They say cars reflect their times, and if so then the Cadillac of 1959 is an example of a time when consumption was good, life was simpler and much more fun, and long before any fuel crisis, before environmentalists, before congestion charging, and when cars would routinely be in excess of 20ft in length. The world wasn’t a crowded place back then and in America, the people were more than happy to take up every inch of space they could get!
The era from which the ’59 Cadillac was born was one of the American dream, Elvis Presley rocked the charts, petrol prices were only 15 cents a gallon and the country was obsessed with the Space Age, rockets, missiles, trips to the Moon and Buck Rodgers. Technology was also on the up, and cars reflected this greatly in advanced designs and amazing works of gadgetery. No expense was spared, and nothing went to waste.
The story of the 59 Cadillac begins with revolutionary car designer and General Motors chief stylist Harley Earl, a man who had been obsessed with the crisp, streamlined curves of the P-38 Lighting Fighter/Bombers of World War II, and who went out of his way to translate those aviation looks onto his motorcars. One of the first cars to take on this amazing new look was the Cadillac Eldorado of 1957, with long sweeping fins, chrome on all surfaces and the kind of space modern day People Carriers could only dream of. Chrome, although only ornamental, was an essential part of the car’s selling point, the more chrome added, the more expensive and yet more desirable it would be.
Early concepts for the Cadillac Series 62 however were even too brash for the standards of the day, and chrome had been layered on so thick that the car appeared to be sinking under the weight of it. Thus the car had to become a little more restrained, and after taking a gander at the competition, most notably the Chrysler Forward Look, a machine that was able to marry magnificent space-age styling with enough restraint to keep it from looking too brash.
With a final style now in mind, this massive, massive machine of 20ft in length, 2 tonnes in weight, 6ft in width and sporting 42 inch long fins was launched in 1959. The car became very much the embodiment of mass-consumerism at its peak. Words such as ‘restraint’ and ‘constraint’ simply didn’t exist, America was leading the way in terms of technology and the people were in the mood for a piece of the action. The Cadillac of 1959 was powered by a 6.4L OHV V8, with a fuel consumption of 8 miles to the gallon! This car makes the modern day Range Rover look like a Gee-Whizz in terms of economy, but back in the day no one really cared, America’s oil resources were there to be exploited and exploited they were. Petrol was so cheap back then you could get change from $3!
The car was also a technical marvel, with Power Seats, Power Steering, Air Conditioning, leather seats and a sales brochure the size of the Bible! It was essentially America’s version of the Rolls Royce.
The car however was made primarily for looks, still dripping with chrome, but not as much as had been desired by the Cadillac stylists. It wasn’t exactly nimble though, but then again it didn’t need to be as the intention was to drive the car at 100mph in a straight line across the American continent. Handling and speed such as this was endemic of cars from this period, be it the ’59 Cadillac or the Ford Edsel it would act just about the same.
But sadly as the 1960’s rolled in that consumptive era of spending cash like water ended suddenly and painfully. The world changed and became much more serious, and the Cadillac of 1959 looked very out of place as styles and tastes changed to ones of more restraint and underplay. The next generation Cadillac 62 toned down the chrome and giant fins until there was very little left, and the previous generation was seen as a fatuous throwback to a bygone age of almost criminal consumerism. The dreamworld of the 1950’s had woken up to a very serious and saddening reality. America’s Rolls Royce fell from grace quickly, and production of the downplayed Series 62 ended in 1964.
Perhaps the most famous tombstone for the ’59 Cadillac is Cadillac Ranch, erected in 1974 and consisting of several Cadillac cars from 1949 to 1963 being half buried with their forlorn fins poking helplessly skyward from the ground, a sad reminder of the evolution of a car, and the birth and death of the American dream.
Today though the Cadillac has become an absolute classic by every definition of the word. People no longer see this magnificent machine as something of greed or consumption, but as a symbol of a simpler time when we were still getting to grips with this new technological world. It’s not a machine of shame, but more like a wonderful dream, and once we awaken from the dream we try so hard to get it back. The Cadillac Series 62 of 1959 is now one of the most desirable classics to come out of America, and is still a head turner even 66 years after the first ones coasted onto the California Highways.