1930-1939 Cadillac

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.