Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1961 Cadillac Coupe DeVille – Still “The Standard Of The World”?

In 1961, Cadillac was still riding high; eight miles high. Yes, some early adopters were snapping up Mercedes, but in absolute numbers, it was still peanuts. In 1961, Cadillac outsold Lincoln and Imperial combined by a four-to-one ratio, for a 79% share of the domestic luxury car market. It may—or may not—still have been “The Standard of the World” (a somewhat tired slogan anyway), but it most certainly was still the standard luxury of cars in the United States.

Car Life set out to find out how well it met its lofty reputation in the real world, including a brisk drive over the Angeles Crest Highway in Southern California, a driver’s mecca with an equally lofty reputation.

The big Caddy was picked up in downtown LA, and right off, “we were surprised to find the car accelerated into high-speed lanes with a smartness that belied its great weight” (4780 lbs curb weight, 5080 lbs, as tested). Next up was the massive interchange of four major freeways: “Into this maelstrom of traffic forged the Caddy—dodging and braking for all the world like a rodeo cowboy’s roping pony.” The Coupe DeVille was off to an auspicious start.

To really probe the limits of its handling and braking, the CDV was taken up Angeles Crest Highway and down the far side into the Mojave Desert, then back via San Bernardino and the freeway of that same name, a 200 mile trip that I used to take regularly, for work or pleasure. But never in a big Cadillac.

The conclusion reached “is of necessity a relative one. In proportion to its size, this car handles very well.” Obviously not as well as numerous smaller cars, but then small car buyers weren’t generally interested in Cadillacs. With 2700 lbs on the front wheels, large tires and power steering “became a necessity”, meaning standard equipment. The upside is that a relatively quick steering ratio with just 3.6 turns lock-to-lock was specified, “considerably quicker than most American cars currently being produced, and thus gives the Caddy an edge in handling, as well as maneuverability.”

The power (drum) brakes also came in for praise, for not being over-boosted, as so many were then. One result was that as the brakes began to fade on the downhill sections under heavy braking to induce that phenomena, the booster just kept compensating, thus negating any apparent fading. This was considered as possibly dangerous, as a driver depending too much on the brakes in extensive downhill mountain driving might possibly run out of brakes. The obvious solution of course was to utilize engine braking, but the safety interlocks to prevent engine overspeeding reduced effective engine braking.

“Acceleration runs were so good with the Cadillac that we checked the gear ratio to make sure it was standard.” Given that this one had optional a/c, the standard ratio was 3.21;1 instead of the 2.94:1 without. But the additional weight of the a/c negated any performance benefits from the lower axle ratio. 0-60 came up in a brisk 9.5 seconds, and the 1/4 mile in 17.1 seconds @78.7 mph. In other words, almost two seconds quicker (to 60) than the ’61 Lincoln-Continental tested recently. That’s despite a 40 cubic inch smaller displacement (390 vs. 430), although the Caddy V8 did have a four barrel carb and was rated at a higher 325 hp.

Fuel economy was 12-14 mpg, better than might be expected (Motor Trend quoted 8-12 mpg). The Hydramatic, with fluid coupling and torque-split function, was decidedly more efficient than the torque converter automatics of the time. And the Cadillac V8 was probably a bit more efficient than average too.

CL noted that the four-speed Hydramatic’s shift points “seemed to be at a ridiculously low rpm” (estimated at some 3300 rpm). So they tried the acceleration tests shifting it manually, but no matter how hard they tried, they could not improve on the times, “so you might as well relax and just stand on it.”  Sounds about right.

But then relaxation was of course the Caddy’s purpose in life, not racing carving canyons. And at this and comfort, it excelled, “known only once before, while road testing the ’61 Lincoln Continental.” The final word: “for that living room on wheels —the Cadillac still has the franchise.

Related CC reading:

Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1961 Lincoln Continental Sedan – “The Best-Looking American Car Built Today”

Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1961 Imperial Crown – “The Imperial Is Running Third In A Three Car Race…”

Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1961 Mercedes 220 SE – “It’s Easy To Understand Why So Many Cadillac Owners Are Switching To This Car”