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”
The two-barrel carb on the 61 Lincoln was a reflection of Lincoln’s reaction to the 58 Lincoln’s faceplant in the market. The 58 Lincoln was seen as so far over the top that it wasn’t just glamorously extravagant, it was ridiculous, like Scrooge McDuck’s block long car. So fuel economy actually became a marketing issue for a 5000 pound luxury car.
I never understood much about those 58 Lincolns. They were just so hideous. It was brilliant of Iaccoca to market them out of memory by applying the Mark III moniker to the wildly successful ’68.
The 58MY was a big one for FoMoCo. It was the year they would beat GM at its “product for every purse” strategy. There were three new engine families, the Edsel and the new Wixom assembly plant to make the new unitized body T-Bird and Lincoln. The ’58 Lincoln was going to be longer, lower, bigger, more elegant and more exotic than Cadillac. According to Ben mills, the head of Lincoln-Mercury Division, 1958 was going to be the year Lincoln would overtake Cadillac. Gene Bordinat, chief designer for Mercury and the man who would eventually be made chief of design for Ford, is said to have muttered when that statement was made that “God almighty couldn’t design a car that good.”
In 1958, 29,684 Lincolns and Continental Mark IIIs were sold., In ’59 sales declined to 26,906 and in 1960 they found only 24,820 buyers. During this period, Lincoln racked up losses of $60 million which adds up to $737 per car.
The dismal sales of the 58-60 Lincolns, the recent post of the Car Life test of the ’61 Lincoln Continental which by the way I didn’t see mentioned they awarded their Car of the Year, and this one on the ’61 Cadillac should have made it apparent to Ford that in the future taking a different path instead of trying to out Cadillac Cadillac was the better strategy.
Very interesting! Thanks for sharing.
Though I’m a total Lincoln advocate, I have to agree with the consensus on the ’58. It’s cool to see one in a nostalgic way, but its styling was enough to make the Edsel of that year look conservative. One retired designer confessed in an interview a few years ago that somebody in Ford said at a meeting, “What we should have done, the first several thousand ’58 Lincolns, was soon as we built them, we should have pushed them into the Rouge River.”
They did go over the top in looks, and in size they became the largest cars made in America (apparently some states threatened to require truck lights on those cars because of their size). They went in an almost opposite direction for ’61; ironically, the same head designers of the ’58 came up with the ’61. True, Caddy still outsold all the others in that year, but it and Imperial suffered sales drops from ’60. Lincoln experienced a sales increase that year, that kept going until ’67.
The Cad style of ’61 to me is clearly a carryover of post-’50s bad habits in design that grew tired by ’58, partially from the flash recession that hit that year. I can see a lot of similar detailing to the Series 70 Eldo-Brougham of ’59/’60, which disappeared ignominiously after ’60. The four-fin look was clearly pulled from that model. It is cool to see one, I admit; I saw one locally very recently. But my favorite car remains the Lincoln clap-doors series of the ’60s.
How funny that Car Life’s impressions of the Lincoln were sort of the opposite of the traits that Lincoln would later become so successful at selling. A decade later, the Lincoln was the hushed living room on wheels while the Cadillac was the one that could handle.
The tester’s impressions reinforce my own from long ago with the 63 Cadillac I owned as a kid. The car never felt anywhere near as big or heavy as it was when it was on the road. I never paid attention to steering ratios, but I do remember how modern the steering felt. That Cadillac did literally everything better than the 62 Chevy Bel Air my college roommate owned a year or two later. Sadly, such would not be the case for that much longer.
I’m puzzled by their comments about the transmission’s “interlocks.” I assume their complaint is that there’s no way to keep the transmission from automatically upshifting if the car reaches its maximum speed in second or third; selecting Low or DR-3 delays the upshift, but it doesn’t prevent it and won’t force a downshift above the maximum allowed speed in gear.
