Curbside Classic: 1962 Cadillac Series 62 Coupe – Coupe de la Creme

(first posted 11/23/2012)    Today’s market offers no shortage of such “aspirational” cars as BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Lexus, among others.  Each brand has a fairly broad fan base and products that, while expensive, are still within ownership or lease by people who are either genuinely successful or willing to make sacrifices elsewhere.  In 1962, things were different. There was only one truly aspirational car in America, and this is it.  Granted, there were devotees of the new breed of Lincolns, and there had always been people for whom nothing but a Chrysler product would do. Even so, Lincoln and Imperial were mere blips on the sales radar.  For the most part, and in their heart of hearts, all of America–maybe even all of the world–really, truly wanted a Cadillac.

I have taken my share of abuse lately for my not-so-lofty opinion of various General Motors products.  I also make no secret of my heartfelt affection for several “lesser” auto companies, notably Chrysler and Studebaker.  I’ve given a lot of thought to my opinion of the General (the automaker, not the former Indiana basketball coach, of whom I have some opinions as well.)  It seems that my antipathy towards GM products falls into three categories:

The first category: GM products since the 1980s.  Often, they were just plain bad, like the Cadillacs from the second half of the 1980s (CC here) with their self-destructing engines and silly-looking proportions.  They were simply pathetic and vain attempts to charge lots of money for objectively substandard goods.  Another category is cars like the Chevy Monza (CC here), or the original Cadillac Seville (here).  Objectively speaking, these were not bad cars, but considering the resources at GM’s disposal during their development, they could (and should) have been so much better than they actually were.

But the biggest category involves cars predating those in the first two: The cars that were so maddeningly popular and held in such universal esteem.  These cars seemed to have it all: Great looks, good performance and quality construction.  They just seemed so perfect, at least to those of us who didn’t really get to know them personally.  GM cars before, say, 1970, were like the family that sends out a holiday letter about Grant’s promotion to executive VP of the Northern Hemisphere Division of his company, and Muffy’s championship medal in a Pan-European invitational equestrian tournament.  The cars certainly had their faults, but nobody seemed to care, and the public lapped them up anyway.  Nevertheless, sometimes there’s a GM car of which it’s impossible to think ill–like a member of a family that has it all, but is so kind and generous and decent that you just can’t help but love them.  The 1962 Cadillac is one of those cars.

Cadillac was at the top of its game in 1962.  Was there really a single thing objectively wrong about this car?  All cars have their weaknesses, but this one may have had as few as is possible for any mass-produced car. When one of the biggest gripes about the car is the tendency of the front bumper ends to rust after a dozen years, then you have a pretty good car.  By the time this car was built, several generations had grown up with the concept that a Cadillac represented something very special.  And for much of the period after the Second World War, Cadillac really was the only serious American purveyor of high-end cars–cars that truly were the Standard of the World.

It occurred to me that when it was new, this Cadillac owed virtually nothing to outside influences.  There was really nothing about this car even slightly cribbed from the competition. At the heart of it was the justifiably famous Cadillac V8, arguably the best all-around V8 engine of the post-World War II era.  In its day, the 1949 Cadillac V8 engine had set the industry standard for modern engines. The 390 cu in (6.4-liter) version, used from 1959 through 1963, might have been the smallest engine in any American luxury car (even smaller than the big Olds and Buick V8s), but it could power a new Cadillac up to an honest 125 mph.

Coupled to that fabulous engine was the last of the old-school Hydra-Matic transmissions.  Surely, its four gears helped the smaller-engined Caddy stay in the same performance league as its competition.  It was one of the last GM automatics that did not pay homage to the Chrysler Torqueflite in any way; in 1964, the smoother, but slightly less-efficient, Turbo HydraMatic would make its debut mated to a larger 429 cu in (7-liter) V8.  Indeed, this tranny was the last direct descendant of the original Hydra-Matic Drive of 1940.  All GM, and nothing but.

