Requiem for Misterl: The 1959 Cadillac and the Winter of Harley Earl

Even if you know nothing about cars and your only exposure to American automobiles is TV and movies, you probably recognize this shape. It’s been featured on everything from T-shirts to postage stamps, a quintessential icon of Fifties Americana in all its grandeur and absurdity. It is, of course, the 1959 Cadillac.

The ’59 Cadillac emerged from a seismic shift at General Motors and marked the transition between two very different eras in automotive design. This week, we look at the history of the 1959 cars and the final days of legendary design chief Harley Earl.

1959 Cadillac De Ville fins


For more than 30 years, Harley J. Earl held ultimate authority over all of General Motors’ automotive designs. Unlike his successors, he did not rise through the ranks — the styling section was created by visionary GM president Alfred P. Sloan specifically for Earl to run. Harley Earl had come to Detroit in 1926 to design the LaSalle, Cadillac’s new companion make. The results had been so commercially and aesthetically successful that Sloan conceived an “Art & Colour” section that would extend Earl’s talents to the entire GM line.

It took several years for Sloan’s plan to be fully realized, but by the beginning of World War II, GM Styling had around 100 employees and separate studios for each division. By 1959, it would employ more than 1,000 people. Earl’s tenure at GM had its rough spots in the beginning, but by the time Sloan named him a corporate vice president in September 1940, the power of the man almost everyone called “Misterl” was unquestioned.

Harley Earl hired 23-year-old designer William L. Mitchell in December of 1935. Their initial meeting set the tone for the relationship that would follow: Mitchell, waiting for his interview with Earl’s assistant, Howard O’Leary, struck up a conversation with a towering, nattily dressed man who was wandering through the Art & Colour studios with a friend. They chatted for nearly half an hour before Mitchell realized the man with whom he’d been talking was Harley Earl himself. It was a natural mistake, since Earl, with his football linebacker’s frame and flamboyant fashion sense, didn’t look like anyone’s idea of a GM executive. Earl was impressed with the young man and Mitchell was quickly hired. By 1937, Earl had made him the head of design for Cadillac.

1959 Cadillac Series 62 front 3q
From 1941 until 1981, all Cadillacs were powered by V8 engines. In 1959, the standard engine was 390 cubic inches (6,384 cc), making 325 gross horsepower (242 kW). The Cadillac Eldorado had a “Q-code” engine with three two-barrel carburetors, upping the ante to 340 hp (264 kW); that engine was optional on other Cadillacs for an extra $133.40. Linked to the standard four-speed Controlled Coupling Hydra-Matic transmission, either engine could propel the two-and-a-half-ton Cadillac from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a shade over 10 seconds and on to a top speed of around 115 mph (185 km/h). Thanks to the efficient engine and tall gearing, fuel economy — though hardly good — was no worse than many smaller contemporary cars: around 13 mpg (18 L/100 km) overall, approaching 17 mpg (13.8 L/100 km) in steady freeway cruising.

A sign of Earl’s regard for Mitchell was the fact that in 1949, Earl drafted Mitchell to run his outside design company, the Harley Earl Corp. (HEC). It was not an assignment Mitchell relished, but he later credited it for honing his abilities as an art director and the skill of pitching and selling concepts to clients. Earl sweetened the pot for his protege by giving Mitchell 10% of HEC’s gross income, a tidy sum that considerably exceeded Mitchell’s GM salary. Earl brought Mitchell back to General Motors in June 1953, promoting him to director of styling and informing him that he would be Earl’s successor as vice president.


Still, in 1953, Earl was not ready to relinquish power just yet. In his final decade at GM, that power was at its height. By then, Earl had the support not only of chairman Alfred Sloan, but also of new GM president Harlow Curtice, who had been Earl’s friend since Earl helped him resuscitate Buick in the mid-1930s.

