Last Time Around: The 1971–1976 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible

Thirty years ago, many believed this car would be the last American convertible. It wasn’t, but it did mark the end of the line for that uniquely American concept: the full-sized open car. This is the history of the 1971-1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.

1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible script

FROM OPEN TO CLOSED

In the primordial days of the automobile, few cars offered much protection from the elements. A full roof, glass windows, and proper weather-sealing were expensive and heavy, making them impractical for all but the stateliest of formal cars. It was not until the 1920s that closed bodies became cheap enough to enable them to surpass the sales of their open counterparts. Even after designers became acquainted with the science of streamlining, there were many who insisted any true sports car had to be a roadster, and until well into the 1950s, high-performance cars were more likely to be open than closed.

The association of open cars with competition and fresh air lent a racy aura to even mundane convertibles. A ragtop Plymouth might be no faster than a club coupe (perhaps even less, thanks to the extra weight of structural reinforcement), but it was sporty in a way no coupe or sedan ever was. By the end of the 1920s, open cars accounted for barely 10% of the market, but nearly every make offered at least one, frequently as their highest priced image leader.

THE CADILLAC ELDORADO CONVERTIBLE

A case in point was the first Cadillac Eldorado, introduced in 1953. It was essentially a factory custom job with distinctive styling and a sobering $7,750 price tag, nearly twice that of a basic Series 62 sedan. The Eldorado was, naturally, a convertible and although the name subsequently was applied to both hardtop coupes and sedans, the Eldorado convertible remained Cadillac’s most prestigious and expensive model (barring the Series 75 limousines) through 1966.

The 1967 Eldorado was a significant departure in a number of ways. Somewhat smaller than a standard Cadillac, the new Eldo shared the E-body shell of the contemporary Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Toronado and borrowed the Toronado’s unusual front-wheel-drive layout. One of the sharpest designs of styling chief Bill Mitchell’s reign at GM, the FWD Eldorado had crisp, knife-edged lines, but it was available only as a two-door hardtop coupe, the first time since 1953 that there had been no Eldorado convertible.

That omission was corrected when the Eldorado’s second generation bowed for 1971. Developed by Wayne Kady’s Cadillac Advanced studio, the new convertible Eldorado had a base price of $7,751, only a dollar more than the original 1953 model, but a significant $368 more than the 1971 Eldorado hardtop. The ragtop Eldorado was now Cadillac’s only open model; the convertible Series 62 had been dropped after 1969 and the convertible De Ville after 1970, victims of fading demand.

1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible side view
The 1976 Cadillac Eldorado was actually about 6 inches shorter than a contemporary full-sized Cadillac, although 224.1 inches (5,692 mm) long on a 126-inch (3,200mm) wheelbase still qualifies as mammoth. While the first FWD Eldorados were semi-unitized, this generation had a full perimeter frame.

Convertible sales were evaporating across the industry. Postwar GT cars and the rise of the muscle car era had shifted buyer perceptions of speed and sport from roadsters to closed coupes. Drag racers knew a ragtop meant a heavier frame and a willowy body, neither of which was desirable for flat-out running. Drivers less concerned with racing for pink slips, meanwhile, were increasingly tempted by air conditioning and automated climate control. Worse, there was a new range of federal safety legislation on the horizon, including a new roof crush standard that would essentially outlaw open cars. (Chrysler successfully challenged the latter in federal court.) If Americans weren’t buying them anyway, automakers concluded, why bother?

American Motors dropped out first, offering their last convertible for 1968. Ford and Chrysler were next, dumping all their ragtops except for the pony car lines after 1969; the droptop Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger would die after 1971, the Ford Mustang convertible two years later. GM offered no convertible versions of its redesigned 1970 Camaro and Firebird, nor of the restyled intermediates introduced in 1973. Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac fielded their last big convertibles in 1975. By 1976, the Eldorado was the last survivor, along with a small handful of imports like the Alfa Romeo Spider.

