For nearly five decades, Cadillac was the standard-bearer for luxury cars in America. That dominance was not won through technical innovation or forward-thinking product development, but through styling leadership. Although the division produced some gorgeous cars in the early thirties that are acknowledged as classics, Cadillac’s position as a true styling leader can be traced to one car: the 1938-1941 Cadillac Sixty Special. This enormously influential model was laden with then-radical features that have since become the industry norm. The Sixty Special also launched the career of William L. (Bill) Mitchell, GM styling chief Harley Earl’s eventual successor and one of the most influential men in the history of the American automobile. This is the story of the Sixty Special.
Harley Earl’s people called him “Misterl” — the honorific was so automatic that it might just as well have been part of his name. In an organization that epitomized corporate conformity, Earl was a distinctive and imposing figure in every way, 6’4″ (1.93 m) tall and over 250 pounds (114 kg), with a rakish sense of personal style. In the gray-suited world of GM, Earl wore tailored white suits and blue suede shoes, maintaining a wardrobe in his office so he could have different outfits in the morning and afternoon. Earl was gruff and less than articulate, in part to cover up a mild stutter about which he was very self-conscious, but he had a sense of showmanship to rival P.T. Barnum.
Unlike most GM execs, who came from Detroit and cut their teeth on its automotive culture, Harley Earl was from California. In 1925, the 31-year-old Earl was working in a custom body shop run by Cadillac’s West Coast distributor, Don Lee, developing bespoke bodywork for wealthy customers. His work came to the attention of Cadillac’s new general manager, Larry Fisher, who was preparing a new ‘near-luxury’ companion car for Cadillac, the LaSalle. Fisher arranged to bring Earl to Detroit to design it.
Up to that time — and for a good while afterward, at some companies — cars were generally designed by engineers, not artists. If there were aesthetic stand-outs, they were the work of independent coachbuilders and customizers. For a mass-market car to be designed by a stylist was something new, but the 1927 LaSalle proved to be highly successful and very influential.
ART AND COLOUR
Harley Earl initially came to GM on a short-term contract for Cadillac, but GM president Alfred P. Sloan was so impressed with his work that he commissioned Earl to build a new Art & Colour [sic] section, the auto industry’s first full-fledged styling department. By the mid-thirties, Earl had a sizable staff, divided into separate studios for each GM division, as well as advanced-design groups that developed more experimental themes for future use.
Earl had a rocky start at GM, frequently warring with the engineering staff and many of its more conservative executives. Earl was utterly fearless, and he had a ferocious temper. The fact that a man of such ego and temperament survived in the conservative corporate culture of GM was thanks largely to the unwavering support of Alfred Sloan, who allowed Earl privileges enjoyed by no other GM employee. Earl received this latitude for one, simple reason: his work sold cars.
We should emphasize that during most of his tenure at GM, Earl was not a stylist in the conventional sense. He didn’t draw or mold clay and his staff rarely saw him with a pencil in hand. He oversaw a steadily growing army of artists, modelers, and body engineers, whom he directed with a language of grunts, gestures, and oblique euphemisms. All of the designs created during his reign, however, bore his influence.
William L. Mitchell, born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1912, was the son of a Pennsylvania Buick dealer. A long-time racing aficionado, by his early twenties, Mitchell had become a skilled artist. In the summer of 1935, Walter Carey, a family friend who knew Harley Earl, spotted Mitchell’s race car illustrations and suggested he put together a portfolio. Mitchell subsequently earned an interview with Earl’s administrative assistant, Howard O’Leary, that December. Mitchell met Earl himself on his visit to the General Motors Building, striking up a conversation without knowing who Earl was. Earl liked the young man immediately and hired him on December 14, 1935.
Once Mitchell had proven his skills, Earl made him the head of the Cadillac studio. Cadillac had been on the verge of liquidation in the early thirties; despite its impressive, stylish V-12 and V-16 cars, its total sales were dangerously low. To shore up business, a new ‘entry-level’ model, the Series Sixty, was added for 1936, with prices starting as low as $1,645. That was still a lot of money, but it was more than 30% less than the cheapest 1935 Cadillac. Sales doubled to more than 12,000, but the line still seemed in need of new blood.