Earl’s leadership of Styling could fairly be called enlightened despotism. He was brilliant and tyrannical, commanding loyalty through a combination of charisma, fear, and showmanship. He was fond of theatrical tricks, like elevating a styling model on blocks so he could suddenly and dramatically lower it during a presentation. Even his massive desk was specially crafted for maximum visual effect, an imposing signifier of his power that put him almost at eye level with visitors even while seated. Earl could be supremely charming one moment, a barking autocrat the next, and he brooked no disagreement with his aesthetic judgment.

Earl’s aesthetic for cars could be summarized as longer, lower, wider. Like many designers of his generation, he was fascinated by aircraft design and streamlining. He was never particularly concerned with actual aerodynamics, but he was always interested in sleekness and unity of form.

During his long career, Earl had to some extent presided over the visual unification of the automobile: the replacement of upright radiator shells with styled grilles, the blending of fenders into foods and doors, and the replacement of flat windshields with curved glass. The cars of 1930, while certainly not devoid of stylistic flair, had made no secret of being machinery, designed by engineers and merely decorated by stylists. By contrast, most American cars of 1955 were first and foremost the work of artists, with the mechanical aspects either subordinated to stylistic fiat or else artfully concealed beneath curvaceous sheet metal and shining chrome.

1959 Cadillac Sedan de Ville convertible conversion side
Don’t be fooled: Cadillac did not offer four-door convertibles by the 1950s, nor was there a two-door convertible De Ville until 1964. The badging gives the game away: this car is a converted 1959 Cadillac Sedan de Ville, probably the six-window version. It is as large as it looks; standard Cadillacs were a mammoth 225 inches (5,715 mm) long, riding a 130-inch (3,302mm) wheelbase. Even bigger were the Fleetwood 75 limousines, which were 244.8 inches (6,218 mm) long on a 149.75-inch (3,804mm) wheelbase, and the stretched commercial chassis, used for hearses, stretch limousines, and ambulances. The ECTO-1 from the movie Ghostbusters was a 1959 Cadillac commercial chassis hearse.

Chrome was a particular obsession of Earl’s, as it was for many stylists of the era. Although Europeans sneered at the gleaming brightwork of the typical American car, chrome trim was a primary signifier of opulence to the buying public. A bottom-of-the-line Chevrolet 150, a car most often found in police or taxi livery, had almost no brightwork at all; a full-flight Buick Roadmaster could blind passers by with its glittering trim. GM stylists of the 1950s had many stories about Earl telling them to go back and add more chrome to an already heavily decorated design.

Monomaniacal as it could be, Earl’s leadership made General Motors the pacesetter for automotive style. Earl always claimed he only followed his own tastes, but he had a remarkably good feel for the public mood. Even the occasions when GM’s competitors outpaced them in some area were generally the result of internal resistance to Earl’s innovations rather than any lapse on Earl’s part. When the Lincoln Zephyr debuted with flush-mounted headlamps in 1936, for example, it scored a styling coup only because GM executives had been vetoing Earl’s plans for the same feature since 1933. More often, it was GM that led the way, leaving competitors scrambling to catch up with features like pillarless hardtop roofs and tail fins.

Earl was always aware that he had to walk a fine line, anticipating where public taste was going without making his cars too radical for the average buyer. He was hesitant, for example, about tail fins, which first bowed on the 1948 Cadillac, and when Frank Hershey originally presented his be-finned clay model, Earl ordered him to take the fins off, fearing they might be too much for conservative Cadillac customers. It was only after GM president Charlie Wilson and new Cadillac chief engineer Ed Cole decided that they liked the fins that Earl embraced them.

1959 Cadillac Series 62 rear 3q
You could indeed buy a pink 1959 Cadillac; there were actually two shades of pink available, Wood Rose and Persian Sand Metallic, although this doesn’t look like a factory color. Note the rear bumper grille, which repeats the texture of the front end. The trunk is every bit as massive as you would expect.


The problem with a strategy based on calculated risks is that there is always a chance that one of your competitors will be more brazen, and that is precisely what happened to GM in the late fifties.