THE 1976 ELDORADO

The term “land yacht” might well have been coined for this last American convertible. Although the 1971 Eldorado was actually only 0.6 inches (15 mm) longer than the 1970 model, the wheelbase had been stretched 6.3 inches (160 mm), bringing overall length to 221.6 inches (5,629 mm). Curb weight was up about 75 pounds (34 kg), and an Eldorado ragtop now tipped the scales at a full two and a half tons (2,270 kg). After the addition of 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers (in front for 1973, in back for 1974), the Eldorado grew to 224.1 inches (5,692 mm) and swelled to around 5,400 pounds (2,450 kg) at the curb.

Like its predecessor — and the contemporary Oldsmobile Toronado — the Cadillac Eldorado used front-wheel drive, but its configuration was quite a bit different than the pioneering BMC Mini. Whereas the Mini turned its engine sideways with the transaxle mounted in the sump, the Eldorado and Toronado used longitudinally mounted V8 engines. The torque converter of a highly modified Turbo Hydra-Matic automatic transmission was mounted on the back of the engine, as with a rear-drive car, but the gearbox itself was mounted next to the torque converter, driven by a chain. The gearbox output shaft pointed forward, sending power to a slim planetary differential and then via CV-jointed half-shafts to the front wheels. This unusual arrangement was remarkably compact and it allowed the Eldo and Toronado to share many components with Cadillac and Oldsmobile’s rear-drive cars. (It also effectively eliminated torque steer, an impressive feat given the torquey V8 engines.)

The Eldorado’s front suspension was by torsion bars, while the rear was a beam axle on coil springs, located by trailing links; first-generation Eldos had used single leaf springs with both vertical and horizontal shock absorbers. Rear load-leveling air springs were now a standard feature.

While the spring rates and shocks on the original 1967 Eldorado had been firm by Cadillac standards, allowing fairly sporty handling, the second-generation car sacrificed that firmness for a smooth ride. Indeed, the 1971-1976 Cadillac Eldorado rode like a cloud on clean pavement, but bobbed and rolled on rough surfaces and any hasty change of direction was marked by plowing and squealing tires. Stopping was not a strong point, either. Front disc brakes were standard, and for an extra $211 you could order Cadillac’s “Trackmaster” rear anti-lock braking system, but stopping distances were mediocre and the brakes faded badly even in normal driving. Four-wheel discs, added for 1976, helped somewhat, although the Track Master system was quietly dropped.

1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible tail
This 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible no longer has fender skirts, which were mercifully discarded in 1975. Four-wheel disc brakes, added at the same time, helped bring this monster to a halt, while reducing the substantial brake fade that plagued earlier model years.

Under the long hood was an appropriately gargantuan engine: 8.2 liters (actually 8,194 cc), a full 500 cubic inches. Until quite recently, this held the distinction of being the biggest engine ever offered in a postwar production car.

When the 500 cu. in. version debuted in the 1970 Eldorado, it was rated at a whopping 400 horsepower (298 kW) and 550 lb-ft (745 N-m) of torque, although a drop in compression ratio for 1971 cut the big engine’s output to 365 hp (272 kW) and 535 lb-ft (725 N-m). Alas, these were SAE gross numbers and when Cadillac switched to the SAE net system the following year, the big engine’s rated power tumbled to 235 hp (175 kW) and 385 lb-ft (521 N-m), although it was actually unchanged.

Over the next few years, emissions controls would cut its output to a meager 190 hp (142 kW), absurd for such a large engine. Starting in 1975, buyers could — for a hefty $647 premium — order their Eldorado with Bendix fuel injection instead of a carburetor, boosting the big V8 to 215 hp (160 kW) and a whopping 400 lb-ft (542 N-m) of torque. Motor Trend‘s July 1975 test of a 1975 Cadillac Eldorado coupe with the 190-horsepower engine took 10.9 seconds to reach 60 mph (97 km/h), adequate but not impressive. As for gas mileage, a heavy right foot in traffic could easily drop it below 10 mpg (23.5 L/100 km), although a minor consolation was that the engine no longer required premium fuel.

