Rare Rides Icons: The Cadillac Eldorado, Distinctly Luxurious (Part XXI)

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis

It was time for a new styling theme at Cadillac in 1959, when lead designer Harley Earl reached mandatory retirement age. Bill Mitchell, longtime right hand man and team succeeded Earl and implemented immediate styling changes. Some of those - like huge fins - were to compete with Chrysler and Imperial designs, but others were an effort at streamlining and modernization; moving away from post-War looks. Today we’ll take a look at the changes underneath these grandiose and (often) pink metallic bodies.

The basis for all standard length Cadillac models was again the C-body chassis. In use since the Series 62 debuted in 1940, the platform was generally modernized and lengthened in keeping with the times. In 1959 the standard C-body wheelbase at Cadillac was 130 inches, up from 129.5 inches in 1958.

The 1958 Eldorados spanned 223.4 inches, but with the additional wheelbase, extended bumper, and new wingspan at the rear, this figure grew to an even 225 inches for 1959 and 1960. Width grew slightly in 1959, to 80.2” (up from 80” previously). For the first time, Seville and Biarritz had different heights: 54.1 inches for the Seville coupe, 54.4” on Biarritz convertible. Credit the difference to the bulky fabric and framing required for the power convertible top. 

Separate from the standard Eldorados, the new 6900 series four-door Eldorado Brougham took a different approach to its platforming. For 1957 and 1958 Eldorado Brougham used a shortened C-body, shrunk from 129.5 inches to 126 inches. Smaller and shorter than the regular Eldorado models was a distinguishing point for Brougham.

This course was not followed for 1959. The new 1959 Eldorado Brougham rode on the same 130-inch wheelbase as the other Eldorados, and had the same 225-inch overall length. Though it wore a different body (a preview of 1960 styling, as comments pointed out), Eldorado Brougham was much more similar to other standard Eldorados in its second outing. Width was the same as well, though in hardtop sedan format the roofline was over two inches taller at 56.2” overall.

Though it was larger in every direction, the 1959 Eldorados sported some weight savings. Weights of 5,000 to 5,500 pounds in 1958 slimmed to just 5,100 to 5,300 depending on specification. Perhaps that was down to slimmer body panels and thinner chrome, but it’s difficult to tell as weight savings were simply unimportant at the time, and not explained.

As domestic luxury cars continued to progress toward modern features more equipment became standard. The 1959 Cadillacs included standard items that weren’t even present on the 1953 Eldorado halo cars. Series 6200 featured the expected automatic transmission, speed-adjustable wipers, a door mirror, power brakes, power steering, and a passenger vanity mirror. Convertibles were better equipped, and included power windows as standard and a memory driver’s seat. 

On top of this the Eldorado models layered much more exterior trim, turbine wheel discs, power windows as standard, a heater, standard fog lamps, power trunk lid, radio with an antenna, six-way adjustable power bench seats, standard problematic air suspension, power locks, and a frame for the license plate. Customers who sprung for the Italian-built Brougham also received standard air conditioning, Autronic Eye, and even cruise control.

The long-running Cadillac V8 engine was continued for 1959, but was enlarged in keeping with the times and competition. Cubic inches increased from 365 (6.0L) to 390 (6.4L). The upsizing was achieved through a longer stroke of 3 and ⅞ inches. 

Horsepower jumped from 310 and 335 (standard Cadillac, Eldorado triple carb), to 325 and 345 respectively. The extra carb engine was now branded as Eldorado Tri-Power, and was standard on Eldorado and optional on other Cadillac models. Larger power was paired to the same sturdy four-speed Hydra-Matic, which was near the end of its usage at that point.

In 1959 Cadillac dealers received a brochure with specific talking points to help their associates explain why Cadillac was superior to Imperial and Lincoln models. Lincoln had just misjudged the market and introduced the wildly unpopular unibody line, including Continental Mark III-V from 1958 to 1960. The brand was rescued by the epically Mid-Century Continental of 1961, penned by Elwood Engel. 

