The year Cadillac gave drivers the electric chair
Some say the unusually cold, snowy winter weather in the Eastern United States is a symptom of climate change. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, one thing is certain: come winter, automobile seat warmers are as welcome in your car as a steaming cup of hot chocolate and a snuggly blanket while sitting next to a crackling fire. Thankfully, this automotive indulgence is by now commonplace. Still, you might wonder why it took so long to become standard equipment on cars.
Swedish automaker Saab gets the credit for making a heated driver’s seat standard equipment on the Saab 99, the smaller Saab 96 sedan, and the Saab 95 station wagon in 1972. This inevitably led to the first joke about the driver having a hot ass.
While most Saab buyers were probably pleased that the ’72 Saab was the first car certified by the federal government to withstand 5-mph crashes, the thought of shoving a heating pad in the seat was clearly a bigger attraction. Unlike today’s systems, this one activated automatically when the ignition was turned on and the cabin’s temperature was below 58 degrees. It shut off once the seat temperature reached 82 degrees. Saab claimed that this electric chair would not shock you, and was not affected by dampness that came in contact with it.
But before you start high-fiving the Swedes for their innovation, thank Cadillac instead. While Saab was the first to offer heated seats as standard equipment, Cadillac was the first to offer it at all. Specifically, credit goes to Robert L. Ballard, a General Motors employee who filed an automobile seat heater patent on April 30, 1951. In a burst of governmental efficiency that would surprise exactly no one, the patent was finally granted on Jan. 4, 1955, building on previous patents, including one granted to Westinghouse Electric on Feb. 27, 1923 for the “electrically heated warming pad.”
Still, in a valiant effort to show that the federal government could be more efficient than private industry, it took GM nearly a decade to introduce it in the 1966 Cadillac Fleetwood. By then it was far from the headline attraction. All the attention went to its exclusive variable ratio steering, the first on an American production car, followed by a new Fleetwood Brougham model and automatic climate control. In fact, it isn’t until page 4 of the five-page press release that Cadillac gets around to its new hot seats.
All Cadillac Fleetwoods could have the new option on the front seats except for the Fleetwood 75, which given its chauffeur-driven nature, had them in the rear seats instead. The system used four fiberglass pads “interwoven with a grid of electric conductive carbon yarn” built into the seat cushions and seat backs, and provided a temperature range from 85 to 105 degrees.
The option was triggered automatically when the ignition was turned on and the temperature was below 50 degrees. It could also be activated manually. It shut off once the heater fan came on or when manually turned off by the driver via a switch on the instrument panel, just to the left the steering column. On Fleetwood 75 models, the switch was on the right side rear quarter panel.
Cadillac assured buyers in its accessory guide that any damaged strands didn’t impair the performance of the system.
The $78.95 option (that’s $612 today) was available regardless of whether the seats were bench or buckets and covered in cloth or leather. It was offered though 1968, after which it was dropped, probably due to a low take rate. And it’s no wonder. In Cadillac’s 16-page 1966 sales brochure, this innovation is buried on page 12, two-thirds of the way down in a sea of text, without a photo.
Nevertheless, this option, once reserved for the upper one percent, is now available on a Honda Fit. In fact, the cheapest new car with heated seats is the 2018 Ford Fiesta SE, base price $16,220, although the system is optional and costs an extra $290 for a total of $16,510.
Coincidentally, according to the Hagerty Valuation Tool, $16,510 is about the average value of a 1966 Cadillac Fleetwood 60 Special Brougham these days. Good luck finding one that will heat your backside.