1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible front view
The presence of the Cadillac script on the lip of the hood, rather than the grille, is one of the few external changes that distinguishes this Eldorado convertible as a 1976 model rather than a ’75.

Despite the thirst and a 1973 OPEC oil embargo that led to widespread gasoline shortages, Cadillac managed to move more than 40,000 Eldorados a year through most of the seventies, excellent for such an expensive car. The convertible almost never accounted for more than about a quarter of production, but when Cadillac announced that the 1976 convertible would be the last, sales surged, eventually reaching 14,000 units.

The last 2,000 1976 Eldorado convertibles built were marketed as limited editions, while the final 200 were special “Bicentennial Editions,” painted white with red and blue pin-striping. With all convertibles fast disappearing, there was a burst of speculator frenzy that briefly pushed selling prices well above the $12,000 MSRP.

1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible rear 3q view
The sagging tail on this 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible suggests that the rear load-leveling system is probably leaking — even in motion, the sag doesn’t notably improve.

CONVERTIBLE REVIVAL

The second-generation FWD Eldorado soldiered on until 1978, losing the big engine in favor of a new 425 cu. in. (6,970 cc) V8. The Eldorado was redesigned and downsized for 1979, losing more than half a ton of weight in the process, but the convertible did not return — at least at first.

As it happened, the 1976 Eldorado was not the end of the road for the convertible after all. When Lee Iaccoca joined Chrysler in 1979, he discovered that the rollover standards Detroit had feared had actually been rescinded without going into effect, enabling Chrysler to reintroduce convertible models with great fanfare in 1982.

In 1984, Cadillac offered a new Eldorado convertible, built by an outside contractor and carrying an eye-opening $31,286 sticker price. Aside from dismaying collectors who’d though their ’76s would really be the last, the revived Eldorado ragtop didn’t sell very well and it was dropped after 1985.

1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible rear view

Convertibles have become more sophisticated now, with the current trend to elaborate power-operated hardtops, but the appetite for open air never really went away. Big ragtop land yachts like the Eldorado convertible, however, seem to be gone for good, relics of an era we’re not likely to see again.

# # #

NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for this article included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); John Barach’s Cadillac History website, Motor Era, June 2002, www.motorera. com/ cadillac/index.htm, accessed 2 April 2007; David Knowles, MG: The Untold Story (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997); “Cadillac Eldorado – Bicentennial Edition,” www.bicentennialeldorado.com, accessed 10 August 2010; 49 CFR § 571.216a (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 216a; Roof crush resistance); John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); and John Lamm, “King of the Hill: Eldo-Mark III Revisited,” Motor Trend July 1971, “King of the Hill: Cadillac Eldorado vs. Lincoln Continental Mark IV,” Motor Trend July 1972, and “The King of the Hill: Mark IV vs. Eldorado,”Motor Trend August 1973; “Top Luxury for Pennies…” Road Test May 1972; Eric Dahlquist, “Cadillac Eldorado: The King, Revisited,” Motor Trend October 1972; and John Lamm and Jim Brokaw, “The King’s Ransom Road Test,” Motor Trend July 1975, all of which are reprinted in Cadillac Eldorado Performance Portfolio 1967-1978, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000).


35 Comments

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  1. Loved this article. I was searching for something on the site for the 1976 Eldo, which is one of my favorite cars (especially convertibles, of the period. Love to see them at parades, etc. I always thought if I had unlimited $$ I’d like to replace the dog 500-inch “motor” with a hi-comp 454 with modern FI and update the slushbox with a modern box with a lockup torque converter and OD. Probably increase the fuel mileage up to double-digits! Woo-hoo! No idea if that could be done but with enough $$ almost anything can be done, right? I think I saw at a car show somewhere that the last of these ragtops was made on my 21st b-day, 4-21-76, so I figured it was a sign that I ought to own one! Now I need a bigger garage and bank account, too!

  2. Pat, you obviously know nothing about the engine or transmission.

    The 500 is certainly no dog, it was more the government mandated changes. The optional EFI was multi-port, and modern digitaly controlled sequential multi-port fuel injection is easily doable now.