One morning in August 1956, GM stylist Chuck Jordan happened on a fenced-off lot filled with new 1957 Chryslers, probably awaiting shipment to dealers. Chrysler’s styling chief, Virgil Exner, had already revived that company’s fortunes with his “$100 Million Forward Look” in 1955, which gave Chrysler’s previously dull and boxy cars stylistic parity with GM. Now, Exner had leaped ahead with an even bolder design direction. Where GM cars were bulky and fat-looking, the new Chrysler products were clean, wedge-shaped, and more low-slung than even Harley Earl had dared; the new Plymouth, for instance, was almost 6 inches (about 15 cm) lower than a 1957 Chevrolet.

Jordan returned to the office and told Bill Mitchell what he had just seen. That afternoon, Mitchell went back to the lot to see for himself, as did many other senior GM designers. They were deeply shaken — they realized they had just lost their unquestioned styling leadership.

1957 DeSoto Adventurer front 3q 2009 Bill McChesney CC BY 2.0 Generic
Chrysler’s 1957 marketing tagline was “Suddenly, It’s 1960,” and the ads didn’t lie. The “Forward Look” was shown to best effect in the two-door hardtops like this DeSoto Adventurer, but even the mundane four-door Plymouth sedans were low-slung and dramatically be-finned. (Photo: “1811 1957 DeSoto FireFlite Adventurer” © 2009 Bill McChesney; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

At that time, GM Styling was wrapping up the 1958 designs and starting work on the 1959 cars. Although the ’58s were more chrome-encrusted than ever, their underlying shapes were still essentially the same bulky-looking forms GM had been selling for a decade. Harley Earl’s mandate for the 1959 models was more of the same, but compared to the new 1957 Chryslers, that direction suddenly seemed embarrassing. There were rumbles among the design staff that if something weren’t done, GM would be dead in the water stylistically.


According to writer Michael Lamm, who later interviewed many GM designers of this period, it was Bill Mitchell who finally made the decision. Earl was traveling in Europe and largely out of contact; in his absence, Mitchell was in charge. Mitchell had sworn that he would never let Earl down, but he had his own future to think about. He gathered together the senior designers and they agreed to formulate a new styling direction, abandoning almost everything Earl had previously dictated for the ’59 cars. Mitchell enlisted the support of the divisional managers and of Harlow Curtice, who regularly stopped by to see the new cars. All of the new designs were sleeker and crisper, taking their lead not from Harley Earl, but from Mitchell and, indirectly, from Virgil Exner.

No one expected Misterl to be happy when he returned from Europe and many feared the inevitable explosion. For a man of Earl’s ego and temperament, a rebellion of such magnitude was unimaginable. As it happened, Earl was so staggered that he wandered around the studios for days, almost speechless. Earl ordinarily didn’t hesitate to fire anyone for any reason, but this time it would have meant a purge of his entire senior staff, including Mitchell, by all accounts his favorite son and heir apparent. Moreover, Harlow Curtice, Earl’s chief patron since the retirement of Sloan earlier in the year, had already sided with the mutineers, leaving Earl outmaneuvered. Faced with little alternative, Earl finally threw his support behind the new direction.

1958 Pontiac Star Chief rear 3q view
This view of a 1958 Pontiac Star Chief shows off its jukebox excesses. Contemporary Buicks and Oldsmobiles were even worse, and sales tumbled precipitously.

In later interviews, Mitchell insisted that he never defied Earl and gave Earl full credit for the new aesthetic, noting that his old mentor always understood when it was time to give up a theme or idea that was no longer working. Nonetheless, the whole affair seems to have been a rude awakening for Misterl, probably compounded by the dismal performance of the 1958 models a year later. The overdecorated ’58s arrived at the worst possible time, just as the U.S. economy was sinking into recession. As American buyers fled from ostentatious full-size models to compact economy cars, Buick and Pontiac suffered particularly nasty declines in overall volume. It was a pointed reminder that Earl’s day was almost over.


