US automakers have from time to time foisted models upon the market that were outrageously expensive in their day, like the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham and the Continental Mark II. But adjusted for inflation in absolute dollars, what were the most expensive cars that Detroit ever tried to sell? Let’s take a look.
Because of the large number of vehicles, I’ve decided to break this down into a series of posts, looking at each of the Detroit Big 3. We’ll kick things off by looking at GM first.
Note that, for a variety of reasons, it is tricky doing price comparisons across multiple decades (although that is not going to stop me from trying). For starters, the CPI (which most inflation calculators use) only measures the change in the price of goods and services. The CPI does not take into account the affordability of said goods and services due to changes in real income, which goes up and down, but has generally increased over the past 100 years (especially during the immediate post-war years).
Also, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list (yes, I know you can option a dually pickup to over $100K), but rather a collection of the most interesting expensive vehicles, and how their prices compare over time.
So without further ado, here are some of the most expensive GM cars, sorted by adjusted (2021) price in increasing order.
1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham – $13,078 ($125,285 adjusted)
The 1957-58 Eldorado Brougham (a car that has never gotten proper Curbside treatment) was the first of Cadillac’s many post-war attempts to reclaim their pre-war “Standard of the World” mantle, a success they were never quite able to recapture.
The Eldorado Brougham included many innovations, some genuine (quad headlights, self-leveling pneumatic suspension, power seats with two-position memory), but many of which were frivolous in true Cadillac fashion (Perfume atomizer, cigarette case, and magnetic-based drinking glasses).
The Eldorado Brougham is the car I first thought of when researching this piece. Surely it must most be the most expensive car GM has ever sold (when adjusted for inflation), or so I thought. But inflation is a tricky beast, so it ended up near the back of the list.
1991 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 – $64,138 ($127,944 adjusted)
The “King of the Hill” Corvette ZR-1 launched in 1990 as a $27,016 option on top of the base $31,979 Corvette. The price of the ZR-1 option package jumped to $31,683 in 1991, where it stayed for the next several years, making the 1991 ZR-1 the most expensive of the C4 ZR-1 run in absolute dollars, and the price I used for this list.
2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 – $120,900 ($128,485 adjusted)
Honestly, I kind of missed this car when it came out, although looking at the pictures, I’m not sure how. The C7 ZR1 was only sold for one year (2019), which would be the final year of C7 production. By this time, everyone was focusing on the impending mid-engine C8 Corvette and some new virus coming out of Wuhan, so I guess it is understandable that this might have gotten overlooked.
Oh, and if you haven’t set foot in a car dealership recently, car prices are going up. Way up. So much so that the inflation-adjusted price of a 2019 ZR1 notched a nearly $8,000 increase in just two years.
1987 Cadillac Allanté – $54,700 ($129,621 adjusted)
The Cadillac Allanté, produced from 1987 through 1993, was Cadillac’s first attempt to take on the legendary Mercedes Benz SL roadster that Cadillac. On paper, the Allanté had many of the goods to compete with the SL: A roadster body style with a removable aluminum hardtop, V8 power, and a coachbuilt Italian body designed and built by Pininfarina.
However, as was the case with many GM products of the time, a good idea was ruined by poor execution. For starters, the wrong wheels were driven (the front), compared to the competition. The digital gauge cluster was hard to see in the sunlight with the top down. The OHV HT-4100 V8 was weak, trouble-prone, and considered less sophisticated than its OHC competitors. And the high selling price (dictated in part by the expensive 747-based transport process of the bodies from Turin to Hamtramck) was a stretch for the Cadillac brand, which didn’t carry the prestige of Mercedes or Jaguar, the two main bogeys.
In true GM style, Cadillac would address many of these deficiencies over the course of the production run, replacing the digital gauges with conventional dials in 1990, making some previously standard equipment like the removable hardtop optional in order to drop the base price, and dropping in a Northstar V8 in the final year in 1993. But by then, the damage had been done.
I chose the inaugural 1987 model for this list since its $54,700 base price base is the highest of all the model years when adjusted to 2021 dollars ($129,621).
2011 Corvette ZR1 – $110,300 ($133,228 adjusted)
The C6 ZR1 lost the hyphen from the C4 ZR-1, but gained extensive carbon fiber bodywork, complete with a cool window in the hood allowing you to view the intake of the engine below. It is also the first factory-produced Corvette capable of exceeding 200 mph.
