(first posted 6/9/2011) My absolute favorite Cadillac of all time are the 1962 models. Turning on the television, it seems I’m not the only one. These particular Cadillacs pop up in pop culture more often than others, save the 1959 models.
Or Mad Men.
Pop Culture seems obsessed with the skeg-finned Cadillacs of 1962. They stand in the middle of the transition period between the height of the fins in 1959, and the somewhat homely restraint of the 1965 Models. In modern Hollywood portrayals of the early 1960s, these particular Cadillacs still hold the status of having “Made It.” The concurrent Lincolns that had more design influence on American Automotive design don’t appear as often as equal status symbols. They may appear for historical accuracy, but they less often seem the object of desire.
Maybe the Camelot Continental inspired too many imitators? It started out as a Thunderbird proposal. By the time both reached production in 1961, the Continental and Thunderbird shared many design details. Maybe a consequence of sharing a factory and Robert McNamara’s cost saving ways. Then the theme became diluted when Elwood Engel went to Chrysler and made variations on the theme first with the 1964 Imperial, then with the 1965 Chryslers. Or, as the 1962 GT Hawk posted during Studebaker week shows, imitation began almost immediately.
Precious little about the 1961-62 Cadillacs seem to have trickled down to other General Motors cars (or any other 1960s production car). It is more a car of the Kennedy Era than the Lincoln Continental could ever hope to be. The 1961 Continental rode out the whole decade, for better or worse, in the same basic shape. It’s harder for a causal eye to know all the details that make, say, a 1963 Continental, a 1963.
Details on the Cadillac like the white covered tail lights that glow red when the brakes are applied replace and make it different from the two circular lenses on 1961 models. Or those Skeg fins running that Henkle Knife sharp visual line from the front wheel well all the way to the rear of the car, which would disappear for 1963.
Little planned obsolescence styling changes, along with engineering refinement kept Cadillac high in resale value and appeal during this time. Even in ads for their 1965 models show the previous seasons offerings as being a desirable way to step into the excellence that was the Standard of the World. That’s a far better option than settling for that Ninety Eight Luxury sedan or Electra 225, isn’t it?
Seeing one of these Cadillacs on the street today, they seem reminiscent of an era long gone. An era in which women donned white gloves, nylons and pearls for shopping trips to I. Magnin department store for pillbox hats. Or to Kroger for the fixings of Steak Diane.
An era where men wore suits, ties and hats on a daily basis, even in the sweltering heat. The time that you actually went to the dry cleaners, and had clothing pressed in crisp creases, not unlike the sharp lines of this Cadillac.
When the creases in slacks started to relax, it also seemed that Cadillac also relaxed its design philosophy. By 1967, the standard line Cadillacs had embraced the hips that sprouted at Pontiac in 1963. Sexual liberation in car design? It might be a stretch, but I wouldn’t doubt it put off a number of stoic buyers. The more Caddies became rolling bordellos (ironically, playing catch up to cheaper cars), the more buyers looked overseas for import luxury from Mercedes, and to a lesser extent, Jaguar.
Now you might wonder why I latch onto the 1962 models more than others. When I was in Catholic School, my best friend’s grandparents had a 1962 Coupe DeVille.
Black with the most glove soft white leather I had ever seen. I had seen my fair share of Brougham-y pillow button loose cover “Regency” leather interiors in the Oldsmobiles I had grown up in. They were comfortable, but seemed to come with this ungodly slippery sheen that made me wonder if the interiors were sprayed with a lifetime supply of Lemon Pledge.
But the leather of this Cadillac was of this elegant sheen that seemed so subdued, refined. Close the heavy doors, an echo of a distant AC Delco Starter, and then silence. Not tomb like silence, but a white noise silence of serenity. And then silent, effortless motoring. The only noise really was the clicking of the Hydra Matic column shifter from all the way to the bottom “R” back up to drive. None of the jet like whine I associated with every Turbo Hydra Matic car I had encountered (and sometimes crave to hear) in “modern” GM products. You were coddled in a silky, swift, Paradise. It’s almost as this was the ultimate white space.
From the sea of middling at best GM products I was familiar with, that 25 year old magic carpet ride made me understand why so many of my relatives talked, almost in rhapsody about how magnificent these particular cars were. There wasn’t the hoarse lumpiness of the HT4100 V8 disturbing anything. There wasn’t any sagging headliners or finicky electroluminescent gauges interrupting the white space. There wasn’t a repair bill waiting for the 440-T4 Hydra Matic waiting down the road. These Cadillacs were products of when GM was at the top of their game, and very close to the end of the era when Cadillacs could be considered standards of the world.
Their 390 V8s were smaller than both their C-Body brethren. By 1962, Oldsmobile checked in with the 394 Sky Rocket for Ninety Eights to make up for the doddering Roto-Hydramatic’s slow shifts. Buick was up to 401 cubic inches for the Deuce and a Quarter. Lincoln was still running a massive, detuned 430, Imperial a slightly less ridiculous 413. Through brilliant engineering, or more likely the aid of the four-speed Fluid Coupling Hydra Matic, these Cadillacs were still capable of hustling to 60 in under 10 seconds and would top out at a genuine 125 mph, all the while returning gas mileage in the low teens. 11-15 miles to the gallon might not (ever) be anything to brag about, but one assumes at least the Lincoln did worse. And the high strung big inline sixes from a Heckflosse 300 SE weren’t all that much better.
It’s easy to see why most luxury car buyers voted with their pocketbooks in 1962 and purchased nearly 161,000 of these cars. There’s enough of the subtle balance between quiet elegance, brash style, exceptional performance and brand Cachet that would soon be squandered. Even today, if anyone gave me the choice of *any* Cadillac, I’d pick the 1962s over any model, just based on a few rides in that Black Coupe DeVille 20 years ago. I bought into the media propaganda. These were the Best Cadillacs ever.