1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac

The 1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac, the make known as "The Standard of the World," set a new design standard for the world in the late Thirties with the crisp, timeless lines of a very special luxury model based on its volume V-8 series. Here’s the story of the most influential prewar Cadillac, its all too brief existence, and the brilliant young designer who created it.

What may well be the single most influential prewar Cadillac originated during the most difficult period in the marque’s history. The year was 1934, and General Motors’ prestige outfit stood at the crossroads. The luxury-car market had all but disappeared in the chaos of the Depression, and Cadillacs weren’t selling very well. Production that year stood at only about a fifth of what it had been back in record-setting 1928, and the operation had been a consistent money-loser in the intervening years.

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1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac
The Sixty-Special Cadillac set a new design standard
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Worse, the division’s medium-price companion make, LaSalle, wasn’t doing much better, yet its sales volume was looming ever more crucial to Cadillac’s survival. To be sure, Cadillac was protected from the economic upheaval of the Thirties in a way its rivals were not: by the great size and financial strength of its parent company. But clearly, even Cadillac would have to change if it hoped to return to prosperity.

Ideed, GM management had already instituted a number of measures toward this end, such as reducing the number of components unique to each car line. Into this sour situation stepped a new general manager, the man who would lay the foundations for the fabulous Sixty-Special.

Nicholas Dreystadt was certainly no stranger to Cadillac. Before being promoted to the division’s top post in late 1934, he had been manager of Cadillac’s Clark Avenue home plant for more than two years, and served as general service manager for six years before that.

Efficiency was his stock-in-trade, and cost-effectiveness ranked high among his goals. As Ernest Seaholm, Cadillac’s chief engineer in those days, would later recall: “Nick made us look closely at everything. . . .If someone else made a part for two dollars, why did ours have to cost three or four?”

Continue to the next section to read about the 1936 Series 60 Cadillac.

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1936 Series 60 Cadillac

Dreystadt knew better than anyone at GM that Cadillac could literally no longer afford to pursue the cost-be-damned practices that were by then customary among "carriage trade" automakers, yet he was determined to maintain the marque's standards of quality and engineering excellence. Interestingly, an important development that would reconcile these seemingly contradictory aims was already in the works at the time he took over the helm.

It was a new monobloc V-8, so-called because the cylinder head was cast integrally with the block. Devised under the leadership of Owen Nacker and, later, John F. "Jack" Gordon, it was projected to be much cheaper to build than Cadillac's existing 353-cubic-inch V-8, let alone its mighty 368-cubic-inch V-12 and 453-cubic-inch V-16. Moreover, it was expected to be quieter, thanks to hydraulic valve lifters, and to have better performance and durability.

As time would prove, this smooth, strong, and refined powerplant was so good that it would be continued without major change from 1936 through 1948. It also hastened the departure of the V-12, which it rendered virtually obsolete. Meanwhile, Dreystadt had been taking a close look at the market. Inevitably, his attention was drawn to the $900 price gap between the new straight-eight LaSalle, introduced for 1934, and the least expensive Cadillacs.

1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac
Beginning with the 1936 line, GM wanted to build a more affordable Cadillac.

What this amounted to was that a buyer could have both a LaSalle and an Oldsmobile for the price of one new Caddy -- and still have enough money left over to purchase a first-class living room radio. The difference was even greater at Packard, still the leading U.S. luxury marque at the time, where a fat $1,325 separated that firm's new 1935 One-Twenty series from its least expensive senior models. It's not clear why it took so long for the powers at Cadillac -- or Packard, for that matter -- to see that the market was ripe for a car priced to bridge this gap.

What is clear is that once he recognized the problem, Dreystadt moved swiftly to solve it. The answer was a new low-end offering for 1936. Designated the Series 60, it rode a 121-inch wheelbase, 10 inches shorter than the 131-inch chassis used for the Series 70 and Fleetwood Series 80, and shared the General Motors "B" bodyshell used by LaSalle, Buick, and Oldsmobile.

All Cadillacs this year featured GM's much-ballyhooed all-steel "Turret-Top" construction for closed body styles, plus big duo-servo Bendix hydraulic brakes, doubly effective on V-8 models because the new mono-bloc engine weighed less than the previous V-8. Other changes included a more rigid frame, a refined front suspension, and a handsome face-lift carried out by GM's Art & Colour section under the direction of Harley Earl.