Once Earl had accepted the new direction, the rallying cry in the design studios became INNOVATE, OR YOU’RE ALL FIRED. The desire to one-up Virgil Exner was as much a matter of pride as of business necessity, particularly since Exner had once been one of them; Exner had begun his career in GM’s Pontiac styling studio in the 1930s. In such a climate, no idea was too weird to consider, whether it was triple tail fins to cyclopean centralized headlamps. As outré as some of the final 1959 designs became, they were less grotesque than many of the concepts that didn’t make it. The individual stylists knew that if their ideas weren’t sufficiently outrageous, their jobs were on the line.

1960 Cadillac Eldorado Seville A-pillar
This is a 1960 Cadillac Eldorado Seville, not a 1959 Cadillac, but the curved A-pillars are the same, necessitated by the wraparound windshield that Harley Earl loved so much; the pillar’s “dogleg” extends well into the door openings. Despite its prodigious size, a Cadillac of this vintage is not necessarily an easy car to get into or out of gracefully.

Styling had long been in the driver’s seat when it came to new designs, but the development of the 1959 models was further complicated by the cost accountants. The 1958 cars had had all-new bodies and typical GM practice was to use a body shell for at least two years (with modest facelifts and trim changes) to amortize the tooling costs. The new direction for the 1959s demanded yet another set of all-new bodies, which was expensive even for GM. The result was a push to cut production costs, including much greater sharing of body shells than ever before.

For around 20 years, Chevrolets and Pontiacs had shared a smaller corporate “A-body” while low-line Oldsmobiles and Buicks used the larger B-body shell and big Buicks and Cadillacs used the full-size C-body. For 1959, the A-body was abandoned, leaving all Chevrolet, Pontiac, Olds, and Buick models to share the B-body. (On paper, Cadillac retained its separate C-body, but it was now essentially just a stretched B.) Furthermore, all five makes now had to share the same front doors: the units originally designed for Buick’s big sedans, which incorporated a dramatic side sweep.

1960 Cadillac Eldorado Seville rear 3q view
This is a 1960 Cadillac Eldorado Seville hardtop. Despite its toned-down tail fins, it is largely similar to the 1959 Cadillac hardtop in overall shape, sharing the same sleek lines and canopy-like pillarless roofline. As you can see, the actual roof area is extremely small.

The 1959 cars were GM stylists’ first real confrontation with something that would become a crippling problem in the decades to come: how to make five variations of the same body shell look different enough that the buyer of a $5,000 Buick would not be dismayed by its commonality with a $2,500 Chevy. Moreover, they had to accomplish that feat while still retaining the established visual identity of each brand. At Chrysler, Virgil Exner had been able to essentially start from scratch; sales were slow enough that there was nowhere to go but up. In contrast, even with the losses of 1958, GM still controlled around half the U.S. market and had to be very cautious about not confusing or alienating their existing customers.


No division was quite as worried about that prospect as Cadillac. In the 1950s, Cadillac was firmly established as the most prestigious car made in America — Packard, Cadillac’s traditional rival, was finished by 1958, Lincoln and Imperial were also-rans and neither Mercedes nor Jaguar yet had enough presence in the U.S. to impress the hoi polloi. Owning a Cadillac was a badge of achievement to which many aspired. Those who managed it were rewarded with high quality, excellent performance, and remarkably high resale value. To maintain those qualities, Cadillac had to walk a razor’s edge between design leadership and styling continuity. Each year’s model needed to be recognizably different from the last without making its predecessor obsolete.

Born of these contradictory pressures, the 1959 Cadillac emerged as a delirious mixture of the familiar and the outlandish. Few of its individual styling cues were truly new, but even those recognizable elements were turned up to eleven.

1959 Cadillac Sedan de Ville cruise control
Cruise control was a novelty in the late 1950s. Cadillac first introduced it on the 1957 Eldorado Brougham, and it was a $97 option on most 1959 Cadillacs. This car’s steering wheel wrapping is not stock.