    500HP is no sweat and 600+ not real hard to get to with a carb. With EFI you can tweak the efficiency some. Still double digit MPG in town is easily obtained (unless you race light to light), and on the open road, 16-17MPG.

    No engine transmission change will readily improve that either. It’s a function of the size/weight of the car and aerodynamics.

    As to the transmission, internally it’s a THM-400, one of the best and longest lived automatic transmissions ever. It was soft and smooth because it was a Cadillac. It can readily be tweaked with a shift kit to get firmer shifts at higher RPM levels.

    1. thank you, nice reply, love my 1976 eldo convertible, living in Detroit area, I am amazed at how little these boys know about this car, have any suggestions. Paul here, My ride is 70k original, willing to put money into it, gotta find the right guy

      1. Paul,

        I redacted your phone number — in general, I strongly recommend people not phone numbers online except maybe for business numbers that are already publicly listed. (Obviously, a business number that’s already posted on your website, signs, and posters is different from sharing your personal cell number.) I don’t want to get you besieged with telemarketing calls! If you want to list an email address or something instead, let me know.

  3. I have a 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.
    I am wondering how many was build Cotillion White, red interior, red vinyl rag top.

    Brgds,

    Oyvind Fenn

  4. I felt the need to correct you slightly. Ford offered a fullsize convertible up to the 1972 Galaxie/LTD.

    1. And Chrysler continued with B- and C-body convertibles through 1970.

  5. have a 75 eldo rag need carb (what is it) anyone know about lowering ,tortion keys? almost ready for paint,too much money in it to stop now ,coolest car,tree huggers can suck it ! love this car!

  6. From an enthusiast’s standpoint, the last of the giganto-Caddies are pretty woeful cars – wasteful in every way, and the epitome of “good enough” engineering and design.

    But as a European, I think their end stands symbolic for the end of a very American idea that I’ve always liked: no matter who your are, you can have what the rich have, more or less. Sure, you might not be able to afford an Eldorado, but the slightly used Calais you’ve spent three years saving up for isn’t less in any significant way – the engine might be less powerful, but not noticeably so. The ride is just as pillow-soft, the bench seats just as huge and the wood just as fake.

    A contemporary Mercedes is a much better car by nearly any objective standard. But the no-content, 4-cylinder Mercedes that the middle-class employee could maybe, one day, afford was a pale imitation of the V8 techno-luxury-marvel the members of the board would have bought. The class distinction was much greater.

    The 70s era of cheap superficiality and throwaway consumption is held in little regard by most Americans today (the ones I know anyway), but in my eyes it’s the the last time the USA as a nation payed even lip service to class equality. Not by giving everyone the same economic opportunities, that is basically impossible anyway. But by making the signifiers of wealth and class cheap and hollow enough that they could be attained even by those who didn’t make it to the top.

    A consolation prize, if you will – which is better than nothing at all.

  7. Does anyone know if the Biaritz package was available on the 76 Eldorado Convertible or was this package only for the late-year 76 coupes?

    1. As best I can see, the Biarritz was introduced after the convertible was defunct and was only for hardtops, but somebody else may have a more authoritative answer.

  8. Thank Aaron. That was my conclusion too but I recently saw a 76 Conv with the Biaritz name on the dash. I am inclined to think it was placed there later in the car’s life and is not true.

    1. It’s possible. I wasn’t able to figure out exactly when the Biarritz option was added except “late” — the last convertibles were built in April 1976, so it’s conceivable there was some overlap. On the other hand, the last convertibles mostly ended up not being quite as collectible as people thought, so it’s also not inconceivable that someone just liked the Biarritz trim and added it after the fact.

      1. I have one 76 eldorado Biarritz , it was told to that it was crazy
        at the end of the run and before the last 200 , Big shots were puting
        everything they could find on them, tring to get one and if is was different the better, record’s don’t show any. The workers called them VIP Special, I dont know but its sounds like could happen!

