By on July 27, 2014

This car at first may look to you a lot like any other 1930s coupe, but it was one of the most influential cars of the era, impacting both the way that cars were styled and promoted. You see, in addition to setting the pattern for the way that General Motors’ cars (and their competitors’ cars as well) looked in the immediate prewar period, the 1936 Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe was GM’s first production car that was based on what we now call a concept car. Back then, though, they were more likely to call those concepts “show cars”, and not only was the Aerodynamic Coupe GM’s first production car derived from a show car, that show car was the giant automaker’s first attempt at creating a one-off vehicle just for promotional purposes. It also represented the solidification of Harley Earl and his styling team’s important role in General Motors’ hierarchy and not so incidentally it helped Cadillac replace Packard as America’s preeminent luxury automaker.

The fact that there was an economic depression going on didn’t stop American car companies from participating in the 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair exposition in Chicago. Ford’s pavilion featured a chandelier made of three full-size Ford cars suspended from the ceiling. Studebaker constructed a mammoth, 80 foot long wooden model of their Land Cruiser automobile. Chevrolet built and operated an actual assembly plant on the fair grounds where you could watch cars being assembled and even take delivery of a new Chevy at the fair.

A number of automakers prepared special cars for the exposition, particularly the luxury marques. Packard created the “Car of the Dome”, sometimes called “the most famous Packard”, a modified Dietrich style sedan. Pierce Arrow showed their radically styled Siver Arrow. Ford displayed an aerodynamic rear-engined prototype designed by John Tjaarda of the Briggs company called the Briggs Dream Car that was the original concept behind the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr, and Duesenberg created a Rollston bodied supercharged Model SJ Arlington Torpedo sedan designed by Gordon Buehrig and nicknamed “Twenty Grand”. That car’s named derived from it’s $20,000 price, the equivalent of over $350,000 today.


Clay modelers working on the Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe show car for the 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair in Chicago.

With that kind of competition, GM’s newly formed Art and Colour Section took their task seriously. Previewing the fastback rooflines of the 1940s the Cadillac coupe show car had a very long 154 inch wheelbase and a sloping tail. The long and smooth lines were supposed to convey the impression of power and speed. Those lines were accentuated by the sloping rear end and by tapered horizontal accents on the sides of the hood and fenders. Unlike most cars of the day that carried exposed spare tires mounted either on the back of the car or as “side mounts” where the front fenders flowed into the running boards, the Aerodynamic Coupe stashed the spare in the trunk. Actually, that “trunk” inside the bodywork was rather advanced in an era when many luxury cars still had steamer trunks on a rack behind the car to store luggage. Even the exhaust pipes were styled, an innovation that lasts till today, and the exhaust system was tuned to give the car’s V16 engine an appropriate tone.

That V16 engine, in production since 1930 and the first production V16 used for a passenger car, was possibly the first car engine that was styled for aesthetic reasons. The motor received finishes in enamel paint, porcelain, polished aluminum and chrome. Valve covers were polished and detailed. Wiring was hidden away and special attention was paid to how and where the accessories were mounted. The V16 looked so good that Cadillac would apply the same styling to its V8 and V12 engines.


Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe show car

A “winged goddess” Cadillac hood ornament topped things off and even that received special attention, with a polished finish on its front, while surfaces visible to the driver were dulled, so as not to create glare. Per the coachbuilding terms of the day, the interior was done in”plain style”, about as plain as British “public schools” are public. A dark dashboard is brightened with two slanted strips of chrome, continuing the V motifs that abound on the car. Windows had walnut trim and the various knobs and handles were plated in a satin gold finish. The sun visors were shaped like abstract leaves, made of fine cloth and mounted with screws that had heads of imitation pearl. Instead of metal handles, the doors were closed with rope pulls mounted below the armrests. As would be expected, the deeply cushioned and broad seats were very comfortable.


While the V16 engine didn’t survive past 1940, features of the Aerodynamic Coupe would find their way into production cars for decades, including the all-steel “turret top” roof, a recessed and lighted license plate housing, the fuel filler hidden in the taillight housing (a feature perhaps most famous for its use in the iconic 1957 Chevrolet sedan) and the use of chrome window surrounds and beltline trim to accentuate the coupe’s lines. The Aerodynamic Coupe itself would make it to production in 1936 more or less unchanged from the concept car.

In the following video, Steve Pasteiner, who runs the AAT prototype shop and who was a long time designer at GM, discusses Harley Earl and the influence of the Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe. I apologize for the video’s audio quality, for some reason it recorded at a low level and I had to boost the gain in editing, resulting in some distortion. It’s still a worthwhile listen for Pasteiner’s insider’s look.

