1959 Cadillac Cyclone


With retirement looming, General Motors designer Harley Earl wanted to take a final swing at a "dream car." The 1959 Cadillac Cyclone was the result. See more classic car pictures.
David Durochik

The 1959 Cadillac Cyclone was the last "dream car" created during Harley Earl's tenure as General Motors's vice president of design. Compact but flamboyant, the Cyclone marked the end of an era and capped a career that started with Earl's being brought to Detroit in 1926 to design the new LaSalle and resulted in the establishment of styling as a discipline as integral to the car business as engineering or sales.

Earl had spent his professional life trying to make cars look longer and lower. He came to the attention of GM after first becoming known in Hollywood for racy roadsters and elegant limousines built by his father's Earl Carriage Works for members of the wealthy and growing movie colony.

Don Lee, the West Coast distributor for Cadillac, bought the Earl works in 1919, after Harley Earl, Sr., decided to sell due to ill health. Lee put the younger Earl in charge of the shop, and exotic creations began flowing out on expensive deluxe chassis such as Packard, Pierce-Arrow, Rolls-Royce, and, of course, Cadillac.

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Lawrence P. Fisher, president and general manager of Cadillac, himself a young man with young ideas, was aware of the growing trend in Europe toward style over utility. Meanwhile, at home, he saw increasing competition from makes like Packard, whose styling was dominant at that time. Fisher was impressed with Earl's designs and asked him to come to Detroit to submit a proposal for the upcoming LaSalle.

The rest is history, as they say, for his proposal was accepted and he stayed through the car's introduction. A year later, General Motors President Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., recognizing the role that design would have on the future of the automotive industry, invited Earl to head up a new section, to be called "Art and Colour."

This name was carefully chosen to avoid causing concern in the engineering departments, whose job it had always been to specify and draw the boxes that had previously passed for automobile bodies. It would be a slow and deliberate process to separate design from engineering, but with successes like the Cadillac V-12 and V-16 in 1930, and the Aerodynamic designs of 1933, Harley Earl secured his position of dominance and proved his worth to the corporation.

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1959 Cadillac Cyclone Dream Car

With its rocket-tube bodywork, soaring blade fins, and pop-up "bubble" canopy for a roof, this dream car embodied all the late-1950s mythology of the budding space age.
With its rocket-tube bodywork, soaring blade fins, and pop-up "bubble" canopy for a roof, this dream car embodied all the late-1950s mythology of the budding space age.
David Durochik

One reason for Harley Earl's success was his use of clay models to make a visual presentation of his ideas, rather than flat drawings and sketches used by most others. As a natural outgrowth of this, it occurred to him that a tangible embodiment of ideas, a sort of "dream car," would not only be fun to drive around in, but could measure public opinion and give stature to his department. This was the first step in the creation of the 1959 Cadillac Cyclone dream car.

Packard's design chief, Ed Macauley, drove a futuristic boat-tailed speedster that was continually updated throughout this period. Earl may have felt it was time for him to make a statement of his own. His career was on the move, General Motors was on the move, and in the close-knit fraternity of automotive Detroit, what you drove up in showed that you had arrived in more ways than one.

So, in 1938, his first dream car-known as the Y-Job-was unveiled. Built as a two-place convertible on a Buick chassis, it predicted many features that would be found on Buicks of the future. From this simple beginning, a dream car program involving all General Motors makes eventually developed. A GM press release from 1965 summed up the role of these specials thusly:

"Many of the styling improvements on General Motors cars through the years might never have left the design studios without the auto industry's unique periscope on its own future-the 'dream car.' Born in 1938 to give the stylist a tool for advanced research comparable to the laboratory and proving ground used by the scientist and engineer, the dream car has become a world famous symbol of the American public's ever growing fascination with the life it can expect in the future. The dream car has been more than a gleaming car on a pedestal; it has allowed input of public opinion on what is wanted on future cars, and has made possible better looking, more advanced cars than might have been produced in normal evolution."

Soon enough after the Y-Job's arrival, the grim claw of world war came to include the United States in its grip and the auto industry's attention was diverted to the production of armaments. It wouldn't be until 1951 that GM would next peer into the future with two more dream cars, the LeSabre and the Buick XP-300.

A parallel development to this return to idea cars was the rise of the Motorama, GM's series of spectacular car shows held in select cities intermittently between 1949 and 1961. The Motoramas became great forums for dangling dazzling concepts before the car-buying public.