Marked by a stylishly tall, narrow grille and a divided vee'd windshield, it suited the new Series 60 especially well. Lean and trim in appearance, the "budget" Caddys were arguably the best-looking models in the 1936 line. Best of all, they were the lowest-priced cars to wear the Cadillac crest since 1908, listing at $750 less than the cheapest 1935 V-8 Series 10, a savings of more than 30 percent.

On the next page, find out about how the Cadillac Sixty-Special arrived on the competitive car scene.

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Exit 1936 Series 60 Cadillac, Enter Sixty-Special

Though it was very much a “junior edition,” the Series 60 Cadillac was no less a Cadillac than its larger linemates -- which would prove to be an enormous sales advantage. The engine was a smaller version of the one used in the big Series 70 Cadillacs and 75 V-8 cars: 322 cubic-inch, 3.38 × 4.50-inch bore and stroke dimensions, and 125-horsepower, compared with 346-cubic-inch, 3.50 × 4.50-inch bore/stroke, and 135-horsepower.

It drove through a redesigned transmission that was so smooth, fast-shifting, and durable that it would become a prime favorite among hotrodders. “Knee-Action” independent front suspension was still something of a novelty in 1936, even in the luxury field, but the Series 60 Cadillac had it, a noteworthy sales point for passenger comfort.

Another event took place in 1936 that would brighten the division’s fortunes even more: the arrival of 23-year-old William L. Mitchell to head the Cadillac design studio. What Cadillac had here was an entirely new kind of automobile: a high-quality, high-prestige package of compact dimensions, fast and powerful, easy to handle, and priced within reach of many Buick and Chrysler buyers. Predictably, the Series 60 brightened Cadillac’s fortunes in a way the LaSalle by itself could not. Sales went up by an astounding 254 percent, with the new line accounting for more than half of Cadillac’s model year production.

1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac
The new, more stylish Cadillacs helped boost GM sales by 254 percent.

In January of that year, Mitchell’s mentor assigned him to create another new model using the Series 60 Cadillac as its basis, but roomier, more luxurious, and more stylish by far than any previous Cadillac. The result was announced less than two years later. A predictive design with features that would be quickly copied by the rest of GM -- and the industry -- the Sixty-Special was a masterpiece that made everything else on the road old-fashioned.

Naturally, corporate brass had a few apprehensions about this daring new Cadillac. Don Ahrens, the division’s sales director at that time, remembers: “As the Sixty-Special took shape. . .there were moments of uncertainty. The feeling arose not because we were apprehensive of the car’s beauty but because, in its presentation, we were breaking with tradition. . .The Cadillac market is ultraconservative. The bulk of our business is conducted with sound and substantial families. How would this revolutionary car affect our position in the industry? Was it too startling for our price class? Was it too rakish for our reputation?”

In a word, yes -- which is precisely why it had Harley Earl’s enthusiastic endorsement. It was the sort of car that could only come from a younger designer: sporty yet sober, advanced yet appealing. It was an entirely new concept: the total car, with each design element fully and tastefully matched to all the others. Corporate brass had a few apprehensions about the daring new Sixty-Special Cadillac. “Was it too startling for our price class, too rakish for our reputation?” In a word, yes -- but it was a total design.

Read on the learn about the daring 1938 Sixty-Special and how it was affected by the "Roosevelt Recession."

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1938 Sixty-Special Cadillac

The Sixty-Special Cadillac styling represented a major departure for Cadillac in several respects. Presenting a smart, ultra-modern silhouette, it stood three inches lower than any previous Cadillac, yet it had no less headroom inside. Running boards were conspicuous by their absence, a trend-setting move that GM chairman Alfred P. Sloan observed “made it possible to widen the basic body pattern to the full tread of the wheels, so that the standard car became one that could hold six passengers.”

An extended rear deck, a first for a U.S. production model, made the trunk an integral part of the main body. All four doors of this elegant sedan were front-hinged, an unusual arrangement then and one that would be widely imitated. Fulsome pontoon fenders front and rear added to the illusion of extra length, though it was really no illusion as the 127-inch wheelbase was three inches longer than that of the Series 60.

The bright belt molding that traditionally separated the greenhouse from the lower body was eliminated. No brightwork adorned the sides, a brave move in a day when lavishly applied chrome was de rigueur for all but the cheapest cars. Equally bold was the use of very slim roof pillars, which allowed the windshield and doors to be wider than on any other car in the class for superior visibility.

Replacing the expected, bulky upper door frames were tall, chrome-banded windows with thin-but-strong frames, a look clearly patterned on the convertible sedan body style that was still very much in vogue in the late Thirties. By combining closed-car comfort with the suggestion of an open car, the Sixty-Special was the precursor of the pillarless “hardtop convertible,” the body style that would dominate the American industry more than a decade later.

