Curbside Classic: 1972 Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado Convertible – The End Of An Exceptional Era

(first posted 11/8/2011)    Endings are hard. And boy, does this car ever embody a lot of endings. The problem with endings is that almost inevitably, they’re forced. Quitting while at the top may sound noble, but who really pulls that off, at least in modern history? It’s a concept even more archaic than the mega-sized convertible. But inevitably it came, one year after this Eldorado was built, and America’s never been quite the same since.

America’s Exceptional Era began after the end of WW2, and 1972 was its last full year. The OPEC-induced energy crisis of 1973 was the catalyst that ended it, although that probably gives it too much credit; it was inevitable anyway. Why else would it be called “exceptional”? So what do we call the era that began then: the New-Normal Era?

Without rehashing the obvious, the Exceptional Era earned its name because Americans’ incomes and purchasing power were growing exceptionally fast, as were its cars. From 3000 lb cars with 90 hp to 5000 lb cars with 500 cubic inches. That was hardly a sustainable trend line, eh?

But the Exceptional Era went out with a mighty big bang: GM’s 1971 cars were over the top, swelling their hips in a final orgy of excess. And although the Eldorado wasn’t quite as long as the “regular” Caddies, for a personal luxury car it was huge. Sitting on a 126″ wheelbase, they stretched from sea to shining sea.

The 1971 Eldorado, as the standard bearer for the whole ’71 GM line, was living proof that the end was nigh. There was no genuine original inspiration that drove their design. Most of all the Eldorado, which had a decidedly retro quality to it, invoking Cadillac styling cues twenty years earlier.

The bulging hips with that vertical transition trim, the horizontal line emanating from the front wheel, the humped rear deck lid, etc.. Inspiration? To do what exactly? How to make the world’s biggest cars? Decadence usually sets in just before the end.

But before this veers off towards a Deadly Sin, let’s look for the positives. And I found some, thanks to two fortuitous qualities. This is a 1972, the last year before whatever originality it had was badly marred by the five mph cow catcher bumpers that appeared the following year. That, combined with it being a convertible.

The Eldorado coupes of this vintage have just never been able to step out of the hole of their own making for me. Here it is. And I’m surprised it didn’t earn a Deadly Sin; must have been a sunny day.

And I’ve harbored a similar grudge against the convertible, by association and because most of them seem to be the later ones with the dreadful bumpers. And all that to-do when the last ones were made in 1976. Good riddance! I was twenty three, and the guys wailing and clamoring over them wore white belts and matching shoes. The last big American convertible! Buyers bid up the prices to ridiculous levels, only to see their investments wiped out, especially when Cadillac started offering convertibles again a few years later.

So here I am, confronted with a car that’s been the object of my derision for so long, and what happens? I’m sucked in. Well, sort of, anyway. And in more than the “cool old Cadillac, man” way, a mindset that I can fully appreciate and understand. And one that comes easy for those born since this car was built.

My prejudice is so informed by the coupe and the stylistic decline of this body, that I realize I’m really looking at a pre-’73 convertible for the first time ever. And it’s not as bad as I remember it to be. The old Mitchell magic still has a bit of power left. Especially at the front and rear ends, which were so violated after 1972.

From the right angles, this car is still a lot more crisp and edgy than the bloated bulge-mobiles of my mind. Hardly like the rather brilliant knife-edged 1967, but not without enough interest to keep me walking around and looking longer than I’d have expected. But then it was a rather exceptionally hot day; one whose effect could well work either way.

The Eldo’s interior obviously shows effects of the twin evils of safety regs and bean counting. But on the other hand, like the rest of this ’72, it’s fairly clean and toned down compared to bordello Biarritz’ to come. The color combo is surprisingly less offensive that I might expect. Try getting a green and white interior nowadays!

Of course, there are some challenging details, like these two charming fillips. Let’s just say interior decor of this period will not go down in history favorably. Modernism is dead; now what do we do? It was a painful era; shag carpeting, heavy dark furniture, harvest gold appliances, and doohickeys like these everywhere.

But there was more to the Eldorado than fillips, at least under the hood. Cadillac’s all-new V8 debuted in 1968 with 472 cubic inches (7.6 L). If I remember correctly (and I may not) they left enough growth potential to eventually take it to 600 cubes. Within a few years after the 500 CID (8.2 L) version arrived in 1970, it would start shrinking, going down to 425 cubes (1978), and then quickly all the way to 368 cubic inches in 1980. The irony of it; all that massive bore spacing to be left to wasted solid iron. Pride goes before the fall (in displacement).

I’m almost tempted to skip the usual litany about the 500 cubic incher’s meager horsepower output. Yes, it was 235 (net) hp; within a couple of years it dropped further, to 190. The same as a 2.4 L four cylinder Honda Accord musters today. End of subject. The 500 twisted plenty of torque to give an adequate facsimile of performance to its target demographic. Through the front wheels, too, no less; if anyone cared. Nobody did. Made for a killer RV drive train.

So I’ve confessed my Deadly Sin, having been sucked in to the Eldorado convertible’s magic, at least a little. Who can resist? The really big car may have crumbled under the weight of its own excess, but what a way to go (just not too quickly please; we haven’t touched on its wallowy handling and so-so brakes). But there was plenty of compensation: the 1972 Fleetwood Eldorado Convertible cost $7546 new, which equals $40,000 in today’s money. It really was The Exceptional Era. And what an ending.