Automotive History: What Was The Cheapest Cadillac Ever? Cheapest Big Chevy? And The Smallest Cadillac Price Premium Over a Chevy?

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.