1938 Sixty-Special Hardtop Convertible top
The Sixty-Special hardtop convertible design proved to be timeless.

“There has never been a car like the Cadillac Sixty-Special,” enthused the ad writers, “a car with such definite modernity of line, yet so obviously right in taste. . .a precedent-breaking car prophetic of motor cars not yet on other drawing boards, yet a car wholly devoid of freakish trappings.”

Indeed, Mitchell’s avoidance of “freakish trappings” was laudable, and the Sixty-Special Cadillac was a sensational launch to his career. It can lay claim as the first Detroit “specialty” car, the sort of high-style, premium-price product that would appear from a number of manufacturers in the years that followed, cars like the 1940 Lincoln Continental and, much later, Mitchell’s own 1963 Buick Riviera.

At the time it arrived, however, the Sixty-Special Cadillac might well have been judged a formula for failure -- and not just because of its avant-garde appearance. The budding economic recovery of 1936-1937 stalled in 1938, and the nation found itself in the grip of what Republicans gleefully termed the “Roosevelt Recession.”

1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac
In many ways, the Cadillac Sixty-Special design was ahead of its time.

Packard’s sales this year came to less than half its record total of 1937. Oldsmobile fared no better, and LaSalle actually did worse. In short, 1938 hardly seemed like a propitious time for introducing a new model-especially when it carried a near 25 percent price premium over one that used the same major mechanical components.

Head-turning looks apart, the Sixty-Special Cadillac differed from the less costly Series 60 only in its more elaborate trim and a stiffer, lower-slung frame with a longer wheelbase. It was also the last Cadillac that would be built with hardwood main sills and seat frames, construction details that harked back to the heyday of custom coachwork but added materially to production costs.

Yet despite all this and the availability of only a single four-door, four-window sedan body style, the Sixty-Special sold spectacularly well. In fact, it bested the entire Series 60 line by a margin of nearly three to one.

Continue to the next section to read about the 1939-1940 Sixty Special Cadillac and the Series 62.

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1939-1940 Sixty-Special Cadillac

The economy bounced back in 1939, which meant higher sales throughout the industry. Pointed fronts reappeared on most of this year's GM cars, and the 1938-1939 Sixty-Special Cadillac was no exception. Cadillac's new ensemble was a three-element affair consisting of a slightly raked, prow-shaped vertical radiator flanked by grilles in the "catwalk" area between the front fenders and the main nose section. Above the catwalks were headlamps repositioned higher and closer to the central grille. The Series 60 was replaced by the 126-inch-wheelbase Series 61, offering the same body types and many of the Sixty-Special's appearance features.

Common to all 1939 Cadillacs were a redesigned dashboard, newly optional vacuum-operated radio antenna, rubber rear fender protectors, and something called "Controlled-Action Ride," a reference to a higher rear axle rotation center claimed to enhance ride comfort. Aside from this, the Sixty-Special Cadillac was largely unchanged, presumably on the grounds that it didn't pay to fool around with a winner. The policy paid off, and once again it was Cadillac's single best-selling model line. However, the series was expanded for 1939 with two variations of the basic four-door: a sunroof sedan with a sliding section above the front seat area, and a limousine-like Imperial Sedan with division window as well as the sunroof.

1939-1940 Sixty-Special Cadillac
The near perfect Sixty-Special Cadillac saw subtle changes for 1939-1940.

A gorgeous Sixty-Special coupe had been built as a one-off for GM president William S. Knudsen and four convertible sedans were built experimentally for the use of other high-level execs, but neither model reached production. Chairman Sloan may have hinted at the rationale for only one basic body style when he noted that the Sixty-Special was "well received in the market and demonstrated the dollars-and-cents value of styling, for customers were ready to take smaller trade-ins [dollar amounts] on old cars to acquire it."

Two more versions of the basic sedan appeared among Sixty-Special offerings for 1940, and all models now carried Fleetwood instead of Fisher bodywork for the first time. The Imperial Sedan could now be ordered without the sunroof, and a new Town Car style was added in both steel -- and leather-backed forms -- at a hefty surcharge over the standard version. Styling on all Cadillacs stayed mostly the same except for heavier horizontal grille bars, slightly less restrained use of bright metal and, along with most other American cars that year, standardization of sealed-beam headlamps.

