By on September 14, 2010

[Note: GM’s Greatest Hits, like the Deadly Sins, are numbered according to their publication date, and not according to a relative ranking. PN]

Trying to pick the best Cadillac is an exercise in futility, or even worse, masochism. I’ve obsessed over the brand since my earliest encounter with one, and have repeatedly played the game of which vintage Cadillac I’d like to have in my garage. That imaginary Caddy has been a notorious shape-shifter, but in the end it settles down to a battle between the 1948-1949 fastback coupe or one of these ’54 – ’56 sedans. And why does the more dramatic (and highly collectible) coupe lose: because of Mrs. Welch.

In 1963, I was in fifth grade, and obsessed with cars. Cars from the mid-fifties already seemed quaint and old-fashioned, given the rapid styling changes that had occurred in the previous years. My favorite cars that year were the Riviera and the Grand Prix. But whenever I saw Mrs. Welch’s baby blue ’54 Caddy gently burbling down the street towards Lincoln School, my heart jumped a bit, and my pace quickened.

Initially, it was by association: Mrs. Welch was a substitute teacher, who we saw more than usual that year due to our sickly regular one. And did I love every bit of her, and believe me, there was a lot of Mrs. Welch to love. She was built just like her Caddy: big, brawny, and bulging. Not in an overtly sexy way, but dripping with self-confidence and totally comfortable in her (ample) skin. That made her attractive in a way I wasn’t yet used to. And she completely spoiled us.

She couldn’t be bothered with a lesson plan; or pretty much any formal academics at all. I just remember her reading Pecos Bill books to us for hours on end: my idea of school heaven. But that wasn’t all: one day she decided to take us on a field trip to her farm. A couple of Moms showed up with wagons, but I was on the short list for the big Caddy, and it was a deeply memorable experience.

It was like being invited into her bedroom, to sit on her big soft bed, and have her read Pecos Bill to me in private. I just can’t think of another car ride where I felt more secure and happy: this was the ultimate cocoon with which to insulate oneself from life’s troubles. These Caddys truly live up to that overused word “tank”; they simply exude solidity and security. From the thick gauge of steel of their bodies, the solid chromed castings used for levers, handles and trim on the inside, to the tall and sturdy sofas standing in for seats. Eminently comfortable, even for a dozen fifth graders.

The biggest mistake Detroit made was to make their subsequent big cars lower and longer. This vintage Caddy is just right: very little front overhang, not too much in the back. Most of all, it was still tall, with the kind of upright seating position and easy of entry/exit that quickly deteriorated with the next generation, and kept getting worse. Not to mention the highly questionable tacky styling of the late fifties.

These cars have a stature that only Rolls Royce and Bentley understood the value of and kept. No wonder SUVs replaced the big cars. And although some details of the styling can be questioned, they had an integrity and relatively cleanness that withstood the test of time. Yes, the front end with its “Dagmar” tits was baroque, but not yet downright kitschy. And it was the last time that big rounded booty would be there in its natural state, before it was adulterated with ridiculous pointy protuberances.

That vent is the air intake for the huge air conditioning plant that sits in the trunk, under the rear window. If you look carefully, you can see the outlet, and a plexiglass duct that feeds the cold air to vents in the ceiling above the windows. These were expensive options, and it wasn’t until the 1956 or so Nash that AC was finally integrated into the heating system.

I now understood why Mrs. Welch hung on to her aging Caddy: she just wouldn’t have looked (or felt) right in a little Monza, Falcon or Chevy II, like the other teachers drove. And if Pecos Bill had driven a car, it would have been one of these too, a rag top though, with steer horns on the front. These cars epitomized the American confidence to take on anything that life could dish out in the mid fifties, even a bunch of fifth graders.

The gentle burble that emitted through those twin exhausts was delectable: just the right balance of delicacy mixed with a hint of the power that murmured deep under the hood. The fifties were the great horsepower war years for the premium brands, when Cadillac, Lincoln and Imperial duked it out, upping the ante each year. Cadillac’s superb V8 started out with 160 hp in 1949. But between 1951 and 1957, it more than doubled in its output, to 325 hp. This ’54 has a 230 hp version of the 331 CID engine, hooked up to the four-speed Hydramatic.

In 1954, this Caddy offered a combination of comfort, power and features unparalleled in the world. That its price of $3933 ($31k adjusted) made it available to an increasingly large segment of America’s population was simply inconceivable to Europeans at the time. Especially to a simple Iowa farmer’s wife who substitute taught to bring in a little extra income, which allowed her to drive exactly the car that perfectly suited her physiognomy and personality. That’s a priceless form of freedom.

