To visit Europe or Asia is to be constantly exposed to the remnants of empires long gone. One travels the modern streets of Granada or Madrid, and suddenly, some ruin of Roman, Visigod, or Arab origin appears. What’s left is usually not much, and one has to wonder, what was it like during its prime? What led to its downfall? And how much the world has changed since?
Some ruins work better than others to reimagine the past. Sometimes, it’s a few scattered rocks on a hillside. Hard to think of them as a Visigod castle, or whatever they were at some point. Sometimes, they’re whole cities; with structures, streets, and houses in crumbling condition and faded colors. Occasionally, they exude some of the splendor they once had, even if the visible scars prove hard for the imagination to overcome. One stares, walks around and tries to envision. This must have been quite the place back in the day…
Coming from the American continent, distant history is hard stuff to fathom. Anthropologists will tell us that there’s a lot of history in California’s past, but walking around LA, most visible vestiges are only a few decades old. Easy stuff for my mind to wrap itself around. I hear, “That house is from the 1940s,” and my head just pieces it all together. “Well, that’s a bit of FDR, rock ‘n roll, Cold War, Rocky movies, the internet, and The Hunger Games!” Give or take a few events here and there, it’s easy to link those decades to today.
But centuries-old events are an altogether different proposition, and it’s quite difficult to reimagine a distant fallen empire.
One could argue that taking into account the speed at which car fashions come and go, reimagining a particular brand’s heyday is just as hard. Even if the span of time is only a few decades. Or years. In the car world, a few cycles of poor products are the equivalent of the Roman Empire’s protracted decay. Marques can fall in favor or disappear altogether, with astonishing speed.
And much like their human counterparts, those who lived during a brand’s imperial days talk of them in veneration, with names spoken in reverence: Packard, Pierce-Arrow, Pontiac. Meanwhile, the generations that follow only see ruins, and wonder: So… what was the big deal?
Such is my relationship with Cadillac. Not that the brand was completely rotten to me, but its prime days were well behind my time. To see a Cadillac in the late ’80s was to see a car with outdated styling and hardware, somewhat tacky, and of interest only to aging folk. Elvis usually came to mind too, at a point when that wasn’t cool anymore.
The brand had also pushed itself downmarket for so long, that by the mid-80s enough Caddys littered the streets in junky condition or worse. Many were just eyesores.
This had once been a luxury marque? Talk about a fallen empire.
I had to ponder such matters after I found this most extraordinary pair in San Salvador; a 1947 Cadillac Fleetwood, and a 1956 Morris Minor. Both were products of prominent empires, each built during their company’s prime. Iconic products from an illustrious imperial past.
We’ll start with the ’47 Fleetwood. This was a Cadillac from its peak, on its way to obliterating the competition in the American luxury field. Arguably, the last year its styling could be directly traced to the company’s trendsetting 1938 Sixty Special. Bill Mitchell’s first hit, and an influential design if there ever was one; architect of the three-box language and preacher of the lower-wider mantra. A school that would dominate car design for decades, as the tiny Morris Minor sitting next to it inadvertently proves.
Since I’ve no idea when we’ll ever see another early Sixty Special-derived Cadillac at CC, I may as well cover this chapter. However briefly. The design’s origin had its roots in the Panhard 6 CS Panoramic, seen by Harley Earl and Bill Knudsen at the 1934 Paris Auto Show. It’s hard to imagine now, but the way the Panoramic broke tradition with its roof and window treatment was quite eye-catching at the time.
In any case, Knudsen was rather taken with the Panoramic’s roof treatment, and his original intention was to purchase one. Earl got him to quit the notion, assuring him GM’s stylists could do one better.
Back in Detroit, a young Bill Mitchell got the assignment. Originally, Earl’s instruction was for a ‘youthful’ LaSalle model, but the design soon became a Cadillac. According to Mitchell, Earl paid close attention to the Sixty Special’s development, with a number of novel ideas being tested. The proposal had a low stance, improved on the Panhard’s window treatment, and discarded the then-standard running boards. More importantly, as clays advanced, the proposal’s trunk kept getting longer and longer. Mitchell’s team also added suitcase fenders with knife-blade edges and a sculpted elaborate grille upfront.
Just as in the Panhard, the trunk and roof treatment were the design’s most striking elements. It was an unusual approach at the time, but the styling department liked the looks and Earl championed it. The new design made a dramatic styling statement, the kind that defines or breaks a brand.
You know you’re onto something good when – besides healthy sales- everyone emulates you. The Sixty Special’s groundbreaking three-box shape soon became a norm in the automotive field. And as we know, just about everyone adopted its language, as it’s curiously evident on the Minor’s body. As tidy as it is, the proportions are Caddy-like; in reduced and compacted form.
And we can be certain that neither Issigonis nor Morris Motors were thinking ‘Cadillac’ when creating the Minor.
Our 1947 Fleetwood traces its lines directly to the 1941/42 redesigns, the division’s last significant updates before the war. The ’41s carried the first version of Cadillac’s ‘tombstone’ grille, intended to give the car a ‘wider’ stance. In 1942, ‘bullet shape’ fenders replaced the ‘suitcase’ ones, amongst other minor updates that were to remain in the ’46-’47 models.
As with most other makes, the ’46-’47s were mild refreshes of those pre-war designs. Yet, Cadillacs were a hot commodity in the intense postwar market. Just in the US, the division had over 100K back orders in wait at the beginning of 1947. Needless to say, the scarcity only increased the desire for Cadillac’s products, with dealers adding a good markup over sticker price.
And yet, against all that domestic pent-up demand, the company still managed to move a number of units abroad. As our sample in San Salvador shows.
