1950-1959 Cadillac


The 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz epitomized the extravagantly styled models of the 1950s. See more pictures of classic cars.

For most people, the name Cadillac evokes images of the finned, chromed, and gadget-laden "Fabulous Fifties" models. And why not?

These Caddys were the ultimate expression of America's postwar prosperity and Detroit's high-flying ambition, four-wheeled tributes to the "jet age," new technological marvels both serious and silly, and the promised good life of ultra-modern, convenience-filled homes in safe, spacious new suburban communities.

It was a time when Cadillac ownership conferred instant status as a symbol of wealth and achievement. Elvis Presley owned a Cadillac. So did captains of industry, Hollywood moguls, even war-hero President Dwight Eisenhower.

No other luxury-car brand had this power in the public consciousness: not Lincoln, not Chrysler's Imperial, and certainly not Packard, which fast withered into oblivion after 1958. And though Lincoln and Imperial would mount occasional challenges, neither came close to eclipsing Cadillac's sales or prestige. Quite simply, in the four decades from 1950, Cadillac had no serious competition in the U.S. market.

Of course, Cadillac's success and frequent extravagances in the 1950s had detractors. For these folks, Cadillacs were two tons of wretched excess, the epitome of the "ugly American" and Detroit's "insolent chariots."

A later Federal Reserve chairman might have termed them "irrational exuberance." But all cars reflect the spirit of their times, and Cadillacs were right on target throughout the 1950s. The only thing better might be a "Solid Gold Cadillac," the reward for the heroine in a successful Broadway play and Hollywood movie.

Cadillac developed two-seat fantasy cars in the 1950s, including this 1959 Cadillac La Espada show car.

In an intriguing forecast of far-distant developments, Cadillac displayed several two-seat idea cars in the '50s.

The first was the 1953 Cadillac Le Mans, which looked much like a production 1954 Eldorado on a trimmer, 115-inch wheelbase. That same dimension served the 1954 Cadillac El Camino coupe and 1959 Cadillac La Espada convertible, which previewed 1955 Cadillac production-model styling. A restyled Cadillac LeMans was also shown at the '55 Motorama.

Wildest of all was the 1959 Cadillac Cyclone, a rocketlike fantasy with a 104-inch wheelbase, all-independent suspension, unit construction, and a clear-plastic "bubble" top. The canopy was coated inside with vaporized silver to resist the sun's rays, and slid away as the door was opened. And those doors were electrically operated sliding types, as on modern minivans.

Cyclone was a parting gift from GM design chief Harley Earl, who retired in 1958. His successor was longtime understudy Bill Mitchell, who would return Cadillac to more dignified styling in the '60s.

The futuristic 1959 Cadillac Cyclone show car had a bubble top and doors that slid open electronically.

We'll continue our discussion of the 1950s Cadillacs with more details on 1950, 1951, 1952, and 1953 models 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.
  • 1960-1969 Cadillac: Cadillac brings unmatched elegance to the luxury market and is rewarded with unchallenged popularity.

1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 Cadillac

The Series 61 Cadillac was discontinued after 1951. Shown here is a 1950 Cadillac Series 61 hardtop.
The Series 61 Cadillac was discontinued after 1951. Shown here is a 1950 Cadillac Series 61 hardtop.

Cadillac began the 1950s with carefully considered updates to its basic 1948 design, which was good enough to remain popular through 1953. As General Motors designer Mitchell once noted: "A traditional look is always preserved. If a grille is changed, the tail end is left alone; if a fin is changed, the grille is not monkeyed with."

And so it was: a new one-piece windshield and revamped grille for 1950, small auxiliary grilles beneath the headlamps for 1951, a winged badge in that spot for 1952, one-piece rear windows and suggestive "Dagmar" pointed front bumper guards for 1953. Equally wise, Cadillac gave up on fastbacks much earlier than sister GM makes, switching all of its 1950 coupes to notchback profiles with hardtop rooflines a la Coupe de Ville.

Models also didn't change much through 1953. Still accounting for most sales, the Series 62 offered a four-door sedan, convertible, Coupe de Ville, and a less-deluxe hardtop coupe, all on the usual 126-inch wheelbase.

The Cadillac Sixty Special remained a solitary super-luxury four-door on its own wheelbase, which was now 130 inches versus 133 for 1942-1948. The Series 75 still listed its customary array of limousines and long-wheelbase sedans on a 146.8-inch chassis. Cadillac also continued supplying chassis for various coachbuilders, averaging about 2,000 a year through 1959.

The "entry-level" Series 61 was still around in 1950, but its sedan and De Ville-inspired coupe were demoted to a 122-inch wheelbase (from 126 in the 1940s). Manual transmission remained standard here (and on 75s), but other Caddys now came with Hydra-Matic at no extra cost.

The Series 61 models still lacked chrome rocker moldings and had plainer interiors, but also lower prices (by about $575). But with record 1950 sales of 100,000-plus, Cadillac no longer needed a "price leader," so the Series 61 was cancelled after 1951, this time for good.

