(First posted 2/13/2011. Expanded and substantially revised 2/22/2017. Images now larger; click for full size)
Change is impossible to predict. Who could have predicted that ultimate decade of change, the sixties? That the Beatles would appear, that MLK would have a dream, that Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon, and that Andy Warhol would recreate a Brillo box? Real change takes conviction and risk taking.
In the American automotive scene, a sea change ushering in the new decade took place between the autumns of 1958 and 1960. The two cars that bracket that period perfectly are the 1959 Cadillac and the 1961 Lincoln Continental. One tried to predict the new decade, the other actually shaped it.
I somewhat dreaded finding a ’59 Caddy. It’s one of the ultimate American icons ever, and it’s been adulated, mocked, deconstructed and reconstructed endlessly. What can I possibly add? It became a caricature of itself almost from the day it appeared, as well as perhaps the greatest symbol of American exuberance, innocence and…paradise lost? Change can be a bitch.
But I doubt you’ll ever see the rear end of a 2011 Cadillac SRX sticking out from the front wall of a restaurant fifty years from now. So when I finally encountered this ’59, I tossed all that baggage aside and let my inner child out of its mental cage.
I was in car heaven, again, and I could have (did, actually) spent hours gazing at this finned creature from outer space, losing myself in its endlessly enthralling details, just as I did on that day I first encountered one on the streets of Innsbruck in 1959. An alien starship has landed, once again. And I’m ready to be taken away, once again.
Just try spending thirty minutes poring over any plastic new car
grille fascia; thirty seconds is too long for that. And while we’re losing ourselves in that expensive orthodontia, let’s recollect a bit of how this car came to be. The 1959 GM cars’ creation myth has been oft told, but it’s (hopefully) worth repeating in Cliffs Notes form one more time: In August of 1956, GM stylist Chuck Jordan stumbled upon a back lot with brand new 1957 Chryslers still cooling off from their birth in the forges of the Jefferson Avenue Plant.
They were part of the radically restyled Chrysler family that styling head Virgil Exner gambled the company on. Trumpeted with the ad headlines of “Three Years Ahead of the Other Two” and “Suddenly it’s 1960”, the ‘57s were Exner’s imagining of the automotive future: longer, lower, wider, glassier and finnier. Let’s add flamboyant, exneruberant, and florid; all taken to astonishing extremes.
Unbeknown to himself, Exner was already laying the seeds of a sea change to come. Having birthed the ‘57s, did he have a vision for where this direction could go when it came time to design the actual 1960 Chryslers? From the results, obviously not. He couldn’t imagine the real sixties any more than he could dance The Twist. Longer, lower, wider and finnier can only be taken so far.
But GM styling bought into Exner’s mid-fifties vision of 1960, big time. It was the first time that GM’s vaunted design machine abdicated its leadership role, and ran on the fear of being left behind. Perhaps understandably so, given the internal leadership transition under way at the time: Harley Earl, who created the modern in-house design studio system at GM, was on the way out, due to retire in late 1958. And none too soon: the end of his era was a sad dead end of overwrought and tasteless bling. His ponderous 1958 models may be endearing in a camp way, but were stylistic duds, especially the top line Cadillacs, Buicks (above) and Oldsmobiles. Bulgemobiles, one and all.
As this early clay for the 1959 Buick shows, the initial direction, as guided by Earl, was more of the same: heavy, bulky, overwrought and way too fussy. Ironically, the lack of fins actually predicted the 60s much better than the final ’59s.
Chuck Jordan’s “Suddenly it’s 1960” moment had a galvanizing effect on the GM stylists and Bill Mitchell, long slated to take over Earl’s job. A palace coup of sorts arose while Earl was on a long vacation, and when he came back, he was confronted with 1959 design proposals that were drastically different from the baroque, worked-over ‘58s he had in mind. Some of the initial new concepts, like these Pontiacs, were all-too obviously paying homage to Exner’s ’57 Chryslers.
The stylists were apparently fed hallucinogens in their vision quest of a new decade.
And that applied to the rear ends as well as the fronts. And everything in between. Although the third dorsal fin of this Buick concept didn’t make it into production, the rest of its body became the one that Earl and the execs coalesced on.
Here’s a further evolution of the theme, that eventually gave the basic form to the ’59 Cadillac. The body is now almost identical to the final production version, but Buick still hadn’t quite given up on the dorsal fin, as well as the “twin bubble” roof. Seriously?
The Buick (after a bit of sanitizing, or is it “saneitizing”) thus became the template for the rest of the divisions, and they had to essentially adopt its body shell and adapt it for their respective cars.
The new proposals, as these Cadillac full scale renderings show, at least went one or two important steps further in imaging 1960: gone (mostly) were the affected heavy side treatments of the Chryslers, with their multiple swooping spears and their two tone paint inserts. The Chryslers were the jumping off point, and the GM stylists jumped as far as they could, in their efforts to stay ahead of them. But it was ultimately more a matter of outdoing them at their game rather than a genuine revolution. There’s a difference.
In the case of Cadillac, the mission was particularly challenging, as the new ’57 Imperial was not just a gussied up Chrysler, but had a number of unique and advanced design elements, including the first use of curved side glass, and a more ambitious front end that brought the headlights further down from their historical high perch. It’s quite obvious the Cadillac ended up copying the Imperial’s front end design to a considerable extent, especially in the eyebrows over the headlights.
But with the other GM divisions, that migration downwards of the headlights went even further, until they were now fully integrated into the sweep of the horizontal grille itself. This was a significant and lasting change. This rendering is by Irv Rybicki for the 1959 Olds grille.
It was a radically new front end theme that played a role key role in instigating a global design language revolution. In that one regard, the ’59 GM cars and its offshoots, like the 1960 Corvair, were genuine prophets.