The resulting product was an automobile that looked much more modern to 1930s consumers when compared to the conventional automobiles of the day. Remember, automotive styling was in its infancy in those days and many manufacturers in the 1920s and even later paid virtually no attention to making their cars distinctive. Retired GM designer Dave Holls explained what set the Aerodynamic Coupe apart from its contemporaries, helping to position Cadillac at the top of the American luxury car market:

“Cadillacs were much later than 1933 in form. . . . It was fine styling — if you hold your hand over the front end and look at the car from there back, you begin to see a fair resemblance to the Cord Beverly. . . . This was a time when Cadillac began to make bold, yet careful steps toward change, while Packard hung tenaciously onto its long heritage, making only limited changes. A lot of people went along with them at the time, but the practice established a position, and they were stuck with it, later on with disastrous results.”

This particular 1936 Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe was not just on display at the 2014 Eyes On Design show, it was featured on the poster for this year’s event. It’s owned by Bill and Barbara Parfet, who are well known among classic car collectors. Mr. Parfet has been president of the foundation that supports the great Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan, a bit north of Kalamazoo. The ’36 is one of just 52 V16 Cadillacs made for the 1936 model year, each of them pretty much hand built by Cadillac’s Fleetwood body division. While that number of cars may not seem very significant, that year was the first time Cadillac surpassed Packard in annual sales to become the best-selling U.S. luxury marque, a position it still holds, though its leadership in the overall U.S. luxury segment has, in modern times, been eclipsed by foreign competitors, particularly brands from Germany.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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34 Comments on “GM’s First Concept Car and the Influential Result: 1936 Cadillac V16 Aerodynamic Coupe by Fleetwood...”

  • avatar

    Rolling artwork.

  • avatar

    Beautiful car and still an attention getter.

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    Did you get any pictures of the interior or engine. I’ve seen online photos of one of Cadillac’s V16 and the thing is a work of art.

  • avatar

    Simply beautiful although it looks rather more Sedan than Coupe .


  • avatar

    God that’s a nice looking car.

    I wish Cadillac would build stuff like this again. There was a time when their cars could actually be mentioned in the same breath as Duesenberg, Pierce Arrow, Cord, Mercedes, Rolls Royce, etc. But the “Standard of the World” thing hasn’t really carried any weight since before WW2.

    I honestly think GM has the engineering talent to pull off a legitimate competitor to the S65 or the Flying Spur. But I’m not going to hold my breath. Their corporate culture would never allow it, and besides-who’s going to buy a quarter million dollar Cadillac today? People still remember the Cimarron.

    …And the Catera.

    …And the STS.

    …And the V8-6-4. And the HT4100, the Northstar…

    But I’d still love to see it happen.

    • 0 avatar

      I personally don’t think the S63 or S65 need to exist.

      I used to have an S550 with a naturally aspirated engine (now that everything is lower displacement with Twin Turbo, they are LOUDER than your typical Hyuindai/Kia).

      My S550 had plenty of power (380HP) and due to its size you’d feel strange driving it fast. It handled like a boat.

      Those car only exist to be show offs – sold to a client old enough to remember when your engine size denoted “class”. None of them are going to use even half that car’s potential and less than .01% sold will ever see a track.

      As for Cadillac…

      If you wanna look at a company with the panache to pull off a worthwhile S-class competitor, look at HYUNDAI/KIA. The new K900 is basically a W222 without the Benz logo. Amazing in every way, but doomed because of its name equity.

      Cadillac’s XTS could have been an S-class competitor but they aren’t willing to go that far.

      -powered headrests.
      -powered thigh cushion
      -heated/cooled/massage chairs all around
      -optional reclining rear seats.
      – If they won’t add a V8, then they need to make the Twin Turbo V6 STANDARD in all XTS.

      Other than that, the XTS interior is the best GM ever pulled off. The exterior however doesn’t age very well.

      …and now they’ve got nothing but recalls hurting their image.

      • 0 avatar

        I think part of what makes an S-class, the S-class, is its international appeal. I really cannot see men of prestige in London, Beijing, Moscow, Dubai, or Tokyo pulling up in XTS and being taken seriously. Sure those other creature comforts may be part of it, but its the result of thirty years of mostly junk product now coupled with incredibly polarizing styling.