Cadillac produced a limited number of the flashy 1953 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.

After observing its Golden Anniversary with a little-changed fleet for 1952, Cadillac issued a flashy limited-edition convertible, the 1953 Series 62 Eldorado. Like that year's new Buick Skylark and Olds 98 Fiesta, it boasted features previewed on recent GM Motorama show cars: custom interior, special cut-down "Panoramic" wraparound windshield, a sporty "notched" beltline (below the side windows), and a metal lid instead of a canvas boot to cover the lowered top. A striking piece, the Eldorado was a preview of Cadillacs to come, but only 532 of the '53s were built, largely because the price was a towering $7,750.

Cadillac sales -- and horsepower -- continued to climb from 1954 to 1956. For more on this Cadillac era, read on.

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.
  • 1960-1969 Cadillac: Cadillac brings unmatched elegance to the luxury market and is rewarded with unchallenged popularity.

1954, 1955, 1956 Cadillac

Sales of the popular Eldorado climbed during the 1950s. The 1954 Cadillac Eldorado convertible is shown here.
Sales of the popular Eldorado climbed during the 1950s. The 1954 Cadillac Eldorado convertible is shown here.

Cadillac for 1954 introduced longer, lower, and wider cars with more power and an all-new General Motors "C-body" bearing the trendy wrapped windshield.

Wheelbase lengthened to 129 inches on Cadillac Series 62 models, and to 149.8 inches on Series 75s. The Cadillac V-8 was boosted to 230 horsepower, and power steering and windshield washers became standard linewide. A four-way power front seat was a new option.

The 1954 Cadillac Eldorado returned with standard gold-color trim and genuine wire wheels, but was much more like the standard Series 62 ragtop and thus far cheaper than the 1953 Eldorado, at $4,738. Predictably, Cadillac Eldorado sales rose to 2,150 for the model year. That improved to 3,950 for '55, then rose 65 percent for '56, when Eldorados doubled to include a hardtop coupe, surnamed Seville, with the same $6,556 base price as the convertible, which was renamed the Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz.

Eldorado became more distinctive again after 1954, sprouting pointy "shark" fins above round taillights. Other 1954 Cadillac models retained the small taillight-and-fin motif from prior years.

Cadillac's basic 1954 styling persisted through effective, evolutionary facelifts for 1955 and 1956. The latter year brought the division's first four-door hardtop, predictably dubbed Sedan de Ville, which immediately scored almost as many sales as the Coupe de Ville and standard Series 62 hardtop combined.

The 1956 Cadillac Sedan de Ville was the luxury carmaker's first four-door hardtop.

Cadillac sales continued nowhere but up, reaching 140,777 for 1955, a banner year for all Detroit. But even that was a temporary plateau. Despite challenges from an all-new 1956 Lincoln and revitalized 1957 Imperial, Cadillac remained America's luxury sales leader by far. Combined Lincoln/Imperial volume never exceeded 40,000 cars a year in this era; at Cadillac, that was good output for a calendar quarter.

Horsepower seemed to climb right along with sales. For 1955 it reached 250 in standard tune via higher compression and improved manifolding. The 1955 Cadillac Eldorado boasted 270 horsepower, courtesy of dual four-barrel carburetors that were optional for other models. For 1956, the milestone V-8 received the first of several enlargements, being bored out to 365 cubic inches, good for 305 horsepower in Eldorados, 285 in other models.

Horsepower would continue to climb, along with the elevation of those tailfins, as Cadillac was poised to enter a period in which it would cement itself as a symbol of the American Century. 

The 1957 and 1958 Cadillac models were flamboyant -- even garish to some -- yet creatively engineered. These fabulous 50s models are detailed 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.
  • 1960-1969 Cadillac: Cadillac brings unmatched elegance to the luxury market and is rewarded with unchallenged popularity.

1957, 1958 Cadillac

A brushed stainless-steel roof and center-opening doors were just two enticing features of the ultra-luxury
A brushed stainless-steel roof and center-opening doors were just two enticing features of the ultra-luxury
1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.

Cadillac's identity as an American automotive icon hit its stride for 1957 and 1958. These cars celebrated the good life with ever-more voluptuous styling and lurid chrome appointments, but backed that up with some genuine engineering creativity.

For '57, the division's 356-cubic-inch V-8 gained 15 horsepower in standard form, to 300, and increased by 20 in the Eldorado, to 325, mostly thanks to a compression bump to 10:1.

This engine powered a rebodied 1957 Cadillac lineup. The look was blockier but still evolutionary, inspired by the Cadillac Orleans, Eldorado Brougham, and Park Avenue show cars of 1954 and 1955.

Reaching into the luxury stratosphere was a production 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, priced at a princely $13,074. One of the most-interesting Cadillacs of the 1950s, this low-slung pillarless sedan on a "compact" 126-inch wheelbase featured center-opening doors and a roof capped in brushed stainless steel, the latter one of Harley Earl's favorite touches. Standard quad headlights were an industry first shared with that year's Nash.

