This Time, It’s Personal: The 1967-1970 Cadillac Eldorado

The 1967 Cadillac Eldorado is a milestone Cadillac by any standard. Rakish, sophisticated, and surprisingly sporty, it was the division’s first front-wheel-drive car and its first serious entry in the burgeoning personal luxury genre. This week, we explore the story of the first FWD Eldorado.

Author’s note: An earlier version of this article first appeared in August 2009. We’ve completely rewritten and expanded it, clearing up some errors and misconceptions and adding new information and new images.

1968 Cadillac Eldorado fin

ELDORADO ORIGINS

Cadillac’s first Eldorado was born in the early fifties, but the model’s conceptual roots go back to the mid-thirties, when GM styling chief Harley Earl convinced a wary Cadillac management to approve a stylish new image leader, the 1938 Sixty Special. The work of a young designer named Bill Mitchell, the Sixty Special was mechanically unremarkable, but justified its higher price with sophisticated styling. It was a commercial success, selling around 21,000 units between 1938 and 1942, and was highly influential. Unlike the flagship V-16, which disappeared after 1940, the Sixty Special became a permanent part of the Cadillac line, although later editions were less distinctive.

1938 Cadillac Sixty Special front 3q
When it first appeared, the Cadillac Sixty Special’s thin roof pillars, rolled beltline moldings, and lack of running boards were considered very advanced. Offered only as a four-door sedan, the Sixty Special cost about 17% more than a Series Sixty sedan, but less than half as much as a V-16.

Around 1951, Cadillac conceived a new image leader: the Eldorado convertible, which debuted in January 1953. Like the original Sixty Special, it was a showcase for advanced styling features, including cut-down fenders and Cadillac’s first wraparound windshield. It was expensive to build, however, and with a lofty $7,750 price tag — more than twice as much as a Series 62 sedan — it was not a volume seller. Cadillac built only 532 for 1953. Subsequent Eldorados were more like other Cadillacs, allowing a lower price and more comfortable profit margins. Sales remained modest, reaching a peak of 6,050 units in 1956, when a hardtop coupe, the Eldorado Seville, was added to the line.

1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham badge Morven CCASA30Unport
The Eldorado name was suggested by a Cadillac employee as part of a contest staged by Cadillac’s advertising agency, MacManus, John & Adams, in January 1952. The Brougham series, introduced in 1957, lasted only four model years, although the name returned as a trim option in 1964. (Photo © 2005 Morven; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

Roughly a year after the debut of the first Eldorado, Harley Earl began pushing for an even more upscale four-door hardtop model, the Eldorado Brougham. As originally conceived, the Brougham was to be both a styling leader and an engineering flagship, with fuel injection, disc brakes, a rear transaxle, and independent rear suspension. Cadillac’s engineering staff was leery of its likely costs, but the corporation eventually approved it as a rival for Ford’s forthcoming Continental Mark II.

Many of the Brougham’s engineering features were subsequently dropped for cost reasons, but the production car debuted in early 1957, sporting air suspension, a full list of power accessories, and a towering $13,074 list price, enough for three Series 62 hardtops. Unfortunately, the market for such high-end cars had turned out to be much softer than expected. Cadillac sold only 400 Eldorado Broughams in 1957 and an additional 304 in the 1958 model year, and it’s likely that the division lost a lot of money on them.

1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham front 3q Morven CCASA30Unport
With its largely unique body — including rear ‘suicide’ doors and a brushed aluminum roof panel — the 1957-1958 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham was undoubtedly expensive to produce. One oft-quoted outside estimate suggested that each car cost Cadillac about $23,000, although we don’t know that GM ever confirmed that figure. Aside from gadgets like power seats with a memory setting, the Brougham’s lengthy list of standard equipment including an atomizer full of Lanvin’s Arpège perfume! (Photo © 2005 Morven; modified by the author and used and distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

Nonetheless, Cadillac introduced a second-generation Brougham in January 1959, more conservatively styled than before, but still priced at over $13,000. To reduce labor costs, it was now built by Pinin Farina in Turin, although it was styled in Detroit.

With the U.S. economy still in the throes of recession, the new Brougham was not heavily promoted and Cadillac’s contract with Farina apparently called for only 100 cars per year. Total production for 1959 was actually 99, followed by 101 of the mildly restyled 1960 version. We don’t know if Cadillac made money on them or not, but given their unique glass, trim, and exterior sheet metal, as well as the cost of transatlantic shipping, it seems unlikely.