Imperial had the Exner Forward Look styling, which entered its third year on the D-body in 1959. Unfortunately Imperial became a caricature of itself as Virgil Exner was well out of touch and out of ideas, and he was ousted from Chrysler in 1963. Chrysler hired Engel from Lincoln, and he would save Imperial styling by applying a 1961 Continental look to the Imperial of 1967.

GM’s marketing department picked at the Imperials dated styling, enamel paint finish rather than GM’s acrylic, carry over details, and poorly fitted carpets. They went after the “space age” dashboard as impractical, and pointed out only one person could light a cigarette at a time. Fairly, the brochure noted Imperial had no heating vents for rear passengers. And with its conventional shocks and air springs (and not a real air suspension), surely Imperial’s ride was subpar. 

Lincoln’s Continental was pointed out as a carry-over design, with a new hood ornament that lacked pizazz. Lincoln also fell down on safety, with vacuum-operated wipers, and safety glass for the windshield only. Point 22 covered the unitized body, seen by consumers as a platform compromise.

Cadillac pointed out that the Lincoln’s dash placed its dials below the line of sight. There were only 14-inch wheels instead of 15” like the Cadillac, and those small piano wheels worked on a conventional shock rather than air suspension. The vent windows of the Continental were manual, how poor! Additionally, the interior was just less luxurious than a Cadillac.

The Cadillac page indicated 29 new things to sell about the 1959 Cadillacs like the three-speed wipers, new drainage system that was “scientifically-engineered,” and full safety plate glass. The brochure talked about the big 15-inch wheels covering some big brakes, and the excellent air suspension. Point 25 also highlighted the X-frame chassis, as it was yet to become a PR liability (that happened in 1961). 

In our next installment we’ll review the big time styling changes the Eldorado received in 1959. Bill Mitchell allowed for a single fanciful all-out design year at Cadillac before he reeled it back in for 1960 and beyond. There’s a reason why when someone says “Fifties Cadillac” today an enormous 1959 Eldorado is what springs to mind. 

[Images: GM]

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Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Started writing articles for TTAC in late 2016, when my first posts were QOTDs. From there I started a few new series like Rare Rides, Buy/Drive/Burn, Abandoned History, and most recently Rare Rides Icons. Operating from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio, a relative auto journalist dead zone. Many of my articles are prompted by something I'll see on social media that sparks my interest and causes me to research. Finding articles and information from the early days of the internet and beyond that covers the little details lost to time: trim packages, color and wheel choices, interior fabrics. Beyond those, I'm fascinated by automotive industry experiments, both failures and successes. Lately I've taken an interest in AI, and generating "what if" type images for car models long dead. Reincarnating a modern Toyota Paseo, Lincoln Mark IX, or Isuzu Trooper through a text prompt is fun. Fun to post them on Twitter too, and watch people overreact. To that end, the social media I use most is Twitter, @CoreyLewis86. I also contribute pieces for Forbes Wheels and Forbes Home.

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2 of 14 comments
  • Pig_Iron Pig_Iron on Apr 17, 2024

    Fun and fascinating history.

  • Ras815 Ras815 on Apr 17, 2024

    My favorite point from the 'How to Sell Cadillac over Imperial' document:

    Fins same as last year.

    Could there be a more representative statement on 1950s automative design? 🤣

  • SCE to AUX JFK used to pronounce Laos as "lay-oss", so I want to call this car "tay-oss". But I'm told by a true VW lover that it's pronounced "ta-owse", rhyming with "house". Maybe VW should rethink a few of their product names.
  • Jalop1991 No Android Auto/Apple Carplay, no car. It's that simple. I always have my phone with me, and it's dirt simple to plug it in and have Spotify continue where it left off. And the maps I want--Waze--are right there.
  • Eric As I would not buy a GM or any other EV the question is moot. As to Apple or Android play, I don't care if the car uses them. I don't use those apps anyway.
  • SCE to AUX I'd want Android Auto.
  • FreedMike They're highly important to me, particularly for navigation.