Curbside Classic: 1959 Cadillac – False Prophet Of A New Era

(first posted 2/13/2011)     Change is impossible to predict. Who could have predicted that ultimate decade of change, the sixties? That the Beatles would appear, that MLK would have a dream, and that Andy Warhol would recreate a Brillo box? Real change takes conviction and risk taking. In the American automotive scene, a sea change ushering in the new decade took place between the autumns of 1958 and 1960. The two cars that bracket that period perfectly are the 1959 Cadillac and the 1961 Lincoln Continental. One tried to predict the new decade, the other actually shaped it. There’s a big difference between the two. It’s not a mere coincidence that the Continental was called the Kennedy Lincoln. What shall we call the ’59 Cadillac?

I somewhat dreaded finding a ’59 Caddy. It’s one of the ultimate American icons ever, and it’s been adulated, mocked, analyzed, deconstructed and reconstructed endlessly. What can I possibly add? It became a caricature of itself almost from the day it appeared, as well as perhaps the greatest symbol of American exuberance, innocence and…paradise lost? Change can be a bitch.

But I doubt you’ll ever see the rear end of a 2011 Cadillac SRX sticking out from the front wall of a restaurant fifty years from now. So when I finally encountered this ’59, I tossed all that baggage aside and let my inner child out of its mental cage. I was in car heaven, again, and I could have spent hours gazing at this finned creature from outer space, losing myself in its endlessly enthralling details, just as I did on that day I first encountered one on the streets of Innsbruck in 1960.

Just try spending thirty minutes poring over any plastic new car grille; thirty seconds is too long for that. And while we’re losing ourselves in that face, let’s hear a bit of how this car came to be. The ’59 GM cars’ creation story has been oft told, but it’s (hopefully) worth repeating in Cliff Notes form: in August of 1956, GM stylist Chuck Jordan stumbled upon a storage lot full of brand new 1957 Chryslers still cooling off from their birth in the forges of the Jefferson Avenue Plant.

They were part of the radically restyled Chrysler family that styling head Virgil Exner gambled the company on. Trumpeted with the ad headlines of “3 Years Ahead of the Other Two” and “Suddenly it’s 1960”, the ‘57s were Exner’s imagining of the automotive future: longer, lower, wider, glassier and finnier. Let’s add flamboyant, exneruberant, and florid; all taken to astonishing extremes.

Unbeknown to himself, Exner was already laying the seeds of a sea change to come. Having birthed the ‘57s, did he have a vision for were this direction could go when it came time to design the actual 1960 Chryslers? From the disastrous results, obviously not. He couldn’t imagine the real sixties anymore than he could dance The Twist. Longer, lower, wider and finnier can only be taken so far.

But GM styling bought into Exner’s mid-fifties vision of 1960, big time. It was the first time that GM’s vaunted design machine abdicated its leadership role, and ran on the fear of being left behind. Perhaps understandably so, given the internal leadership transition under way at the time: Harley Earl, who created the modern in-house design studio system at GM, was on the way out, due to retire in late 1958. And none too soon: the end of his era was a dead end of overwrought and tasteless bling. His ponderous 1958 models may be endearing in a camp way, but were stylistic duds, especially the top line Cadillacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles.

Chuck Jordan’s “Suddenly it’s 1960” moment had a galvanizing effect on the GM stylists and Bill Mitchell, long slated to take over Earl’s job. A palace coup of sorts arose while Earl was on a long vacation, and when he came back, he was confronted with 1959 designs that were drastically different from the busy worked-over ‘58s he had in mind.  Influenced heavily by Exner’s ’57 Chryslers, the new proposals at least went one or two important step further in imaging 1960: gone (mostly) were the affected heavy side treatments of the Chryslers, with their multiple swooping spears and their two and three tone paint inserts. They were cleaner, but hardly original.

And there was one truly profound and lasting design innovation in these 1959 GM cars: the headlights migrated down from the upper edge of the front end, where essentially every car in the world had them, and were now integrated into the grille directly. It’s not quite as prominent in the Cadillac as some of the others, like this 1959 Olds. It was a radically new front end theme that played a role key role in instigating a global design language revolution. In that one regard, the ’59 Caddy and its GM brethren were genuine prophets.