Arriving in the price bracket just below the Special was the new Series 62, a replacement for the Series 61 featuring two predictive "torpedo" body styles fresh from the Art & Colour studio, a sedan and a five-passenger coupe. The Series 62 stole some of the Sixty-Special's thunder. Another Bill Mitchell design, it employed GM's new C-body, with lines obviously inspired by the Special. This together with prices that were some 16 percent lower enabled the 62 Special to oust the Special as Cadillac's volume leader for 1940.

In the next section, learn about Cadillac's "contemporary" 1941 model lineup.

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1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac

The 1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac kept its crisply formal look for 1941, but with deft touches that would be followed by the rest of the industry post haste. These cars reeked class. No wonder they bring six-figure sums today.
The economy was recovering nicely by now, largely on the strength of stepped-up military production, which was already under way even though the United States had not yet been drawn into the widening Second World War.

With inflation starting to make itself felt, Cadillac boosted prices for its all-new 1941 models. The Sixty-Special, which had listed at $2,090 ever since 1938, went up to $2,195, yet it was still a bargain. And with the demise of the massive Sixteen after 1940, it was now the flagship of the fleet, the cream of the crop that firmly established Cadillac as America’s ultimate automotive status symbol.

Styling was again the keynote throughout the 1941 line, fastidiously derived from that of the original Sixty-Special but with deft touches that would be followed by the rest of the industry post haste. These cars reeked class -- so well-executed, that even their heavy use of chrome didn’t seem at all garish or inappropriate. The Sixty-Special Cadillac retained its crisply formal look, while “torpedo” styling was applied to most other models.

1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac
Special touches offered a sneak peek into what was in store for the 1942 Sixty-Special Cadillac.

Headlamps were now mounted in, rather than on top of, the front fenders. In between was a horizontal eggcrate grille, the first use of a Cadillac hallmark that’s still with us. Fenders acquired squared-off trailing edges that harmonized nicely with both the torpedo bodies and the Special’s foursquare contours. The Special’s front fenders were swept back into the front doors, a forecast of 1942, and the new front-end sheet metal blended so well with the 1938-1940 central structure that the 1941 looked totally new and completely contemporary.

Cadillac’s 1941 model lineup was considerably -- and shrewdly -- realigned. The companion LaSalle was discarded, and the Series 61 returned to take its place. The Series 62 remained the volume series, offering a full range of body styles, including convertible coupe and sedan. A bit further up the price ladder was a lone four-door under the new Series 63 designation.

Wheelbase on the Sixty-Special Cadillac was shaved an inch, to 126 inches, to match that of the three lower-priced lines. At the top of the heap were the 138-inch-wheelbase Series 67 and 136-inch Series 75 models. Accessories abounded: radios, fender skirts, driving lights, mirrors, windshield washer, backup lamps, and new Hydra-Matic self-shift transmission were all available.

Although the Sixty-Special design proved to be a force to be reckoned with, the performance is considered just as impressive today as it was yesterday. Continue to the next page to read more about the Sixty-Special design, and get details about the performance of this classic collectible car.

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1938, 1939, 1940, 1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac Design and Performance

The Series 61 and Series 62 Cadillac's were priced substantially less than any Cadillac of recent memory -- as little as $1,345 for the standard 61 coupe. Befitting its name, the 1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac was still at $2,195 for the base four-door, and suffered a small production loss (about 500 units) from the previous year.

Yet mainly due to the success of the two lower series, the division nearly doubled its production for model year 1941 compared to combined 1940 Cadillac/LaSalle volume. Interestingly, that was accomplished without major mechanical changes. The one significant under-the-skin alteration for 1941 was a more rigid frame designed for a smoother ride on all types of roads.

We’ve concentrated a good deal on styling so far. The 1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac was unquestionably a design tour de force, but we shouldn’t forget its performance, which was -- and still is -- just as impressive. Cadillac had settled on the 346-cubic-inch version of the monobloc V-8 for all its eight-cylinder models except LaSalle beginning in 1937. Rated at 135 horsepower at 3400 rpm, the 346 had five more horses than the 1935 V-8 and 10 more than the one-year-only 322-cubic-inch monobloc.

1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac
The 1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac performance is still admired nearly 70 years later.

The Sixty-Special Cadillac arrived weighing only some 230 pounds more than a comparable 1938 Series 60 sedan, so its power-to-weight ratio was less than 31 pounds per horsepower, quite good for the period. By contrast, that year’s Packard Super Eight -- which, incidentally, cost $700 more than the Special -- carried nearly 35 pounds per horsepower.

The 346 continued without change until 1941, when higher compression pushed output to 150 bhp, more than enough to offset the restyled Special’s slight weight gain. Thus, Cadillac’s posh “compact” was a good performer as well as a styling leader, as rewarding to drive as it was pleasing to look at.

