I ran across this ad for the new 1941 Cadillac Series 60, which effectively replaced the LaSalle and lowered the entry price for the brand. It got my wheels spinning: What was the cheapest Caddy ever, adjusted for inflation? And how did the price premium of a Cadillac versus a Chevrolet change over the decades?
After a bit of time compiling base prices of low-end Cadillacs and Chevys, and then spending a bit of time with my preferred inflation calculator, the answer is at hand, in a spreadsheet as well as in a chart to make it all the more obvious. And no, the Cimarron was not the cheapest Cadillac.
Here’s the numbers, and a couple of caveats. I compared base 2-door coupes from both brands from 1930 – 1951. For 1959, I used a Bel Air 2-door sedan, as that was much more popular. And for 1973 – 2002, I upped that to a base Impala (Caprice in 1992) coupe or sedan, as that was by far the best selling/only version.
So the 1941 Cadillac was the cheapest ever. And the smallest premium for a Cadillac over a Chevy was in 1973, at only 54%. This corresponds to a time starting in about 1967 or so when Cadillac started gunning for all-out volume, and it really showed, both in increased sales and cheaper-feeling cars, especially the interiors.
Note that inflation adjustment does not mean that a $65k 1930 Cadillac was actually as affordable as a $65k car today, or even several decades ago. Inflation accounts for prices of goods and services; real incomes rose in excess of that, especially in the post war era through 1973.
This means that the 1941 Cadillac may have been “cheapest” in dollar terms, but not in terms of income. In 1941, the average annual wage for a man was $956, so it took the equivalent of 1.4 years’ of earnings to buy the Cadillac. By 1973, average household income was $12,157, meaning it only took the equivalent of 0.5 year’s of earning to buy the Cadillac. I didn’t have time to look up other years, but my guess is that 1973 was the most affordable Cadillac.
And as to the 1930 Cadillac, although the base V8 coupe already had the biggest pricing premium over the Chevy (+483%), the V16 models cost as much as $9700 ($152,981 in 2020 dollars), or 17 times as much as the Chevy. In terms of real purchasing power, it was probably more like the equivalent of $500,000+, one of the most expensive cars in the world.
In 1930, the “Sloan Ladder” was the equivalent of a telescoping fire truck ladder.
By 1973, it was a step stool.
Top to bottom ratio is a good measure. In 1931 the big Chrysler Eights and Imperials started at twice the Plymouth price, and they were clearly twice the car. Appropriate pricing. The Lincoln was priced at ten Fords, but it wasn’t even twice the car. Big Chryslers were selling steadily, and Lincolns dropped to near zero sales in 1935, just before Edsel fixed the problem with the Zephyr.
Comparing a big 1973 Chevy with a Caddy might not be accurate, since the Chevelle/Malibu was the typical family sedan. The big Impalas were trying to be mid-priced cars.
Pre Zephyr Lincolns were serious business propositions. They were vanity products so the Ford family didn’t have to ride in another company’s luxury cars.
Weren’t serious business propositions.
No in 1973 the Big Chevy still ruled the land as the best selling car. When a midsize car first took the best selling crown in wasn’t the Chevy it was the Olds Cutlass that took the tittle.
I would argue that the early Chrysler Imperials were not in the same league as the big K series Lincolns, which were legit competitors with the best Packards and Cadillacs. There was nothing about those Lincolns that came close to suggesting their relationship with a Ford, other than the beautiful styling of the little car.
The Imperials, while they were fine cars, were what they always were – the best Chrysler they offered.
CG Imperials cost several multiples of the price of the Plymouth, and at least twice as much as any other Chrysler. Many have custom coachwork. They are considered full classics on the same plane as Lincoln Ks.
This was great fun, Paul—I might have guessed right at the 1930s differential, but nothing else. The use of today-dollars and yearly incomes as measures is really useful.
Hmmmmm…..I wonder if the Ford/Lincoln graph will be anything like this?
This makes some sense, as the 1971-73 period was when GM shifted the exclusivity vs. volume equation for Cadillac in favor of volume.
I could have guessed the late 1960 – 1970 era. Those Cadillacs were everywhere in our blue collar neighborhoods and they did not have Cadillac quality or exclusiveness compared to other generations. 1973 was a huge production year and both Ford and GM cranked cars out like they were marshmallow circus peanuts, extruded to mimic the look of a luxury car, but not.
Today, we can look at the interior shots of those Cadillacs and be pretty unimpressed. They offered little over an Oldsmobile, Buick or even a Chevrolet. That full sized generation were cookie-cutter interiors with different shaped dashes and seat stitching. The material used was not luxurious. They made hundreds of thousands like they were pigeons on Venice’s St. Mark’s Plaza.
Their resell was just as low priced.
What about Lincoln? Well, that same generation of Town Car/Continental was a different situation. These were the largest Lincolns ever made and looked it, while the Mercury/Ford full size cars appeared at best, to be junior versions of the TC/Conti. Cheap Lincolns were the early 1950s, not the late 1960s-1970s generation when there seemed to be a Coupe De Ville parked in every White Castle parking lot.
Good work Paul!
While the Cimarron may not have been the lowest priced Cadillac, it certainly was the cheapest.
