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

(First posted 2/13/2011. Expanded and substantially revised 2/22/2017. Images now larger; click for full size) 

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, that Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon, 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.

I somewhat dreaded finding a ’59 Caddy. It’s one of the ultimate American icons ever, and it’s been adulated, mocked, 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 (did, actually) 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 1959. An alien starship has landed, once again. And I’m ready to be taken away, once again.

Just try spending thirty minutes poring over any plastic new car grille fascia; thirty seconds is too long for that. And while we’re losing ourselves in that expensive orthodontia, let’s recollect a bit of how this car came to be. The 1959 GM cars’ creation myth has been oft told, but it’s (hopefully) worth repeating in Cliff Notes form one more time: In August of 1956, GM stylist Chuck Jordan stumbled upon a back lot with 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 “Three 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 where this direction could go when it came time to design the actual 1960 Chryslers? From the 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 sad 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 (above) and Oldsmobiles. Bulgemobiles, one and all.

As this early clay for the 1959 Buick shows, the initial direction, as guided by Earl, was more of the same: heavy, bulky, overwrought and way too fussy. Ironically, the lack of fins actually predicted the 60s much better than the final ’59s.

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 design proposals that were drastically different from the baroque, worked-over ‘58s he had in mind. Some of the initial new concepts, like these Pontiacs, were all-too obviously paying homage to Exner’s ’57 Chryslers.

The stylists were apparently fed hallucinogens in their vision quest of a new decade.

And that applied to the rear ends as well as the fronts. And everything in between. Although the third dorsal fin of this Buick concept didn’t make it into production, the rest of its body became the one that Earl and the execs coalesced on.

Here’s a further evolution of the theme, that eventually gave the basic form to the ’59 Cadillac. The body is now almost identical to the final production version, but Buick still hadn’t quite given up on the dorsal fin, as well as the “twin bubble” roof. Seriously?

The Buick (after a bit of sanitizing, or is it “saneitizing”) thus became the template for the rest of the divisions, and they had to essentially adopt its body shell and adapt it for their respective cars.

The new proposals, as these Cadillac full scale renderings show, 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 tone paint inserts. The Chryslers were the jumping off point, and the GM stylists jumped as far as they could, in their efforts to stay ahead of them. But it was ultimately more a matter of outdoing them at their game rather than a genuine revolution. There’s a difference.

In the case of Cadillac, the mission was particularly challenging, as the new ’57 Imperial was not just a gussied up Chrysler, but had a number of unique and advanced design elements, including the first use of curved side glass, and a more ambitious front end that brought the headlights further down from their historical high perch. It’s quite obvious the Cadillac ended up copying the Imperial’s front ebd design to a considerable extent, especially in the eyebrows over the headlights.

But with the other GM divisions, that migration downwards of the headlights went even further, until they were now fully integrated into the sweep of the horizontal grille itself. This was a significant and lasting change. This rendering is by Irv Rybicki for the 1959 Olds grille.

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 GM cars and its offshoots, like the 1960 Corvair, 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 now 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 perhaps to best advantage, the need for a degree of continuity was still considered essential by Earl, especially so with the Cadillac. Thus very busy front and rear ends bookmark its 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. As much as the final cars were changed due to the “palace revolt”, they were still guided to completion by Earl. How might they have looked if he had retired a year earlier?

Probably a bit less gaudy, but then Mitchell wasn’t exactly a revolutionary either. The 1961 GM lineup, the first under his full control, is delightfully light and buoyant, and show his love for crisp knife edges which would soon come to dominate, 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. This was prophetic, for better or for worse.

An interesting tidbit: the DeVille hardtop coupe cost exactly twice as much ($45k in 2015 dollars) as that Impala sports hardtop. Cadillac’s profit margins were written all over those soaring fins.

Yes, the ’59 Body by Fisher was lengthened as needed, spanning everything from the Chevy’s 119” wheelbase to the Caddilac’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.

While the ’59 Cadillac is plenty long overall thanks to that highly aspirational rear end, the afterthought of a passenger compartment is actually 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 in my closet 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-head 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. This is not personal luxury.

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 shade, or 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 of the space capsule 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 long, smooth hood. We’re not going to pop that bubble. Opening the engine compartment of this car is an utter violation of everything it so self-consciously and desperately 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 and across 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 this or an over-chromed Eldorado. Yes, guys, that Sixty Special Sedan, the most formal model in the line-up, really, really needed all that extra chrome and 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 barely 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 keep losing 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 Caddilac 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 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. Books like John Keats “The Insolent Chariots” (1958) tapped into this new zeitgeist.

And the ’59 Cadillac just confirmed what was obvious: everyone knew there was absolutely no way to top it. So why buy the last dinosaur, when everyone was snapping up imports, Larks and Ramblers?

The ’61 Continental was conceived right in the depth of that recession, and that is reflected in its smaller, trimmer size, and an actual reduction in horsepower thanks to a measly two-barrel carb. Blasphemy; for making a mockery of ever bigger fins and more horsepower. Look at this car, and you see a sea change of consciousness. The fifties had the lowest income disparity this country has 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.

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. But that all came crashing to another sea-change, thanks to forces far from home. By 1977, the Lincoln Town Car was now the dinosaur, and the downsized Caddies were a trim new smaller size.

And now a start-up company’s electric car with autonomous capability is the best-selling large luxury car. How could have predicted that in 1999?

Change, or get left behind; some things never change.

Related:

CC 1965 Lincoln Continental: The Last Great American Luxury Car

SIA Article by Michael Lamm: GM’s Far-Out ’59s, When Imagination Ran Rampant  Part 1   Part 2