Curbside Classic: 1965-66 Cadillac Sedan DeVille – The King’s Last Stand

(first posted 3/16/2012)    When you look at this land yacht, do you see a Queen Mary or do you see the Titanic? I see a little bit of both when I look at 1965-68 Cadillacs: there’s still the magic, but something is starting to go ever so slightly wrong.

Cadillac was at its legendary pinnacle in the early through mid 1960s, considered the choice far and wide as the best choice for your luxury buying dollar. With strength, style and even a decent amount of substance, you could really say that early 1960s Cadillacs were the standard to measure luxury cars to.  That amount of clout allowed Cadillac to get away with minor missteps like the short deck Park Avenue sedan above.

Being number #1 in the luxury field, while being at the top of the General Motors dynasty when General Motors was still at the top of the world gave room for Cadillac to play it safe when it was redesigned along with all B and C body full sized General Motors cars for 1965.  But therein lies one sign of complacency that started the seeds of ruin for Cadillac.

While this futuristic mid 1960s Concept would have gone completely over the heads of the motoring public, other possible innovations were left on the design table or in the engineering lab.

One of interesting note were the series of prototype V-12 engines developed between 1962 through 1964, which would have been a showcase in the 1967 Eldorado. For a variety of reasons, the program was scrapped. Front wheel drive was innovative enough, one guesses, for one part of the Cadillac empire.

Cadillac had probably learned far too of an expensive lesson with the Eldorado Brougham in the later half of the 1950s to really be bothered with being a technological tour de force for all automobiles. General Motors, as a rule was becoming more conservative about doling out serious innovations to its regular cars. Relative failures like the Corvair, the Aluminum Block V-8 and oddities like the Dynaflow and the Pontiac Tempest’s “rope-drive” were phased out in favor of mundane technology perfected.

And why mess with a successful formula? This advertisement wasn’t as over the top as it might seem in nearly 50 years hindsight.  Cadillacs indeed held their resale value better than just about any domestic car based upon a combination of image and deserved reputation. A six-way luxury sedan showdown in Car & Driver magazine ranked the Fleetwood tested as second, only to the vastly more-expensive Mercedes 600. Not only was that a ranking ahead of its two domestic rivals, but also ahead of Rolls Royce.

But another contemporary review from Road Test Magazine brought up a sore point: What did you really get with a Cadillac that you didn’t get in a range topping Oldsmobile Ninety Eight or Buick Electra 225? A few snide remarks about sliding workmanship that was not any better than its less pricey siblings might have stung a little.

Also, both 1965 and 1966 were excellent sales years for Cadillac, with both years coming close to 200,000 Cadillacs coming off the line. But one of the benefits of luxury is exclusivity, and DeVilles were more common than Mercury full sized cars in these years. Also, the price of a new Cadillac hadn’t dramatically increased since the beginning of the 1960s, to the point that they were $1,000 or less above the base price of the best full sized Medium priced cars before you added options.

As we are well aware, the seeds for the great luxury sea change that came in a tidal wave in the late 1970s started with the premium price many of the well to do plunked down on a variety of Mercedes Benzes and their meticulous craftmanship and aura of old world wealth. But underneath that little engineering features like 4 wheel disc brakes and fuel injection where simple ways Cadillac could have taken heed to the engineering trends that were slowly passing them by.

What did Cadillac offer as a engineering innovation for 1966? Heated Seats. All fine and dandy and luxurious (just like the addition of climate control for 1964) but how hard would it have been to substitute those drum brakes for at least one set of disc brakes for the front wheels to keep up with the nearly 5,000lb curb weight and best power to weight ratio in the Luxury field?

(Un) fortunately Cadillac had a good 10 years left to really rest on the laurels surrounding its crown. Improvements for the rest of the 60s included larger displacements for the sturdy V8 (that ate away at the “advantage” of 12-16mpg you could expect from Cadillacs earlier in the decade) and automatic level control suspension.

It would be a few years before the expected feature content of luxury cars fully made it to those Mercedes Benzes, but as soon as power seats and an effortless V8 became part of German recipe book, the DeVille was doomed. The workmanship slide continued into the early 1970s, as the cars grew more monstrous in size and more excessive than the 1950s cartoons Cadillac had graciously been stepping away from during the 1960s.

Little did this King know that it would soon have to give up the throne. Being at the top of the world allowed it to not realize this until too late. To you I present the blissfully unaware last great mainstream Cadillac Sedan.

Laurence Jones now writes about vintage cars at his blog, Dynamic Drives.