumer Guide New Car Reviews and Prices: Road test results, photos, specifications, and prices for 2007 Cadillacs and hundreds of other new cars, trucks, minivans, and SUVs.
  • 1930-1939 Cadillac: Cadillac asserts its luxury leadership with magnificent V-16 and V-12 models that were among the greatest cars of an era of great cars.
  • 1950-1959 Cadillac: Cadillac symbolizes the optimism of a swaggering America with soaring tailfins and Elvis-era glamour.