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30 Comments on “Curbside Classic: GM’s Greatest Hits #2 – 1954 Cadillac Series 62 Sedan...”

  • avatar

    When someone says “Cadillac”, two cars duke it out for an immediate mental picture.   One is the 1963-64, and this is the other one.  You all know that I have never been GM’s biggest fan, but I love these mid 50s Cads.
    Paul, they are everything you say.  Top quality materials, fabulous fit and finish, among the era’s best performance, and durable beyond belief.  The Cadillac OHV V8 will go down in history as one of the best engines ever, and the 4 speed Hydra Matic transmission was the best automatic made at the time.  These cars were expensive in their day, but you got what you paid for. In the last few years, an editor of one of the big car mags did a light restoration of a 54 or 55 for a road trip. He marvelled at what a fabulous road car this was, even when over 50 years old.
    I would love to know the story of how the air conditioned Cad found a home in the Pacific Northwest.  It was a rare option in that era, and I would imagine all the more so in your area of the country.
    I have written before of the black 63 Fleetwood that was my second car.  Well, my great aunt Alma who bought it new had traded in a black 55 Fleetwood when she bought it.  I always kind of wished that she had kept the 55.

  • avatar

    Great read. I’m a bit puzzled how you can gush over both the car and Mrs. Welsh without once mentioning the [in]famous “Dagmars” out front.

    • 0 avatar

      findude: Were you just looking at the pictures?:”Yes, the front end with its “Dagmar” tits was baroque, but not yet downright kitschy.”
      I remember asking my dad what “Dagmars” meant when I was about 9 or 10. There were several caadys in our neighborhood and I’d heard the word used by the older guys when they were gushing over one or the other of them.
      It was several years later that I realized why my dad kinda mumbled and flustered his way through a non-answer at the time.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    For an American automaker who “never built a muscle car”, Cadillac’s achievements on the street show its engineers had already been where the rest of the marketplace would venture once the 1960s rolled around. I believe in ’54, Cadillac was still the world record holder for the standing start mile and would hold that title through ’56. And what truly amazes during those accomplishments is how composed the car is during those midrange acceleration blasts; a speed run in a 50s Cadillac is almost boring.

    It’s nice to see how clean and straight that example is; note the rear bumper has not rotted completely away around the exhaust tips, which is how those normally end up after 30 years, much less the nearly 60 this one sports.

    I’m feeling the pull again to a time when automobiles and their drivers had the confidence to sport tasteful bi-color paint jobs and color coordinated interiors which weren’t another shade of white, grey, black – or beige.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    @JCPCAVANAUGH, Amen.  That’s when a Cadillac was a by god Cadillac.  The models cranked out keep that mistique for me right up until the mid 70s when GM started to build ’em as fast as they could to try to sell as many as they could.  That in my mind is when Cadillac went in the toliet, lost its exclusivity, cachet, and resale value.

  • avatar

    The rear seat is like a very big coach. And it has power windows. And the thing screams quality.
    And… what was greatest hit #1?

  • avatar

    Wow, what a great old sled…grand, imposing, unabashedly proud and American, and clearly built to a standard, not to a cost. I’d say the greatest deadly sin for all luxury auto manufacturers has been the ever-increasing ability to cost engineer every component of the car down to the last millionth of a cent…it just all adds up, and anyone with half-decent perception can spot the ‘just good enough’ plastics, the penny saved here and the dollar saved there, etc…luxury ain’t what it used to be.

    And for an adjusted price of $31K today, the Series 62 sounds like a fricking bargain…of course, it lacks about $10K in airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronics and such…but still, as fine as a contemporary $41K (or more) CTS sedan may be, its cheap seats, plastic “aluminium” trim, and aggresive cost engineering make it far more a tarted-up Chevy than a true descendant of these magnificent barges.

  • avatar

    One of my favorite features was the gas filler hidden behind the tail lamp.  Press on the red reflector and the whole tail lamp lens would swing up and the gas cap would be beneath.  I was too young to drive but I helped my grandfather refuel.

  • avatar

    A great article that not only captures the essential greatness of the car, but why, at one time in the not-too-distant past, Cadillac really was the Standard of the World.

    It’s interesting that you mention the reasonable amount of rear overhang. If I recall correctly, one of the distinguishing features that came with the 60 Special sedan was a longer trunk, which came in the form of extra overhang.

