6 February 2015

Ed’s Favorite Five

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.

Honorable Mention
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.

25 Reader Comments

  • 1
    C Bahlman Dearborn, MI February 13, 2015 at 13:36
    As a former Cadillac employee (engineering), I love Ed's choices, and it's never an easy pick with so many beautiful choices. I'll add my '39 60 Special for honorable mention. Thanks for this article.
  • 2
    Dave Dubie Scottsdale, Arizona, 85250 February 13, 2015 at 15:55
    Hi Ed, and thanks for your picks of great Cadillac's for the ages. I am still driving my Mom's original 1960 Cadillac Convertible to all our Arizona Cadillac LaSalle Club events. Even after 55 years of ownership, this all original car is a source of great pride and admiration for the men and women at GM-Cadillac at Clark street that produced such excellence in design, performance and quality. Like you, I am excited about the future of Cadillac and hope the new Flagship Sedanwill be one for the books in excellence for design, quality and performance. Dave Dubie, Director-Emeritus, Cadillac-LaSalle Club, Sonoran Desert Region, Scottsdale, Arizona.
  • 3
    Tony Cox Lansing, Mi February 13, 2015 at 17:30
    My favorite brands of vehicles were Cadillac & Lincoln. My dad would alternate but my love was/is the Cadillac. The Cadillac name was synonymous with the best. I love hearing people reference the Cadillac name when identifying what they deem to be the best of an item ie., "...Kirby being the Cadillac of vacuum cleaners" & so on. I own a 1974 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, white with red interior and a 1979 Cadillac Phaeton, catillion white with blue cloth top. Everytime that I drive them, I'm approached by people who have a story to share. For those that don't have a story to share, a request to purchase is made perhaps with hopes of having a story to share. They're beautiful works of art and I really enjoy owning them. I hope that some day the Cadillac brand will again be as desired ad it once was.
  • 4
    Greg Dallas, Texas February 13, 2015 at 17:55
    I own a 1967 Eldorado. While I like the improvements made to the 1968, the 1967 was a truly revolutionary luxury sport coupe, just like the 1963 Riviera. I always considered the addition of a few new design elements to be way to distinguish between 2 model years. The elegance and "showmanship" of the 1967 versus 1966 Eldorado are amazing. However, I do like the enclosed outside rear view mirror and hidden wipers on the 1968 model Eldorado!
  • 5
    Michael mulligan Chicago February 13, 2015 at 19:39
    Ed came up with a very diverse selection. One of my favorites was the 1958 eldorado brougham in black or red. The body lines, contours and appointment of chrome was unmatched.
  • 6
    Lance Houchin Belle Center Ohio February 13, 2015 at 20:36
    My dad has a 1928 Cadillac roadster Burgandy and black convertible it is a very classy Cadi. With a V 8 it seems like it was advanced for it's time .My cadi is a 1970 DeVille convertible once owned by David Letterman himself !!
  • 7
    Ron Filippi San Diego February 13, 2015 at 20:47
    I have been in the car biz for 36 years and a lifetime of car crazy. Was in the Cadillac Lasalle club for many years and bought and sold lots of Cads. Have owned my 68 Eldorado with 52 k miles for 25 years and love it over all the other Cads. It's drive ability is still modern but it's unique style is different but perfectly balanced. A 53 Eldorado would be nice but way too pricey
  • 8
    Ben Mannes United States February 13, 2015 at 11:08
    So when is the Elmiraj coming to market? The elimination of the names for letters and now letter and number combos, hiring of the guy from Audi/Volvo, and current offerings of cars/models with three different sizes but roughly the same lines may be successful, but are NOT inspiring the Cadillac legacy. I was hopeful with the Ciel, but learned that they do not intend on producing it (big mistake as people worldwide were ready to buy one), and attendees at Pebble Beach, Clint Eastwood included, had checkbooks out to pre-order an Elmiraj...but here we are, a year later, and the non-SUV flagship shares a platform with a Chevy Malibu. Come on, Ed; true Cadillac enthusiasts (I have a '71 Eldorado Convertible myself) are waiting, and sick of having to go elsewhere for our daily drivers.
  • 9
    Douglas Breithaupt Port Townsend, WA February 13, 2015 at 11:21
    It is very interesting that Ed selected the 1968 Eldorado and not the 1967. The 1968 was an improvement on the 1967 with the new 472 c.i. engine for smoother power, front disc brakes standard for serious braking and several design gems like the front fender lights and rear side marker Cadillac medallions. Most others just pick the 1967 because it was first. A true connoisseur picks the 1968 Eldorado.
  • 10
    Jim Baton Rouge, LA February 13, 2015 at 11:34
    To each his own, however I must disagree with him on the 1959 Cadillac. It was and still is the pinnacle of Cadillac style. It is recognizable and still in demand the world over. A 1959 Caddy is a head turning show stopper at any car show I have ever attended. Wherever I park my 59 convertible, people crowd around to admire and ask questions about it. It truly is a classic.
  • 11
    Frank Gesumaria Newark New Jersey February 13, 2015 at 12:06
    I have 1991 Fleetwood Brom with 21000 miles in A1 condition..This car is better than showroom condition. All White with blue leather interior..
  • 12
    Eric Boulton Portland, OR February 14, 2015 at 14:08