And no, it is not your imagination – cars are really getting more expensive. That is why all of the remaining cars on this list (save for one notable exception) are from the 21st century. Even with the benefit of decades of inflation, prices of older cars can’t seem to keep up with the expanding capability and safety of modern cars.
2006 Cadillac XLR-V – $110,000 ($146,882 adjusted)
Not surprisingly, many of the cars on this list are either a Cadillac or a Corvette derivative – But the XLR-V is the only one on this list that is both. After the Allanté, the XLR was Cadillac’s second (and final) attempt to take on Mercedes Benz SL-class. They took to heart many of the lessons learned from the Allanté fiasco and decided this time to rebody the C6 Corvette with a retractable roof and a Northstar V8. Now Cadillac had a proper rear-wheel-drive roadster with the soul of a sports car. Better yet, it could be produced in Bowling Green alongside the Corvette, so no expensive air freight assembly line.
Like most Cadillacs, there was a high-performance (and for our purposes, high-cost) V-Series version of the XLR, which used a supercharged Northstar V8 engine producing 443 hp and 414 lb-ft. of torque. Alas, one of the lessons Cadillac didn’t learn from the Allanté was the need for aggressive pricing. The XLR-V commanded a princely $110,000 in 2006 ($146,882 in 2021), within striking distance of a contemporary (and far more desirable) SL55 AMG and easily propelling it near the head of the class of GM’s most expensive vehicles of all time.
1931 Cadillac V-16 Panel Brougham Town Car $9,200 ($164,447 adjusted)
It is very difficult to pin a contemporary price to the legendary V-16 Cadillacs of the 1930s. They were produced in small numbers, usually custom ordered, largely hand-made, and in many cases were bodied with a custom coach-built body after leaving the factory. Fewer than 4,000 were produced between 1930 and 1940, so they barely qualify as mass-produced.
From what I’ve been able to determine, prices for V-16 Cadillacs started out at $5,250 ($93,842 adjusted) and topped out at $9,200 ($164,447.58) for a Fleetwood-bodied Panel Brougham Town Car. But really, the sky was the limit depending on how much customization you wanted.
As I mentioned earlier, the CPI doesn’t take into account affordability, which decreases substantially prior to WWII. With that taken into account, the V-16 Cadillacs would easily be the most expensive cars GM ever made.
2006 Hummer H1 Alpha – $128,374 ($173,009 adjusted)
OK, this one is a bit of a cheat, as technically the Hummer H1 was designed and engineered by AM General. Still, the H1 Alpha was sold, serviced, and warranted through GM dealerships, and GM provided much of the engineering support for the improvements in the Alpha model. With a base price of $128,374 in 2006 ($173,009 in 2021), this is easily the most expensive vehicle GM has ever sold, in absolute dollars.
Automotive History: What Was The Cheapest Cadillac Ever? Cheapest Big Chevy? And The Smallest Cadillac Price Premium Over a Chevy?
I like to use median income as a standard. Median in the ’30s was about 900, so the V16 chassis alone was 10 years. Median in the ’50s was about 4000, so the Eldo Brougham was 3 years.
There’s another factor to consider: marginal federal income tax rates. They were very low between 1924 and 1932, which explains in part how folks could afford the high end cars of the time. And they were in the 90+% range in the 1950s. Which helps explains why the Brougham was a bust.
But of course there were other factors too. By the 1950s, very wealthy Americans were already gravitating to import brands.
There is also creative auto purchase or lease financing that didn’t exist, back in the day. Years and years of halfway affordable payments, that allow such expensive cars to be purchased without a boatload of cash up front.
Good point. It’s not like folks were leasing V16s for $39 a month back in the day.
Interest rates in loans are close to zero, adjusted for inflation. Free money!
“And they were in the 90+% range in the 1950s. Which helps explains why the Brougham was a bust.”
I’m not sure high marginal tax rates are to blame here. Some folks (not pointing a finger here at you, Paul) confuse marginal tax rates with average tax rates. Marginal rates are the tax rate on the last dollar of income earned. Some point at this and say “The government is stealing 90 percent of their income/wealth!”. Which isn’t the case – the effective average tax rate they paid was probably quite a bit lower than 90 percent. A couple of points:
1) Wealthy folks rarely pay the full tax amount on their income. They are able to hire accountants to take advantage of loopholes and deductions which lower reported income substantially. This has been in the news lately with reports of ultra-rich folk paying little or no Federal income taxes.
