Curbside Classic: 1941 Cadillac – The First Modern Cadillac, With A Bit Of Further Modernizing; 500 Cubic Inches Worth

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(first posted 8/30/2014)   In the twenties and thirties, Cadillac was a true world-class luxury car, with cylinder counts as lofty as its prices. But the Depression and rising income taxes changed everything. So for 1941, a whole new Cadillac with a whole new mission and marketing strategy appeared: lower prices, to compete with Packard and the other mid-price brands.

As such, this is truly the first modern Cadillac, as it established a price relationship with its little brother Chevrolet of roughly 2:1, one that it would maintain for many decades. So it’s not hard to see why someone would be drawn to updating their ’41 Cadillac to keep up with the times, comfort, and faster highway speeds. The subject of modifying classic cars with updated components can be a touchy one. To butcher up a true and rare classic, often by setting the body on a modern frame and drive train, is derided by some, including a number of us here.  But this Cadillac is still significantly original, and it’s not exactly a rare V16 from the mid-thirties.

Yes, originality is a virtue, but then we don’t want to be saints all the time, do we? Aren’t there moments when we imagined blowing off some kid in his Honda in a 1941 Cadillac with a throbbing warmed-up 500 cubic inch V8 under the hood? I have. But this car’s owner acted on that imagination, and quite effectively at that.

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Before we get into the good stuff, here’s the bad: my new camera, which flubbed several of the most important shots. I’ve ruined several Lumix SZ7 cameras because I carry them in my pockets, which are inevitably dirty and dusty from my other work and gardening. Their zoom lenses create a partial vacuum as the lens extends, sucking in dust and debris. One of them has massive blotches on the sensor, the other a jammed lens.

It’s not made anymore, so I bought a Lumix SZ8, thinking it would be a similar replacement. It’s not; it’s been cheapened down substantially and I hate it, as its on-off switch is now a tiny button, it’s slow to fire up, and it its focus is so slow or crappy, the result being this. Also the contrast is too intense, and there are other issues. It must go ASAP.

So this shot, which shows off not only the Caddy’s handsome lines and graceful butt as well as the substantially widened rear wheels and big dual exhaust tips is bad, as well as a few other key shots. But I suspect some of you would rather I keep going and show you what this owner has done to turn what was originally a 100mph-capable car into a 150 mph-capable autobahn flyer.

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Since the engine has obviously become the focus here, let’s get to it first. The Cadillac’s long and tapered hood is released by firmly fondling the beautiful woman on the top and lifting her upwards so that she’s pointing skywards.

Cadillac 1941 -series-62-sedan-eng1

Here’s what sat under it, before being ejected in favor of a more modern Cadillac engine. This 346 cubic inch flathead V8 was known for its smooth-running characteristics and durability. Note how the exhaust ports are on top, along with the intakes. That makes for a bit messier plumbing, but avoids the unfortunate hot spots in the cylinder block that Ford flathead V8s had, due to Henry Ford insisting that the exhaust ports snake their way between the cylinders to the bottom.

The revolutionary four-speed Hydramatic automatic was also available on Cadillacs in 1941, the first in its field, and another feather in Cadillac’s growing war bonnet with which to take on Packard for supremacy in its field.

According my Encyclopedia of American Cars, the improved output of the 1941 150 hp engine and revised rear axle ratios made the ’41 Caddys capable of a genuine 100 mph top speed, with 0-60 time in about 14 seconds. That’s as good or better than many of the Cadillacs of the 1980s, sad to say.


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But not good enough for this owner. So now there’s a 500 CID (8.2 liter) Cadillac V8 at work, warmed over with a mild cam, a big Holley double-pumper four barrel carburetor, and exhaust headers. Actual horsepower is unknown, but since this engine was originally rated at 365 (gross) hp in its hi-compression 1970 tune, I’d venture to guess that some 450 gross/375  net hp or more are on tap. Torque? Sufficient, as Rolls-Royce would have said. Or more than so.

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Whatever planet-turning amounts it can churn out are amplified further by the THM 400 behind it, and a rear axle sourced from a Camaro. The interior has been kept largely intact, except for the steering wheel and column. Needless to say, the brakes have been upgraded to beefy discs, and there are air-ride shocks to control both ride height and improve the ride. I noticed the rear suspension being stock (leaf springs), and power steering now works through the front wheels as well as the upgraded brakes and shocks.

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The rear is also largely original, except for the actual upholstery material and a few other touches. I appreciate what this owner has done over time to bring back what was a rough car into one he and his large extended family can enjoy for trips and outings, with all the comforts, performance and convenience of a more modern car.

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I was speculating on that 150 mph capability, but the owner did say that at 80, it’s just loafing along, and that the ride is rock solid, quiet and smooth, thanks to the Cadillac’s sturdy frame and well built body.  But I’m pretty sure it could show its tail to a healthy percentage of the cars out there on the street, should it feel the urge to do so. I would.

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The paint is metallic, and the deep purple of the upper body has quite the glint in the sunshine.

Cadillac 1941 Ad-02

Cadillacs were all new for 1941, and it was a significant change at that. In order to compete with Packard’s low-price Clipper 110 and 120, Cadillac took its first big step down into the mid-price field with its Series 61, with prices starting at $1345, or $21k inflation adjusted. Sounds more like economy price range? Beware: inflation calculations going back very far lose their relevance, since purchasing power was so much less.

Chevrolet 1942 fleetline

But to put that in perspective, a ’41 Chevy coupe cost $741, so that Cadillac was now less than twice the price of the Chevy. This was a huge change from just ten years earlier, when the cheapest ’32 Cadillac roadster was seven times what a ’32 Chevy roadster cost. And the 1942 Chevy (above) also looked mighty similar to the Cadillac.

1941 marked a key turning point, and established a much more compressed “Sloanian Ladder” than the one its namesake had structured in the 1920s. But the times were changing, and Packard’s big step into the mid-price segment and abandonment of the true luxury field was on. That may have hurt it in some respects, but it was the blueprint for the American industry from then on.

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The classic era of the twenties and early thirties was over for good, and the high incremental income taxes (up to 91%) of the post war era until 1963 demanded a more compressed range of prices. Cadillac’s strategy for 1941 resulted in a healthy bump in sales, up to 66,130, and put it in striking position to overtake Packard; that final assault would have to wait until after the war. But the elements of Cadillac’s inexorable rise to the top was now in place, with these 1941 models. And that fundamental strategy would stay in place until….the Cimarron.

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I like to end my CCs with a profile shot. And this car had a splendid one to show off, to a properly-functioning camera. Not mine, that day. Sigh.

1938 Cadillac Sixty Special

The design of the 1941 sedans was heavily influenced by the 1938 Sixty Special, one of the most groundbreaking and influential designs ever. It was a young Bill Mitchell’s first shot, and what a slam dunk it was. No wonder he instantly became Harley Earl’s favorite, and future successor. The Sixty Special distinctive proportions, a fortuitous blend of ultra-new and traditional elements, clean lines and a formal roof line, all of which became Mitchell’s trademark, would influence Cadillacs and other GM cars for…almost forever. 1975 Seville? 1971 Fleetwood? I could go on.

Now that’s a Cadillac I truly desire, but it would be a bit too rare for a 500 inch transplant up front. Or would it? Depends on how flippant I’m feeling.

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So instead of that botched profile, we’ll leave this Cadillac here, to better to hear the sonorous but muted rumble of its mighty engine. That’s what makes this particular Caddy special, even more so than its profile. Good thing it wasn’t stock after all.