Let’s devote some lines to the Minor now, another member from a fallen empire. A proud dynasty in some ways harder to imagine than Cadillac’s, with the presence of British goods now seeming very distant. Still, British-made carried a lot of weight around the world when this Minor came out of the assembly line. Just in Central America, many railways were of British origin and that nation’s industrial might was synonymous with speed and modernity. (We lost a good deal of forests in the process, but well, progress didn’t worry about such things then).
When this Minor arrived at local dealers, the UK’s fame as a cradle of industry still loomed large in this region. That the market the Minor once occupied was overtaken by a bunch of newcomers from Asia, using hardware of UK origin as its basis, speaks of the hubris that topples empires.
But let’s leave those downfall details aside for now. Meanwhile, let’s take one more look at these two side by side, and the curious way they mirror each other’s shape. As mentioned, no one at Morris Motors had Cadillac in mind during the Minor’s conception. However, the widespread language established by the Sixty Special is evident.
Styling-wise, one aspect where the original Minor really broke away from American tendencies was its face. If Alec Issigonis’ had his way, the Minor’s fascia would have remained unchanged throughout the car’s production years. This post’s 1956 Minor carries the Series II update, a restyle done against Issigonis’ wishes. The new look was obviously following trends, American mostly. Another sign of how trendsetting Detroit was at the time.
I actually had known about this unusual pair for some time, as both had appeared for sale at the local Marketplace. As far as I understand, the two belonged to the same individual who would rent them for events such as weddings. Luckily, the online advert showed their approximate location, which allowed me to track them down.
Nothing wrong with a bit of automotive stalking, right?
Let’s take one more look at our 1947 Fleetwood. At least while the security guard won’t stop me.
Talking about specifics, I believe that what we’ve here is a Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special. In the words of Cadillac’s brochure, a ‘five-passenger touring sedan,’ built in a factory where ‘craftmanship is a creed and accuracy a law.’ Only one engine was offered in all 1947 models; a 346CID V8, with 150 HP. As for shifting, it was provided by GM’s 4-speed Hydramatic, available on Cadillacs since 1941. Trim and options were minor variations of the 1942 restyle. The most noticeable one being the first appearance of Cadillac’s “sombrero” wheel covers.
By the end of 1947, the division almost reached prewar production numbers with 62,000 units built. Of those, 6,561 were Sixty Specials.
I’ve no idea if this Fleetwood carries the original paint or not, and I’ve my doubts it does. But other than that, most of the vehicle appears to be original and unrestored, with only hints of patina appearing on the chrome bits.
Here, up close, is another bit of updated trim for 1947; the rear tail lights. The upper round lens casing already hints at the fins that were to appear in the 1948 Cadillac, which was to be another trendsetting design.
In this shot, lots of sculpting in close inspection is evident. More than it appears at first sight. It’s a good sign that this amount of detailing doesn’t detract from the car’s overall shape. Instead, it nicely adds to the whole, providing a degree of enjoyment as one examines the vehicle.
Curiously, sometime after my picture taking, my wife came across the Fleetwood as it smoothly glided over our local roads. She dutifully took a few captures and sent them my way. I won’t deny it, it is a rather incongruous sight to see a vintage Cadillac parading around San Salvador’s colorful and hectic streets. Besides this image, I got a few additional blurry ones with the car appearing to make good prowess. It certainly passed with ease my wife’s Uber ride (some Korean 4-banger) that Sunday morning.
Capturing these two together was just icing on the curbivore-cake. The Cadillac was my chance to explore -in the metal- the company’s glory days and reexamine my relationship with the brand.
As for the Minor, what can I say? It’s an all-time favorite of mine, even if I’ve only seen a few in my whole life. Cute and appealing as can be, exuding Britishness from every seam and bolt. As for its background and details, I’ve nothing to add over Roger Carr’s CC take on the model.
Here up close are the Minor’s Series II trim and styling updates; bits that must have appalled Issigonis. I know designers hate it when others tinker with their works, but for once, I’ll give reason to the executives. The Series II updates gave the Minor a more saleable and palatable appearance, providing a friendly look that is endearing to this day.
The Minor is, of course, super tiny by today’s standards. As can be sensed by the tiny 14″ wheels on which it rides.
As it often happens with my Salvadorian finds, the security guard was not fond of my photo taking. While he had stayed out of my hair for the most part, by the time I approached for interior shots, his patience came to an end. I was told to move about and stop with my car-stalking. The fun had come to an end.
Luckily, I do have a couple of captures from the Marketplace sales ad; with the Caddy on the left, and the Minor on the other two. From the photos, I get a sense the Minor’s interior has gone through some refurbishing, while the Cadillac’s looks rather undisturbed and original.
As is known, the Sixty Special’s three-box school of design began a long-lasting dynasty. And lower and longer kept getting ever more so, until the human form couldn’t take it anymore and reverted to our current tall two-box reign.
I honestly can’t see an end to that trend, but humans are a peculiar lot, and can’t help to gravitate to the extremes of a nifty idea. Commodious packaging and commanding views of the road are undisputable goods, but some offerings are getting awfully tall. I know my wife is getting tired of ‘climbing’ into some of her acquaintances’ rides.
As I examined this ’47 Fleetwood up close, I did develop some newfound respect for the house of Cadillac. I won’t deny that I somehow prefer the original 1938 Sixty Special, but this ’47 still carried in spades what the brand lost through the years. In one word: presence.
I know that those who lived the Cadillac dynasty’s prime ache and lament the marque’s eventual fall. But empire-making is hard, and periods of splendor are short-lived. Some empires disappear altogether, others hang on in hopes of reinventing. But if you happened to live through an empire’s splendor and relish the memories, just be glad you were alive to experience them firsthand. For the rest of us, we can only rely on our imagination -and the occasional curbside find- to take us there.