        1. It does seem plausible. It should be said, though, that a great many Eldorados of that era were sold pretty fully equipped. Obviously, there were always exceptions, particularly for special orders, but an Eldorado wasn’t like, say, a Chevelle, where there would be some very sparsely equipped cars for fleet customers and dealer price-leaders. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Eldorado was popular enough to sell for list price or close to it, so I imagine dealers would tend to order them with a full complement of profit-boosting options!

  9. Im restoring 1972 Eldorado convertable.Can any body tell me where i can get trunk replacement pan?Thank you

    1. I’m afraid I can’t help — I don’t sell parts and I’m not qualified to provide restoration advice. Sorry!

  10. where is the best place to get seat cover for my 1976 convertible Eldorado convertible.

    1. I can’t help with parts, repairs, or restoration — sorry!

  11. I have a 73 eldorado convertible looking for parts like window tr and rear glass opgi.com doesn’t have them help would be appreciated

    1. I can’t help with parts, repairs, or restoration — sorry!

  12. Hi all. I have a 1976 Eldorado shipped to Dubai. I need a bit of help with regards to the car. It’s being resprayed as the earlier job was sadly poor. The boys tell me, that the hood hinge springs are different left and right sides. Is that so? Any idea.? Best wishes. H

    1. Like I keep telling folks, I’m not able to provide that kind of detailed restoration advice — I really don’t know! Your best bet would probably be to consult a shop manual (in the U.S., a public library might have one; I don’t know about other countries) or to contact either a vendor that sells parts for these cars or a restoration shop that deals with vintage Cadillacs. Sorry!

  13. I just picked up a 76 Eldo convertible from my 78 year old uncle who just couldn’t drive it anymore. he wanted to sell it but I told him it needed to stay in our family so I bought it. I was wondering what are some of the best ways to get some more power out of that killer 500big block? on a budget. I know I want to put on a dual exhaust so it has a little bit of a rumble. I kind of want to hot rod it out but still a sleeper. any ideas are welcomed.
    thank you
    JT

    1. I can’t advise you on repairing or modifying engines, sorry! (I’m really not qualified for that…)

  14. I also have an 1975 EFI Eldorado with 40,000 miles on it. White with red leather. My problem is that I had an engine fire that took out almost all of the engine wiring. I can’t find a wiring harness or someone to put it in. There is no cosmetic damage to the Eldo so if some one knows of a rebuilder its for sale cheap.

  15. Hi
    Just found this site. I enjoyed reading the authors feelings the car and all of the replies and smart conversation. Thank you to the author for the time spent keeping history alive.

    If anyone is interested I have 3 barn find examples with low mileage on all 3 ragtop cars. If interested get back to me and we can start a chat. They are currently not operational.

    1. I would like to know if for sale or parts

  16. Thank you to the author. Nice to read about USA auto history. I have 3 low mileage barn find ’76 ragtops, not running for sale to anyone interested. Start a dialog…..

    1. Would like to know more about your barn finds Mike. Please email me with pics and info

  17. ik wil weten wat het gewicht is van een cadillac eldorado convertible ,en hoeveel KW de motor is, en uitlaat emissie ,bouwjaar 1973

  18. hallo , ik zou graag willen weten of u mijn kan helpen , Ik zoek het Gewicht ,
    KW van de motor , Uitlaat emissie , en hoeveel cc Een Cadillec eldorado convertible uit 1973 heeft .U zou mijn daar heel er mee helpen groetend H van Oosterhout

    1. I don’t claim to speak Dutch, but if you’re asking about the engine specifications of a 1973 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, the engine’s metric displacement was 8,194 cc (109.2 x 109.3 mm) and the factory power output was 235 hp (SAE net), which is equivalent to approximately 175.2 kW. Torque output was 385 lb-ft, or about 523 N-m. I hope that’s of some help.

  19. I’m looking at couple 76 Eldorado one is convertible and other is brit I belive. Both are white. No sure which one to buy? Any suggestions?

    Thanks.

    Irsh

    1. I can’t help with buying or selling cars, sorry!

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