Dream cars became an eagerly anticipated part of the show. (The 1954 Motorama alone exhibited 12 special show cars.) Among the stars of the 1959 edition was the Cadillac Cyclone. Consider once again the 1965 GM press release:

"It would be impossible to guess the total number of people who have viewed the three dozen dream and experimental cars created thus far by General Motors . . . . In addition [to the Motoramas], some of the cars are still being shown individually in local shows and fairs, both here and abroad. Others are now running on test tracks. The myriad of styling and engineering features on current GM production cars has put yesterday's dream car into the hands of today's average motorist. And just as it has spearheaded progress in the past, the dream, car will continue to search the future for automotive improvements symbolizing the limitless imagination and creativity of the stylists and engineers of the auto industry."

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1959 Cadillac Cyclone Ahead of Its Time

The two-seat 1959 Cadillac Cyclone was dwarfed by a contemporary, the 1959 Cadillac Series 62 convertible in most respects, but the little show car certainly could hold its own in the fin department.
The two-seat 1959 Cadillac Cyclone was dwarfed by a contemporary, the 1959 Cadillac Series 62 convertible in most respects, but the little show car certainly could hold its own in the fin department.
David Durochik

The rocket ship for the road that was the 1959 Cadillac Cyclone represented Harley Earl's vision of the future. To realize that vision, he enlisted the talents of veteran designer Carl Renner, who recalled his role in the project (coded XP-74) in an interview in the May 1997 issue of Collectible Automobile.

"[In 1958], Mr. Earl appointed me to head Studio IV. My first assignment in Advance IV...was the XP-96, a new Corvette program...Mr. Earl also had me head a personal project he had going...the Cadillac Cyclone," said Renner. "With Advance IV and the Cyclone studio located next to each other, Mr. Earl had a door cut in the wall so I could go from one studio to the next. We finished the Cyclone before Mr. Earl retired [in December 1958]."

Some of the dream cars were built for display only, with no engine or driveline, but with their suspensions adjusted to achieve a normal appearance. Others were meant to be operating vehicles with varying degrees of finish and driveability. The Cyclone was intended to be a completely functional car, and there was some talk around the company that Earl might take this final creation with him to drive in retirement.

As it turned out, he took the Oldsmobile F-88 dream car instead, and for a multitude of good reasons. Though it was graced with high style and dramatic appearance, the 1959 Cadillac Cyclone also contained futuristic features that were untested, untried, and in some ways unattainable, as it included some dreams to which technology had not yet caught up.

The 1959 Cadillac Cyclone was equipped with the new-for-1959 325-bhp, 390-cid Cadillac V-8, driven through a stock Hydra-Matic automatic transmission. It was equipped with a two-speed differential, to allow six speeds forward. A new, low-profile four barrel carburetor was used without an air cleaner to further reduce overall height, but there was a filtered air scoop opening through the hood.

The engine exhaust travelled through dual mufflers located in the engine compartment, next to the engine, to exit through dual ports located in the front fenders ahead of the tires.

An unusual feature was that all the engine-driven accessories such as the air-suspension compressor, power steering pump, generator, water pump, and air-conditioning compressor were mounted in front of the engine, not on top of it, and driven by belts from the crankshaft pulley.

Further, two fans sat in front of all this to bring air through the newly designed aluminum cross-flow radiator. The power brakes used a pressure servo rather than a vacuum type, and drew pressure from the air-ride reserve tank for this purpose. It had variable-ratio Saginaw rotary-valve power steering, a feature that would become a welcome standard on Cadillacs in future years.

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1959 Cadillac Cyclone Troubleshooting

Earl's successor as GM's styling vice president, William Mitchell, had different tastes in design, which affected the Cadillac Cyclone. During his tenure, the fins were radically trimmed and the color was changed to silver.
Earl's successor as GM's styling vice president, William Mitchell, had different tastes in design, which affected the Cadillac Cyclone. During his tenure, the fins were radically trimmed and the color was changed to silver.
David Durochik

When Cadillac Cyclones were being built in the shops at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, small crews worked on them and a great deal of hand finishing was involved. Sometimes what had been created on the drawing board or in the minds of the designers would not translate into reality without a compromise or creative solution.

The engineering genius who most often found the solution in those days was Art Carpenter, a self-taught mechanical and electrical wizard who had started at GM in 1950 and quickly found his way to the special-projects section. His partner was Leonard McLay, who had been with the company since 1942 and had the public relations skills to handle even the most irate executive, as well as the talent to build just about anything.

As was true in any large corporation, they were often up against impossible deadlines to have a car ready for a certain show or opening, and were expected to travel with the finished car to help with setup and troubleshooting.