    My grandmother bought our 49 Dartmouth green sedanette in Dallas Texas in 1957. It steals the show every time. Glad to hear others are a fan too! BTW Carroll Shelby used the 49 OHV 331 C.I. engine to race in the Cad-Allard.
  • 13
    greg denver,co February 14, 2015 at 22:20
    this summer i jus bought from a family friend 58 coups deville,sea mist green,365 cu in,beautiful car he bought it new in 58 an got to ole to drive it..very sentimental car to me as i remember the car as a kid,now iam ole geees..
  • 14
    J C Laffey Brentwood ca February 14, 2015 at 11:36
    Ed you rock and I have followed your career, but I think you are designing the latest models for 25 year olds. Many can't afford a Cruze much less a Caddy. They look like multiple versions of an old CTS to me. That would be fine if I liked that but I am looking for something more unique and timeless like the elmiraj (which all of us in southern CA know SHOULD be spelled El Mirage) I agree with comments from Ben Mannes, I have a 65 Coupe D Ville because of the clean long lines, and a 75 Eldo CV because if it long and low swoopy look. Obviously styled from yesteryear but like Ed's Eldo choice clean and timeless.
  • 15
    Dana Cooper United States February 15, 2015 at 18:18
    I disagree on the "59" Cadillac. Never a more striking , eye catching , automobile. There are many great Cadillacs but nothing beats the "59" Coupe Deville.
  • 16
    Lonnie Youngstown, Ohio February 15, 2015 at 18:40
    I'm a Cadillac lover as well! I'm getting older now so I've decided to sell my last remaining one! I have a 1980 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, all yellow in and out! Stainless steel top, sun roof, all original equipment! runs good, looks great! Just over 55,000 oroiginal miles!
  • 17
    b pawlak detroit, mi February 15, 2015 at 21:38
    38 Cad Limo, 49 Cad 2DR, 59 Eldorado Conv, 76 Eldo Convt, 79 Cpe Deville, never to be duplicated.
  • 18
    Charles Blackman United States February 15, 2015 at 10:05
    I am surprised that the 1938 Sixty Special didn't make even Honorable Mention; It was such a major breakthrough in design!.
  • 19
    Chet Tschetter Chattanooga, TN February 16, 2015 at 12:45
    The 1953 Series 62 Convertible is great, has clean broad lines, is bold in design yet with finesse internally and externally. The '53 had innovative engineering which appeared later in other GM cars. Perhaps I am predjudiced as I have owned a '53 Cad Conv since July 1957 and just last year completed a total frame-off restoration to original specs. I now have a better than new hand assembled 1953 and I love it!
  • 20
    Ron Stanley Alameda, CA. February 18, 2015 at 18:25
    I thought certainly that I would see my absolute favorite Cadillac on the list but it wasn't even mentioned. My all time favorite Cadillac is the 1947 series 62 Convertible. The proportions and style this model are unsurpassed in my mind.
  • 21
    Joe Northrop College Station, TX February 20, 2015 at 15:05
    Good choices, but the Imperial Limo would not be on my list. I'd substitute a '67 Coupe de Ville, or maybe a '54, both high production cars, but clean designs. I've owned both '67 & '68 Eldorado's, and they each have their strong points. The '68 I have now is a better driving car, but the interior of the '67 is more attractive. I also prefer the front fenders without lights on the '67. On the other hand, the tail lights, with their simplified design are better looking. On the '68. I'll take one of each, as long as it's in a dark color, came from the factory without a vinyl top, but with leather...!
  • 22
    Doug Lawrence portland maine February 21, 2015 at 11:12
    I learned how to drive in a 1964 Couple DeVille I didnt realize how lucky I was in that showpiece I was about 13 years old LOL couldnt do that now this was around 1970
  • 23
    Rodger J. Bille' Yuma, AZ February 22, 2015 at 19:10
    I have had many Cadillacs over the years: '61, '63, '65 Sedan DeVilles, '68 and '70 Eldorados and a '39 Sixty Special ex-movie car with a WW2 tank engine that showed 100mph the night I took it to auction at the Tacoma dome. But none have drawn the attention of my current ride: 1940 Sixty Two sedan in dark maroon, all that shiny chrome gleaming in the AZ sun. It looks almost stock with factory windshield visor and aftermarket fender skirts and McLean real wire wheels adding class. But under the hood lurks 300hp GM crate engine, 700R4 overdrive automatic, AC, front disc brakes and a later model Caddy tilt, telescoping steering wheel. A great road car, driven Friday nights to a local get together and Sundays to church. Wish I could keep it forever but need dollars more than driving fun these days. rdrbille@yahoo.com
  • 24
    Anthony Hamilton Brasil February 22, 2015 at 23:04
    I am British.and Ed made some splendid choices, I love the 49 fastbacks. I drove a Cadillac Coupe Deville ( 1975) for the first time in the USA while on holiday in 1979. I have maintained a love of Cadillacs ever since and went on to own a 1986 Fleetwood Brougham which is one smooth baby with a 5 litre V8. I sat at the wheel of a Mercedes 500 SEC once, but it just wasnt the same. I am dreaming about the El Miraj, I definitely want one of those now that the Ciel is not being built.
  • 25
    Adam WA State March 6, 2015 at 12:10
    I really agree with Ed's choices, but there is an asterisk to be had regarding the 1959 Caddy. Yes the fins are huge, and the chrome vast, but put all that on a commercial chassis, specifically the Superior Crown Royal Hearse the the lines make sense. The longer wheelbase helps the car, along with the "wagon" body that rises far above the fins and the stainless "crown" band that only Superior used.

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