2) There is a concept that I taught in grad school when I was getting my doctorate in economics and teaching Econ 101: The diminishing marginal utility of income. For instance: Give $100 to poor person. That’s very meaningful to them: They can buy food for their kids, pay a utility bill, pay their rent, etc. Give the same amount to an ultra-rich person and that’s chump change – the extra $100 means little to them. So for the target audience for the Eldorado Brougham the difference between paying $6,000 for a regular Cadillac and $13,000 for an Eldorado Brougham may not have been that big a deal, since they already had a lot of cash and/or wealth.
Then again, maybe they were already migrating to foreign brands. Or maybe they just didn’t like the EB compared to other alternatives. Who knows?
Good observations, but I would argue that marginal rates have more affect on peoples’ actions than average rates do. And when those marginal rates are reached on the income scale (by either amount or by time of the year when the higher rates are tripped) are relevant too (as is whether the item is deductible). When a guy is looking for deductions for the prior year during tax season, his aim is to get down to a lower bracket at the margin – that will affect the average, but is a much bigger swing on that last $1000 or so that Dr. McBucks is able to hide via one last deduction if he can avoid that final bracket.
In 1954, Popular Mechanics surveyed Cadillac owners as part of its “Owners Report” series. It found that over half were businessmen (of those, 33 percent owned their own business, and 20 percent were employed as executives at a large company), 14 percent were professionals (doctors, lawyers and dentists), 7 percent were salesmen and 6 percent were retired.
I doubt that those percentages had changed much by the time the Eldorado Brougham debuted.
Those Cadillac owners were financially comfortable, but moving up to an Eldorado Brougham, which was considerably more expensive than a “regular” Cadillac, would still have represented a stretch. These sound like people who still had to work for a living.
Meanwhile, many of the people who could easily afford an Eldorado Brougham probably wanted a vehicle that didn’t look so much like the lower-cost Cadillacs. They could get that distinction by buying a big Mercedes, Rolls-Royce, Bentley or Jaguar.
I hope you don’t think anybody who was supposedly subject to the very high tax brackets of the 1950s/60s actually PAID taxes at that rate. Then, as now, there are numerous tax avoidance schemes available to rich people that are not available to ordinary wage earners. Not to mention outright cheating…
I don’t know if it means anything, but only the V-16’s of the ‘30s and the late 50’s Eldoradoes jump out at me as something really special. The others, to me, are basically variants of cars one sees around, that require a real aficionado to explain to me why they are particularly special or expensive. They don’t pass the “Seen at a distance or in passing, and, gee whiz, guess what I saw today?” test. There are quite a few interesting, cheap things out there that do pass that test.
Yes, what Dutch 1960 said.
Interesting collection, I don’t know that I’d necessarily agree though that cars are more expensive than they used to be, at least in terms of the value returned for the dollar, but perhaps it’s the “baubles” that are more, none of the cars here are or ever were really volume “regular people” cars. Even the Corvettes are all trim level variants based on much lower starting price cars that largely look the same and are built on the same line.
Thanks for a very interesting read. I would not have guessed that a C7 ZR1 would be less than a Cadillac Allante, but there it is. Given that recent Corvette generations have aspired to perform like supercars at half the price, and generally done so, makes the “Vettes seem like much better value propositions than the Caddys.
Wow. The Allanté seems like a rip-off, while that V16 is a steal!
There is a difference between a separate make and model costing hundreds of thousands, and a curbside make like a Corvette that GM dropped hundreds of thousand in options, but kept the name.
Those Corvettes are just marketing models to increase the exclusivity of you everyday Corvette, in my opinion.
Interesting list. The Allante certainly stands out as a less special than the rest. Did its price decrease over the model run?
No, it increased quite a lot, by the end it was higher than in 1987 and no longer included the hard top as standard.
GM did modestly increase the price of the Allante in the first several years but at less than the rate of inflation, which is why the first year is the most expensive in 2021 dollars. Later in the run they were able to drop the price a bit, mainly by making the previously standard hardtop optional.
Allante sales prices were significantly lower than MSRP (that was true of most American cars in the second half century). I suspect they dropped after the newness faded until the last year with the Northstar.
As long as the purchase prices are updated, why not show the current estimated market values too? Which model has retained it’s price exclusivity, and which has fallen on deaf ears?
Um, the German word is spelt as Fahrvergnügen.