    During the 1950s, a person could buy a new Cadillac, drive it for a year, and either sell it or trade it without losing much money. Cadillac had the best depreciation rate among all domestic brands at this time (and it was better than virtually all foreign brands, too). How times change…

    This generation lasted through the 1956 model year. The 1956 model featured an enlarged engine and revised Hydramatic; from what I’ve read, the transmission had its share of teething troubles during its first year. Popular Mechanics conducted surveys of owners of 1954 and 1956 Cadillacs. What is fascinating is how many owners complained of poor workmanship and poor fit of the doors. Not quite what I was expecting with these cars.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    No photo of Mrs. Welch?

  • avatar
    M 1

    Er, is that grass on the floor in the first interior photo? I’ve grown to love the big 50’s cars, but I’m pretty sure not even the Caddy is large enough to warrant the installation of a lawn. I sure hope this is a work in progress (like my own still-rough ’55 Buick) and not just a beater neglected by an unappreciative owner.

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      Although that is definitely a strip of Astroturf on the front bench seat, a quick look at the exterior photographs indicate the “grass on the floor” illusion is caused by reflection of the sidewalk on the window glass. You can see the same effect to a lesser extent in the photograph directly below, in the lower left hand corner.

  • avatar

    The biggest mistake Detroit made was to make their subsequent big cars lower and longer. This vintage Caddy is just right: very little front overhang, not too much in the back. Most of all, it was still tall, with the kind of upright seating position and easy of entry/exit that quickly deteriorated with the next generation, and kept getting worse. Not to mention the highly questionable tacky styling of the late fifties.

    God, yes.  People complain about crossovers and tall sedans, but they’re simply a return to cars that people actually like to be in; the kinds of cars that disappeared around 1957, replaced by designer wankery until, oh, 2005 or so. One day I hope to down a car from the late forties or early fifties—a nice sedan, nothing sporty—so that I can appreciate the design, and as payback for driving an ass-on-the-floor Corolla for a years.

    I’m glad to see that cars are starting to be built for the people who buy them, rather than as an exercise in self-gratification for the people who draw them.

    • 0 avatar

      Cars of the 1950s were styled for the people who bought them. Chrysler Corporation stubbornly kept its cars high and relatively short and narrow compared to the competition. Its sales and market share dropped steadily through 1955, and it lost second place to the Ford Motor Company in 1952.

      This Cadillac may look high to our eyes, but, for its time, it was considered low and stylish. Mopars and Packards had higher rooflines and were easier for entry and exit. But they looked dated next to the GM and Ford competition, and were clobbered in the sales race as a result.

      When Chrysler came out with its very low, wide and stylish 1957 models, its market share jumped to 19.7 percent (up from about 16 percent the previous year). That is a huge increase for one year.

      The 1957 Fords were similarly long and low, and, as a result, Ford outsold Chevy for the first time since the 1930s.

      Incidentally, the 1957 Cadillacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles featured an all-new body that was longer, lower and wider than the 1954-56 generation. The Buicks and Oldsmobiles didn’t sell all that well because they looked dated next to the Mopars. But GM was pushing longer, lower and wider in 1957, too. It just got trumped by Chrysler, as Harley Earl strongly believed that GM should never take one big step when it could take three smaller ones. Chrysler, which had much less to lose, simply leapfrogged GM by taking one huge step with its radical 1957 lines. And customers flocked to buy Mopars.

      The simple fact is that people wanted the “latest and greatest” in the 1950s, and long, low and wide was considered to be more modern than tall, narrow and relatively short. People voted with their checks, and longer, lower and wider was almost always the winner. If people had bought cars for comfort and practicality, Chrysler sales would have boomed in the early 1950s. That is not what happened.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, Chrysler lost 2nd place to Ford because of a strike. Chrysler continued to make tall cars because its chairman insisted on wearing his hat while he drove.

    • 0 avatar

      If Chrysler sales were only down because of a strike, Chrysler sales should have moved ahead of Ford’s as factories reopened. That was what happened to Ford in late 1967, and GM in 1970, when both companies were closed by strikes.

      But Ford remained in second place, even after Chrysler production resumed.

  • avatar

    This posting brings back such fond memories.
    I’m the same age as Paul and in 1963, my Father had a ’63 Chevy Bel Air 2-door sedan.

    It was so boring compared to the 1956 Sixty Special sedan that our next door neighbor had.

    Power windows, that beautiful, heavily chromed dashboard.  The feel of the controls, the plushness of the upholstery.  The massive V8 with it’s glass fuel filters.  He used to brag that it only got 8 miles to a gallon of Atlantic Imperial.  Wow!

    Thanks, Mr. Alexander for allowing the damn neighbor kid to play around in your beautiful Cadillac on a regular basis.

  • avatar

    These were really great cars, but it was a different era, too. I doubt anyone in the luxury sedan these days would want a car this high and slow.

