Curbside Classic: 1969 Cadillac DeVille Convertible – Please Turn Out the Lights When You Leave

(first posted 8/5/2011)     Once upon a time, there were few more desirable things on earth than a big, expensive, luxurious convertible.  From the 1920s through the jet age, the luxury convertible was a nearly universal object of desire.  But as the 1960s drew to a close, so too did the era of the open-air land yacht.

The same day that my CC on the ’68 Imperial convertible  (here) hit cyberspace, my wife alerted me that there was a car in the office parking lot that I might want to check out.  She was right.  I immediately recognized this ’69 Cad from halfway across the lot, and trotted out to snap some pictures.  All I could think of were the contrasts to the Imperial that was so fresh in my mind.

This car was, in many ways, the complete opposite of the CC Imperial.  Although these cars are separated by but a single year, they seem to come from two different generations or traditions.   The Imperial looked quite ordinary to the casual observer, but upon close inspection was teeming with costly little touches that reminded the driver why he spent so much money on his car.  This Cadillac is that car’s opposite.  From the outside, the ’69 Cadillac was every inch a Cadillac.  The aggressive grille, the sharp creases, the vestigial fins on the rear fenders and just the overall size and bulk – you can tell that this is a gen-u-wine Cadillac from 100 yards!

But up close, this car loses some of the magic.  It is clear that by 1969, the cost cutting scissors were in use at Cadillac (although they would really get warmed up in two more years).  While the car boasted one of the best powertrains ever, the trimming of the body and interior was another matter.  The seats?  Very plain upholstery, even though in leather (this car appears to sport a vinyl reupholstery job).  The dashboard?  The bright metal and expensive textures are gone.  All plastic (even if some of it was woodgrained).  Not a lot of trim, either.  Still, Cadillac sold over 16,000 of these DeVille convertibles in 1969.  And we have always known that the blonde cheerleader with the great figure gets more dates than the plain girl with the great personality.

I am not so much building a case of Imperial vs. Cadillac, but maybe it was just the passing from one era into another.  The ’69 Imperial was diminished in quality from its older brothers too, and this was simply not a great time in U.S. auto design if you were looking for those jewel-like details common on earlier models.  The money for new safety and emissions regulations had to come from somewhere, and better to squeeze it out of the products than to take it from the stockholders or executives, right?

The larger picture here, though, is the demise of the big luxury convertible.  You are looking at the last one standing (actually, the nearly identical 1970 model was the last one, but one of those did not park in my parking lot).  Beginning in 1971, the smaller Eldorado would have a convertible to offer, but not the big DeVille.  Imperial had given up after 1968 and Lincoln after 1967.  So what happened?  The usual explanations are widespread availability of air conditioning and interstate highways, and these are certainly factors.  I would add, however,  some demographic changes.  The big DeVille was becoming the Cadillac for the older set, and convertibles are a younger person’s car.  Also, by 1969-70, it was much more common among the affluent to have multiple, specialized cars than a decade earlier.  So why not a big, comfortable, air conditioned Coupe DeVille for everyday AND a sportier convertible for when the weather was just right?

I always considered the 1969-70 Cadillac a very good looking car.  Cadillac had one heckuva styling department in those years, and churned out design after design that looked just the way a Cadillac was supposed to look.  However, please permit the author the privilege of a peeve:  Driving around in a convertible with the top down and the windows up should be grounds for revocation of the owner’s convertible license.  But before I throw the book at these unknown people, I should consider that this is a 40 year old car, and it is conceivable that some or all of the power windows are not working.    So, I shall let the owner off with a  stern warning.  Next case.

There is one particular feature of this car that gives me a warm feeling.  In 1969, my grandma bought her last new car – a 1969 Pontiac Catalina sedan in this exact color combination.  This clean, clear silver paint was an unusual color during that era of earth tones.  Did you know that in 1970, Chevrolet sold more gold Impalas than white ones?   Silver did not become a common part of the automotive landscape until the mid 1970s (and it remains with us yet).  Silver suits this car.  Would there have been a better way in 1969 to obtain membership in Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” than to drive this silver Cadillac convertible?  This car would have made its first owner a card-carrying member of The Establishment.  “Hello, my name is Ralph, and I am The Man.”

It is hard to convey the sheer size of this car with pictures.  This thing is just enormous.  Did I mention the 472 cubic inches?  So, I like it.  The fact that the top goes down too makes me overlook its faults and love it all the more.  So let’s all make a toast to the last of the huge luxury land yacht convertibles.  A car like this will never come along again, so let’s just soak up some fun in the sun on a massive scale.  Now, if I can just find a ’67 Lincoln with the top down.