      • 0 avatar

        Hyundai/Kia have been pushing the envelope of what their name will support for quite a while now. It’s amazing how quickly they’ve dragged the name uphill. The K900 may fail as an individual product but succeed in dragging the name equity even higher.

      • 0 avatar

        Not sure what you’re getting at.

        None of the cars you listed there actually need to exist. No sports car or hypercar needs to exist. Neither does the 300C, or anything that isn’t a four-cylinder FusiCamCordNata.

        These cars are emotional purchases, in this case made by people with the means to satisfy their tastes.

        Nobody seriously takes one to the track. Nobody seriously off-roads range rovers either, and none of these cars get used to their “full potential” the vast majority of the time.

        People buy them because they like them. People buy S65s because they want the most expensive, most optioned, and the best of an already nice thing.

    • 0 avatar

      I have to say I have alwayse liked the STS. From the original that was what the 80s seville should have been all along to the fwd northstar powerd example that should never have been sold as a bimer beater to the last gen rwd/awd version that was a genuinely nice ride over shadowed by the IMO un impressive CTS. As for the catera… It should have been sold as a chevy. A rwd lumina with optional lt1/ls1 + t56 would have been real nice.

    • 0 avatar

      I remember my ’06 Northstar STS. I remember it fondly. It was a great car, smooth, fast, comfortable, sure-footed and understated. I miss it to this day.

      • 0 avatar

        I really like the styling on the final STS, and I like the AWD and the presence, and that V6 was good! I would have had one, if it had a decent interior. I wanted it to be good!

  • avatar

    I love the distance between the door and the front wheel well. If this was a modern car, I would complain about the small rear window, but here, I’ll give t a pass (j/k). When this car came out, weren’t Cadillacs 8x more expensive than a similar sized Chevy? I might have read that on this site. Now I would say they are closer to 2x more expensive.

  • avatar

    On one of our many driving trips through the West when I was younger, I remember one trip through Texas in the late 70s-early 80s and we were in the middle of nowhere when my dad saw something at a small, older used car lot and we turned around to check it out.

    There was a very old guy who owned the place and he only had maybe a dozen old cars covered under a tin roofed barn area but the car out front that my dad had seen was a V16 Cadillac like this. It clearly needed restoration but even in that condition (and to a kid who thought of contemporary Cadillacs as tacky barges) this car was clearly special. I remember the size and lines of the car, the fact that it had a V16 engine and the rope pulls on the doors. Even though it was “old” to me, the car really had presence.

    I don’t honestly remember the price now, but it was maybe something like 12,000 in 1982 dollars for a non-running vehicle in need of attentive restoration. Given the overall condition and location I’m sure this one was found and saved.

    Thanks for the article, it brings back memories!

  • avatar

    Hand-built for fat wallets to feed fatter coffers. Earlier Art Deco seemed bypassed with cue taken from aviation.

  • avatar

    What incredible cars these were. I am certain that Cadillac can pull something like this off today, but the myopic leadership at GM would never green-light it.

    While the Sixteen, with its 13.6L engine is a definite non-starter in North America (or any advanced nation with an equally advanced outlook regarding ecological damage), a long-cowled small-displacement V12 could (and should) be considered.

    As an aside, a little-known piece of apocrypha is that the 1977-1996 D body was designed to hold a V12 engine, which never ended up happening.

    • 0 avatar

      Ford did a V12 development mule and GM did a V16 development mule back during the cheap gas 90s/early oughts.

      I wonder what kind of MPG that those types of engines would get now with 10 speed automatics, VVT, DI, cylinder deactivation, etc. I think both of them should do it for the prestige. A reborn Continental vs. Talisman. Make them so luxurious that they make an Equus look like a Plymouth and an S-Class look like a Daewoo.

      • 0 avatar

        Absolutely agreed.

        That Cadillac seems content to chase BMW to the bottom is immensely frustrating to me. The division has a tremendous heritage that they’re utterly failing to capitalize on. Such a vehicle, made by North American hands, would hopefully be a symbol of the greatness that we’re still capable of, when we’re not eating ourselves into diabetic comas, being frightened of things that red-faced blowhards like Glenn Beck tell us are scary, or being offended on other people’s behalf by things that aren’t offensive.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        Agree 100%. Create a car so expensive and prestigious that every dictator, despot, rap star and British football player will aspire to drive it.

        Create a halo for the brand. Re-establish it as a prestige marque.

        It has been proven time and time again that the trickle down effect more than offsets the development cost and loss that you will take on the initial run/sale of these flagship vehicles.

