GM’s Vice President of Global Design picks his top five Cadillacs for the ages
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Hagerty Classic Cars magazine. For more information about the magazine or to subscribe, click here.)
Asking me to name my top five Cadillacs of all time is like asking an art critic to name his top five paintings in the Louvre. Where do you start?
Yet, that’s the daunting assignment the editors at Hagerty Classic Cars gave me. Little did they know just how difficult it would be. You see, Cadillac occupies a very special place for me, and through the years, I’ve developed a much deeper affinity for Cadillac than for any other brand.
I’ve thought about this assignment for months. I’ve written down as many as 20 different models, all with different themes: roadsters, coupes, sedans. I threw in concepts, too, even though I wasn’t supposed to. Then I thought about what I would like to have in my garage today. I started off with a first-gen CTS-V, then a second-gen CTS-V wagon, a CTS-V coupe and a V-Series XLR — all in black. I’d like to have a whole set of V-Series Cadillacs, punctuated by a new Escalade and a 1949 Fleetwood — again, all in black. But I’m way off track here. The assignment was for my top five historical production Cadillacs.
Allow me a little background. I was in Italy recently. It’s really interesting in Europe to hear people talk about what a powerful statement Cadillac was after World War II and how everyone wanted to be seen in a Cadillac — the Pope, celebrities, everyone.
The other thing you need to know is that in my role as VP of Global Design at GM, I sit behind the same desk that Harley Earl once occupied. In fact, my office is almost identical to the way it looked when he was here. Design staff employs a person just to make sure everything in this office is maintained to look like it originally did, with furniture periodically sent out for restoration. I often think of the stellar people who have occupied this office, each of them defining the car business.
Earl also had an affinity for Cadillac. He got his start designing custom coachwork for celebrity-owned Cadillacs on the West Coast. He pioneered the use of free-form sketching and hand-sculpted clay models as automotive design techniques, and Cadillac became his first love when he arrived at GM.
He eventually became a larger-than-life guy, but that wasn’t the case when he started off at GM. Cadillac loved him, and Chevrolet came on gradually, but it took a while for the other divisions to accept Earl. He really defined the aesthetics of the company. He had a great champion in Alfred Sloan, who opened up a lot of doors for him. I believe it was Earl who fueled the post-war success of General Motors with the excitement of annual styling changes.
People often ask me what it’s like to follow in his footsteps. In some ways, the responsibilities are the same, and in other ways they are greater, especially with the demands of modern vehicles in terms of aerodynamics, performance, fuel economy and safety, all of which demand close coordination with many different stakeholders. Gone are the days when design could work independently from the rest of the company. Yet the work that pioneers like Earl and Bill Mitchell did created an insatiable appetite for cars in post-war America, helping form the DNA that still is with us today.
To me, design has always been the great differentiator. Cars may have a price advantage, or a technological advantage, but those advantages don’t last for long. Design is what truly draws you into the vehicle, and Earl always understood that.
All but one of my favorite Cadillacs were designed under the direction of Harley Earl, so I hope you understand that I am not taking these choices lightly. Here goes…
1949 Series 75 Imperial Limousine
The Series 75 was a wonderful, perfectly proportioned vehicle. In 1949, it represented the latest and greatest in a whole lineage of Cadillac limousines, thanks to an all-new overhead-valve V-8 engine.
It was one of the most luxurious and largest Cadillacs ever. In addition to the new engine, it had a revised dashboard that also appeared on other Cadillac models. The Series 75 Imperial limousine was the most expensive body style and model in the 1949 Cadillac lineup, selling for $5,170, with only 626 units produced that year.
This car was magnificent — a Cadillac for celebrities or heads of state. I’m told they were often used by Hollywood studios of the era to transport stars from the film studios to the lots. The Series 75 was the last of the big square limos and had an applied fender look with a beautiful divided back window. The famous Cadillac “V” graced the front, and the interior was gorgeous, with soft leather and burnished wood. The elegant use of chrome in the interior was also quite stunning. Every detail on this car was and is exquisite.
1949 Series 61 Club Coupe
The 1948 model was the first real production application of the tail fin. According to Harley Earl, it was inspired by the twin-tailed P-38 Lightning fighter plane. The 1949 model not only had the new overhead-valve V-8 but also a modified front end that was bolder than the 1948 model. The front end of that 1949 is perfect; it is absolutely magnificent, with that egg-crate grille, the big domed hood and the regal execution of the emblem under the Cadillac crest.