The Brougham's most-intriguing mechanical feature was air suspension, the work of engineers Lester Milliken and Fred Cowin. Based on systems used for commercial vehicles since 1952, this employed an air "spring" at each wheel and was comprised of a domed air chamber, rubber diaphragm, and pistons. Fed by a central air compressor, the domes continually adjusted for load and road conditions (via valves and solenoids) for a smooth, level ride.

Cadillac's system differed from "air ride" options at other GM divisions in being "open" (taking in air from outside) rather than "closed." Unhappily, cost and complexity were high relative to benefits. The air domes leaked, and replacements were frequent, leading many owners to junk the system in favor of conventional coil springs. Cadillac and GM abandoned air suspension after 1960.

The 1958 Cadillac Series 62 hardtop featured an extended rear deck.

Back to the volume Cadillacs, which were heavily facelifted for 1958 in a manner typical of GM that model year. The most-garish Caddys yet, they dripped with chrome and were far less stylish than recent models. Sales were poor, though a nationwide recession was probably more to blame than the styling, which was, after all, in vogue. At 121,778 units, 1958 model-year production was the lowest since 1954. Horsepower ratings, however, continued climbing. The 365 V-8 was coaxed to 310 horsepower on all but the Eldorado, where it made 335.

Forecasting the future, the 1958 Cadillac De Ville became a 62 subseries, and pillared sedans were eliminated. The 62 line also gained a hardtop sedan with extended rear deck.

All 1958 Cadillac models were available with cruise control, high-pressure cooling system, two-speaker signal-seeking radio, and automatic parking brake release. A special show Eldorado introduced a "thinking" convertible top that raised itself and the side windows when a sensor detected raindrops; this gimmick allegedly saw limited production, though probably far less than even air suspension did.

An evocative redesign was on tap for Cadillac's next model year. We'll examine the immortal 1959 Cadillac next.

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.
  • 1960-1969 Cadillac: Cadillac brings unmatched elegance to the luxury market and is rewarded with unchallenged popularity.

1959 Cadillac

Cadillac's 1959 models, like this eye-catching 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, sported a new, more curvaceous body.
Cadillac's 1959 models, like this eye-catching 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, sported a new, more curvaceous body.

As flamboyant as the 1958 Cadillacs appeared, there was another styling frontier ahead. That threshold was crossed with the immortal 1959 Cadillac.

GM gave its division's largest cars, the so-called C-bodies, another new basic design for 1959. For Cadillac, that meant more-curvaceous styling devised as a hurried reply to Chrysler's resurgent '57 Imperials.

Hallmarks included huge curved-top windshields, thin-section rooflines, slim roof pillars -- and soaring fins of heroic proportions, adorned with high-riding bullet taillamps.

Offsetting such excesses were worthy suspension changes and improved power steering. In addition, a V-8 stroked to 390 cubic inches produced predictably higher horsepower: to 345 on Eldorados, to 325 on other models.

The Cadillac De Ville became a distinct series for 1959, offering hardtop sedans with flat-top four-window styling and a rounded six-window roofline, plus a hardtop coupe.

The 1959 Cadillac Series 62 duplicated these body styles, and added a convertible.

After just two years and 704 units, the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham was fully restyled, too. Moreover, assembly was farmed out to coachbuilder Pininfarina in Italy. Only 99 Eldorado Broughams were built for '59, another 101 of the near-identical '60s. Though appearance was clean (a preview of Cadillac's 1961 styling, as it turned out), these cars were larger (on a 130-inch wheelbase), heavier, and not put together as well (bodies contained lots of lead filler). They're collector's items now, but restoring one is a chore.

Also still pillarless (as it had been since 1957) was the lush 1959 Cadillac Sixty Special, now on the 130-inch wheelbase shared with other standard models, including the line-topping Eldorado Seville, Biarritz, and Brougham.

Cadillac prices were generally higher for 1959, with Series 62 models at around $5,000 and the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado going for $7,400 and up. Still, Cadillac built more 142,000 cars for the model year, a fair gain on 1958.

The 1959 Cadillac Series 62 hardtop is another example of evocative 1959 Cadillac styling.

At the time, of course, it took some foresight, or a certain contrarian outlook, to believe that American car styling had reached some outlandish zenith with the 1959 Cadillac. But even within GM there was a sense that things had to be dialed back, and indeed they were, beginning in 1960.

What can't be disputed is that the 1959 Cadillacs, defined by those saber-edged fins and projectile taillamps, are among the most evocative objects of the 20th Century. What precisely they evoke is open to interpretation, and that's part of the magic.

The 1960s would evoke a cleaner, more streamlined Cadillac design, as well as record sales numbers. Read our 1960-1969 Cadillac report for more on this Cadillac era.

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.
  • 1960-1969 Cadillac: Cadillac brings unmatched elegance to the luxury market and is rewarded with unchallenged popularity.