Earl swallowed hard and embraced the new direction (he had little choice), and his stamp on the final products is still all too obvious. The rounded sides, bubble tops and fins of his beloved Firebirds would now find their culmination in the ’59s.
Although the new ’59 proposals had a substantially improved clarity of line and organic cohesiveness, which the clean Cadillac flanks show perhaps to best advantage, the need for a degree of continuity was still considered essential by Earl, especially so with the Cadillac. Thus very busy front and rear ends bookmark its relatively clean middle. It still had to be instantly recognizable as a Cadillac coming down the street to protect its dominant position in the luxury car field. As much as the final cars were changed due to the “palace revolt”, they were still guided to completion by Earl. How might they have looked if he had retired a year earlier?
Probably a bit less gaudy, but then Mitchell wasn’t exactly a revolutionary either. The 1961 GM lineup, the first under his full control, is delightfully light and buoyant, and show his love for crisp knife edges which would soon come to dominate, but the bubble hardtops that had their origins in the first hardtop coupes by Earl in 1949 were still out in full force.
The new 1962 GM hardtops were undoubtedly a concession to Ford’s influential wide C-pillar coupes, and Mitchell’s superb knife-edged 1963 Buick Riviera owes more than a passing nod of the hat to the influential 1961 Continental.
GM’s last minute dash to outdo Exner’s vision for the new decade involved ditching the one-year only 1958 bodies, at a substantial price: all 1959 GM divisions would have to share the same basic body shell. After the long-established triumvirate of A-Body (Chevy & Pontiac) B-Body (Pontiac, Olds and Buick) and C-Body (senior Olds & Buick and Cadillac) hierarchy, that was quite a penalty. Quite likely development money flowing into the new Corvair and its Y-Body offshoots played into that decision. This was prophetic, for better or for worse.
An interesting tidbit: the DeVille hardtop coupe cost exactly twice as much ($45k in 2015 dollars) as that Impala sports hardtop. Cadillac’s profit margins were written all over those soaring fins.
Yes, the ’59 Body by Fisher was lengthened as needed, spanning everything from the Chevy’s 119” wheelbase to the Cadillac’s 130 incher. But everyone had to use the same front door designed by Buick. And that expensive compound-curve windshield and other bubble-top parts undoubtedly interchanged.
While the ’59 Cadillac is plenty long overall thanks to that highly aspirational rear end, the afterthought of a passenger compartment is actually none too roomy. Designer gowns, whose time in the spotlight of fashion is usually as long-lived this Caddy’s fashion statement, are often none too comfy either.
Between that huge dog-leg in the windshield and the low roof; let’s just say there is a world of difference from today’s boxy people-mover pods.
Today’s interiors might be a lot more ergonomic, but they’re dull and dreary compared to this absolutely stunning blaze of black, white and chrome. I’ve got just the matching vintage cashmere black & white hounds-tooth jacket in my closet for the drive to the dinner club in the DeVille. Everything hard is made of genuine chrome-plated metal, often attached with exposed plated screws. My idea of deconstructing the ’59 Caddy would be with a Phillips-head screwdriver.
The front seat is reasonably commodious once my legs have successfully squeezed past that gate-keeper dog leg. The gap between it and the seat is mighty narrow, and this comes from a time when yoga was still almost unheard of. It was another ridiculous affectation of late-fifties absurdity that quickly died along with the fins.
Once behind the wheel, that symphony of black, white and chrome quickly dissipates all thoughts of ergonomic shortcomings. Drop that long chrome lever into Interstellar Overdrive, wait for the afterburners to spool up, and set the controls for the heart of the sun. With regard to the imminent rise of psychedelia, the Caddy did successfully predict the sixties after all.
Just don’t fly too close to the sun if you have rear passengers. That sloping rear solar collector forces my head to bow, and not in veneration. Sitting back there on a sunny day is inconceivable without an astronaut’s liquid-cooled space suit. Earl’s perpetual source of inspiration, fighter planes, involved some serious compromises. No wonder the ’58 T-Bird’s cocoon roof revolutionized the industry. This is not personal luxury.
Even hunched over and on fire, the rear passengers can at least dispose of their neck hair ashes in the beautifully finished and ample ashtray, and enjoy the nice detailing that the cabin exhibits in every direction.
And in case one finds oneself desperately trying to find some shade, or privacy in the glass bubble from the public’s peering eyes, by hiding on the floor, the view from down there still affords visual delights. This kind of attention to detail of every nook and cranny is what really separated the boys from Bill Mitchell’s Mad Men.
Watchful of my knee caps, I slide out of the space capsule and immerse myself some more with that mind-boggling grille-work. Those rows and rows of die-cast bullet clips are op-art. What was Mitchell feeding his stylists?
Prostrating myself in veneration to this die-cast and chrome altar, I have a changed perspective. From here, they look like an array of glittering rockets. It may not come as a surprise to know that Sputnik had just been launched about the time this grille was being designed. If Kennedy had been riding around in one of these, the Cuban Missile Crisis might have ended up very differently.
Those massive twin jet intakes nacelles with their protective covers designed to look like turn signals are straight from a B-47. There is nothing about this car that would suggest that anything but a gleaming alloy jet-turbine engine is residing under that long, smooth hood. We’re not going to pop that bubble. Opening the engine compartment of this car is an utter violation of everything it so self-consciously and desperately projects, and I’m not going to spoil it by showing you its crude and banal contents; if you must, click here, and here.
