(first posted 3/27/2013) Trying to pick the best Cadillac is an exercise in futility, or even worse, masochism. I’ve obsessed over the brand since my earliest encounter with one in Innsbruck, and have repeatedly played the game of which vintage Cadillac I’d like to have in my garage. That imaginary Caddy has been a notorious shape-shifter, but in the end it settles down to a battle between the 1948-1949 fastback coupe or one of these ’54 – ’56 sedans. And why does the more dramatic (and highly collectible) coupe lose? Because of Mrs. Welch.
In 1963, I was in fifth grade and obsessed with cars (easier to get brochures on than girls). Cars from the mid-fifties already seemed quaint and old-fashioned, given the rapid styling changes that had occurred in the previous years. My favorite cars that year were the Riviera and the Grand Prix. But whenever I saw Mrs. Welch’s baby blue ’54 Caddy sedan gently burbling down the street towards Lincoln School, my heart jumped a bit and my pace quickened.
Initially, it was by association: Mrs. Welch was a substitute teacher, whom we saw more than usual that year due to our sickly regular teacher. And did I love every bit of her–and believe me, there was a lot of Mrs. Welch to love. She was built just like her Caddy: big, brawny, and bulging. Not in an overtly sexy way, but dripping with self-confidence and totally comfortable in her (ample) skin. And the utter opposite of stuck-up, like these two. It made her attractive in an unexpected way. And she completely spoiled us.
She couldn’t be bothered with a lesson plan, or pretty much any formal academics at all. I just remember her reading Pecos Bill books to us for hours on end: my idea of school heaven. But that wasn’t all: One day, she decided to take us on a field trip to her farm. A couple of Moms showed up with wagons, but I was on the short list for the big Caddy, and it was a deeply memorable experience.
It was like being invited into her bedroom to sit on her big soft bed and have her read Pecos Bill to me in private. I just can’t think of another car ride where I felt more secure and happy; this was the ultimate cocoon within which to insulate oneself from a fifth grader’s profound troubles. These Caddys truly live up to that overused descriptor “tank”; they simply exude solidity and security. From the thick gauge of the steel of their bodies, to the solid chromed castings used for levers, handles and trim on the inside, to the tall and sturdy sofas standing in for seats. Eminently comfortable, even for a passel of fifth graders and Mrs. Welch.
The biggest mistake Detroit ever made was to make their subsequent cars lower, longer and wider. This vintage Caddy is just right: there’s very little front overhang and not too much in the back. Most of all, it was still tall, with the kind of upright seating position and easy of entry/exit that quickly deteriorated with the next generation and kept getting worse. Not to mention the highly questionable tacky styling of the late fifties.
These cars have a stature that only Rolls Royce and Bentley understood the value of and, for the most part, made sure to keep. No wonder SUVs replaced the big cars. And although some details of their styling can be questioned, they had an integrity and relatively cleanness that has withstood the test of time. Yes, the front end with its “Dagmar” tits was certainly baroque, but not yet downright kitschy.
And it was the last time that big, rounded booty would be there in its natural state, before it was adulterated with ridiculous pointy protuberances.
That vent is the air intake for the huge air conditioning plant that sits in the trunk, under the rear window. If you look carefully, you can see the outlet and the base of the Plexiglas duct that feeds cold air to vents in the ceiling above the windows (sorry, I forgot to shoot it properly). These were expensive options, and it wasn’t until 1956 or so that Nash finally integrated A/C into the heating system.
I now understood why Mrs. Welch hung on to her aging Caddy: She just wouldn’t have looked (or felt) right in a little Monza, Karmann Ghia, or Chevy II like the other teachers drove. And if Pecos Bill had driven a car, it too would have been one of these, a rag top though, with steer horns on the front. These cars epitomized the American confidence to take on anything that life could dish out in the mid fifties, even a bunch of fifth graders.
The gentle burble that emitted through those twin exhausts was delectable: just the right balance of delicacy mixed with a hint of the power that murmured deep under the hood. It was more like a big power boat’s sound than a car’s, and appropriately so. The fifties were the great horsepower-war years for the premium brands, as Cadillac, Lincoln and Imperial duked it out while upping the ante each year. Cadillac’s superb V8 started out with 160 hp in 1949, but between 1951 and 1957 it more than doubled its output, to 325 hp. This ’54 has a 230 hp version of the 331 CID engine, hooked up to the venerable four-speed Hydramatic: about as perfect as it got, and for quite a while.
In 1954, this Caddy offered a combination of comfort, power and features unparalleled in the world. That its price of $3,933 ($32,000 adjusted) made it available to an increasingly large segment of America’s population was simply inconceivable to Europeans at the time–especially so the idea that a simple Iowa farmer’s wife who substitute-taught to bring in a little extra income that allowed her to drive exactly the car that perfectly reflected her physiognomy and personality. That’s a priceless form of freedom.
PS: GM’s Greatest Hits are numbered according to their original publication date, and not ranked by “greatness”.