Earl thought a stylish new image leader might help and made that project one of Bill Mitchell’s earliest assignments. Although the design was primarily Mitchell’s work, it developed styling concepts that Earl and his team had been exploring for several years. Earl initially conceived the car as a new LaSalle, and early clays wore LaSalle badges, but along the way, it became a full-fledged Cadillac. Based on the body of the Series Sixty, it was dubbed the Cadillac Sixty Special.
THE 1938 CADILLAC SIXTY SPECIAL
Harley Earl explored many styling concepts during his time at GM, but his eternal dictum was longer, lower, wider. Bill Mitchell’s Sixty Special, conceived under Earl’s direct supervision, embodied all of those qualities. Its wheelbase was 3 inches (76 mm) longer than the regular Series Sixty and a special “double-drop” frame allowed the body to be 3 inches (76 mm) lower overall with no loss of interior headroom. Unlike the majority of its contemporaries, the Sixty Special had no running boards, allowing the body sides to be pushed out to the full tread width. The wider body sides rolled gently up into the side windows, creating a slightly curved beltline, an area where most cars were rigidly upright.
The Sixty Special’s visual width was emphasized further by broad “suitcase” fenders; to give it a more finished look, a metal modest skirt was added under the back bumper to conceal the rear edge of the frame. In sharp contrast to the trends of the time, the Sixty Special was relatively unadorned by chrome.
In that era, many sedans had sloping tails descending in a continuous curve from the rear edge of the roof. The Cadillac Sixty Special, however, had an extended, sloping rear deck, with an integral trunk, extending well past the rear fender line. This body/trunk arrangement, known as a notchback, is de rigueur for sedans today, but it was a real novelty in the 1930s. Also novel were the front-hinged doors; many four-door sedans of this era had “clap-hands” doors, with the rear doors hinged at the trailing edges.
The Sixty Special’s five-window roof design was inspired by the 1934 Panhard Panoramic, which had very slim A- and B-pillars, thin chrome window reveals, and thick, rounded C-pillars, giving it a shape almost like a convertible top. The Sixty Special’s roofline presaged the pillarless hardtop styling that became so popular a decade or so later.
The original 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special’s most dated styling element was its side-mounted spare wheels. The clay models did not have them, and they were apparently an afterthought, added to placate Cadillac’s conservative general manager, Nicholas Dreystadt, and sales director, Don Ahrens. Both men were very concerned that the Sixty Special would be too radical for Cadillac’s ultra-conservative clientele. It was rakish for a Cadillac — perhaps too rakish for any domestic sedan — and there was considerable fear that Earl and Mitchell had gone too far.
In retrospect, it’s harder to understand their objections because modern eyes notice mostly those feature that have become obsolete, like the divided front and rear windows (curved glass of that size did not become practical for another decade), the bulbous hood, and the separate fenders. The Cadillac Sixty Special’s basic shape and concept, which made Ahrens and Dreystadt so nervous, no longer look particularly unusual; time has validated them.
The Sixty Special was offered only as a four-door sedan. Several other Sixty Special body styles were contemplated, including a three-window coupe — which really does look rakish to modern eyes — and a convertible sedan, four of which were built for the use of GM execs. As it was, Earl was pushing his luck to get the sedan approved, and none of the other body styles saw production.
UNDER THE SKIN
Mechanically, the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special was identical to the Series Sixty. It was powered by Cadillac’s 346 cu. in. (5,676 cc) “monobloc” L-head V8 with 135 gross horsepower (101 kW). The V8 was linked to a three-speed manual transmission with synchronized second and third gears. The Sixty Special had an all-steel body and frame; GM had only ceased the use of composite wood/steel construction two years earlier. Like most of GM’s upper-division cars of the time, the Cadillac had independent front suspension with coil springs and a live axle on semi-elliptical leaf springs. Its recirculating-ball steering system was relatively light, but slow; power steering was still 15 years in the future.
The Sixty Special’s extra length and width made some 230 pounds (105 kg) heavier than a Series Sixty sedan, and at $2,085, it cost $310 more than its line mate — a hefty premium in an era when a Chevrolet Master DeLuxe sedan cost less than $800.
