Dealer Classic: 1958 Cadillac Coupe DeVille – Forget the CTS, I’ll take the DeVille – A History of the 1957-58 Cadillacs

(first posted 9/13/2017)      While traveling earlier this year, I stayed in a hotel that was just up the street from a Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership.  Normally I don’t have much interest in new cars, so I hardly gave it a second glance.  However, as I drove by the dealer, something caught my eye.  It was something, big, red, shiny, and something that is definitely not normally at new car dealerships.  Turns out It was this stunning 1958 Cadillac Coupe DeVille.  Well, this Chevy Cadillac dealer just got me to pull into its lot, hook-line and sinker.

The 1958 Cadillac was really just a facelifted 1957.  There wasn’t a whole lot different, beyond the typical grille refresh, new fins and of course the obligatory-for-1958 quad headlights.  Since we haven’t really examined the 57-58 Cadillac in any depth here, let’s enjoy this red specimen, and learn a bit more about these cars.

Cadillac Park Avenue.

Cadillac was all-new for 1957, featuring new styling and a completely new chassis. This was really the newest Cadillac since the 1948.  While Cadillac had gone through three different bodies since 1948 (1948-49, 1950-53, 1954-56), they were rather evolutionary in their styling changes and not that different under the skin. For 1957, Cadillac adopted new styling elements quite a bit different than the previous models.  Much of the styling elements for the ’57 Cadillacs were inspired by the Park Avenue, El Camino and the 1955 Eldorado Brougham show cars.

Cadillac El Camino

The ‘57 Cadillacs were styled under studio chief Ed Glowacke, who had been Cadillac’s chief designer since 1952.  His team included Bob Sheelk, Dave Holls, and Ron Hill.  Sheelk had been responsible for much of the Eldorado Brougham show car, while Holls designed the El Camino show car, and Hill is credited with the distinctive tail fins on the ‘57 Eldorados.  When looking at the show cars, it’s easy to see the styling elements each of the team member brought to the production Cadillac, like the roofline, the wind splits, the grille and tail fins.

1955 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham Show Car.

Other than the new ultra-expensive limited production Eldorado Brougham (which is not going to be discussed in this article), the Cadillac line-up remained much as it had in 1956.  The Series 62 line-up consisted of the 2-door and 4-door hardtops, a convertible as well as the Coupe DeVille and the Sedan DeVille.  The DeVilles were essentially better equipped Series 62 base cars, while the Series 62 convertible was actually more comparable in trim and equipment to the DeVilles.

Eldorados included the Biarritz Convertible and the Seville coupe.  The Eldorados featured unique rear styling, with a sloping rear trunk, a shark-like rear fin and a two-piece bumper with a roll pan in the center.  These bumpers were dubbed “chipmunk cheeks”.  Although not officially on the model roster, there were four custom Eldorado 4-door hardtops manufactured.  From what I could find, it seems at least one has survived today.  Finishing off the line-up was the series 60, which used a new for 1957 hardtop body, and the series 75 limousine which remained the only pillared sedan in the line-up.

Engineering-wise, there were some big changes as well.  GM’s solution to building lower cars, while maintaining interior space was its cruciform frame, commonly known as the “X-frame.”  Cadillac was the first GM division to adopt this new chassis design that would eventually be used by all other divisions except Oldsmobile.  The new chassis helped lower the ’57 Cadillac 3” from the ’56 models

The chassis essentially consisted of triangular front and rear frame sections.  These two frame sections were joined together with a tubular center section to form an “X” shape.  This design easily allowed for various wheelbases by simply using a different length center tubular section on the frame.  This was beneficial to Cadillac which had three wheelbases in 1957, 129.5”, 133” and 149.8” (not including the Eldorado Brougham).  The new chassis was claimed to be 18% more resistant to torsional forces, and 16% more resistant to bending, while being far lighter than the ’56 frame.  Reinforced body sills were a key component in this new construction technique, which made the X-Frame cars something of a hybrid of unibody and traditional ladder-frame construction of the past.

For 1957, Cadillac finally adopted a spherical ball joint front suspension.  The new modern design allowed for better suspension geometry which reduced brake dive and made steering easier, while requiring less maintenance.  The rear suspension remained relatively unchanged, still using leaf springs.  However, the new chassis set the springs wider apart than the ’56 models, and this change resulted in the front and rear tracks becoming equal.

A surviving 1957 Eldorado 4-door hardtop

The 365 cubic inch (6 L) Cadillac V8, introduced in the 1956 model year, was carried over for 1957.  This being the era of the horsepower race, Cadillac tweaked the engines for more power.  The engines featured larger intake valves, but smaller exhaust valves while compression was bumped up from 9.75:1 to 10:1.  The carburetor was also revised with larger secondaries.  As a result, the 365 was rated at 300 (gross) hp, 15 hp higher than the 1956 version.  A dual 4-bbl 365 was optional on Eldorado models, and it was rated at 325 hp.  Both engines had a 400 ft-lb torque rating, but the single-carb engine met this torque peak at lower RPM.

While Dave Holls and other stylists were crazy about the 1957 Cadillac design, the public and the dealers didn’t give it such a warm reception.  As hard as it is to believe today, the design was perceived as appearing too short.  The front end leaned back slightly while the fins leaned forward, making the car appear shorter than it actually was.  As a result the stylists, who were so proud of their Cadillac, ended up having to muddle up their design for 1958.  Nevertheless, Cadillac still sold well in 1957, moving 146,441 units.  The numbers were down slightly from 1956, but surely Cadillac lost some sales to Exner’s cutting-edge ’57 Imperials.