My allotted thirty minutes of grille-gazing is up; bedazzled, I stagger back into and across the street, but without fear of being run over. Why? Every car predictably slows to a crawl or stops. You want attention? Buy one of these. You can’t go wrong investment wise, at least over the long haul. This car’s place in history is absolutely secured, and on a pretty lofty perch for a mass-produced vehicle. Just please don’t let it be a pink convertible, especially a fake four door one.
Perhaps that was my trepidation in finding a ’59 Caddy: that it would be something like this or an over-chromed Eldorado. Yes, guys, that Sixty Special Sedan, the most formal model in the line-up, really, really needed all that extra chrome and those two extra side intakes for the additional JATO rockets it was blessed with.
Instead, I stumbled into my favorite body style, and dressed as a DeVille no less. The four doors really needed to have those fins clipped a bit, like the ’60 models, but the two door hardtop wears them proudly. And white too, my preferred color, especially for many GM cars of the sixties. The ’59 Caddy just barely qualifies for that, and its clean lines and chrome accents are set off at their best here. A white monochrome Caddy from the any other year on the fifties looks like an ambulance sedan. Atlas Rocket White, I believe it was called.
I keep losing myself in this rolling sculpture. It belongs at MoMA, although they’re probably too stuffy to have the Cisitalia share its stand. If Warhol had cast a ’59 Cadillac in acrylic, it would undoubtedly be sharing space with his plywood Brillo boxes there. Gaudy and gauche is genuine art, as long as it’s been recreated by someone deemed to be a genuine artist.
The 1961 Continental may have paved the way and shown us the future while the 1959 Cadillac was an evolutionary dead end, but what a way to go out, in (or out of) style.
Partly, that was due to circumstances beyond its maker’s control. A nasty recession hit in 1958, and suddenly small was beautiful. That recession was the catalyst for the sea change that had been brewing for some time: a big chunk of the population suddenly saw that the forces propelling the big finned Detroit barges were utterly unsustainable. Books like John Keats “The Insolent Chariots” (1958) tapped into this new zeitgeist.
And the ’59 Cadillac just confirmed what was obvious: everyone knew there was absolutely no way to top it. So why buy the last dinosaur, when everyone was snapping up imports, Larks and Ramblers?
The ’61 Continental was conceived right in the depth of that recession, and that is reflected in its smaller, trimmer size, and an actual reduction in horsepower thanks to a measly two-barrel carb. Blasphemy; for making a mockery of ever bigger fins and more horsepower. Look at this car, and you see a sea change of consciousness. The fifties had the lowest income disparity this country has ever seen, and the relatively-rich apparently felt no reason to hide from the view of the slightly less rich while riding in their glass-bubble Cadillacs.
The Lincoln was subdued, understated, more expensive, and much more exclusive, especially in how it hid its occupants from view. We know where that trend has taken us.
And we all know how the ’59 Cadillac story actually ends: never as tidy and predictable as we might want. Gas got cheaper and cheaper all through the sixties, and the seventies ushered in a new round of Bulgemobiles, minus the fins. But that all came crashing to another sea-change, thanks to forces far from home. By 1977, the Lincoln Town Car was now the dinosaur, and the downsized Caddies were a trim new smaller size.
And now a start-up company’s electric car with autonomous capability is the best-selling large luxury car. How could have predicted that in 1999?
Change, or get left behind; some things never change.
CC 1965 Lincoln Continental: The Last Great American Luxury Car
SIA Article by Michael Lamm: GM’s Far-Out ’59s, When Imagination Ran Rampant Part 1 Part 2
Wow, you did it justice, Amigo. This car and the 1961 Imperial should be parked side by side in every history musem across the country. Both are ultimate symbols of this country when totally unrestrained. It’s an excess of styling and exuberance that I fear and embrace at the same time. (Sorry this comment is a little more esoteric than I normally am.)
When we lived in the St. Louis area, a guy down the street had one of these – plug ugly pink and black! You could spot it from the air! Funny you mention the 1958 recession. My dad lost his job that year and had one whale of a time finding a new job – he was 50 yrs. old and I remember those days all too well. Eisenhower took our home for I-70 then my dad’s company closed up shop after he spent 30 years with them. I mention this only for the fact his company built another anomaly for the times: shoe repair machinery – Landis Mfg. Co!
You could make the Eldo side intakes functional and remove the lights from the cowlings in the rear bumper. Strap a couple of Turbonique rocket motors into the capacious trunk, exhausting through the cowlings, and you’d be good to go…fast. The side intakes would just be for general cooling as the Turboniques were genuine rocket motors, not jets. IIRC, Turbonique came and went in the 60’s, in a flash as it were. Burt they were certainly sympatico with the styling cues of the late 50’s.
To me, the most amazing thing about the ’59 Caddy is that most of the people who bought them were the same kind of people — bankers, surgeons, entrepreneurs and retirees — who buy grey Lexuses today.
Also, they fell out of fashion very quickly. People have forgotten that in around 1968-70 you just about could not give a ’59 Cadillac away. They were already the $200 beaters on the back row of the lot.
Absolutely beautiful photography. Kudos!
The current state of German cars reminds me of the American luxury cars of the late ’50s. Gadgets, gimmicks, overstyling without thought ot function or authenticity, planned obsolescence, cultivating and then mining customer ignorance are all still alive and well in the luxury car maket.
I look forward to profiles of the Kennedy Lincoln and Kopechne Oldsmobile.
Thank you! That’s one of my favorite theories: that we are ( hopefully ) at about 1958 in the endless design and fashion cycle between minimalism and over design. When you look at the contorted and tortured metalwork and the fussy over-elaboration of a Mercedes or the giant size of the new Honda Civic sedan that’s as big as an Accord, it’s a pointer that auto excess is again reaching its maximum. Just like in the 1950s but this time driven by kids comic book sci-fi design rather than space rockets. What’s going to be the 1960 Rambler equivalent that sweeps it all away? Maybe the bland and gormless ‘face’ of a Google autonomous car?
