1930-1939 Cadillac


Cadillac introduced its ultra-luxury V-16 model, the Sixteen, in 1930. The 1930 Cadillac Sixteen convertible is pictured here. See more pictures of the 1930-1939 Cadillac.

Had it not been part of General Motors, Cadillac might have perished in the Depression, a time when few could afford -- or wanted to be seen in -- big, expensive automobiles no matter how superb.

Unlike independent Packard, which was forced to survive with medium-priced products, Cadillac was protected by GM's vast size and enormous financial strength. Then, too, the division already had a medium-priced car, the LaSalle, introduced in 1927. All this helped Cadillac endure "hard times" without squandering its blue-chip image, even as it built ultra-luxury cars selling only in small numbers.

Foremost among them was that magnificent 1930 surprise, the Sixteen, carrying an overhead-valve, 452-cubic-inch V-16 engine producing 165 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque. Horsepower was increased to 185 in 1934.

An undoubted great in an era of greats, the Sixteen was ostensibly available in 33 different models, submodels or trim variations ranging from a $5,350 two-passenger roadster to a $9,700 town brougham. Keep in mind those prices bought a very nice home in the Depression years.

The typical Cadillac Sixteen could return about eight miles to a 15-cent gallon of gas and 150 miles to a quart of oil. It could also cruise at 70 and top 90 mph. But brute performance wasn't its forte. Rather, the Sixteen was intended to elevate Cadillac into the rarefied realm of Packard, Peerless, and Pierce-Arrow, still the three giants of American motoring. That it did, offering superb luxury and smooth, effortless power with minimal shifting. Cadillac advertised the Sixteen's performance as "a continuous flow...constantly at full-volume efficiency...flexible...instantly responsive."

The Sixteen was only nine months old when Cadillac introduced another multicylinder engine, a 368-cubic-inch V-12. Essentially a V-16 with four fewer cylinders, it delivered 135 horsepower and 285 pound-feet of torque. The cars it powered also weren't quite as large the Sixteens, riding the Cadillac Eight's 140-inch wheelbase instead of an enormous 148-inch span.

Predictably, the Twelve also wasn't as fast, but its free-revving engine was renowned for smooth, even power. And that power was quite ample. A roadster could do about 85 mph with standard rear-axle ratio, and most Twelves could cruise all day at 70. Of course, the Twelve was cheaper than the Sixteen, by far, offered with 11 body choices in the $3,795-$4,985 range.

But despite their refined performance and majestic proportions, the multicylinder Cadillacs were anachronisms in the devastated Depression market, and none sold in significant numbers. The peak was 1930-31 with exactly 3,250 Sixteens and 5,725 Twelves.

This striking 1933 Cadillac Sixteen convertible was one of just 125 Sixteens Cadillac was able to sell in that Depression year. The typical Cadillac Sixteen cost about $7,000 in 1933.

Production was only fair for '32, then declined to about 700 and 400 units per year, respectively. Both models were dropped after 1937, but Cadillac made one more try starting the next year with an L-head V-16. At 431 cid and 185 horsepower, this engine was smaller and lighter yet more potent than the earlier overhead-valve design, but only 508 cars were so equipped through 1940, its final year.

There were two reasons why these grand Cadillacs fared so poorly. As noted, super-expensive cars with more than eight cylinders seemed socially inappropriate to many people in the early '30s. After their initial sales spurt, these models were shunned by most customers for the cheaper, less showy, but by no means inferior Cadillac Eights.

In the mid-1930s, even well-heeled buyers tended to chose V-8 Cadillacs over costlier V-12 models like this 1935 Cadillac Twelve town car.

Later, the big engines were simply outmoded by advancing technology. The introduction of precision-insert connecting-rod bearings helped eliminate knock and high-speed wear in engines with fewer than 12 cylinders, so there was little reason for Cadillac buyers to choose a Twelve or Sixteen over an Eight.

We'll cover Cadillac's V-8 offerings in more detail on the next page.