Earl swallowed hard and embraced the new direction (he had little choice), and his stamp on the final products is still all too obvious. The rounded sides, bubble tops and fins of his beloved Firebirds would find their culmination in the ’59s.

Although the new ’59 proposals had a substantially improved clarity of line and organic cohesiveness, which the clean Cadillac flanks show to best advantage, the need for a degree of continuity was still considered essential by Earl, especially so with the Caddy. Thus very busy front and rear ends bookmark the relatively clean middle. It still had to be instantly recognizable as a Cadillac coming down the street to protect its dominant position in the luxury car field. One can’t help but wonder what the original ’59 proposals looked like before they were Earlized.

Probably a bit less gaudy, but then Mitchell was no revolutionary either. The 1961 GM lineup, the first under his full control, is delightfully light and buoyant, and show his live for crisp knife edges, but the bubble hardtops that had their origins in the first hardtop coupes by Earl in 1949 were still out in full force.

The new 1962 GM hardtops were undoubtedly a concession to Ford’s influential wide C-pillar coupes, and Mitchell’s superb knife-edged 1963 Buick Riviera owes more than a passing nod of the hat to the influential 1961 Continental.

GM’s last minute dash to outdo Exner’s vision for the new decade involved ditching the one-year only 1958 bodies, at a substantial price: all 1959 GM divisions would have to share the same basic body shell. After the long-established triumvirate of A-Body (Chevy & Pontiac) B-Body (Pontiac, Olds and Buick) and C-Body (senior Olds & Buick and Cadillac) hierarchy, that was quite a penalty. Quite likely development money flowing into the new Corvair and its Y-Body offshoots played into that decision.

Yes, the ’59 Body by Fisher was lengthened as needed, spanning everything from the Chevy’s 119” wheelbase to the Caddy’s 130 incher. But everyone had to use the same front door designed by Buick. And that expensive compound-curve windshield and other bubble-top parts undoubtedly interchanged. An interesting tidbit: the DeVille hardtop coupe cost exactly twice as much ($40k in 2010 dollars) as that Impala sports hardtop. Cadillac’s profit margins were written all over those soaring fins.

While the ’59 Cadillac is plenty long overall thanks to that highly aspirational rear end, the afterthought of a passenger compartment is none too roomy. Designer gowns, whose time in the spotlight of fashion is usually as long-lived this Caddy’s fashion statement, are often none too comfy either. Between that huge dog-leg in the windshield, and the low roof; let’s just say there is a world of difference from today’s boxy people-mover pods.

Today’s interiors might be a lot more ergonomic, but they’re dull and dreary compared to this absolutely stunning blaze of black, white and chrome. I’ve got just the matching vintage cashmere black & white hounds-tooth jacket for the drive to the dinner club in the DeVille. Everything hard is made of genuine chrome-plated metal, often attached with exposed plated screws. My idea of deconstructing the ’59 Caddy would be with a Phillips screwdriver.

The front seat is reasonably commodious once my legs have successfully squeezed past that gate-keeper dog leg. The gap between it and the seat is mighty narrow, and this comes from a time when yoga was still almost unheard of. It was another ridiculous affectation of late-fifties absurdity that quickly died along with the fins.

Once behind the wheel, that symphony of black,white and chrome quickly dissipates all thoughts of ergonomic shortcomings. Drop that long chrome lever into Interstellar Overdrive, wait for the afterburners to spool up, and set the controls for the heart of the sun. With regard to the imminent rise of psychedelia, the Caddy did successfully predict the sixties after all.

Just don’t fly too close to the sun if you have rear passengers. That sloping rear solar collector forces my head to bow, and not in veneration. Sitting back there on a sunny day is inconceivable without an astronaut’s liquid-cooled space suit. Earl’s perpetual source of inspiration, fighter planes, involved some serious compromises. No wonder the ’58 T-Bird’s cocoon roof revolutionized the industry.

Even hunched over and on fire, the rear passengers can at least dispose of their neck hair ashes in the beautifully finished and ample ashtray, and enjoy the nice detailing that the cabin exhibits in every direction.

