General Motors Greatest Hit #13: Were The 1963-64 Cadillacs the Greatest Postwar Cadillacs?

When it comes to being cynical about GM, I probably rank only slightly below our boss himself. In fact, long before Paul took on the 1971 models and the 1976 Seville, I’d already lambasted some widely revered Cadillacs I felt no longer represented The Standard Of The World. But today, I pose this  question: When was the peak for Cadillac?

In the 1960s, Cadillac was on top of the world and still in ascent. And the competition? Well, Packard was in the grave. Imperial–still perceived by many as a “Chrysler Imperial”–was sales-impaired. Following its own recent brush with death, Lincoln survived only by (once again) reinventing itself.  It seemed that Cadillac could do no wrong, despite clinging to tail fins long after they had become passé for everyone else but Oldsmobile. My heart belongs to the ’62 models, even though some can’t abide their lower “skeg” fins.

Enter the 1963 models: Still smaller and less flamboyant than the quintessentially ’50s 1959-60 models, but decidedly more boldly styled than the ’61s and ’62s. Underneath, they were essentially the same as Cadillacs of the previous two model years, but there were a few notable updates.

Along with their new and beautiful styling and 143 interior-appointment choices (including optional wool bucket seats) came the first major update of the Cadillac V8. During the previous 14 years, it had received occasional increases in displacement, but for 1963 it left the engineering lab smaller, lighter and even more efficient. Paired with the traditional four-speed Hydra Matic for the final time, it offered 1963 Cadillac buyers at least the hope of achieving double-digit gas mileage, something The Standard of the World could not offer again until 1976.

Nineteen sixty-four brought even more refinement and power. The somewhat stiff shifts of the old, fluid- coupled Hydra Matic were replaced by the creamy-smooth shifting of the new Turbo Hydra-Matic. Under the hood was newly enlarged 429 cu in V8 producing a breezy 340 horsepower. That extra thrust meant 0-60 times just a tick under or over nine seconds, and a top speed beyond 125 mph. The lucky occupants didn’t have to worry about the breeze at all, thanks to Cadillac’s new automatic climate control.

Here was Cadillac at the precipice of complacency, just before the onslaught of all-out war over the definition of “luxury.” Soon, the changes of just one model year would plant the seeds of Cadillac’s fall from grace: The Calais that succeeded the Series 62 wasn’t nearly as lush as its predecessor and was, truth be told, barely more luxurious than its Olds Ninety-Eight and Buick Electra 225 cousins–not to mention Ford’s new “luxury for the common man” assault in the form of the LTD.

It’s also worth noting that after 1964, Cadillac stopped being, well, innovative. Whether that had anything to do with the relative failures of radicalism at every other GM division in the early ’60s, Cadillac became content to watch technology pass them by. In 1965, disc brakes, fuel injection and assorted other technological bragging rights were being trumpeted by Thunderbirds and Mercedes Benzes.

Cadillac did have some radical stuff happening in the studio and in the lab. One of their most ambitious and well known undertakings was the stillborn V-12 project, which at least never became an almost certain potential headache for buyers. With such resounding success, why mess with the formula? When some 85% of upper-income buyers deem you the best choice in the field, why rock the boat?

That kind of self-assured confidence is why these Cadillacs appeal to me so. They still do a bit of shouting compared with the nearly-as-luxurious but more solemn senior Buicks and Chryslers of the day, but do not seem as outlandishly outdated as contemporary Imperials, nor as austere as Camelot Continentals.

They represent an intermezzo, a beautiful period when they were winning athletes not yet getting soft around the middle. They also represented the end of a nearly 20-year arc of an icon of automotive styling the tail fin. The 1965 models had their blade tip fenders but please, don’t call them “tail fins.”

I must note: For cars produced 50 years ago, I see A LOT of these. In fact, for this piece I’m using shots of the various models I’ve spotted during the last year alone. I can think only of similar-vintage Falcons as such regular sightings. For those unafraid of the gasoline bill, or the prospect of parking one in present-day parking mini-spaces, they promise to be long-lived and always enjoyable rides.

Now, what do we have here? The last true Standard of the World, I’d say. Really, is there any way one can point to a 1989 Brougham and call it a truly worthy successor to these Kings? What do you say?