I can remember being fascinated with these when I began my obsession with cars at age 4 in 1963, yes I was born in the year of the ultimate tailfins as I refer to it. I can also remember my parents being revolted by the grotesque in their heads ostentatiousness of the styling of these cars. I knew at age 5 that they were considered Outdated and boughewah in 1964. No rich person would be caught dead in their 5 year old Cadillac at the time. It was probably well outdated by 1962. Later when I moved to LA in the early 80s I breifly toyed with the ridiculous idea that a pink 59 Convertible for $29.000 was a bargain. I Still would like one, I loved how you could see the tailfins & lights in rear view mirror. Now I have to aDmit that the 1960 was a rather big Improvement, as was the 1963 & 1965. To my eyes anyway.
When I was young and fascinated by automobiles, I did a good deal of washing and waxing of the family cars.
Now, having not washed a car in about 20 years, the thought of cleaning that gigantic Caddy makes me tired…that grille work alone!
And then to add a layer of Simonize? Forget it!
Btw, do people still wax cars?
We are used to having vehicles styled with a sense of control, compromise and committee. The 1959 GM cars lacked all of that. They did not have a corporate vision or they would have not hobbled the Company in such a way, or for so long. The 1959 GM cars display a short-sightedness and a corporate chaos unusual for any large industrial organization, let alone the world’s largest in 1959. Being the world’s largest and recognized as dominating an industry has helped cover up this mistake. People still bought these cars in numbers large enough to help mask the chaos represented here.
Earl was on his way out and should have been out years before. He had not had a real design success recently enough by 1957 to keep his design team believing in him. The 1955 GM cars were fine, but both Studebaker and Chrysler demonstrated an ability to charm the auto design world too. By 1956 when the 1957s were ready to roll, there appears to have been many designers unsold on Earl’s 1958 models. Knowing that they would be stuck with the 1958 bodies until 1961, GM’s designers grew edgy and seemed to feel vulnerable to the competition. The Old Man was on his way out and didn’t have to deal with his left-overs and the ones remaining were tired of listening to him and tired of not launching a car with the same adoration as the 1953 Studebaker and 1955 Chrysler lines.
When Earl left for Europe, the Market softened, and Exner’s 1957 line up was discovered, the GM design staffer staged a coup. They threw out a perfectly fine 1958 set of bodies and spent the next months one-upping Exner. Representing the World’s Largest Corporation, the designers were not going to allow someone else make them look bad. Damn the costs required for the new 1959 bodies, damn the engineering, damn the plans Earl and GM upper management approved earlier, the GM staffers lost faith in their management, had Earl’s replacement, Mitchell, walking a fine line between subordination and leadership, and lost sight of the long term design standards GM needed to retain into the next couple of years. The design team that gave us the 1959 cars felt that their reputations were being challenged by Exner and threw caution to the wind.
The cars look like it.
The 1959 cars were not good. A lot of the engines were not good. A lot of the ergonomics was not good. A lot of the faux jet age designs had many unintended consequences during manufacturing. Even their target, the 1957 Chryslers, could not be built with even the rudimentary standards that passed as quality in 1957. The 1959 GM cars rusted. Their assembly was slipshod at best. Within a decade, few used car buyers cared for these cars because these cars were not good. While they appeared to be road rockets for the Jet Age and Space Age, the GM and Chrysler lines were misguided missles for their companies and for their buyers.
Today we look upon them and marvel. We recognize how far removed from their intended use their stylists took them. They have so much useless beauty, so much waste, so much dishonesty in their designs. These cars appear as dream cars because they were designed by men who designed dream cars, but reality quickly exposes them as dream cars too. We can still love them, spend a fortune maintaining them, and wonder where the dreaming could lead.
Happenstance created the 1961 Continental. It took the heart of a Scrooge and the bookkeeping skills of a miser to force upon Lincoln a dwarf originally designed as a Thunderbird. Ford got lucky. The 1958 Lincoln shows Ford at planning and work, the 1961 Lincoln shows Ford giving up and cutting it’s losses, then catching the break of their division’s life.
The 1959 GM cars shows GM out of control with a bruised ego, an nearly bottomless wallet and a callous disregard for their products beyond facade.
But they are beloved now, 🙂
Interesting comment. I think the 50’s Cadillacs generally had a sense of self-confidence about them, and you would have to say the design team held sway over the beancounters, which certainly wasn’t true later. Also while the late 50’s cars had large doses of excess, they were exceeded nearly 20 years later and I’m not sure the functionality was that much improved (talking about body design here, rather than roadholding)
My grandfather had a 1960 Cadillac 4-door Sedan-de-ville – similar style with slightly restrained tail fins. It was silver with the same black/white interior shown in the article. My family used the car for a vacation because it had air conditioning. I remember two things about the interior. First, the signal seeking radio used a motor to move the tuning knob to the next station – and when the end of the dial was reached it would jump back to the beginning with a small “bzzt” of the motor moving quickly. And the horizontal speedometer was very wide – and the whole dashboard probably had more chrome/metal than a small compact car. Those pods on either side of the speedometer would do well as external turn signal lights on a normal car.
wherever you go in the world ..and you say 1950s america..you get 2 imadges ..marilyn and the 59 cad..both have for all the faults…become icons..and they will both forever be icons in popular culture ..marilyn and the 59 cad are the most copied ..icons of post war culture there imadges are everywhere..wot eles can you say
I’ve had a fascination with Cadillacs since I was a little boy. My Dad had a 59 Biscayne which I dreamed when I turned driving age I’d put Cadillac emblems on it. To me, they looked very much alike. (at age 7 or 8 anyhow.)