The other thing a straight inflation calculator will not capture is increasing amounts of capability (or of standard equipment) as time goes by. For example, air conditioning was not available on the V-16 at any price. I do not now if it was standard or optional on the Eldo Brougham – I am guessing optional as it was on the Continental Mk. II. So the non-a/c comparison between the V-16 and Eldo are better than comparisons of either of those to the later cars that surely had standard a/c. Also, add a/c to the Brougham and its price (in 1957) would jump a good bit, juicing the adjusted price.
IIRC A/C was standard on the EB, as was everything else. Every technology, feature and do-dad GM had, they threw at this car as the ultimate flagship and showcase of the time.
My only quibble with your planned series is limiting it to a three part: GM, Ford, and Chrysler. How about a fourth, for the independents? I know that Packard, Peerless, Pierce Arrow, Marmon would fall right in with that Cadillac V-16.
And then you throw in Duesenberg. I bet that’s game over. Just do the 1929 Duesenberg Twenty Grand. Just rough guessing using your Cadillac V-16 figures, I come up with $357,400.00. Well, it got the moniker “Twenty Grand” because it was the most expensive car ever made in it’s day.
Then, add a fifth section: Twenties and earlier. Keep it separate from the independents, because of the change in tax rates and, quite frankly, not trying to compare the pre-Depression economy with the later equivalent.
“There has been in the news lately…reports of ultra-rich folks paying little or no Federal income taxes”.
Like everyone else, the wealthy pay no taxes on their (enormous) unrealized capital gains. That’s because there is no tax on unrealized gains. Yet by ProPublica’s reasoning, the rich “avoided” paying a nonexistent tax. Fake news.
However, many fund lavish lifestyles by borrowing against those gains, and thus have found a way to have an untaxed income stream, which was the point here.
I was hoping to see my favorite, the 1959-60 Cadillac Brougham, the one assembled in Italy by Pininfarina. Anyone got any numbers on that one?
They were the same price as the ’57 Brougham, so somewhat cheaper than it in adjusted dollars.
The ’57 & ’58 EB vehicles cost far more to build than they sold for [as did the Conti 2 cars from Ford]. The cost estimate for the proposed ’59 EB was even higher, and was the motivating factor that sent Cadillac to Italy, in an effort to keep spiraling costs down. Pininfarina was able to build the ’59 and later EB cars, delivered to Detroit, for less than the original EB cars cost.
As Chrysler had shown in the early 1950s, creating one-off or limited production vehicles could be done in Italy for far less, while maintaining high standards*. In 1962 Studebaker gave Brooks Stevens a miserly $50k to design and create 3 full size proposals for new 1964, ’65, and ’66 [non-Lark based] Studebakers. Stevens went to Italy and enlisted the help of a little-known coachbuilder In Turin; Sibona-Bassano. They actually created 3 complete, finished cars, using steel body panels. These 3 cars are currently on display in the Studebaker Museum.
* In my opinion, the one consistent problem with Italian coachbuilt cars was the electrical systems. From the Packard Predictor to the Dual Ghia cars, many were delivered to the importers with non-functioning electrical equipment. Probably the worst was a Rolls-Royce Phantom VI drophead limousine by Frua, The entire electrical system had to be removed and scrapped, then re-designed to a point where things would actually work.
As for the Eldorado Brougham, Frank Sinatra owned one. I think that sums it up.
Having seen a ’58 Eldorado Brougham get restored from the ground up, I can attest it’s one gorgeous automobile. Photos of it always make it look larger than in real life.
Indeed. Those of us around here may have heard the story of Maurice Gagnon’s 1959 Eldorado Seville. The story I heard about his acquiring this car was that he traded in a ’58 Eldorado Brougham on his ’59 because he found the Eldorado Brougham “too small”.
Great idea for a story! That is certainly an interesting group of vehicles. I am familiar with most of them, but had no idea that the expensive H1 was THAT expensive. Like many my age, I was very aware and admiring of the C4 ZR-1, somewhat aware of the C6 ZR1 and barely noticed the C7 ZR1(even though it is the most ostentatious looking of them all!). It’s interesting that all three Vettes were similar price after adjustment.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the series!
Hemmings says that Cadillac lost $10,000 on each Eldorado Brougham. This would put the cost of building around $20,000 (leaving some markup for the dealer). This would make the cost in todays dollars around $200,000. This is near current Rolls Royce prices.