Car Show Classic: 1955 Cadillac Eldorado – If Only It Could Talk

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(first posted 6/25/2013)    “There are eight million stories in the naked city,” the narrator solemnly intoned at the end of the famous 1948 film noir and the 1958-63 television series. There aren’t that many stories at a typical car show, but one wonders what stories this decrepit 1955 Cadillac Eldorado could tell – particularly the one about how it ended up in this condition.  

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Much like meeting a former Hollywood sex symbol after her fourth divorce and fifth facelift, seeing a 1955 Eldorado in this state brings a twinge of sadness. How did such a dazzling car end up like this? This isn’t, after all, a 1955 Ford Mainline sedan. It’s unlikely that young boys longed for the day that dad drove home in a Mainline, or adults counted the days until they could park one in their driveway.

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In 1955 Cadillac was the Standard of the World, and the Eldorado convertible was the most desirable Cadillac. Millions of middle- and working-class Americans dreamed of the day that they could afford any Cadillac, let alone a glamorous Eldorado.

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The 1955 Eldorado was the third edition of the luxury convertible that debuted for 1953. The 1953 Eldorado was the first car, along with that year’s Oldsmobile Fiesta, to feature Harley Earl’s beloved wraparound windshield. It also featured custom body work – a “dipped” beltline was the most noticeable feature – which helped drive the sticker price to the then-astronomical sum of $7,750, or almost twice the price of a Series 62 convertible. Only 532 first-year Eldorados were sold.

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The 1954 Eldorado’s all-new body was otherwise unchanged from that of the standard Series 62 convertible. The price was cut substantially from the lofty 1953 level, which spurred sales to 2,150.

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For 1955, the Eldorado again featured distinctive sheet metal to distinguish it from other Cadillacs, although this time it was in the form of unique rear quarter panels and tail fins. Under the hood was a 331 cubic inch V-8 equipped with dual, four-barrel carburetors. With those dual quads, the Eldorado V-8 pumped out 270 horses, or 20 more than the V-8s of lesser Cadillacs.

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Making their debut on the 1955 Eldorado were the famous “Sabre-Spoke” wheels. The fender skirts featured on other Cadillacs were eliminated, to better show off the handsome new wheels.

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The Cadillac V and crest were proudly displayed on the Eldorado’s hood. Buyers wanted to be sure that everyone knew they were driving a Cadillac.

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The wraparound windshield, shared with more plebian Cadillacs since 1954, is long gone from this Eldorado. The Autronic Eye automatic headlight dimmer unit is still perched proudly on top of the dash.

All of that style wasn’t cheap. While the list price of the 1955 Eldorado was below that of the inaugural model, it was still high for the times – over $6,000. The buyer of this Eldorado probably paid that price, as demand for all Cadillacs exceeded the supply in the mid-1950s. A booming economy pushed production to 3,950 for the model year.

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Who took delivery of this dreamboat when it was brand new? Was it a top-level executive seeking something sportier than a Sixty Special? A wealthy housewife who wanted to “one up” all of those Series 62 convertibles at the country club? A brash, young entrepreneur who was ready to show the world that he had made it?

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What would the owner have thought if, peering into a crystal ball, he or she had caught a glimpse of the Eldorado almost 60 years later? Perhaps the owner wouldn’t have cared. During the 1950s, no car maker had more success in selling the car as a fashion accessory than GM did, and, in tandem with that effort, no car maker did a better job of promoting the “newest is best” mindset among the public.

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Fashion, as we all know, is quite fickle. In a survey of 1956 Cadillac owners, Popular Mechanics noted that almost 2/3s of the respondents had traded in a 1954 or 1955 Cadillac on their 1956 model. Given that mindset, a 1955 Eldorado was, by the fall of 1956, probably looking a little like yesterday’s newspaper to its owner.

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Was this Eldorado traded in for a 1957 edition? Or one of those slinky 1957 Imperial convertibles that threw the GM design staff into a tizzy? Or did the owner wait until the 1958 model year and trade it for something really different – a Mercedes 220S convertible, or a four-seat Thunderbird? The challenge presented by the 1957 Imperial was easily surmounted by GM, but the Mercedes and Thunderbird represented trends that would play a part in GM’s downfall in the 21st century, and Cadillac’s fall from grace long before that.

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How did this particular Eldorado end up on a trailer at the spring Carlisle Collector Car Swap Meet and Corral? Most likely, it eventually became just another used car, a tired vehicle sold to someone who needed transportation. The prominent fins and wraparound windshield, once the height of style, looked old-fashioned by the mid-1960s. By 1966, potential buyers may have been a little embarrassed at the thought of driving such an obviously old car. This car, once a source of pride, may have become a source of embarrassment.

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Fashion is not only fickle, but sometimes cruel. If this Cadillac could talk, it would probably tell us that story, based on firsthand experience.

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