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.
  • 1940-1949 Cadillac: Cadillac produces some of its most beautiful cars and some of its most important engineering developments -- not to mention the tailfin.

Cadillac V-8 Models of the 1930s

The competitively priced 1936 Cadillac Series 60 sedan, with its cast-iron L-head engine, was an impressive seller.
The competitively priced 1936 Cadillac Series 60 sedan, with its cast-iron L-head engine, was an impressive seller.

Fortunately for Cadillac, its V-8 line sold consistently and fairly well through the 1930s. Model-year production hung around 10,000 units for 1930-31, plunged to 2,000-3,000 for 1932-33, and then recovered rapidly.

With the introduction of the low-priced Series 60 for 1936, V-8 volume passed 10,000, then reached over 13,000 by 1939. This highly creditable sales performance was owed to a reliable cast-iron L-head engine, competitive prices, and a wide range of body styles.

Cadillac's early-'30s V-8 was based on a 341-cubic-inch unit introduced in 1928. Sized at 353 cubic inches for 1930 through 1935, it delivered 95-130 horsepower.

A completely redesigned V-8 of 346 cubic inches and with 135 horsepower replaced it for 1936. That year's new Series 60 used a 322-cubic-inch version, then adopted the 346. This respected powerplant would remain in production until Cadillac launched its new short-stroke overhead-valve V-8 for 1949.

Though the L-head had limits, it delivered excellent performance and reasonable economy. The lighter 1938-39 models could do nearly 100 mph and run 0-60 in 15-16 seconds, no mean feat for 4,500-pound luxury liners before World War II.

Although Cadillac did supply chassis in fair numbers to independent body builders, unlike many luxury rivals, it designed and built most of its bodies in-house via Fisher and Fleetwood, two respected coachmakers GM had acquired. This arrangement enabled GM design chief Harley Earl to maintain a consistent look throughout the car instead of in just the radiator and hood.

The clean lines and rounded hood of this 1931 Cadillac Sixteen Madame X sedan epitomize classic Cadillac styling.

"Classic" Cadillac styling was undoubtedly epitomized by the 1930-1931 models with their opulent, thick-collar vertical radiators; beautifully rounded hoods; and clean, flowing lines.

Body styles were bewildering. The 1930 Fisher line spanned seven types in the $3,300-$4,000 range. Fleetwood Custom models numbered no fewer than 14, priced from $3,450 to $5,145. Most elegant of all were the several "Madame X" styles, named after a stage play of the era, with slender chrome door and windshield moldings.

Square-rigged styling began to dissolve with the more-rounded 1932 Cadillacs, but the '33 models showed evidence of true streamlining, a look then coming into vogue through the world of industrial design.

The 1933 Cadillacs retained basic '32 bodies, but Earl modernized their appearance with items like skirted fenders, vee'd radiators, and more-swept-back windshields. A notable innovation was front-door venting windows, called "No-Draft Ventilation," a feature shared with sister GM divisions that year. All early-'30s Cadillacs have long been prized by enthusiasts as some of the best designs of the late Classic era.

Styling for 1934 was fully revised along the lines of the exotic, experimental "Aero-Dynamic" fastback coupe, a special show car prepared for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. Earl now moved away completely from upright forms into the realm of rounded pontoon fenders, sloped radiators, "bullet" headlight shells, and rakish rear decks. He also conjured novel two-piece front and rear bumpers likely inspired by biplanes, but they proved fragile and unpopular, and were thus abandoned after one season.

GM's pioneering stylist, Harley Earl, incorporated exotic, rounded features in the 1934 Cadillac Aero-Dynamic coupe's design.

The 1935-36 models were relatively dumpy by comparison, with roundness prevailing over squareness throughout. However, 1935 introduced a popular innovation: closed "Touring" body styles with built-in trunks. Though appearance was awkward from some angles, these models offered extra practicality and quickly replaced traditional "beaverback" versions with separate detachable trunks.

Cadillac introduced major changes in the late 1930s. Learn about the beginning of Cadillac's "new era" on the next page.