The fears of Don Ahrens and Nicholas Dreystadt that the Cadillac Sixty Special’s styling would alienate conservative buyers proved ill-founded; the Sixty Special quickly became Cadillac’s best-selling individual line. Cadillac sold 3,704 in the initial 1938 model year despite a national recession. Such sales were modest by GM standards, but quite good considering the Sixty Special’s price and the fact that total Cadillac sales five years earlier had been only 3,173.
The basic Series Sixty was dropped for 1939 in favor of a new, price-leader Cadillac Series 61, but the Sixty Special continued, with a new, pointed nose that stretched its overall length to 214.3 inches (5,442 mm). It was now built by Fleetwood, a formerly independent coachbuilder that GM had acquired to build bodies exclusively for Cadillac, lending a bit of extra prestige. Despite a price $110 higher than the ’38, sales climbed to 5,513.
Starting in 1939, Fleetwood also produced a small number of divider-window sedans for chauffeur-driven customers; there were also a handful of pricey town cars with an optional leather top covering. A sunroof, dubbed “Sunshine Turret Top,” was also available, although it was very rare.
As was Earl’s wont, the styling features of the Cadillac Sixty Special began to appear in other GM lines starting in 1940, beginning with the new “torpedo” C-body shared by the big Buicks and Oldsmobiles as well as Cadillac’s own Series 62. Predictably, once the Sixty Special became less distinctive, its share of Cadillac sales eroded. 4,600 were sold for 1940, but it was now second to the derivative, $245 cheaper Series 62.
The original Cadillac Sixty Special got one final fling for 1941, which is the year of our photo car. Although the Sixty Special’s wheelbase had been shortened by an inch (25 mm) in 1940 to match that of its siblings, it was a little over 3 inches (76 mm) longer than before. The archaic sidemounts were finally gone, replaced by a single spare tire that occupied a good deal of trunk space.
The biggest changes were up front. The separate headlight pods were gone, replaced by flush headlamps in the front fenders. (Earl had been pushing for this change for years, but GM president Bill Knudsen had repeatedly overruled him, insisting that flush headlights were impractical.) There was also a dramatic new eggcrate grille that extended laterally into the front fenders, a design that would become a Cadillac trademark.
1941 Cadillacs still had the 346 cu. in. (5,676 cc) V8, now up to 150 horsepower (112 kW); the slow-selling V-12s and V-16s were gone for good. Under the hood was a radical new drivetrain option, the four-speed Hydra-Matic. Introduced the previous year by Oldsmobile, it was the world’s first fully automatic transmission, and Cadillac became the first luxury automaker to offer such a feature. Some buyers were suspicious of it — not without reason, as the early H-M had some teething problems — but about 30% of 1941 Cadillacs were so equipped at a premium of $125. By the end of the decade, it would be standard on most Cadillac models.
The Sixty Special, now up to $2,195, still looked sharp, but it had been overshadowed both by the Series 62 and the slick, new fastback Series 61 coupe. An even 4,100 Sixty Specials were built for 1941, the last year for the original body.
For 1942, the Sixty Special was restyled, becoming a stretched Series 62 sedan, distinguished mostly by its greater length and the chrome hash marks on its front and rear fenders. Sales dropped to 1,875, although the 1942 model year ended in February 1942, about seven months earlier than normal, by order of the War Department.
With its styling leadership now passed, Cadillac could easily have dropped the Sixty Special after the war, but it returned for 1946 and remained part of the Cadillac line-up until 1976. The name was revived from 1987 to 1993.
About a month before the 1941 models went on sale, Harley Earl became a vice president of General Motors. Although the elevated title did not significantly alter his actual duties, it was a sign of his growing influence and power within the corporation. At Chrysler, dominated by engineers, or at Ford, where old Henry was deeply suspicious of styling, such a move would have been virtually unthinkable. Alfred Sloan, however, realized early on, that much of GM’s market dominance relied on what a later generation would call “selling the sizzle” — sizzle that Earl and his designers provided.