I suspect the bigger problem was just that fluid couplings aren’t great for engine braking because they aren’t usually very reversible (and in second in a dual-coupling Hydramatic, both couplings are full). Also, with a dual-coupling Hydra-Matic, you really do need to use DR-3 or Low on grades because in DR-4, coasting will unlock the sprag clutches.
I wonder if some of the handling capability they noted can be attributed to fairly large tires for the time, 8.20×15. That plus the quicker steering ratio seem like a big improvement over lesser domestic full-size cars.
With the 8.20×15 tires the test weight (5080 lb.) was still in excess of the listed tire capacity (4900 lb.)! The contemporary Continental had 9.50×14 tires that were apparently rated at 2000 lb. each.
Where did you get that load rating from? A replacement 8.20 x 15 tire has a rating of 1922 lbs, well more than needed.
I know it’s comparing apples to shoehorns, but an 8.2″ wide tire translates to 205mm. That might have been wide for the era, making handling good for the era, but for a vehicle with a GVW of around 6000 lbs, that doesn’t seem like an awful lot of tire to my modern thinking.
The key here is “to my modern thinking”. Tires were generally a lot narrower back then.
My tire size conversion chart shows that an 8.20 x 15 is right between a 225R15 and 235R15 size. The typical modern replacement typically is the 235/75R15.
“Tire capacity, lb…..4900” is taken directly from the spec chart.
I see. I don’t know what to make of that, and in the other CL reviews. FWIW, the Lincoln’s tires were shown as rated for 5420 lbs, but the tested weight (with driver) was 5500 lbs!
FWIW, my bank of useless knowledge remembers the late Seventies GM B-body cars carried a 205/75R-15.tire standard and 225/70 optional.
The Cadillac/Electra/98 had a bit more meat at 235/75R-15. If that’s the equivalent of 8.20 in 1961, the Cadiilac was well-tired.
My memory is that the first ’79 Panther LTD/Marquis rolled on 215/75R-14 and were under-tired.
Keep in mind that before 1965, the normal aspect ratio for tires was around 0.9, rather than 0.8 or 0.85 for later tires, so an 8.00-15 or 8.20-15 tire of this vintage was taller and skinnier than a later tire. This 1967 Goodyear brochure calls for older 8.20-15 to be replaced with 9.00-15 tires:
Also, the 8.20-15 tire came in four- and six-ply versions, which had different load ratings. Cadillac used the four-ply except on Series 75 cars.
Makes me laughb how Car Life expected the car to be some kind off oversized sports sedan. Over boosted power steering and brake fade for Christ sakes.. . Buyers wanted to steer with one finger on the wheel and not perform emergency stops from 60mph… The test was removed from reality .
Top marks for styling, jet age by not like a 58 Buick level. Good materials and build quality Then came along the 69-77 Caddys
I don’t think the complaints about brake fade were “removed from reality” at all. Even buyers who have no interest in aggressive cornering do sometimes drive in the mountains, such as through the Tejon Pass along I-5 in California, which rises to an elevation of around 4,100 feet.
The editors’ concern was not just that the brakes would fade — which was true of every large car with drum brakes of this era — but that power boost hid the effects of fade so completely that a driver descending a long, step grade might run out of brakes without realizing it until the brake pedal just stopped producing any deceleration. That’s a safety issue, not a demand that a 5,000-pound luxury car perform like a sports car.
This. Coming of driving age at the tail end of the drum brake era in California, I was taught how to “gear down” and not “ride the brakes” so they wouldn’t “burn up”. Yeah, only the magazines called it brake fade, but it was a real thing on the Grapevine (Tejon Pass) or Donner Pass on I-80, or even in the hills of the Bay Area where I learned to drive.
Another of the great 1961 GM line. I really liked all the GM full-sizers from that year. Shame they didn’t have curved side glass. The 1961 Lincoln did and then the 1963 American Motors Classic and Ambassadors did and it was 1965 before GM added curved side glass.