The durable monobloc V-8 would go to war, powering the U.S. Army’s M-5 and M-24 tanks that would mean so much to the Allies. Hydra-Matic, an exclusive Cadillac option new for 1941, also saw action in these tanks. Engineer Harry Barr would later recall that the transmission was very serviceable right from the start, and the improvements resulting from four years of military service would make the postwar versions even better.

Things changed considerably for the Sixty-Special Cadillac during the fifties and sixties. Find out why this special car lost some of its appeal (and value) during this time.

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Sixty-Special Cadillac During the Fifties and Sixties

Even as the winds of war were blowing, Cadillac was preparing to phase out the 1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac, at least as Mitchell had originally conceived it. To be sure, the 1942 Cadillac lineup had a model bearing that designation, but it was of another breed.

Replacing the distinctively styled 1938-1941 design with its unique bodyshell was simply a stretched, though beautifully finished, version of the Series 62 four-door, utilizing the massive new C-body that Cadillac shared with Buick and Oldsmobile. There was nothing wrong with that, of course.

The Sixty-Special of that abbreviated model year was as impressive as ever, as indeed it would be in the postwar era. But it was no longer quite so "special," a difference that has not been lost on today's collectors. While a fully restored 1941 now brings around $23,000 -- perhaps $1,000 more if it happens to have a sunroof -- the 1942 is worth no more than $10,000 in comparable condition and the postwar continuations go for even less.

1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac
Certain elements of the Sixty-Special Cadillac were toned down during the fifties and sixties.

The Sixty-Special became even less special in the Fifties and Sixties. Usually it was just a Series 62 or DeVille four-door with more ornate exterior trim and interior furnishings, though it did retain the exclusive 133-inch wheelbase adopted for 1942 all the way through 1958.

Even the name was progressively watered down, and it disappeared completely in favor of the Fleetwood Brougham label with the advent of Cadillac's first downsized big cars for 1977. But the original Sixty-Special Cadillac and its sporting, slightly raffish character would never be forgotten on Clark Avenue. As Mitchell himself suggests, its spiritual descendant is today's Seville, the enormously successful compact Cadillac, introduced in 1975.

So the Sixty-Special and its great heritage lives on, in current Cadillacs and in the many 1938-1941 originals lovingly preserved by their proud owners. The undeniable influence of its design -- and the inspired hand of its designer -- can be seen in most of the better-looking automobiles produced over the last 40-odd years, and that's as it should be. As the last sentence of Cadillac's oft-quoted 1914 "Penalty of Leadership" ad reminds us: "That which deserves to live -- lives."

In the next and final section of this article, get specifications for the 1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac.

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1938, 1939, 1940, 1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac Specifications

The 1938-1941 Sixty-Special design was -- and still is -- is one of the most innovative and admired designs in history. It's no wonder production was steady, and potential owners were willing to pay handsomely for this popular car.

Find model, prices, and production for the 1938-1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac in the following chart.

1938 Sixty-Special Cadillac Specifications

Model
Price
Production
sedan 4-door
$2,090 3,587
sedan 4-door *CKD
------
108
chassis
------
8
Total 1938 Sixty-Special Cadillac

3,703

*Complete knock-down (kit for export)

1939 Sixty-Special Cadillac Specifications

Model
Price
Production
sedan 4-door
$2,090 5,135
sedan 4-door *CKD
------
84
sunroof sedan 4-door
$2,175
225
sunroof Imperial sedan 4-door
$2,315
55
chassis
------
7
Total 1939 Sixty-Special Cadillac

5,506

*Complete knock-down (kit for export)

1940 Sixty-Special Cadillac Specifications

Model
Price
Production
sedan 4-door
$2,090 4,242
sunroof sedan 4-door
$2,175
230
Imperial sedan 4 door
$2,230
110
sunroof Imperial sedan 4-door
$2,315
3
Town Car, Leather-back
$3,820
6
Town Car, metal-back
$3,465
9
Total 1940 Sixty-Special Cadillac

4,600

1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac Specifications

Model
Price
Production
sedan 4-door
$2,195 3,693
sunroof sedan 4-door
$2,280
185
Imperial sedan 4-door
$2,345
220
Town Car
NA
1
Chassis
NA
1
Total 1941 Sixty-Special Cadillac

4,100

*Prices in contemporary dollars.

Source: The Encyclopedia of American Cars 1930-1980, by Richard M. Langworlh and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide.

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