The most significant change — and the least controversial — was that the 1959 Cadillac was lower and slimmer-looking than the ’58. Overall height dropped by around 3 inches (7.5 cm), model for model, but the beltline and hood were lower, too. The 1959 Cadillacs were as much as 8 inches (20 cm) longer than their predecessors and just as heavy, but they looked lighter. The bulbous shapes that had previously characterized Cadillac styling were gone.

Also gone were Cadillac’s traditional domed roofs and thick roof pillars. There were now four basic roof shapes for Cadillac sedans and coupes. All were pillarless hardtops, with vastly more glass area than before. Sedans were offered with either a sleek, six-window roofline with a steeply curved backlight or a four-window design with a nearly flat, cantilever roof, extending back past the C-pillars. Coupes, meanwhile, had a swoopy, curvaceous greenhouse more befitting a fighter plane than a luxury car. All of these variations retained Earl’s beloved wraparound windshields, which offered panoramic visibility, but bruised many an unwary knee with their obtrusive dogleg A-pillars. The fourth and final roof design, offered only on the limited-edition Eldorado Brougham sedan, had a much more conservative curved windshield and straight C-pillars, with a sharply creased roofline that foreshadowed the more restrained styling of 1960s Cadillacs.

1959 Cadillac Sedan de Ville Autronic Eye
The wonderfully named “Autronic-Eye” was an auto-dimming headlight control system, introduced on Cadillacs in 1952. A photocell detected the lights of oncoming cars at night and automatically dimmed the high beams. It cost $55 on 1959 Cadillacs, which also replaced the original vacuum tube controls with transistors in an effort to improve reliability, a weak point of earlier examples. This feature was renamed “Guide-Matic” for 1960. It was later joined by a separate automatic headlight option, Twilight Sentinel, which could automatically turn on the headlights depending on ambient light conditions and also offered a delay feature, allowing you to leave the headlights on for a brief period while walking from your car to your door.

Looking only at the basic shapes, the 1959 Cadillac was a sleek and attractive car, but its overwrought detailing was hard to ignore. Again, few of its individual elements were truly new; dual headlights had debuted two years earlier on the 1957 Eldorado Brougham, and the heavy-lidded fender ridge above each light cluster was a clear evolution of previous years, as were the “cleats” on the traditional eggcrate grille. Even the massive afterburner-like nacelles in the rear bumper were just exaggerated versions of the ’57-’58 design, although the pods now contained only the backup lights, not the exhaust outlets as they had before. Finally deleted was a long-standing and vaguely tacky Cadillac feature, the massive front bumper guards popularly known as “Dagmars,” after a buxom TV personality of the era.

The truly essential feature was, of course, the fins. 1959 was the twelfth year of the tail fin for Cadillac, and they had already become quite prominent. The new design, generally credited to stylist Dave Holls, took them a step further. The fins of the ’57-’58 cars were basically kick-ups of the rear fenders and didn’t carry much additional decoration. On the 1959 Cadillacs, Holls moved the twin taillights, which previously were mounted at the base of the fins, to the middle, adding twin bullet-shaped taillight lenses. Without the tail fins, the ’59s would still have been grandiose and perhaps a little ridiculous, but the Buck Rogers fins took the design completely over the top.

1957 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special rear 3q
Tail fin evolution. This is a 1957 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special. Note the twin taillights, which seem to emerge from a tube-like bulge in the rear fender. The ’57 has the rear bumper nacelles that would become so prominent on the 1959 car, although here they contain the exhaust outlets; the backup lights are on the rear edge of the decklid. Running the exhaust through the bumper tips was a common GM styling trick in this era. It looked neat, but it promoted corrosion.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Seville hardtop tailfin
This is the tail of a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Seville. The Eldorado can be easily distinguished from lesser Cadillacs by the chrome side trim, which follows the upper and lower outlines of the body side curves; Series 62 and De Ville models have a single chrome strip, running horizontally along the center of the fender line. Normal Eldorados were offered both as a convertible, the Biarritz, and a hardtop coupe, like this one, which was called Seville. Both cost about $2,000 more than a comparable De Ville, but came standard with most of the De Ville’s optional extras, including the problematic air suspension. A third Eldorado model was the very rare, four-door Eldorado Brougham, built by Italy’s Pinin Farina. The Eldorado Brougham listed for a staggering $13,075, more than twice the cost of a well-equipped Sedan de Ville. Only 99 were built.