In the early 80’s, I was driving a nice 66 Deville convertible. In my town, a dealer had a white 59 Coupe for sale at I think $ 4,000. I did not think it was in the best shape. The black and white interior looked straw like and dried out. Down the street on the front lot of a house that was soon torn down to build a bank was a 60 metallic blue Coupe. This car was OK, but someone had done a very amateur engine compartment restoration. A lot of silver paint made the engine look like they were hiding something. I think they were asking around $ 3,000. Today, at those prices, I’d be writing checks without even starting them up.
*lights candles on a cake and blows horns*
Revisiting this just brings one additional thought to mind. Maybe excessive, but those cars had something today’s machinery can’t – and the OEM’s don’t want to touch: CLASS. Pure and simple. Oh, yeah, STYLE, too.
Late 1980s, delivering used auto parts across Oakland, CA to various repair and body shops.
Whoa!!!!!! What is THAT???!!!!
I stood in rapt admiration as an old guy in a 1950s era hat and a female of similar age slowly drove by in their 1959 2-door pinker-than-pink Caddy with those stunningly beautiful tail lights and all the other visible from 75-feet-away exterior adornments.
The noisy city, too often blaring from the sound of anger-inspired gunfire, seemed to quiet as that car passed by, the “envelope” of quiet following it.
Those tail lights are works of art.
That car alone may have prevented the Commie Hordes from starting a war with the USA.
Who could envision winning any conflict with a country capable of creating such a wondrous conveyance?
Oh… delivering engines, even BIG heavy big-block V8s… complete, carb, intake, exhaust manifolds’ HEAVY!!!
Two-bit shop (common in the poor part of town) for various reasons unable to get a lifting device into the front parking area, the only place I could get the small truck backed into.
Grab a some ever-present discarded tires and pile ’em up. Then a 2nd pile a little shorter… a 3rd shorter pile… ramp-like.
Shove engine across Nissan-based trucklet flat bed wooden floor to the edge and let ‘er drop.
Done correctly the engine would follow the “path” down to the ground.
Various ethnicities and countrys-of-origin typically involved.
Frequently, excited utterances demand placement of engine into the quasi-shop.
A smile or growl and typically MUCH huskier physical build quelled the excitement as I explained the realities of life in the USA and THEIR need to ease life for the down-trodden delivery MAN of the USA’s used-auto part industry.
If further demands of delivery into the “working area” of the sub-par facility continued I would point at the engine and tell them that if they desired to back out of the transaction to simply place the engine upon the truck bed.
Never had to take an engine back to the yard when such a scenario occurred.
Especially with “expensive” and BIG engines we only sold running tested engines though the declared ACTUAL miles were typically more than the declared mileage.
Interestingly, The Iranian (uhhhh we are Persians they would proclaim with a hopeful look you would not despise them due to their origin and past hostility from the USA hostage incident of… 1979? Around that era) customers were among the easiest to deal with; often offering you some of the ever-present food cooking inside their sub-par auto repair facility.
Ate at a couple of ’em over the years. Good eatin’. That lamb and rice was spiced sumptuously!!! Good grub. And they were delighted as we sat in a circle babbling away as I ate the plate piled full of what I hope was not bacteria-laden vittles and I never got sick so all was well!!!
The Vietnamese refugees never fed me and tended to be frequent whiners for the least little thing.
Easy to handle, though.
Legitimate complaint? No problem.
Whining? Following THEIR cultural norm of price haggling? I had the authority to do so and I informed the office sales folks to price the goodies higher for most ethnic groups (accents and prior experience informed us of who and how to set prices) to allow price haggling downwards; making US popular, especially compared to the other yards that did not perform that beloved “price haggling function” the immigrants loved to do.
The Russians were the worst. However, they never physically assaulted me despite their typical threats. Part of their culture!!! They seemed to respect somebody who would stand up to them and either just stare/glare or even encourage them to “bring it on, Mofo.”
They were a profanity spewing bunch!!!!!
And such was Oakland.
Seldom a dull moment!!!!
Oh, can’t fail to mention the late delivery to the south Oakland repair shop. A large “real” shop with modern goodies such as lifts and ample room inside the large metal building.
Called ahead earlier; they would wait a bit to get the needed part.
Metal roll down/up door closed. Beat upon it. Replied to internal voice; “Delivery (firm name left unmentioned in this factual tale) Gotcher’ part.”
Door rolls up and I see two employees; one holding a rapid-fire stubby 9mm gun. Not pointed at me but ready to be deployed.
Told it was a necessity in that part of town (I wasn’t surprised) and… no offense but one had to be safe.
He was right. I would have likely done the same if I opened the door after regular working hours. When I left (had entered with the truck to deliver several semi-heavy parts) the door rolled up and closed quickly behind me.
Just another day (evening) in Oakland, California.
I love this. It’s weird, un-PC, informal, and I’m not sure where it went from where it was, but I love it! Paul, if you’re reading, screw Jack Baruth’s narcissistic hipsterisms. Get this guy writing feature columns for TTAC in his place.
Jack Kerouac garage noir.
Happy Birthday, Curbside Classic! What a great idea to run the original comments. Does this give credit to EducatorDan for the first official CC comment? Congratulations, Paul, on this site. You planted a seed then nurtured and tended it into something special. The rest of us are in your debt.
And You are right. There is a lot of baggage associated with this car. My knee-jerk reaction was to unload all of my hatred of these cars, but maybe this is just the baggage and not the car itself (at least mostly). Today, you would think that all of them were pink or turquoise and driven by Elvis or Marilyn Monroe. We forget about the plain white Coupe DeVilles driven by the doctor’s wife to the club.
