Vintage CL Road Test: 1966 Cadillac Calais – The “Economy Cadillac”

No, this Cadillac was not equipped with cylinder deactivation, a diesel or a tiny aluminum V8; that would have to wait another decade or two, with unfortunate consequences. It wasn’t its fuel economy that caused Car Life to dub this the “Economy Cadillac”; it was the fact that the Calais was the lowest-price Cadillac one could buy, and given its fairly extensive standard equipment it wasn’t all that much more than a comparably equipped lesser-brand car. And there were also two other significant factors: Cadillac’s superior resale value and its stellar rep for reliability. These really did make a Cadillac quite affordable to a growing segment of the middle and working classes. And how can you put a dollar value on its prestige factor and pride of ownership?

For what it’s worth, the Calais’ fuel economy (12-15 mpg) was actually a bit better than average too. Bonus points.

Even the low-end Calais came standard with the basics that others were still paying extra for, including a heater/defroster(!), electric clock, Turbo Hydra-Matic, front center fold-down arm rest, power brakes and steering, cornering and various convenience lights, remote control side mirror, seat belts, the 429 CID V8 rated at 340 hp, variable speed wipers, and more. CL estimated that these would add at least $1200 to a lesser car.

As to its driving dynamics, the Cadillac’s superpower was cruising effortlessly at 75+ mph, wit the a/c on, please. Even mountain grades and hot weather never brought the engine temperature needle from its happy place one third way up from the cold end of the gauge. Cadillac had long and well mastered the thermodynamic basics.

The new-for ’66 variable-ratio power steering was lauded, with its mere 2.4 turns lock-to-lock (previously 3.6 turns). This increased road feel as well as making parking and low speed maneuvering even more effortless. No need for a necker’s knob.

The 6-way power seats and the “tilt and telescope” steering column made it also effortless to find a comfortable position no matter ones build. Back in my hitchhiking days, I used to get a kick out of seeing how various drivers adjusted their tilt steering wheels, some choosing a bus-like near horizontal position and others having it vertical right down in their crotch. You don’t see that much anymore; the tilt wheel was a relatively new luxury toy that folks loved to play with. Until it got old…

And as for the power seats, there’s nothing worse if you’re tall like me than getting into the passenger side of a car with power bench seats and having a short driver get in and then try to crush you into the dashboard. It’s perhaps the single worst fault of bench seats.

Cadillacs (along with all the other large GM cars) had all-new chasses and bodies in 1965; the ’66 only got a few minor tweaks in body and engine mounts to extract another iota of smoothness and silence form the car. As if you could actually tell. Unlike the ’64 Cadillac tested by Motor Trend, Car Life apparently didn’t exactly wring out this ’66 on challenging terrain and unpaved mountain roads. That’s a decided change that happened right about this time: it finally dawned on car magazines that the overwhelming majority Cadillac buyers actually weren’t likely to drive their cars balls-out down twisty dirt roads in the mountains or flat-out on the highways of Nevada. So they stopped pretending otherwise, although in previous times that might have been more the case; now those buyers bought a Mercedes or such.

The Cadillac’s big drum brakes were not really up to snuff, unsurprisingly, with considerable fade in consecutive 80-0 braking tests. CL notes that it would take a set of “remarkable brakes” to do that without fade, but notes that these actually are available on competitor’s cars. GM was such a disc brake laggard; corporate brain fade.

Cadillac’s Automatic Climate Control was then still a marvel of the modern world, and the tester’s (cool) heads bowed down in veneration to its miraculous thermostat dial. And then they wrote a long detailed explanation of how it worked and how to operate it. It’s not quite worthy of repetition. You had to be there.

More lavish praise was heaped on its many other convenience doo-hickies, including a seat warmer! That warranted another paragraph of how the special conductive carbon yarn developed by Union Carbide Corporation is woven into a special cloth installed in the seat backs and cushions. Holy bun warmers!

Automatic Level Control was an accessory of special interest; it brought the car back to level with up to 500 lbs in the back seat or trunk. Perfect for mobsters, as they rarely hauled more than two bodies in the trunk; wouldn’t want to tip off the police.

This ’66 was a tick slower than the ’64 tested by MT, taking 9.4 seconds to 60 instead of 8.5. Their weights were roughly the same, as were their drive trains and rear axle ratios, so we’ll chalk up the difference to the various variables intrinsic to testing two different cars. Or the accuracy of their testing regime and instruments. Or certain astrological influences. A 9.4 seconds was still quite brisk for the times, so more than good enough, and still decidedly quicker than a Lincoln or Imperial, never mind a Mercedes (until the 6.3 came along).

CL left the last but most likely the most important ingredient of the cost-benefit for last: pride of ownership, the intangible value of seeing a Cadillac each morning when the owner opens the garage. That one alone tipped the scales for a whole lot of Cadillac buyers.

Related CC reading:

Vintage C/D Review: Six Luxury Cars – 1965 Rolls-Royce, Mercedes 600, Cadillac, Lincoln, Jaguar and Imperial

Vintage MT Road Test: 1964 Cadillac Sedan DeVille – The Fastest And Best Classic Cadillac

Museum Classic: 1965 Cadillac Sedan DeVille – Nothing Missing but the Garage Space

Curbside Classic: 1965-66 Cadillac Sedan DeVille – The King’s Last Stand