The windswept fastback combined with the tail fins was also magnificent. Yes, from end to end, the Club Coupe (or “Sedanette”) was quite different from the big sedan. The execution of the entire shape was very simple; it didn’t have the complexity of some cars earlier in the 1940s or later in the 1950s. As the bodies got wider in the 1950s, the chassis didn’t change and the wheels looked tucked under on some models.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t have two ’49s on my list, yet those two 1949 Cadillacs are pretty incredible, and they are quite different from each other. I’d just as soon have a 1949 Cadillac in either the Club Coupe or the limo than any other sedan today. Much more so than a Rolls-Royce.
One other note about the 1949, especially thinking about the Club Coupe: People have asked me about my favorite decade of Cadillac design. Of course, I’m excited about what we’re doing now, but I would have to say it’s the 1950s. And it was the 1948 and ’49 Cadillacs that opened the door for the great Cadillacs of that decade.
1934 V-16 Victoria Convertible
I love the ’34 Cadillac V-16 Victoria convertible. It’s still one of the real classics, but it seems to have a more sculptured shape.
That’s why I like it so much. One of the things I look for in critiquing a design is the flow of line, the proportion, the execution and balance. The history or context of the vehicle has an influence as well. The engineering and technology influence me a little bit, but not nearly as much as the style, grace, finesse, proportion and attention to detail of a design.
There is so much to appreciate with the Victoria. The beautiful fender shapes. The art deco touches. The chrome dome over the rear fender skirts.
In 1934, Cadillac also offered a coupe and a fastback model; the fastback was also on my short list.
1953 Eldorado Convertible
Then there’s the 1953 Eldorado convertible, a very Hollywood looking car. It’s Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Marilyn Monroe. You could show this anywhere in the world and people would immediately know what it is.
It’s not a humble design at all. Instead, it stands out, with its bold egg-crate grille, upright front end and prominent conical-shaped protrusions. At the time, Earl was fond of incorporating military elements like artillery shells, missiles and jet airplanes into his concept car designs. These conical shapes were later incorporated on the front ends of a few production cars and were nicknamed “Dagmars,” slang for Dagmar, a blonde 1950s television personality well known for her cleavage.
The ’53 Eldorado has a great stance and great proportions — all the way to the roundish rear deck flanked by prominent fins. That rear has a strong character. Back in that period, few cars had distinctive rear designs, but Cadillac had unique rear design treatments, and I believe that is true today as well.
1968 Eldorado Coupe
What strikes me about the 1968 Eldorado coupe is its amazing sheet metal. How did they produce that body, how did they stamp it, how did they weld it all together?
This was built on the same front-wheel-drive platform as the Oldsmobile Toronado that year, yet the Eldorado had a totally different look. You can see some resemblance in that car and the Cadillacs of today in terms of the faceted look and the crease in the rear, yet you can also see a relationship from the front end to that 1949 Club Coupe with the big egg-crate look.
It really lives up to that bold and dramatic presence that a Cadillac must have. And as an extremely well-executed design, it’s tailored like an Armani suit.
Several other classic Cadillacs almost made my list. One is the V-16 Madam X, named after a central female character in a popular stage play/film of the late 1920s. She was mysterious, intriguing and exciting. This Fleetwood-bodied car was offered in a number of different coach configurations in the early 1930s.
Another honorable mention is the fastback version of the 1934 V-16 Victoria convertible. I must also add the 1941 Cadillacs, with their bold hoods, prominent fenders and tasteful use of chrome. Finally, there's the 1957 Eldorado Brougham, which I love. Everything about this car is handcrafted like a one-off show car. With no B-pillar above the beltline and the very short rear doors, the car is much like a four-door coupe. It's a great car, but there are complexities in the design that cause the Eldorado Brougham to fall short of my top five list.
Why not a 1959 Cadillac, you say? The ’59 is such an iconic design, but it’s not the best of Cadillac. For me, it’s kind of a caricature of a Cadillac, and for years it was used in cartoons as a symbol of excess — the Daddy Warbucks image. They would draw a car — any car — and then put big tail fins and tail lamps on it. The 1960 was a little better, and the 1961 better still, in both the convertible and the Fleetwood.
There are times when I am really focused on the future — I drive a CTS coupe — but there are times when I would like to have a 1961 Fleetwood just to go out in the evening.
When we did the Ciel concept car a couple of years ago, everyone said, “THAT is a Cadillac.” Last year, the El Mirage received the same response.
Clean, well-executed design is timeless, and that’s true for all of the cars on my list. I believe a brand has to have a strong character. For Cadillac to have a global design and proportion yet a distinctly American aesthetic is something with very deep roots, and that comes through in all the cars I chose.