I would imagine that more than one Cadillac customer in 1959 was not all that crazy about the car. It was fine from the drivers seat, but a bit over the top to look at. But it was a Cadillac, which was enough to keep most people satisfied. Anyway, what other choices were there? It’s not like the 59 Lincoln or Imperial (as much as I like them) were sensible, tasteful cars either.
Two final points. First, mechanical. The 59 marks the beginning of what I consider to be the ultimate Cadillac drivetrain – the 390 Cadillac V8 mated to the Jetaway HydraMatic, that stayed through 1963. A thouroughly good combination. Second, you hit it: This car set the farthest boundary for the ever longer, lower, wider, chromier 1950s. Whether we like it or not, this car IS the ultimate 1950s space-age luxury car.
@jpcavanaugh, I’ve always considered this a higher honor https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-american/curbside-classic-1985-dodge-diplomat-se-absolution-granted/ although not as high as actually having things I wrote published here.
Actually, the first comment that day was by Steve Lang on the Toyota MR2 CC: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-asian/curbside-classic-1991-toyota-mr2-a-camry-in-a-ferrari-suit/#comment-9
I had several pieces stacked up when the site went live.
Wow, it seems hard to believe that it’s been a year already. Congrats, Paul! And thanks for the shout out, too.
“the sixties? That The Beatles would appear, that Rosa Parks wouldn’t give up her bus seat…”
Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in 1955, not the 60’s. But good article otherwise.
Oops. Good point…
Happy CC Birthday Paul!
What a journey this continues to be, especially for someone from “back east” where many of the cars featured out on the curbside…are only seen at cruises and shows in the Northeast.
Lots of fun to interact with all of you and look forward to another great year. Thanks again for re-running this first gem and bringing back a day when it seemed like anything and everything was possible…when in reality it was GM caught reacting rather than leading…a situation in which they’d increasingly find themselves as the decades passed. Many times for worse…but sometimes for the better.
I have a special attraction to the ’59 Caddy thanks to one of my favorite boy hood movies. A ’59 Caddy hearse played Ecto 1 in Ghostbusters and forever made me love the huge fins of the ’59 Caddy. I’d love to own a light blue ’59 Cady Coupe De ville but I would have to build a longer garage to house it.
False Prophet or not, one of these in Black with a Black and Red interior and a 500ci heart transplant would be an automotive wet dream come true for me.
Silver would work, my Zoot suit could work with that.
Chicago is the land of celebrating the past though.. So I’ll hide this CC here.
It’s a 78 with a low 320k on the clock.. She belongs to a retired Teamster that uses it as his “winter” car to make things interesting..
Happy birthday Paul its been a whole year already nice to see the 59 Caddy again, its always interesting to park a modern car next to one of these tanks to see the size difference your xbox is a passenger compartment with an engine attached where the Cad is a styling exercise with no thought for passengers at all, “they don build em like they used to” and we should all be grateful
Hip, hip, hooray for the first year. CC’s off to a great start!
The only thing I can think to add is to note that Cadillac’s sales were less affected by the recession than most of the mid-priced marques. They dipped 17% for MY1958 (not to the obvious benefit of its direct competitors — Imperial and Lincoln were down by more than 50%), then recovered in 1959, remained stable through 1961, and then began a decade-long climb. As admired as the ’61 Continental is today, when it was new, Cadillac outsold it by more than six to one.
Lincoln had actually been backing away from the horsepower race for a couple of years when the ’61 Continental was introduced. The ’59 Lincolns were down 25 hp from 1958, and the 1960 models were down another 35 hp, probably in an effort to mitigate their fuel consumption. (The lightest of the 1960 cars was very close to 5,000 lb, with a 7,040cc engine…)
I can’t remember exactly where it was but I listened too an interview a while ago with one of the stylists or modellers who had worked on the 59 Cadillac, he said that the brass (it might have been Earl or possibly the board/management) had come in to view the model and were shocked by the fins and asked that they be made smaller. Whoever was leading the team refused to do so, and instead while the brass were at lunch they made one fin a few inches taller! The brass troop back in later, with faculties perhaps not at their sharpest, and say “that’s much better”, so they got away with it.
I could absolutely see that happening in late 50s Detroit. Many things look better after a couple of Rob Roys!
Bill Mitchell used to tell that story, but it was not about the ’59 Cadillac — it was in connection with the ’48, a decade earlier, which first introduced the tail fins (inspired by the Lockheed P-38 Lightning).
I’d be very interested to see any of the in-progress 1959 designs that were abandoned.
Oh boy. Back when I was a kid, a doctor of my parents’ acquaintance had one of these. But it wasn’t extravagant or gaudy enough for him. He made a modification–added a THIRD tailfin in the middle of the trunk lid. I came to understand that this told us all we needed to know about the guy; he was a documented quack who had his privileges revoked by a number of local hospitals.
Belated congrats, Paul. CC is the salt around the Margarita glass of automotive journalism, the Partagas of prose, a true colossus of collectibles. May you enjoy many more years of success.
A late happy birthday to my favorite site.
It really is an honor to get to write for and with Paul. Even if I couldn’t, I’d still be here every day anyway. I loved CCs with it was part of TTAC, and I love it now.
I hope the next year is twice as good as the last!
Nice ’59. Every time I see the ’62, though, I wonder what the decision was for the ’64. The ’64 has seemed to me since I was a kid like what you’d expect the ’62 to be, and vice versa. Was there an “oops” that caused them to retract to ’59-’60ish styling in ’64? Was it some sort of compromise design? I’ve just always figured there must be a story there.
