This is where it all began. The fins that became synonymous with 1950s American confidence and, later, self-indulgence first sprouted demurely as the upper apogee of the rear fenders of the 1948 Cadillac. The famed Cadillac Ranch in Texas begins its Neolithic-styled chronicle of Cadillac excess with a ’49 fastback coupe, reaching a high-water mark with the 42-inch fins of the ’59 Coupe de Ville and continuing through the eventual diminution of these iconic appendages, closing with a ’63 sedan. How fitting that the all-new postwar Cadillac was the first befinned car and that the streak ended in the wake of the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam, marking a loss of the innocence and optimism that begat those fins in the first place.
Cadillac’s fins, themselves, were born of a machine developed for war. It was Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning, the Army’s fastest and most heavily armed fighter. Its twin-hull design captivated General Motors stylists who had seen it before the war. Although the interpretation of the P-38 theme for a passenger car had to wait until after V-J Day, the result was nothing short of brilliant.
The character of the airplane was best reflected in the most lithe Cadillac of the range, a fastback coupe available in two trim levels. The sloping back makes for an even more pronounced contrast with the neat little fins, which were never subtler, or more fully integrated, than they were in 1948 and ’49. The car’s charm begins up front, where a massive horizontal egg-crate grille is framed by faired-in fenders that at once sound a note of majesty and modernity. The overall design is timeless, as attested to by its status as a Certified Milestone Car.
Mechanically, the big news came with the ’49 model year, when Cadillac’s revolutionary high-compression 331-cubic-inch OHV V-8 debuted. It was some 200 pounds lighter than its predecessor, made significantly more horsepower, delivered better fuel economy, and soon earned a reputation for durability that underscored Cadillac’s “Standard of the World” slogan in very real terms.
WHAT TO PAY: A nicely restored coupe should be less than $20,000, as the glow is on convertibles.
PRODUCTION FIGURES: 22,209 over both model years. The ’49 series 62, arguably the most desirable fastback coupe, had the highest run at 7515 units.
WATCH OUT FOR: Missing trim pieces, which can be elusive. As with all older collectibles, smart money buys the most complete car possible.
READ MORE: Standard Catalog of Cadillac 1903-2000, by James T. Lenzke, Krause Publications, 304 pages, $22; Cadillac Parts Locating Guide, by David Gimbal, Jalopy Joe Publishing, 147 pages, $25.
CLUBS: Cadillac LaSalle Club, P.O. Box 1916, Lenoir, North Carolina 28645, 828-757-9919.
SPARES: Ed Cholakian Enterprises, 12811 Foothill Boulevard, Sylmar, California 91342, 818-361-1147; Caddy Daddy, 1837 Tanen Street, Napa, California 94559, 707-252-2339.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Author Bob Merlis, is an automotive journalist whose writing has been published in both general interest and enthusiast periodicals. He is a frequent contributor to Automobile Magazine. He is currently a continuing contributor to Details Magazine and has seen his pieces published in Car and Driver, Los Angeles Magazine and LA Style where, for four years, he served as Car Culture editor. He is a consultant to the Petersen Automotive Museum in the area of exhibit development. He is a member of the Motor Press Guild, Society of Automotive Historians, Studebaker Drivers Club, Avanti Owners Association International, Alfa Romeo Owners Club and International King Midget Car Club.