  • avatar

    Great article, celebrating one of the great cars from when General Motors knew how to build sedans people would dream about. I think the ’56 Cadillac was the best of those three years, though. The movie “Giant” is a good way to see those Caddies on the road back in the day.
    Oh, and for those youngsters confused with the references to “Dagmars,” you’ll understand when you see this photo:

  • avatar

    The early to middle 50s  – my favorite car era ! I remember hearses with this body style and I remember the Pontiac from the same time period which was my family’s very first vehicle with an automatic . Funny story – my dad who used to go to work very early when everyone else was still asleep started up the Pontiac (light green with dark green roof) put it neutral (or so he thought) and went back into the house while it warmed up . Coming out of the house he saw it across the street heading (very slowly) towards a signpost at the general store there and was able to catch it in time before any damage was done to the car or anything else . Of course riding in the back of his next vehicle , a 57 Chevy pickup with three on the tree , to the lake to go swimming was a great time also for us kids . Much like painting the bumpers and grill on the all red truck white with paint brushes . Kids today don’t know what the hell they missed !

  • avatar

    they simply exude solidity and security.

    The irony, of course, is that hitting anything solid in this car will leave you seven kinds of dead.

    I find the violent opposition to safety gear among TTACers bizarre – in this case, somebody blamed ABS and airbags for the extra 20k in MSRP without mentioning heated/vented seats, massive audio systems, nav, vastly more powerful engines, huge aluminum rims, etc etc etc.

    You’re talking about an era where manufacturers refused to put padding on the solid metal dashboards because it implied that the cars might get into accidents.

    If my saab had satisfying solid metal in the dash and no seatbelts, I could severely injure my passenger by stomping on the brakes. That doesn’t seem like an era whose passing should be mourned.

  • avatar

    The movie “coupe deville” is a good one for fans of this car to see. It’s about 3 brothers that drive from michigan to their parent’s house in florida  in a 54 ragtop.

  • avatar

    Great article! Where has this been? I remember ; The ’53’s, ’54’s and ’55’s were the best Caddies of the era. Good for 20mpg on the road, regular gas, too. A new auto trans in ’56 and ’57 gave a lot of trouble. I had a ’58 Fleetwood that was big enough inside to play soccer in. Wonder Bar radio, “full power” as they used to say then; no A/C though. Long, heavy, ponderous and it never saw the bright side of 16 mpg on premium. Ran forever, though.

  • avatar

    Hi all, this is my first post since becoming a member of CC. I was born in 54 and this was the car (albeit a coupe) in which my parents brought me home, West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park, IL, in 1954. Dad said it was a POS sled, and I recall the new owner driving off our driveway, smoking a big cigar. Oooh, that mouse fur interior smell…. Dad’s replacement a ’57 Corvette with Powerglide, and, yes, power windows! Mom had a ’56 turquoise Nomad. Much more to come. Lock ‘n’ load.

  • avatar

    I have this exact car…same colors, year, four door and everything. It was a gift from my dad and grandpa when I was about 10 or 11 yrs old…I’ve had it ever since…so in essence was my first car. I had it re-painted about 15 years ago but its ready for another visit as it’s been outside with minimal covering. I have waited for years to restore this gorgeous beast, and now 20 yrs later (yes i’ll be 31 this year)…i’m finally all grown up with a big girl job and have started the resto. Just got the car out of the shop for a almost complete engine go-through…it’s always ran but the tranny needed rebuilt…so while it was in there we did several thousand dollars of clean up work…new fuel tank, break lines, yadda yadda. I got to drive it home from the shop which was one of the most exciting days!!! Sadly my grandpa passed about three yrs ago so he never got to see me drive it…I stopped at the gas station on the way home from the shop…and after I stupidly remembered the gas tank is accessed through the tail light…was filling the tank…when an elderly man about the age my grandpa would be sauntered over to see this relic at the pump (very small and friendly town). He walked around and around it, looking it over, looking inside, asking questions and fawning over the car…he did exactly what I know my grandpa would have done had he been alive…I talked to the man and watched him explore the car…I couldn’t help but tear up and nearly bawl right there at the pump as I thought how proud my grandpa would be that I was driving the old girl home. I think God sent him in lieu of my grandpa that day to encourage me to work harder to restore this car to its former beauty. It’s a happy memory and one I apparently can’t even write a comment about today without tearing up. :) Anyway…just felt compelled to comment as I immensly enjoyed the post and pics about the caddy…and found it inspiring to learn more about the car who’s been in my life longer than my husband! :) laters. -Melissa

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