Then there was the styling.  Again, Cadillac was in no way reacting to the competition, but instead was setting its own agenda.  The Imperial’s styling leadership had come and was gone after 1957-58, and while the clean, elegant Continental look would soon influence Cadillac styling, that day had not yet come.  This car seems to have achieved a rare balance between style and substance, one that had managed to elude Cadillac’s competitors for so long. While the Fleetwood 60 Special may have come off a bit better as one of the more important-looking 1963 models, to my eye the ’62 is the high point for the Coupe deVille.  Was there ever another 5,000 lb. two-door that looked so crisply stylish, substantial and athletic, and all at the same time?

If Cadillac was the car of choice in the Mad Men era, then the Coupe deVille was the Cadillac to have.  Introduced in 1949 as Cadillac’s first hardtop, the inaugural Coupe deVille combined the beauty and grace of a convertible and the practicality of a closed car.  Throughout the 1950s, the Coupe deVille became the one car wanted by virtually everyone.  Even the hardtop Sedan deVille that debuted in 1956 couldn’t match it for style; after all, this was a time when four-door cars were for conservative, practical people.  If you were stylish, or wanted to be, then a two-door was the way to go–and what big two-door looked better than a Coupe deVille?

Perhaps my experience with this car colors my judgment.  I owned a 1963 Fleetwood Sixty Special sedan (black, of course) which was mechanically identical to today’s feature car.  It was a well-worn example that in its final third of life had not been the least bit cared for; despite that, it still could offer up a firm handshake and make it clear that it remained a Cadillac.  Everything a driver or passenger could touch felt like it was of the highest quality.  Despite its X frame, the car had a structural rigidity that the contemporary Imperial could only dream of.  After 15 years (including five years of hard time standing up to beatings from the teenagers who drove it before I did), virtually everything still worked as it was designed to work, and the car ran and drove better than it had a right to.

My other experience with this generation of Caddy is wrapped up in many of the Thanksgivings of my childhood.  More than once, my family would take the Pennsylvania Railroad’s overnight train from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to visit my grandparents in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  The Philadelphia Main Line was a strange and exotic place, so unlike the ordinary Midwest of my everyday life.  At the end of a really cool train trip we would be greeted by my grandfather at the Paoli station, and then we’d all load into his white 1962 four-window Sedan deVille.

I can still feel the cold, chromed door pull, the sound and feel of the heavy back door being opened and closed, and those black floor mats with the white Cadillac crest (the real one, with the big ‘V’ below it) that matched the white interior with the black-cloth seat inserts.   It was the last new car that Granddad would buy, and he drove it well into the 1970s.

Even in the early 1970s, by which time I had gotten to experience a couple of my father’s Continental Marks, that white ’62 deVille remained a completely different experience.  Even then, I recognized that it came from a bygone era, and that now even the most expensive American cars lacked many of its cost-be-damned qualities. I will never forget my disappointment when we went for another visit sometime in the late ’70s, and I learned that Granddad (ever the thrifty New England-er) had traded the elderly white ’62 on a used ’70 Electra 225 sedan.  I realized that the Cadillac had become woefully out of style, and as a man in his late 80s, he’d become concerned about its reliability.  Frankly, my disappointment would not have been any less had he bought another new Cadillac, so greatly had the division’s fortunes fallen (at least in my estimation) by then.

They say you can’t go home again, but as this Thanksgiving weekend approached, my thoughts wandered to this turquoise ’62 Cadillac that I spotted in a McDonalds parking lot last summer.  I didn’t get a look at the car until after I’d passed the entrance, and had to travel a long route with multiple traffic lights to get back to it.  But for a worn but original ’62 Caddy (that I thought was a Coupe DeVille) I had to do it.  As I shot these photos, I was once again struck by the old-school grandeur of this car.

Many modern cars are virtually devoid of interesting detail, but this old Cadillac is a treasure trove of fascinating and intricate touches.  I was hoping the owner would come out so that I could find out more of the car’s story.  Sadly, it was not to be, and I was left to daydream of how I could fix it up and go cruising to the market for some TastyKakes (as my father would do on those trips back east). I got only pictures of the car, yet I still had the best part of the experience–a little time with memories of my Granddad.