1960 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham front 3q X35308-0001 GMMA14676
The 1959-1960 Eldorado Brougham featured a new roofline, which former GM designer Pierre Ollier credits to Dave Holls, then Cadillac’s assistant chief stylist. Later adopted by several of GM’s C-body cars, it dispensed with the wraparound windshield and dogleg A-pillars of other 1959-1960 Cadillacs. This is a 1960 Brougham, distinguishable from the ’59 by its revised grille and body-side “skegs,” a feature adopted by other Cadillacs in 1961. (Photo copyright 2010 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.)

By mid-1959, the Brougham’s days were numbered. Ford had already given up on the Mark II, rolling the Continental brand back into Lincoln. The Eldorado Brougham was dropped after the 1960 model year, although retired GM designer Pierre Ollier says its styling had a strong influence on Cadillac’s 1961 line. The Eldorado Seville hardtop was dropped at the same time, leaving the convertible, which survived through the 1966 model year.

1960 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham X35308-0002 GMMA 14676
The 1959-1960 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham had neither the fin-mounted taillight pods of other 1959 Cadillacs nor the chrome accents of the regular 1960 cars, giving it a cleaner look. Pierre Ollier says that Cadillac designers Chuck Jordan and Dave Holls considered omitting the Brougham’s fins entirely, but when Harley Earl saw the finless clay model, he ordered them restored. (Photo copyright 2010 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.)

THE XP-715 AND XP-727

While the demand for ultra-luxury flagships was limited, the arrival of the four-seat Ford Thunderbird in January 1958 revealed a robust market in a somewhat lower price bracket. The new Thunderbird was a curious hybrid, not really a sports car, not quite a luxury car, but it offered flashy styling and reasonable practicality for a high but attainable price. It was an immediate hit and caught GM off-guard.

Around the middle of 1959, Bill Mitchell, who had recently succeeded Harley Earl as GM’s VP of styling, assigned designer Ned Nickles to develop a new Thunderbird-style personal luxury car. Nickles’ initial concept — intended for Cadillac, but developed in a separate Special Projects studio — was a sleek, six-passenger convertible whose styling evoked the 1939-1940 LaSalle, Cadillac’s long-departed companion make. At Mitchell’s suggestion, it subsequently became a hardtop coupe with a sharp-edged roofline inspired by a custom-bodied Rolls-Royce Mitchell had spotted on a recent trip to London. The full-size clay model of Nickles’ design, the XP-715, was badged “LaSalle II.”

1959 Ford Thunderbird coupe rear 3q
The 1958-1960 “Square Bird” was a genre-defining success, and one of the very few mid-priced American cars to sell well during the late-fifties recession. It was not a direct rival for Cadillac — a Thunderbird hardtop cost around $1,200 less than the cheapest Cadillac Series 62 — but it was definitely a threat to GM’s mid-price divisions. By 1960, the Thunderbird was outselling both the comparably priced Buick Electra and Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight.

Around the same time, the Cadillac styling studio, then led by Charles M. Jordan, was exploring its own ideas for a sporty personal car. Automobile Quarterly attributes the project to Cadillac assistant general sales manager Tom La Rue and assistant chief engineer Dan Adams, who saw it as a possible replacement for the Eldorado Brougham. By October, the Cadillac proposal had also become a full-size model, the XP-727.

Although we’ve been unable to find any photographs of the original XP-727, it appears that it was at least broadly similar to the XP-715. Both were two-door hardtops, with five-passenger capacity and long-hood/short-deck proportions, in the mold of prewar Classics. The most dramatic difference between the two was the possibility that the XP-727 might have front-wheel drive.

GM’s corporate Engineering Staff had been toying with front-wheel drive since at least 1954, and by 1958, had at least one Cadillac-engined test mule. In the winter of 1959, Cadillac sent a small group of engineers, including Lester Milliken, who had developed the Brougham’s air suspension, to evaluate the corporate engineers’ FWD prototypes at an airport in northern Michigan. Details about those test cars are scarce, but it appears they had transverse engines, like Oldsmobile’s first FWD prototype, completed a few months later. (We don’t know if they also had a similar dual chain drive system, although it seems likely.)