Has there ever been a more charismatic car yes by the late 60s they were the height of bad taste and you couldn’t give them away ..but my god are they valuable now 50thousand dollars and up 1 million for a Biarritz convert able ..I guess this car has had the last laugh it realy has become an ikon of a car I think there fantastic ..a black 4 door flattop roof for me thank you.
>> GM’s last minute dash to outdo Exner’s vision for the new decade involved ditching the one-year only 1958 bodies
“One year only” would apply only to Chevrolet and Pontiac; the 1958 Olds, Buick and Cadillac bodies were all in their second year.
When I saw the ’59 Pontiac design proposals (9th picture) I new exactly where the ’16 Prius’ taillights are coming from. I all along knew where they should go….
This wasn’t a car, it was a statement. Needs backup cameras though
I don’t have much to say about the ’59 Cadillac that hasn’t been said before, but this is an exceptional piece of writing on a subject that’s been extensively covered just about everywhere.
Absolutely fabulous article, Paul, just tremendous. I can lose myself in this car for hours and hours. This car and cars like it had a strong effect on my grade-school mind. I still wish the future had turned out with a little more rocket ship style.
Dog-leg windshields didn’t last for good reasons, but what a view! Today’s thick and forward A-pillars are good for energy-saving aerodynamics and crash safety, but they block a lot of crucial view, right where pedestrians and bicycles show up. I wish we could have all that glass back somehow.
I hate to be a nit-pick, but when the 4-6-59 photo was taken the ’59 Buick was in showrooms across America. They must have used one for that study of a double-bubble roof.
Duh! I’ve come tor realize that the dates on these photos are not always trustworthy. This concept has to have been from some time earlier, given the dorsal wing too. And the rear lights on one side are not quite finished either.
It seems to me that any design that tries to interpret the future is usually the design that most often becomes the design that embodies the failed past. Flash Gordon is a great example. Retro-futurism, if you will. It shows what past generations envisioned for the future, and delightfully how wrong or misguided they ended up being. To me, that is what the 59 Cadillac represents – an end of a generation. This was the end of the line for the WWII era and the start of the new. This was all mid-century modern taking over. It did it earlier in architecture, and cars and fashion made the same changes at about the same time. Eisenhower gave way to Kennedy, Mamie gave way to Jackie, and the 59 Caddy gave way to the 61 Lincoln. Sadly, even this great design language faded, and we only give lip service to its revival. You see little in the way of “retro” versions of the cars from the 60s, but you do see these cars retaining their cache as an icon of a lost time and place. I guess that pink is the most popular color of these cars as we only look back at them wearing rose colored glasses.
What I always found interesting about the ’59 Cadillacs is how cleanly styled they were if you somehow could lop off those huge fins, or at least several reduce their reach. The extreme fishbowl was over-the-top too, but overall it’s very clean and uncluttered compared to any GM car from just a year earlier. The only chrome embellishment on the side was a thin rub strip and the usual window surrounds, which weren’t that noticeable due to their thinness. With frequent facelifts, they could have kept this car going into the ’70s and still looking up to date.
I have seen precisely one 59 Cadillac that I have liked. After a near lifetime of red pink and turquoise versions with fuzzy dice hanging from the mirrors and 50s rock music blaring from speakers at a cruise in, I caught sight of a worn original black 59 Sedan DeVille that was carrying four middle-aged people to dinner at a Mexican restaurant.
There was something about that slightly crusty original Cadillac that exuded just a little bit of the old Cadillac class. I was not able to capture it in pictures, wish I could have.
I can see how seeing a more pedestrian version, the sedan, obviously being used as transportation, could affect how you liked that car. The car was being used as intended, without irony or affect, and the car carried its occupants and itself in the manner it was built to do so. The pink, red, and turquoise cars that one sees today at a cruise in are like seeing a girl in a poodle skirt with a guy in a white t-shirt with a pack of smokes rolled up in the sleeve, greased back hair and someone telling you that is what the 50’s was like. It is a caricature, not the real thing. Your black sedan was the real thing; thus, you saw it for what it was, I can see how it would exude class.
In contrast to the Lincoln I never understood why Cadillac continued those hideous tail fins into the ’64 model year. But then again, Cadillac far outsold Lincoln during that time, so what do I know.
While the ’59 Cadillac was quite reactionary to the ’57 Chrysler, it seems evolutionary in the scheme of things. From 1948 to this day, Cadillac has paid some homage to the idea of the fin – from 1965 on the term for the styling is probably more properly “bladed fender.”
Very appropriate title for the 1959 Cadillac. It represented the height of the tailfin era, extravagant chrome and styling. Looking at those late-50s pre-production mockups with their far-out tailfin and headlight treatments (pictures 8-13 and the GM experimental Firebirds), I’m glad that styling trend did not continue. But on the other hand, it did project a proud, confident, individualist, if not extravagant Americana.
That extravagance was the underlying theme in a book published in 1960 called “The Waste Makers” by Vance Packard. He criticized the wasteful practice of industry that promoted excess materialism, planned obsolescence and consumerism. Packard defined “consumerism” as wasteful promotion and buying. An entire chapter was devoted to the automotive industry citing annual design changes (for styling purposes), extravagant chrome, fins, etc, as wasteful consumerism. No doubt the book set the stage for the late 1960s/70s Ralph Nader brand of consumerism.
Robert S. McNamara, another efficiency-minded minimialist also disdained the extravagant styling trends of the industry. He was the driving force behind the simple, conservative and minimalist styled 1959 Ford Falcon, 1961 Lincoln Continental and the aborted Cardinal. Had McNamara remained president of Ford, it would have been interesting to see how the automotive industry would have evolved into the 1960s and 1970s.
It would especially be interesting to see the kinds of clashes McNamara would’ve gotten into with Lee “Gingerbread Man” Iacocca.