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.
  • 1940-1949 Cadillac: Cadillac produces some of its most beautiful cars and some of its most important engineering developments -- not to mention the tailfin.

The Cadillac Sixty Special of the 1930s

Considered a landmark automotive design, the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special  sported chrome-edged windows and squareback fenders.
Considered a landmark automotive design, the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special  sported chrome-edged windows and squareback fenders.

Everything changed again for 1938, when young William L. Mitchell, a protégé of the great GM designer Harley Earl, drew up the Sixty Special sedan as an addition to the 124-inch-wheelbase Series 60.

Square yet crisply elegant and quite compact for a Cadillac, Mitchell's creation stood apart with chrome-edged side windows, squareback fenders, concealed running boards, and a low profile on a wheelbase three inches longer than on other 60s (which offered a coupe, a sedan, and two convertibles). This first Sixty Special sedan has long been judged one of the all-time great automotive designs.

Cadillac production for 1939 was a stronger 10,000 units higher than its '38 total (which had suffered from a national recession). Only mild facelifts occurred and engines were unchanged, but the division now blanketed the luxury field.

A new 126-inch-wheelbase Series 61 offered four models priced from $1,610 to $2,170, while the Sixty Special returned as a separate model line priced from $2,090 to $2,315. The Series 75, top of the V-8 line since 1935, listed its usual plethora of Fleetwood bodies on a 141-inch span, Cadillac's longest V-8 wheelbase yet.

The 1939 Cadillac Series 61 convertible was one of four Series 61 models available in 1939.

The 1930s saw vast technical progress at Cadillac. Having introduced clashless "Syncro-Mesh" transmission in 1929, the division followed up for 1932 with "Triple-Silent" Syncro-Mesh (smoother-meshing helical-cut gears for all three forward speeds). "No-Draft" and vacuum-assisted brakes appeared for 1933, independent front suspension for '34.

For 1935 came GM's all-steel "Turret Top" construction that eliminated the traditional fabric-roof insert. Hydraulic brakes arrived on all but Sixteens for 1936. Column-mounted gearshift arrived in '38, optional turn signals one year later.

As mentioned, a "second-series" Sixteen arrived for 1938, and it again led the Cadillac fleet for 1939-40. Designated Series 90, it used a new short-stroke engine that was smaller than the earlier V-16, but made the same 185 horsepower. Like Cadillac's V-8, this powerplant featured rugged cast-iron construction and side valves, as well as nine main bearings and separate manifolds, carburetor, water pump, and distributor for each cylinder bank.

Cadillac introdued a "second-series" Sixteen with a new short-stroke engine    for 1938. The 1939 Cadillac Sixteen convertible is pictured here.

Chassis were shared with the 75, as were body styles: two coupes, a convertible, touring sedans with and without a division-window, a "trunkback" convertible sedan, formal sedans seating five or seven, and several seven-passenger sedans.

The big difference was price. The basic five-passenger sedan of 1940 sold for $1,745 with V-8 but $5,140 with V-16, a premium no longer really justified, as Cadillac's V-8 was one of the smoothest engines anywhere. With sales no better than in 1930-37, the opulent Sixteen was dropped for good after 1940, a relic of a grand age we would not see again.

A new age was, in fact, beginning. Europe was again at war by 1940, when President Franklin Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term after promising not to involve American forces even as he contrived to "Lend-Lease" material support to beleaguered Britain. A resulting ramp-up in war-goods production created millions of new jobs, thus finally ending the Great Depression. All too soon, however, America would have no choice but to fight the Axis powers after the "infamy" of December 7, 1941.

Like all of American industry and the public at large, Cadillac did its part to win the war. When peace returned, GM's flagship division resumed efforts that within a few short years would make it the undisputed leader in American luxury cars. To learn how all this happened, check out the other articles in this series.

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.
  • 1940-1949 Cadillac: Cadillac produces some of its most beautiful cars and some of its most important engineering developments -- not to mention the tailfin.