        • 0 avatar

          Hopefully the forthcoming full-size Cadillac sedan fits the bill.

          • 0 avatar

            I have a feeling it’ll end up on a stretched FWD Impala chassis. Or they’ll use the one from the Caprice PPV and try to rebody it without changing hard points.

            To me Cadillac has a big history of having fantastic ideas and concepts, and then letting a Chevrolet accountant make the final decisions.

  • avatar

    One of those designs that takes my breath away. A perfect segue to the 3-box postwar designs. Hood still had that nautical “prow” look (or locomotive, take your pick) with room for sidemounts that weren’t needed anymore. By integrating front fenders into the main body, the front passenger compartment could be widened to take a third passenger. And get rid of the running boards.
    I was at a scrapyard outside of Phoenix a while back and noticed the railings leading up to the office. The railings were camshafts with many lobes, 32 in fact.

  • avatar

    It is a high end Cadillac Tudor.
    Why a Tudor?
    Good that it was a 1936 concept car with 4 builds because at the $8k price no market.
    Aero shape but with earlier upright and tall grille.
    Ho Hum.
    Classic Cars on Line has a 37 La Salle Opera Coupe better representing the Cadillac line.

  • avatar

    just wow. love the color and the lines. wish there were interior shots and a shot of what i think is a v16 badge on the grill. thanks for the lesson.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    General motors Holden in Australia actually used this design concept for it’s ‘All Enclosed coupe’ style ,or as it was known here,the sloper . they were meant to be cars for travelling salesmen etc but had far better styling than the other dumpy looking bodies holden built for it’s USA chassis .And Ford even built some to keep up with the marketing.

  • avatar

    Dumb question here: In cars of the 30s and 40s, they have, as depicted above, a split, 2-piece windshield. Is this just styling, or did the technology not exist to make a one piece windshield?

    • 0 avatar

      _NOT_ a dumb question ! .

      Peaked flat windshields were all the rage to improve driver visibility and safety back in the 1930’s .

      Dodge touted it as ” Air Plane Vision ! ” .


    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      If you look closely, there is a slight angle between the two panes. The auto industry didn’t figure out how to make curved single panes at a manageable cost until the early ’50s, and as soon as they did everyone went nuts with wraparound glass.

  • avatar

    I love this old Cadillac, truly a stunning effort.

    As for the suggestion that Cadillac should create a modern equivalnet of this – a no-holds-barred uber-luxury car to trump all others…I say, no chance. If they tried, it would just be an expensive flop.

    The truth is, that it is harder to get back an image of “standard of the world” when you have lost it, than it is for a company like Hyundai to haul themsleves up. I love and respect OLD Cadillacs for what they once represented but let’s be realistic, that boat has long since sailed. Outside of a very limited enclave in SE Michigan, Cadillac do not represent any sort of aspiration any more. I live in SC and generally the only people you see driving Cadillacs are old folks.Few people in the young upwardly-mobile demographic woudl be seen dea in one.

    The sad thing is that Cadillac (or GM at least, as you could argue that many of the ills were forced upon the Cadillac division by the mothership) were largely responsible for the trashing thier own image. Yes, there were outside factors beyond their control, like the rise of the import luxury brands, or the fuel crises….. but the dilution of the long held brand equity through engineering mediocrity (diesels, 2-4-6-8, Northstar, diminished build quality etc) and disasters like the Cimmaron, were all of their own making.

    You can’t get it back. It would probably be easier to start up a completely new brand and persude consumers (over a period of time) that it was luxury premium product – than it is to get consumers to accept that a once-premium brand that has fallen so low as Cadillac can ever be elevated again?

    As another poster said above- you have to go back a very long way to when Cadillac could credibly lay claim to the “standard of the world” title. Like I said, I have a strong affection of old classic Cadillacs but I think for the fans of the classic cars the desirable ones were pretty much finished by the end of the 1960s?

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      I largely agree but will refute this with 2 brand names.

      Audi: nearly dead and buried in North America with the unintended acceleration claims and quality issues. Now an aspirational brand.

      Jaguar: after years of declining interest from Ford, re-badged, mediocre Ford products and finally a sale to a corporation based in India, Jaguar is experiencing a resurgence both in image and in sales.

      So it can be done. It just requires will, investment and a good product.

    • 0 avatar
      Joe McKinney

      “Cadillac do not represent any sort of aspiration any more”.

      Have you seen the 2015 Cadillac Escalade commercial featuring the song “Fame” by David Bowie? This is such a great commercial, it is a shame it was wasted on a Cadillac.

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