And in case one finds oneself desperately trying to find some privacy in the glass bubble from the public’s peering eyes by hiding on the floor, the view from down there still affords visual delights. This kind of attention to detail of every nook and cranny is what really separated the boys from Bill Mitchell’s Mad Men.

Watchful of my knee caps, I slide out and immerse myself some more with that mind-boggling grille-work. Those rows and rows of die-cast bullet clips are op-art. What was Mitchell feeding his stylists?

Prostrating myself in veneration to this die-cast and chrome altar, I have a changed perspective. From here, they look like an array of glittering rockets. It may not come as a surprise to know that Sputnik had just been launched about the time this grille was being designed. If Kennedy had been riding around in one of these, the Cuban Missile Crisis might have ended up very differently.

Those massive twin jet intakes nacelles with their protective covers designed to look like turn signals are straight from a B 47. There is nothing about this car that would suggest that anything but a gleaming alloy jet-turbine engine is residing under that jet-smooth hood. We’re not going to pop that bubble. Opening the hood of this car is an utter violation of everything it so self-consciously projects, and I’m not going to spoil it by showing you its crude and banal contents; if you must, click here, and here.

My allotted thirty minutes of grille-gazing is up, bedazzled, I stagger back into the street, but without fear of being run over. Why? Every car predictably slows to a crawl or stops. You want attention? Buy one of these. You can’t go wrong investment wise, at least over the long haul. This car’s place in history is absolutely secured, and on a pretty lofty perch for a mass-produced vehicle. Just please don’t let it be a pink convertible, especially a fake four door one.

Perhaps that was my trepidation in finding a ’59 Caddy: that it would be something like that or an over-chromed Eldorado. Yes, guys, that Sixty Special really needed those two extra side intakes for the additional JATO rockets it was blessed with.

Instead, I stumbled into my favorite body style, and dressed as a DeVille no less. The four doors really needed to have those fins clipped a bit, like the ’60 models, but the two door hardtop wears them proudly. And white too, my preferred color, especially for many GM cars of the sixties. The ’59 Caddy just qualifies for that, and its clean lines and chrome accents are set off at their best here. A white monochrome Caddy from the any other year on the fifties looks like an ambulance sedan. Atlas Rocket White, I believe it was called.

I can totally lose myself in this rolling sculpture. It belongs at MoMA, although they’re probably too stuffy to have the Cisitalia share its stand. If Warhol had cast a ’59 Caddy in acrylic, it would undoubtedly be sharing space with his plywood Brillo boxes there. Gaudy and gauche is genuine art, as long as it’s been recreated by someone deemed to be a genuine artist.

The 1961 Continental may have paved the way and shown us the future (think Chrysler 300, among others) while the 1959 Cadillac was an evolutionary dead end, but what a way to go out, in (or out of) style.

Partly, that was due to circumstances beyond its maker’s control. A nasty recession hit in 1958, and suddenly small was beautiful. That recession was the catalyst for the sea change that had been brewing for some time: a big chunk of the population suddenly saw that the forces propelling the big finned Detroit barges was utterly unsustainable. And the ’59 Cadillac just confirmed that: everyone knew there was absolutely no way to top it. So why buy the last dinosaur, when everyone was snapping up Ramblers and Falcons?

The ’61 Continental was conceived right in depth of that recession, and that is reflected in its smaller, trimmer size, and an actual reduction in horsepower. Blasphemy; for making a mockery of ever bigger fins and more horsepower. Look at these two cars, and you see a sea change of consciousness. The fifties had the lowest income disparity this country had ever seen, and the relatively “rich” apparently felt no reason to hide from the view of the slightly less rich while riding in their glass-bubble Cadillacs.

Kennedy cut tax rates, which had been as high as 91% on top earners. The Lincoln was subdued, understated, more expensive and much more exclusive, especially in how it hid its occupants from view. We know where that trend has taken us.

And we all know how the ’59 Cadillac story actually ends: never as tidy and predictable as we might want. Gas got cheaper and cheaper all through the sixties, and the seventies ushered in a new round of Bulgemobiles, minus the fins. By 1977, the Lincoln Town Car was now the dinosaur, and the downsized Caddies were a trim new smaller size. Change or get left behind; some things never change.