We’ve covered the development of the “out there” 1959 Cadillac and other GM cars a number of time, and this SIA article reprint really tells it well. GM designers were encouraged to let their imaginations run rampant, and the final production results were a lot more toned down then some of the crazy concepts. But GM knew it had gone too far with the 1959s, well before they ever went into production. Which of course explains the toned-down 1960 models, whose design was locked in before the ’59s first rolled off the line.
As further proof of how well they knew they had jumped the shark fin, Cadillac offered an alternative design in 1959, the Brougham, which clearly previewed the styling direction Cadillac was taking, two years ahead of time.
I can’t go into an in-depth look at all the forces that shaped the ’59 Cadillac, but let’s just say that the architectural/design era was called both “Atomic Age” and “Googie”, and there’s of course a huge amount of overlap between them. Russia’s Sputnik launch in the fall of 1957 fueled it further. Here’s what was on the minds of folks at the time, as encapsulated in “The House of the Future”.
And this is where they would like to be seen pulling up in their 1959 Cadillac.
Let’s also keep in mind that despite their excessive fins, and too much chrome on the Sixty Special model, the ’59s were a huge jump forward in their basic design than the heavy, bulbous and ponderous designs being developed for 1959 (above) before the “palace coup”. But even though Harley Earl may have been outgunned initially, he still oversaw the final development of the ’59s, and the fins and other details are his departing shot.
The Atomic Age/Googie era started in about 1949, and was a direct response to the clean, Streamline Moderne era before the war. It was out there, (and up there) and it reveled in it. But it was also drawing to a close, at least the most extreme versions of it, by around the time the ’59s were designed.
Mid Century Modern, the much cleaner European-inspired alternative influence, had more legs to it, and was becoming more influential. And the Brougham paid homage to that influence as an alternative Century Modern 1959 Cadillac. Or at least more so. As well as showing the growing influence of Bill Mitchell. What the Brougham really was is an expensive preview of the Bill Mitchell era to come.
The 1960 Brougham was even more toned down, with its fins receding. Both the ’59 and ’60 Brougham were of course extremely expensive, given that their bodies and interiors were coach-built by Pininfarina in Italy.
But for those that could afford it, the Brougham was a way to travel two years ahead of time, design wise. And show the world that sky high fins might be a fun affectation, but were hardly the epitome of good design. Or truly beautiful.