Henry Ford’s second venture into automobile manufacture, the Henry Ford Motor Company, was reorganized after Ford’s departure at the end of 1902 following policy disagreements by an engineer who had worked for the Springfield Armory during the Civil War and later for Colt. Alfred Sloan, the man who made Durant’s dream for General Motors come true, said of this engineer, ‘Quality was his God’ – something future customers would not only believe but frequently depend on.
Henry Leland had been technical adviser and engine supplier to Ransom Olds and then a director of the re-formed ex-Ford company, now named Cadillac after the founder of Detroit. The first Cadillac of 1902 was powered by a single-cylinder Ford engine, but Leland presided over much in the way of technical advance, and 12 years later his own V8 engine became the standard Cadillac powerplant.
Cadillac’s reputation for excellence was built quickly, and although it was Ford who introduced the auto industry to mass production it was Leland who first began to standardize vehicle components (from one manufacturer) to the point at which they were interchangeable. Cadillac were first with both electric lights and electric starting, and began to rival Packard as the most prestigious American vehicle.
Following the Crash, Cadillac – now minus Leland, who had left to form Lincoln in 1917 – introduced one Of the greatest American cars of all time, the V16 Sedan de Ville. The chassis, at 148 inches, was nothing if not luxurious, and the rest of the car followed the same theme. Coachwork on all of them was by Fleetwood, whose work was by now exclusive to Cadillac, and made the most of the flowing grace of the fenders to compensate for what was of necessity a large and squarish body behind a vast, imposing grille. Convertible versions were even better looking.
The engine was one of the better creations in the history of Detroit. Designed by Ernest Seaholm, it was a 45-degree V16 454ci which produced 165hp at only 3400rpm. Aside from the fact that the engine was so low-revving, the quiet smoothness was aided by hydraulic tappets. Two updraft carburetors were located outside the blocks and were exhaust-heated by the dual-header system.
The V16 stayed in production unchanged from 1931 to 1938, during which time a respectable 3863 examples were built. This was no bad record for a pretentious car which was by no means cheap; many of the companies which had survived the Crash were finding the Depression years just as tough, and even those who aimed for the still-wealthy top end of the market were having difficulty. With the security of General Motors around them, Cadillac continued to thrive while the smaller independents went to the wall; in 1938 another V16 engine was introduced.
Unlike the original this was not an overhead valve unit and, although it produced slightly more power from a smaller 431ci, was generally held to be inferior in most respects. It delivered 185hp, featured dual distributors, water pumps and carburetors and had nine main bearings at the heart of the 135-degree block. Only 511 of these cars were built between 1938 and the end of 1940, and a trifling 61 of them were made in that final year before the whole of the US auto industry gave its full attention to the war effort.
By the time the thirties drew to a close the big V16 engine was somewhat dated and the chassis was, by any standards, huge. The trend in the industry was downward in size, both for cars and their engines, and it is doubtful whether the V16 would have lasted very much longer had production not been terminated by the war.
Postwar Cadillacs were still built to the same high standard – their slogan had been ‘Standard of the World’ since the days of Henry Leland – and were, incredibly, still built on almost the same scale. The Series 75 grew from 136 inches in 1945 to 146 in 1950 and 149 inches in 1954, but that was the Cadillac nine-passenger stretchout for state occasions. The Series 70 Eldorado Brougham, introduced in 1957, began life on a modest 126-inch chassis but in 1959 became the Cadillac Eldorado in three forms, the Seville hardtop coupé, the Brougham hardtop sedan and the Biarritz convertible coupe, all riding a 130-inch chassis. Cadillac said later that the 1959 Eldorados were the most ostentatious cars they ever made, and while that statement may have been entirely truthful it was still not completely accurate: the 1959 Eldorado was the most ostentatious car anybody ever made.
1959 was the year in which almost the entire US auto industry discovered fins and applied them with great enthusiasm to all their products, none more so than Cadillac. The Eldorado had rear fins which were large enough to grant inflight stability to the largest rocket yet launched from Cape Canaveral.
The front aspect was no less dominating, the hood itself a vast area of sheet steel flowing into quad headlamps and a rambling honeycomb grille dominated by a huge chrome bumper. And although the whole Cadillac range featured hi-rise rear fins the Eldorado, as their highest-price model (excluding the monster Series 75 formal limousines), had the biggest. It also featured the high-output version of the standard Cadillac 390ci V8 motor, putting out 345 instead of 325hp.
The air suspension introduced on the Brougham in 1957 had, by means of an air compressor and a piston- operated air ‘spring’ on each wheel, given Cadillac the first self-leveling air suspension on a passenger car which took in air from outside rather than the closed system which GM had offered on other vehicles. It had not been a marked success, though, mainly because the air reservoirs at each wheel leaked, and many were replaced soon after purchase.
Other standard equipment on the Eldorado was available throughout the whole Cadillac range, and makes impressive reading even now. Cruise control was commonplace and signal-seeking radios were also fitted. Other features which didn’t make it into production but which had been tried out on the 1959 Cyclone experimental car (which if anything had bigger fins than the Eldorado) included a sensing system which raised the convertible top and closed the side windows if it began to rain.
The Eldorado was priced according to its immense size and specification. At a time when Lincoln had nothing over $6000 and Chevrolet’s typical prices were less than $3000, the Eldorado range began at $7401, again only exceeded by the $10,000 Series 75. But not even the big limo could match the Eldorado Brougham for price – a staggering $13,075. The high price of the Brougham was due entirely to the fact that for 1959 production of this model had been handed over to Pininfarina; the parts were shipped and assembled in Italy, and whole cars were sent back. Because of the way it was done the cost was astronomical; a mere 99 of them were built in 1959, and 101 the following year.
Despite their huge cost, and although hindsight has lent the whole range an elegance and grace which was perhaps not completely evident at the time, the Biarritz Convertible is the most impressive of the three Eldorados. It is the stuff of film and television, it is the huge pink car featured in just about every cartoon series of the late fifties and early sixties, it is the sort of car movie moguls gave to starlets and genuine screen goddesses gave to their friends at Christmas. Paul Getty owned a 1959 Eldorado – but his was, naturally, the Seville hardtop; at no time in its history was the Biarritz a car to be taken seriously.
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