Bill Mitchell became the head of the Cadillac styling studio in 1938. In 1947, he briefly departed GM to run Harley Earl’s outside styling firm, the Harley Earl Corporation (HEC). (Allowing Earl to have his own separate company was one of the unique privileges Sloan allowed him, the main proviso being that HEC not directly compete with any GM division or subsidiary.) Mitchell returned to the GM fold in 1953 as director of design. On his return, Earl told Mitchell that he would be GM’s next VP of design.
Late in his career, Harley Earl started to lose his touch, most evidenced by the bloated, chrome-encrusted ’58 models, which proved to be a sales disaster. While Earl was in Europe during the design of the ’59 models, Bill Mitchell led a ‘palace coup‘ that radically redesigned the cars along cleaner if no less glitzy lines. Such a move must have been painful for Mitchell, whose loyalty to Earl was considerable. Perhaps realizing he was beaten, Earl eventually accepted the new approach and helped to refine the styling of the ’59s, but the direction was now Mitchell’s, not Earl’s. When Earl reached GM’s mandatory retirement age in 1958, he was gone. He died in 1969, at the age of 75.
On December 1, 1958, Mitchell was promoted to vice president, becoming head of the department now known simply as Design; the Art & Colour title had been retired back in 1937. Although he had broken with his mentor aesthetically, Mitchell’s respect for Earl was undimmed and he possessed a similar sense of style and showmanship. According to his former employees, Mitchell expected them to look as good as the cars they drew, and he was known to send a man home to change if he disapproved of his sartorial choices.
Mitchell was also Earl’s match in pugnacity, profanity, and temper. In interviews with author Michael Lamm and former GM designer Dave Holls (who worked with Mitchell for many years), Mitchell’s former collagues characterized him as a bigot, a womanizer, and a heavy drinker who was prone to fits of temper even when sober. Unlike Earl, Mitchell didn’t have Alfred Sloan as a patron — Sloan had retired in 1956 — and his confrontational attitude led to many clashes with both division leaders and upper management. Even so, during his 19-year reign, Mitchell presided over classic designs like the 1963 Buick Riviera and Corvette Sting Ray, the 1965 Chevrolet Corvair, the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado, and the original Chevrolet Camaro. Like Earl, Mitchell did not design any of these cars himself, but he set the direction and the tone.
Mitchell retired in 1977 and after he was gone, GM styling slipped into the doldrums. Ironically, one of the last designs and most controversial designs Mitchell supervised was Wayne Kady’s 1980-1985 “bustleback” Cadillac Seville, a deliberate throwback to the early-thirties styling cues that Mitchell’s Sixty Special had made obsolete. Mitchell died in 1988.
If Earl and Mitchell each had a well-deserved reputation for being temperamental, to some extent they were no more difficult than they had to be within the corporate culture of GM. They were artists in a business dominated by engineers and finance men, most of whom were inherently suspicious of aesthetics. It took an enlightened executive like Alfred P. Sloan to see the value they could provide and give them the room to work. Since Mitchell’s departure 30 years ago, GM’s inherent conservatism has reasserted itself forcefully. GM has fielded some good-looking cars and a number of great-looking ones, but few, if any, of its designs have had the kind of unity of concept that Mitchell or “Misterl” would have demanded, something that eventually cost the corporation dearly.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included C. Edson Armi, The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988); 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, 1999-2007, www.motorera. com/cadillac/index.htm, accessed 23 July 2007; “Bill Mitchell, General Motors Head of Design,” Automotive News 1976; David R. Crippen, “The Reminiscences of William L. Mitchell” [interview], August 1984, Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/ Design/Mitchell/mitchellinterview.htm [transcript], accessed 23 July 2007; Nick Georgano and Nicky Wright, Art of the American Automobile: The Greatest Stylists and Their Work (New York: SMITHMARK Publishers, 1995); David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), pp. 116-130; Maurice Hendry and David R. Holls, Cadillac: Standard of the World: The Complete History, Fourth Edition (Princeton, NJ: Automobile Quarterly, 1990); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); Michael Lamm, “GM’s Far-Out ’59s: When Imagination Ran Rampant,” Special Interest Autos #125 (September-October 1991), pp. 41-47.
This article’s title was suggested by a lyric from the song “Cadillac Ranch,” written and performed by Bruce Springsteen. It originally appeared on side two of Springsteen’s 1980 double album The River.