The 1959 Cadillac and its GM siblings met with a mixed reception from the public. Sales were up very slightly over 1958, although still not as good as 1956 or 1957. Although critics generally liked the new Caddy’s lines, all but the most enthusiastic admitted to doubts about the gaudy tailfins. GM had unarguably reclaimed its lead in styling innovation, but even within the corporation, many felt they had gone overboard. Contemporary social critics like Vance Packard and John Keats had already lambasted Detroit products for their excesses and the ’59s only served to emphasize the point.

The 1959 models would be Harley Earl’s swan song. He reached GM’s mandatory retirement age on November 22, 1958, about five weeks after the 1959 Cadillacs went on sale. On December 1 of that year, as Earl had promised, Bill Mitchell moved into his mentor’s office and settled in behind Earl’s oversize desk. As a parting gift for their former boss, the design staff built Earl a customized roadster, the last of a line of special cars provided for his personal use. Soon after, Earl and his wife Sue packed up their things and left Detroit for West Palm Beach, Florida, and a quiet retirement. The Harley Earl Corp., now called Harley Earl Associates, remained in business under the leadership of Earl’s sons, Jim and Jerry, but Earl would do no more design work. He died on April 10, 1969.

Bill Mitchell wasted little time moving away from the glitz and glitter of Earl’s final years. The 1959 bodies were carried over into 1960, but their more eccentric styling cues were toned down or deleted. The line would be redesigned again for 1961, becoming slightly smaller, crisper, and more tasteful, but also far less dramatic. By the mid-1960s, the jet-intake bumpers, fighter-canopy windshields, and rocket-exhaust taillights that had so fascinated Harley Earl were all but gone. Taillights gradually receded as well, although Cadillac retained their vestiges well into the 1980s.

1960 Cadillac Series 62 convertible fins
The 1960 Cadillac’s fins were notably more restrained than the 1959. Their height gradually decreased throughout the early sixties and by 1965 the top edges of Cadillac’s rear fenders were completely horizontal.

Harley Earl represents something of a conundrum to the cultural historian. Calling him an artist is problematic because throughout most of his GM career, he neither drew nor sculpted; giving him sole credit for GM’s designs would be a disservice to the hundreds of stylists and craftsmen who actually shaped those cars. Still, almost every one of the more than 40 million cars GM produced during Earl’s tenure was designed under his direct supervision and all bore his unmistakable stamp.

Many critics are still reluctant to accept mass market consumer goods like automobiles as works of art, but if we judge Earl in terms of his impact on the American aesthetic, he towers over figures like Norman Rockwell or Frank Lloyd Wright. Even if you dismiss these cars (or automobiles in general) as crude products of a decadent and wasteful consumer culture, their significance is inescapable.

We suspect that far in the future, the familiar shape of the 1959 Cadillac will still be as definitive a symbol of the American century as Leutze’s painting Washington Crossing the Delaware is of the Revolutionary War. It may not be great art, but it is immortal.



