Here they are together–two 1958 GM “Golden Milestone” cars that competed in the luxury class. You’ll notice that both cars share the body middle section (doors, windows, roof); however the engines, transmissions, suspensions, interiors, and front and rear styling are different. This top-of-the-line Buick actually cost more than the Cadillac when new, and is 10 inches longer!
These cars illustrate just how important brand image and differentiation was in the 1950s. As Ralph Parker [Jean Shepherd] put it in A Christmas Story, “Some men are Baptists, others Catholics–my father was an Oldsmobile man.” Many people who bought Buicks would never purchase a Cadillac, and vice-versa. This loyalty is reflected in the fact that 75% of Cadillac owners intended to buy another Cadillac once they traded their present car in.
And despite sharing inner body structure, these two cars would have very different personalities: Buick with its 364 c.i. “Nailhead” V-8; Cadillac with its famous Kettering-designed V-8 engine, known for its smoothness, silence, and solid reliability. Buick introduces its velvet “Switch the pitch a million ways” Flight-Pitch Dynaflow transmission, while Cadillac continues with an improved Hydra-Matic which lacks the “jerkiness” of the past–the shifts are now practically imperceptible at light to moderate throttle. Suspension and driveline are different too. Buicks have long had “Torque-Tube” drive with an enclosed driveshaft and coil springs all around. Cadillac has replaced its rear leaf springs with coils for ’58 as well, but retains a traditional driveshaft arrangement.
However, the styling and size differences are what most people will notice the most. Each car is instantly recognizable for what it is. There’s no mistaking Buick’s “Dynastar” grille, with 160 chrome squares, beveled to reflect a maximum of sparkle. Cadillac, not to be outdone, introduces a wide grille with gleaming projectiles where the grille bars intersect. Harley Earl loved these when he first saw the design proposal, and like Caddy’s famous fins, the grille projectiles would become a Cadillac styling hallmark for the next few model years.
Speaking of Cadillac fins, the ’58s are the most prominent yet, but they are just a warm-up for the lethal weapons soon to come. Buick retains straight fenders, topped with bright strips (to suggest fins) wrapping downward to meet the “Twin-Tower” taillights, which are ribbed with chrome in a design which suggests the 1936 Cord grille. Both Buick and Cadillac rear bumpers feature jet exhaust-type motifs, but thankfully the Cadillac exhaust has been re-routed under the bumper pod rather than through it, which eliminates staining and corrosion–a slight concession to practicality. All in all, it would be hard to find better examples of the “Golden Age of Gorp” than these two leviathans.
Stepping into the driver’s seat, one is faced with a chromed instrument panel reminiscent of something out of 1930s-50s outer space science fiction movies like Buck Rogers. Even the “Autronic Eye” automatic headlight dimmer looks like the alien weaponry from War of the Worlds! I think the Buick dash outdoes the Caddy in terms of overwrought “dream-car” sophistication with its bullet-like pods and ribbon speedometer. The Limited’s tufted upholstery seems more luxurious than the Cadillac 62’s two-toned cloth and “Elascofab” vinyl. In checking out the Limited, you can see that Buick designers went “all-out” to create a super-luxury car to compete with Cadillac, Lincoln, and Imperial.
So what are these cars like to drive? Well, as someone who has driven the ’58 Cadillac shown above, it is easy to see why Cadillac dominated the luxury car field. This car drives (I would say wafts) effortlessly down the highway at moderate speeds. You feel like you’re driving something luxurious and expensive. All the fittings around you are well-made and finely crafted. The engine combines silkiness with good low-end torque that you feel in the first inch of accelerator pressure. Handling is very good for a car this size, and makes the car feel smaller. Consumer Reports, which tested all 1958 cars, rated Cadillac a BEST BUY, citing its excellent quality and reliability combined with highest resale value. “The Cadillac offers truly silent and luxurious motoring,” they stated.
However, CR was not so keen on the Limited. Their testers complained about body shake on the Buick, which is somehow related to Buick’s torque-tube drive. They disliked Buick’s “over-soft” ride and “out-of-touch with the road handling.” It was a car “silky smooth on the boulevards but ill-mannered off them. A poor buy by almost any standard.” It’s surprising that two cars built on the same body shell could produce such differing reactions!
Unfortunately, the public agreed with CR and few people seemed interested in paying Cadillac money for a Buick, no matter how long, roomy, and luxurious it was. Only 7,436 Limiteds were sold, vs. 60,848 Cadillac Series 62s. This again shows the power of brand association. I personally kind of like this concept of a super-luxury Buick, with its distinctive brightwork ornamentation and lush interior; and I like the idea of Dynaflow’s no-shift smoothness. However, I would have to drive one personally to see if the shortcomings pointed out by the cynics at CR (whose favorite car was the Rambler, the very antithesis of these monsters) were actually valid. I’m hoping readers out there in CC Land with experience driving late ’50s Buicks could shed some light on this.
These cars were truly the last of their kind. Next year, all GM cars would share the same body shell (no more “A” body for Chevrolet and Pontiac; “B” for Olds and the “smaller” Buicks; “C” for big Buicks and Cadillac). In future years they will also share engines, transmissions, chassis and frame design, as well as many other things. The distinctions between GM’s “Five Great Motorcar Divisions” were starting to erode away. Buyers eventually caught on to the charade, and today only three of the five GM car divisions remain.
So I’ll end with this question: If you wanted to own either of these, which would you pick?