Skip to comments.Tail fin guided Caddy down road of success CLASSICS: Height of flamboyance or just magnificent?
Posted on 04/30/2007 5:07:27 AM PDT by Chi-townChief
There were some pretty outrageous cars in the late 1950s, but the 1959 Cadillac takes the cake mainly because of its enormous size, glitzy chrome trim and -- most of all -- soaring tail fins.
More than anything, Americans think tail fins of all shapes and sizes characterize the flamboyant autos of an optimistic and increasingly confident country in the 1950s. Why not have outlandish tail fins on the most prestigious U.S. car when America had new rock 'n' roll music, color television and Jupiter space rockets?
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Some auto collectors, however, regard the 1959 Caddy as that decade's most magnificent auto. A regular Series 62 convertible that cost $5,455 in 1950s dollars thus is now valued at $83,850 and an Eldorado Biarritz convertible model originally priced at $7,401 is worth $134,550.
Many collectors -- especially those from Japan -- paid over-the-top prices for 1959 Cadillacs during the collector car boom of the late 1980s. That was partly because they thought the 1959 Cadillac, especially the convertible version, was the epitome of late-1950s American kitsch.
Besides its tail fins, the 1959 Cadillac's lavish color-keyed interiors with a jukebox dashboard helped make it stand out from the get-go.
The 1959 Cadillac had that decade's highest tail fins, which the automaker would trim for 1960, figuring that enough was enough -- and that its luxury car needed a more discreet appearance. By 1965, Cadillac tail fins completely vanished.
Chrysler Corp. head stylist Virgil Exner stole design leadership from an overconfident General Motors in 1957.
After seeing Chrysler's rival all-new 1957 Imperial with its large fins, Cadillac worried that the 1959 Imperial might gain too much on it.
Because of a three-year lead time, Cadillac actually began work on the 1959 Cadillac in 1956, when Exner's tail fins first began appearing on Chrysler Corp.'s Plymouth, Dodge, Chrysler, Imperial and DeSoto model lines.
Caddy panicked, although it was so far ahead of its few rivals in the late 1950s that there was no chance that the Imperial could begin to approach its high sales, which it never did.
GM's flamboyant Harley Earl was the veteran head of GM styling when the 1959 Cadillac was being styled, although he retired in 1958, when the car came out. Earl loved fast airplanes, and the first Caddy fins were inspired by the then-secret Lockheed Lightning P-38 fighter airplane he saw with GM stylists in 1941.
The first Cadillac fins were subtle but gave definition to the rear of a car for the first time, and cheap add-on fins soon were sold by auto parts outlets for cars of lesser stature than Cadillac.
As years passed, the fins grew more prominent and gaudier, although Cadillac's special 1955 Eldorado model was the first to have really big fins, nicknamed "shark fins."
But those fins didn't compare with the 1959 Cadillac's fins, which were towering, thin-section items put on nearly all Cadillacs. They had a pod at mid-height that tapered to pairs of elongated, pointed taillights. They put on quite a show at night when brakes were applied and looked the wildest on top-down convertible models.
The rest of the 1959 Cadillac's styling was bold enough to match its fins.
For instance, there was a big, chromed grille, four headlights and even a rear "grille" below the trunk that looked like a copy of the front grille. Mercy.
Styling was more curvaceous because Cadillac could use a new GM "C-body." Hardtop models had a sweeping new roofline that made these long models look even longer. And all 1959 Cadillacs were quite long.
Most had a 130-inch wheelbase (distance between axles), compared with the 115.6-inch wheelbase of the 2007 Cadillac DTS, the automaker's largest current auto. (The huge Cadillac Escalade SUV also has a 130-inch wheelbase.) The Cadillac Series 75 nine-passenger sedan had a whopping 149.8-inch wheelbase.
In all, though, the 1959 Cadillac wasn't outstanding. Power steering was improved, and the car's big 390-cubic-inch V-8 was pretty good, generating 325 horsepower in most models and 345 horsepower in the Eldorado.
But acceleration wasn't very fast because 1959 Cadillacs weighed 4,690 to 5,570 pounds.
There also were rust problems and front-end vibration and chatter, not to mention rather mediocre fit and finish and materials that didn't match old Cadillac standards. Few ordered the air bag suspension system, which was a bust.
In all, though, the 1959 Cadillac was a smooth, comfortable, prestigious cruiser for the new high-speed interstate highways. Fuel economy wasn't a problem because they were practically giving away gasoline, and the Cadillac's fuel economy actually was surprisingly good.
In retrospect, it can be argued that the 1959 Cadillac was ideal for its time. Some folks saved a lifetime to buy a Cadillac, and the 1959 model gave them everything they wanted -- and then some.
A fine and distinctively beautiful automobile.
That’s what I’m talking about!!
The delivery scheduled meant that I could spend most of the day in SF. After cruising North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf, I decide to check out Haight-Ashbury.
Not knowing the city, I checked out the map and found a street that ran out there. Well, as I drove, the area got darker and darker. "free Huey Newton" and "Black Power" signs appeared more and more frequently. And, here I was, a Honky in a pink '59 Caddy hardtop". After a bit, the car in front of me stops in the middle of the block and the people start jawing with a dude standing in front of a bar. with the traffic and parked cars there was nowhere I could go. Anywhere else I might have honked the horn, but not wanting be looked at as a Honky giving a Brother a bad time, I just stayed cool. Eventually the dude from the bar saunters over and hops in their car. So, once again, I was off to Haight-Ashbury... but that's another story!
Gas in 1959 cost about $1.50/gallon in today's money. This is not exactly giving it away.
Given significantly lower wages at the time, it is likely that an average person had to work longer to buy a gallon of gas in 1959 than today.
Seems the guy was ripping up and down the few paved streets in the area until a local parked his '53 Chevy behind the Superbird. The local had built a similar wing attached to the trunk of his Chevy with a huge Plymouth painted on the rear quarter panel.
He was rewarded with free drinks for his efforts! The Plymouth owner quietly slipped out of town!
Contrary to what some on this forum think, cars back then were generally slower, less reliable, less comfortable, and less safe.
But they sure were better looking.