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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Historian Maurice Hendry says that 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 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.
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.”
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.)
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.