The most obvious styling revision for 1958 was the use of quad headlights.  The “gullwing” grille of the ’57 Cadillac was evolutionary from the previous generation and dated back to 1954, but for 1958 this design was abandoned.  It was replaced with a full-width grille, with rounded ends that incorporated little bumperettes and Dagmars.

The designers fixed the appearance of lack of length in the rear with a new shark-like fin that was canted rearwards.  While the ’58 Cadillac looked considerably longer than the ’57, it was actually less than 2” longer than the ’57 models.

The ’58 Cadillac shared a strong resemblance to the ’58 Chevrolet, and this was no accident.  Harley Earl specifically cited the 1932 Cadillac-Chevrolet styling relationship to be used as the guideline for the 1958 Cadillac and Chevrolet models.  It worked once, so why not do it again?

Harley’s last baby Cadillac.

Cadillac also incorporated a minor change to the 4-door cars to give a more open appearance.  The 1957 cars had a portion of the C-pillar that appeared to be incorporated into the rear door.  These formerly steel door “pillars” were replaced by small glass windows.

1958 was a year that General Motors was much maligned for styling excesses.  While I don’t think the Cadillac was as bad as the ’58 Buick or Oldsmobile, it certainly wasn’t Cadillac’s cleanest design of the decade.

The Series 60 (above) in particular was adorned with somewhat excessive trim.  That said, the ’58 Cadillac was actually toned down at the last-minute. Dave Holls recalls that the styling team was occupied with the new ’59 Cadillac when he went over to the ad agency to look at the ’58 Cadillac ads.

A pre-production Cadillac Sixty-Special, prior to Holls ordering the extra trim removed – March 1957.

It was only then he realized how overdone the ’58 Cadillacs were with extra and unnecessary ornamentation.  Holls was disappointed with his work since the ’58 was his facelift, and as a result, most of the extra trim was removed from the ’58 Cadillac at the last hour, cleaning up the design considerably.

While the ’58 Cadillac may not be the cleanest of the decade, I certainly have to say that this striking red ’58 Coupe DeVille I came across was quite magnificent, especially compared to the white, gray and black late-model Cadillacs.  Pictures really don’t do this car justice.  While I have never thought the ’57 looked small, I was never a huge fan of the forward-canted fins on the ‘57s; they just look awkward and they don’t work for me.  While the ’58 fins are a little on the big side for my taste, I do like the shape of them better than the ’57 fins.  That said, I prefer the ’57 front end over the more Chevy-like ’58 design.  I guess my favourite would probably be a ’57 Eldorado Biarritz, with the nice ’57 grille and no awkward rear fin.

Styling tricks weren’t the only thing Cadillac did to get rid of the 1957 models’ “small” stigma.  The ’58 model line-up was revised slightly from 1957 resulting in new larger variations.  Newly introduced was a Series 62 extended deck 4-door.  The standard Series 62 4-door was comparable in size to the ’57 Cadillac version, while the new extended deck model was a whopping 8.5 inches longer.  The extended deck Series ’62 was actually the same length as the Series 60, both measuring at 225.3”.  Of course, at least with the Series 60 the extra length was in the passenger compartment due to its longer wheelbase, while the extended deck was all just rear overhang added on.

Note the new rear suspension design.

The biggest engineering revision to the ’58 Cadillac was in the suspension.  While the chassis was all new for 1957, for ’58 an entirely new rear suspension was adopted.  Cadillac moved away from the semi-elliptical leaf springs for 1957 and to a 4-link coil spring setup.  The primary reason for this change was to accommodate GM’s new air ride suspension.  Using coil springs would easily allow for a steel spring to be interchanged with a rubber air spring.  The rear suspension used control arms to locate the rear axle.  Like the 1958 Chevrolet and Pontiac, the Cadillac used two lower control arms, and a U-shaped upper control arm.  The upper arm had two pivot points on the chassis and a single mounting point on the top of the rear axle.

The air suspension was a $215 option.  The system consisted of an engine-driven air compressor, and an underhood reservoir (accumulator tank) which supplied air through lines to each of the air springs (bellows).  Leveling valves were used to keep the car level even when loaded.  Of course, while the air suspension promised and delivered a velvety smooth ride, it was much maligned and problematic.  The biggest issue was the constant problems with leaks, which quickly earned the system a poor reputation.  Many owners ended up having their cars converted back to steel springs.  The air suspension option was installed in 14% of 1958 Cadillacs.  As bonus for switching to a coil spring rear suspension, the rear frame section was reshaped and the trunk floor was revised to be completely flat.

The interior on the ’58 I found was like new.

Engine compression ratios were slightly tweaked for ’58 resulting in a slight bump in horsepower, upping the standard engine to 310 hp.  The twin quad engine was replaced with a triple 2bbl version rated at 335 hp.  Other revisions were minor, including the availability of power ventipanes and power door locks (the locks were only available on cars with power windows).  Power seat controls moved to the driver’s armrest, and most cars used a fibreglass headliner for improved sound insulation.

Cadillac production was way down in 1958 and only 121,474 were built.  Nevertheless, 1958 was a recession year and luxury models suffered the most.  While Cadillac dropped significantly from 1957, its market share actually increased.  Chrysler’s quality control problems certainly seemed to have had an effect on Imperial sales, while the all new gargantuan Lincoln was a sales flop.

Unfortunately, there was no price tag on this ’58 DeVille.  I have a feeling it’s probably owned by the dealership’s owner.  And while not officially for sale, I am sure the right price could purchase this car.  Without even asking, I am sure it’s well out of my price range anyway.  That gray ’61 Chevrolet pickup it was parked next to is probably in my price range, and more my style anyway.  And don’t worry, I will do a write-up on the ’61 Chev pickup later.

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