1963 Buick Riviera front
If the XP-715 design had become a new LaSalle, as Bill Mitchell originally proposed, it might have been offered in more than one body style; Michael Lamm’s Riviera history in Special Interest Autos #33 includes a Design Staff photo of a four-door clay, probably created sometime in early 1960. When the XP-715 became the 1963 Riviera, Buick opted to offer it only as a two-door hardtop coupe.

Although the FWD prototypes performed well in Michigan’s harsh winter conditions, the XP-727 project apparently stalled by early 1960; Chuck Jordan later told writer John Katz that Cadillac’s early personal car proposals failed to win corporate approval. By that time, replacing the Brougham was evidently not an immediate priority. If Cadillac really lost as much money on the earlier editions as some observers have suggested, we assume there wasn’t a strong business case for a new version, particularly one with the added expense of front-wheel drive.

Around the time the XP-727 was shelved, Bill Mitchell pitched the XP-715 to Cadillac management, proposing it as a new LaSalle. Although the design had the support of GM president Jack Gordon (who Mitchell said had gotten an earful from dealers, demanding to know why GM had no answer to the Thunderbird), Cadillac elected to pass. According to Mitchell, the division saw no need for it, but author Michael Lamm also suggests that Cadillac did not have the capacity for an additional model line. Cadillac’s production capacity was indeed approaching its limits — in late 1962, general manager Harold Warner initiated a major expansion program — but if the division had been seriously interested in building the XP-727, we wonder if there’s another explanation. One possibility is that Cadillac was simply not enthusiastic about reviving the LaSalle brand, particularly if it would have been priced below the standard line. With strong demand for new Cadillacs, a cheaper, more stylish LaSalle would probably have cannibalized sales of the more expensive models, making it a questionable business decision, Thunderbird or no.

11 Comments

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  1. Nice update of the original article. One minor quibble – I believe that disc brakes were optional on the “regular” 1967 Cadillacs, too.

    They were standard on the 1967 Lincoln Continental and Imperial, so Cadillac would have wanted them available at least as an option.

    1. You would think, but both contemporary and modern sources indicate that in 1967, they were optional only on the Eldorado. If somebody actually has a ’67 with factory front discs, I’ll go with that, but as best I can tell, it appears they only became optional on RWD Cadillacs in 1968.

  2. You’re right…the 1967 brochure makes no mention of disc brakes. Interesting that Cadillac would lag behind Lincoln and Imperial in this important area – especially considering that the latter two had made disc brakes STANDARD by that point.

    Lincoln had made them standard for the 1965 model year!

    1. What’s especially peculiar is that in 1967, front discs were now optional on a many lesser GM cars. If memory serves, the only other line where the option wasn’t available in ’67 was the Corvair.

  3. Disc brakes were available on the ’67 Eldorado. They were unusual though in that the hub and rotor were a single casting making it an expensive and complex part if the disc needed to be replaced. By ’68 front discs were standard on the Eldorado, and by ’69 they had been upgraded to replaceable rotors. It is possible to adapt the 71-75 Eldorado front spindles, hubs and rotors to the earlier cars, and many owners have done so. It’s possible to tell if your car is equipped with factory discs since the cowl tag will be stamped with the letter ‘B’ along with the other factory options.
    Front discs were also optional on the RWD Cadillacs. You might want to check out the Cadillac La Salle Club website for more info, http://www.cadillaclasalleclub.com or Gerald Loidl’s http://www.eldorado-brougham.com website which has a lot of information about both the front and rear drive 1967 models.

    1. As the article says, discs were a $105 option on ’67 Eldorados, but I’ve never seen anything indicating that they were even optional on RWD 1967 Cadillacs. However, as I stated above, if somebody has evidence that they were (either factory literature or an actual 1967 — not ’68 or later — RWD model with OEM discs), I’ll go with that. I have no vested interest in saying you couldn’t get a ’67 DeVille with discs; that’s just what the evidence I’ve seen to date implies.

      I’m not a member of the Cadillac-LaSalle Club, so most of their resources are not available to me. I’m not familiar with Gerald’s site, but I will check that out — thanks for the reference.

  4. The wooden trim fitted to the 1968 Eldorado was genuine rosewood – admittedly a thin veneer, but the real deal all the same.

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