One of the Cadillac Cyclone's first publicity outings was in early 1959 at the opening of the new Daytona International Speedway in Florida, where U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay was to drive a pace lap with the car. As the Cyclone was being unloaded, the air-suspension sensors decided that full inflation was called for and, to add insult to injury, the automatic door-lock system locked up.

GM officials and the recently retired Earl were on hand for the event, and to say that they were upset would be an understatement. Fortunately, the very men who had translated the designer's dreams into reality had travelled with the car; Carpenter and McLay were able to adjust the complex control system they had invented and return the car to normal in time for the opening ceremonies. The pace lap was driven without further incident and it was all smiles at the photo session afterwards.

Cantankerous air-ride and malfunctioning door locks were the least of the Cyclone's complexities, for it was equipped with an autopilot system that not only regulated the speed, but steered the car, as well. Under the front was a sensor-bar that could follow a guide wire buried in the highway. Talk in those days was that all superhighways of the future would be equipped with such steering strips, which would allow drivers complete relaxation on long trips.

A test track oval with steering wires was set up at the GM proving grounds to try out the Cadillac Cyclone, and reports are that the system worked perfectly. In addition to auto-steering, a radar system built into the front bumper cones acted as a proximity warning system. When an object was detected in front of the car, the first warning came via a flashing light on the dashboard, and a readout on the proximity and stopping distance display window.

Next, the flashing light would be joined by a warning sound that increased in pitch as the object got closer. Finally, before impact, the system would automatically apply the brakes. No one associated with the car ever had the nerve to try out that final part of the system, so it's not known if it worked.

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1959 Cadillac Cyclone Ushers Out an Era

Taillights were another detail included in the redesign of the 1959 Cadillac Cycone. They moved from the deeply concave rear panel to the round bumper pods that gave the car its rocket-ship look.
Taillights were another detail included in the redesign of the 1959 Cadillac Cycone. They moved from the deeply concave rear panel to the round bumper pods that gave the car its rocket-ship look.
David Durochik

Several of the features on the 1959 Cadillac Cyclone would have made it impractical for daily use, the main one being the plexiglass bubble-top. This one-piece canopy was originally vacuum silvered on the inside to reduce glare and heat, but the silver soon peeled off and was not replaced.

There were no windows to roll down, so small rectangular openings in the doors were provided to act as pass-throughs. A sound system broadcast the voices of the car's occupants through speakers hidden in grilles on the front fender tops. When the doors were opened, electric motors raised the canopy a few feet to allow entry or exit-providing all the relays and switches were in the mood to cooperate.

To put the top down and stow it, the entire rear section of the car was released by a cable hidden behind the driver-side gas filler door and manually tilted back out of the way so the canopy could flip over into the rear compartment. The doors opened manually by being pulled back along the rear quarter panels, but the process began with a power assist that first pushed the doors three inches out from the body.

Dream cars, being a combination of what might reasonably be expected on production cars in the next few years mixed with some far-out and futuristic concepts, were promoted and coveted by directors of design as an extension of their own abilities and position.

A number of the Cyclone's features were unfinished as Harley Earl was retiring, but Bill Mitchell, who was moving into the number-one spot at the Design Center, had an agenda of his own, and it didn't necessarily include the Cadillac Cyclone. The flamboyant "space age" would be over, as his preference for a smoother, more conservative look was expressed in the reduced and refined fins of the 1960 GM cars.

The Cadillac Cyclone's fins were cut down in keeping with the trend, the taillights were moved to the bumper ends, and the hubcaps were changed. This briefly extended the usefulness of the car for publicity purposes, but its days were numbered.

McLay remembers being asked to drive the car from Detroit to Flint, Michigan, for a display after the air-ride system had been replaced by coil springs. He soon discovered that no shock absorbers had been fitted to it, and when he returned from this more-than-bouncy trip, he was told that no more money was to be spent on the car. We can read between the lines that Mitchell was going forward with his own ideas and that it was time for Harley Earl's last dream car to be retired to storage.

Fortunately, the Cyclone and a number of other important cars were saved and stored by General Motors. With the renewed interest in this chapter of automotive history, they remain available for display. The Cyclone's fins are cut down, the vacuum silver has long since peeled off of the canopy, and its original pearl white paint has been changed to silver.

But at least it survives to give us a look at that brief moment in the late 1950s when Buck Rogers space-age design bounced off Detroit drawing boards with an outrageous and futuristic look that, although short-lived, was a definite milestone in the evolution of the automobile.

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