Did Car Life ever test a ’61 Imperial? That car would have more of the attributes the reviewers were looking for. The Imperial ride is (in my opinion) more solid, capable, and comfortable that Cadillac’s which tends to be “oversoft”. Imperial power steering is quicker and easier, not so “gooey”. TorqueFlite transmission is more care-free and responsive than Hydramatic, which tends to be “busy” and sometimes doesn’t select the best gear.
Cadillac’s doors may close with a nice “click”, and the fit & finish may be a little better, but I think “as a CAR”, Imperial set a new standard. Cadillac styling looks the best, but Imperial is the most interesting. In the luxury class, I’m picking Imperial for ’61.
Coming on Wednesday. Spoiler alert: you may be a bit disappointed, especially in terms of its ride, steering and handling.
The Cadillac did exactly what the car was designed to do, and exactly what the driver expected the car to do. It was for comfortable and effortless touring, a term that we usually don’t think about applying to modern cars. In many ways the Cadillac fulfilled the Jaguar motto of; Space, Pace, and Grace. Usually the driver (buyer) knew exactly what they were buying, it was the Uber Everyman’s American car; it did what the average American car did, but it just delivered it at a higher level.
I have Cadillac road test anthologies for both the 1950’s, starting with the fabulous 1949 model and another of the 1960’s through 1970. In almost every test conclusion, the author felt that the car delivered what it promised. These were the fastest, best handling, most comfortable, roomiest, and most reliable, “standard” car available. These obviously wouldn’t be what a sports car fan would choose, and a real hot shoe might prefer a Chrysler Letter car.
Styling is subjective, but this twenty year period cleaned up the excesses from the ’58 and ’59 models, the ’61 coupe had a beautiful green house. Though more formal roof styles would follow.
I have owned and driven Cadillacs from the ’50’s onward; ’56. ’57. 64, and ’70 and the roadability just improved over the years. ’71-76 was a decline, but the new model in ’77 put them back on track, until the HT4100 era, at least.
Were the 1961 Cadillac, Lincoln, and Imperial the combined peak of the Big 3 luxury makes? I can’t think of another year where all had a car I’d want to own. (I think 1962 is a clear step down in styling, at least. )That said, IMO this particular body style – the 1961 Cadillac hardtop coupe with the bubble rear window is the peak postwar American luxury car. There’s not one bad line on it, and it dates from GM’s arguable peak in engineering and material quality.
Only thing that could make this example better, IMO, would be that light metallic silvery-blue color, or butter yellow. But this is my third favorite color for this MY, maybe tied for third with metallic rose.
I agree. The 61 Caddy is my absolute favorite.
Yes the ’61 is perfect. Bill Mitchell did not like the grille and thought it wasn’t “Cadillac” enough. The ’62 had a vertical eggcrate grille. Interestingly the ’63 Chevy stole this grille and started the idea that if you like the new Cadillac wait a few years and buy a Chevy.
Not the best copies but here is what Motor Trend had to say.
Thanks. Their fuel mileage numbers are much more credible than CL’s high ones.
My God, but what a beautiful greenhouse these had. The bodysides are great, too. If only they had toned down those fins.
Did the fins at the rear inspire the design of the submarine ‘Seaview’ from ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’?
This “sprawling, green, mobile” is bigger then may apt!! Way nicer too.
I’d crawl past the Lincoln for one of these. Flamboyant, yet elegant. Thanks!
Didn’t they use “lower numerically” incorrectly twice below the dashboard pic?
Cadillacs in the 60s and 70s could turn sharper than big Buicks, despite the longer wheelbase. My ’74 Fleetwood was surprisingly easy to parallel park–if you could find a space longer than the car.
I’ve always thought the 1961 and 1962 Cadillacs were the best cars in the world at the time, especially the 60s model.
I’m well aware of the products that Mercedes and Rolls-Royce were putting out at the time, and neither were especially outstanding when considered objectively.