Makes me wonder what the current differential is, so I went to cadillac.com and chevrolet.com after a swing by Wikipedia to find the best models to compare; the two lowest-end/most mainstream models to share a single platform are the C1XX-based Blazer and XT5.
Adding only AWD – which gets you the same 2.0 turbo/9AT powertrain in both – gets to a “Net Price” of $33,045 for the Chevy and $45,490 for the Caddy. The dollar difference is $12,445, a 150% premium if I did the math (or used the online calculator) right.
That’s for comparable cars but what’s the max difference? An Escalade ESV maxed-out with every major option (I skipped the “Highway Safety Kit” “front sunshade” (no Pixar eyes) and anything on the “Accessories” tab gets to $123,940 while a base manual Spark has a current Net Price of $13,395 which is below the “Prices Starting At” list before even walking into a showroom. The dollar difference of $110,545 is well above the Escalade’s base price, which somehow only comes up as a 199% premium…my math is wrong somewhere…
The XT5 carries a 37.7% premium over the Blazer in your first example: (price difference)/(Net Price of cheaper vehicle)
The loaded Escalade ESV carries an 825% premium over a base Spark.
Thanks. I was plugging in the wrong numbers (both prices) and using the % button on the calculator; your numbers are pretty much in the ballpark of what would’ve sounded right to me.
Maybe it was considered as inappropriate to buy a luxury car in wartime.
Paul, I have vivid memories of visiting a Pontiac / Cadillac dealership in 1967, and I saw a light blue with blue cloth interior Cadillac Calais 4-door on the showroom floor. It had a tri-corner cardboard “billboard” on the roof that announced:
“The new 1967 Cadillac Calais
The most economical Cadillac ever offered!”
I tried to get Dad to look at the Cadillac, but he wanted a Pontiac Executive wagon [he had, of course, done his homework in advance]. We test drove the Pontiac, but since it died in front of the Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, He bought a new Fury III wagon instead.
Seeing that sign, I would suggest Cadillac would proffer the 1967 as the most economical Cadillac!
I noticed that you used the Series 61 Club Coupe price ($2810) for ’51. However, in ’52 the 61 was dropped and the up-level Series 62 became the lowest-priced Cadillac. The 1952 Series 62 Club Coupe started at $3542–that’s a big price jump in one year for entry-level buyers!
So the 1951 Series 61 coupe and sedan were the last “cheap” Cadillacs of that era.
Here’s a Series 61 sedan. Has the Olds 98/Buick look in the roofline. 61s were also shorter than 62s:
Looking at that telescoping ladder from that angle reminds me again just how
fireman are these days!
They all should be getting new Cadillacs for what they do!
That the Cadillac-Chevrolet differential was smallest in 1973 doesn’t surprise me at all. Although the comparison was based on the price on an Impala, Chevrolet had long promoted the Caprice as a luxury car at a Chevrolet price. The ’73 Caprice certainly looks the part, at least on the surface. A ’73 Coupe de Ville interior doesn’t look $2,000 more luxurious, which speaks more to the obvious cost cutting on Cadillac interiors.
And surely the Caprice was highly profitable for GM. As the ad says, “You might not want to look any higher.” Many buyers didn’t.
I never had the opportunity to look closely at a 73 Cadillac, but I seriously considered buying a friends’ 1971 Coupe de Ville, and I agree that the era produced the most economical Cadillacs.
This was a base model Cadillac with no options. It was identical in features and quality to a mid – grade Chevy. The interior was vinyl seating with nylon cloth inserts, very plain and smooth, no pillows, no buttons. AM radio, standard.
Cut pile carpet, standard thickness. Power options were limited to power windows and a 2-way power seat. Basic instruments and wood grain plastic dash, just like a Chevy.
Most full size Chevys of the day were about the same size as the Cadillac and arrived similarly equipped – power steering, power brakes and automatic transmission. Those were options but almost ubiquitous.
So the Cadillac, offered nothing over the average as-delivered Chevy, except the cachet of being shaped like a Cadillac Fast forward 20 to 25 years and the Cadillac had evolved back to a car that was more special, and clearly several steps above a typical Chevy of the day, for features, appearance and
It made economic sense to compress the Sloan ladder between the early 30’s and the early 60s even with real incomes rising because of the extremely high top marginal income tax rates then in place. The failure of the Continental Mark II and the Fleetwood Brougham to make money in the 55-58 period is a symptom of this.
But it seems to me that a crucial mistake made by GM in the 60s was to fail to realize that falling top marginal tax rates meant it was appropriate to expand the ladder again. By then people were starting to buy Mercedes-Benzes at pre-New Deal luxury car prices, a trend that would only gather pace.
I think Fred Donner doesn’t get enough discredit for the damage he did at the helm of GM. He saw what Tex Colbert had done to cut costs at Chrysler and determined to emulate it at GM. The 64 A bodies and 65 B and C bodies were the result. Good platforms, but the essence of the Sloan system with highly autonomous divisions was gone. With so much engineering in common, there could be little to distinguish divisional products in quality. So the temptation for each to pursue volume rather than premium pricing.
I remember when the ’67’s came out and just how I thought Cadillac had fallen in one model year as far as elegant appearance was concerned. The interiors just got gaudier from there. I wish I could find the article in one of the car mags that compared a loaded Impala SS with a base Calais. As I recall, the Chevy cost more.