From what I’ve read, Iacocca respected McNamara, but there was a limit. And McNamara respected Iacocca for being able to come up with profit-making ideas.
On the other hand many times Iacocca felt thwarted and frustrated to McNamara’s indifference to style and marketing but Iacocca was smart and fast on his feet and could hold his own against McNamara’s statistical arguments. As long as those ideas produced profits and kept Ford in the black, he could have his way…..up to a point.
I wonder if the Ford Mustang still would have been built under a McNamara regime.
The most outlandish thing about the ’59 Caddy was the fins. Slice them off, and the rest of the car is not only doesn’t look too bad but is an understandable ‘next step’ from the ’58 model. Like this one by Raymond Loewy, which fitted into the sixties nicely.
Popular Science review is sober, though with a little tongue-in-cheek (part 1):
BEWARE! EMBIGGENING THIS FROZE MY BROWSER
Interesting tongue-in-cheek final comment regarding the fins and road stability in cross-winds.
Chrysler actually went so far as to make comments in marketing for its finny ’57s that the fins had aerodynamic relevancy. Chrysler sure had a knack for writing its marketing comments into a corner – at some point, the height of fins would be reached literally and stylistically, and of course the ’59 Cadillac determined that final height.
I don’t know what how much truth there is to it, but my mother once made a comment that does not seem as much of a stretch as the Chrysler marketers were willing to make. It seems that these extremely big and very pointy fins came in for criticism on safety issues. Apparently the occasional motorcyclist would impale themselves on some of these fins, as would kids playing on the streets on bicycles – the proliferation of parked pointy parts proved to be plenty perilous to playing people.
I grew up in a small town in the Midwest- but across the street lived a world famous Nuremberg dermatologist. The doctor drove Pontiacs. His sons- off at private school- shared a 50s black Mercedes. But I remember his 1960 Pontiac Catalina hardtop. It was navy blue with the half moon hubcaps, and black walls. It gave this “far out” design a kind of Euro look. Same with his wife. She drove a base ’53 Chevy coupe- navy blue with black walls and the half moon hubcaps. Meanwhile up the street my uncle drove a less than Germanic three-toned ’56 Roadmaster- black/white/gray with a red interior.
Your description of sitting or riding in the back of the 1959 Caddy reminds me of when I used to car pool to work and a few times was relegated to the back seat of one – of – these – dumb – cars. Late ’70s or early ’80s Plymouth Arrow.
I’m 5-10, and had to sit severely hunched over the whole was in, or slump down in my assigned crucible – er, seat. Headroom was meant for the vertically challenged only. I could barely climb in the back to begin with.
That car pooling arrangement didn’t last for too long.
My (only) carpool was in 1980-1983, with a couple (single at the time) who lived in my apartment complex; we all worked in the same place. Actually don’t really remember why we carpooled (besides the obvious saving gas)….maybe closer parking…worked in a huge complex back then.
Maybe not quite as bad as the Arrow, since all were FWD (well, maybe I started with my RWD Datsun 710) but the guy had a ’78 Ford Fiesta, his (now wife) a ’79 Datsun 310 Coupe, and I started with the (4 door) 710 but starting in early 1981 had my ’78 Scirocco. All (except the 710) 2 door, manual transmission cars. Not quite what you’d expect with a carpool of 3 people (where someone always had to sit in the back). Actually not as bad as you might think, I’m about 6’1 but stocky build but fit OK even in the Fiesta.
Don’t have any experience with the ’59 Cadillac. My Dad had a ’56 Plymouth up until 1961 when he bought a Rambler wagon (his first automatic..probably due to my Mother) in Compton, Ca, then another ’63 Rambler Wagon (not sure where it was bought, could have been California or Pittsburgh, PA, where we moved. So you can tell something about him…especially bucking the trend and moving directly from Southern California to Pittsburgh (in 1960 or 1961). Should mention though that both parents families lived in Pennsylvania (though NEPA, not near Pittsburgh)….and he was in semiconductor industry (since 1956!) which is main reason we moved quite a lot when all of us were younger.
I have a 59 60S Fleetwood, and have some comments regarding this fascinating thread.
* When I was in the Cadillac/LaSalle Club in Michigan, I got to know Dave Holls, the primarily designer of the 59. Once, I asked him: “What were you thinking?” His answer: “Weil, things got a little crazy then.”
*Unless you are a 7 foot NBAer, the wraparound windshield is not a knee knocker at all.
*The wraparound windshield is virtually distortion-free (this was not suggested here, but I see in often stated in other 59 Cadillac threads).
*For a late 50s large US luxury car, it handles decently well. True, it is no Porsche.
*Those little “bullets” (I call them drawer pulls) in the grille and fake rear grille: 180 of them. The are anodized aluminum, and I understand that each are removable with a special tool (which I don’t have). Clean ’em with Windex, not chrome polish, or you will wear the finish. At car shows, I offer any kid (12 and under) $10 if they can count them accurately (again, 180). And the parents can help. No one comes close.
*When I first bought the car, I would look out the back, and think: “There are two motorcycles following me! Wait a minute…that’s the fins.”
*Chrome (copper/nickel/chrome) and paint applicaiton (no orange peel) are first rate. My chrome is 63 years old, and it looks great. Yes, some of the side trim is stainless, but it was done well, too.
* Interest in 59s started in the early 70s. They were not unwanted used cars selling for a few hundred $, as previously stated. You could get a decent Convertible DeVille for around $4000.
*Washing the rear of the car, you can seriously injure yourself on the fins.
*It is interesting that people (often women) not particularly interested in old cars often describe the 60 Special as “beautiful”. Don’t know if i would use this term, but it is striking with the chrome offsetting the black finish.
*That’s all for now… Currell