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), and Cars That Never Were: The Prototypes (Skokie, IL: Publications International, Ltd. 1981); John Barach’s Cadillac History pages, Motor Era, 1999-2008, www.motorera. com/ cadillac/index.htm, accessed 16 July 2008; Arch Brown, “1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz: Nothing Exceeds Like Excess,” Special Interest Autos #88 (August 1985), reprinted in Cadillac Automobiles 1949-1959, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1970); David R. Crippen, “The Reminiscences of William L. Mitchell” [interview], August 1984, Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, The Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife.umd. Mitchell/mitchellinterview.htm [transcript], accessed 16 July 2008; Nick Georgano and Nicky Wright, Art of the American Automobile: The Greatest Stylists and Their Work (New York: SMITHMARK Publishers, 1995); John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997), pp. 172-187; Bud Juneau, “The Cadillac Cyclone: Harley Earl’s Last ‘Dream Car,'” Collectible Automobile Vol. 17, No. 3 (October 2000), pp. 72-80; Michael Lamm, “GM’s Far-Out ’59s: When Imagination Ran Rampant,” Special Interest Autos #125 (September-October 1991), pp. 41-47; Pierre Ollier, “The Final Broughams,” Special Interest Autos #46 (August 1978), pp. 34-39; Jim Whipple, “Car Life 1959 Consumer Analysis: Cadillac,” Car Life May 1959, reprinted in Cadillac Automobiles 1949-1959; and Paul Zazarine, “Personality Profile: Harley Earl: ‘DaVinci of Detroit,'” Collectible Automobile Vol. 22, No. 5 (February 2006), pp. 72–82.


Add a Comment
  1. Not to quibble with a super article, but the 48 Caddys did not have tail fins. Caddy called these adolescent bumps “upsweeps” and they were inspired by the P-38 fighter plane. As the article goes on to explain, it was really Exner and MoPar that introduced tail fins. A few cars of the 40s had tiny, chromium fins atop tail light assemblies but these were afterthoughts, not major styling cues.

    The 1960 Caddy may have had smaller, more modest fins, but they were lower and sharper-tipped than the ’59s. The 60s’ fins became notorious for their danger to anyone who might collide with them. At least one child died after he ran his bike into the back of ’60, and policeman’s horse was mortally wounded after a Caddy stopped short and the horse impaled himself.

    1. Well, Cadillac didn't CALL them fins in '48-'49, but not referring to them as such is really hairsplitting (see for the origins of the “rudder-type” upsweeps). And Exner certainly did not invent the tailfin in '57 — take a look at the '57 Studebaker Golden Hawk, styled concurrently, the '57 T-Bird or even the '57 Caddy. It was a decade-long trend that Exner may have exemplified, but did not originate. It's more that the rest of the industry followed Earl's fascination with aeronautical themes, really.

  2. I have to disagree with Severson’s description of my 1958 Biarritz as “pudgy,” but this is still a nice piece of automotive writing – complete, literate and deep in detail.

    1. I make that comment mainly in comparison to the ’59s. For all their feverish detailing, in basic shape, the ’59s do look less bulky than the ’58s (the arguable exception being the ’59 Chevy, which went from the A-body to the larger B-body). I would compare it to having a stocky coworker who goes on vacation and comes back 20 pounds lighter and wearing a loud new wardrobe.

      I have a weird affection for some of the ’58 GM cars, primarily because of their jukebox excesses. The ’58 Pontiac Star Chief is full of strange and entertaining features — whether they’re attractive is very much a matter of taste, but they’re endlessly fascinating.

      1. Although I persist in regarding the ’58 Eldorado as restrained by the standards of the ’59s, I have to agree about the general excess in other GM cars, including the Olds, as noted above, and, in particular, the Buick. I remember sitting in school with an ad for the ’58 Buick on my lap and pretending to study while counting the number of square chrome buttons on the car’s grill. I don’t remember if I ever got to the end.

        1. If I’m not mistaken, the count you’re looking for is 160. A lot for a kid, especially one trying to not get caught daydreaming in class

  3. the wraparound windscreens of this period badly distorted the drivers vision when he looked thru the curved section.
    the 1959 cadillac fins were dangerous if a person slipped and fell against the rear, they could be stabbed. some owners had their 59 caddies de finned.
    the lowered cars were difficult to fit into, it was no longer possible to carry 3 people in the front seat. the lower beltline usually resulted in the top of the front seat backrest being lowered, so reducing shoulder support
    despite their huge size, they were surprisingly cramped inside, they were often too long to fit into the owners garage

    1. The 59s (the 60 Specials were the same length as the rest of the line) were just under 19 feet. A standard garage back then was 20 feet, so they would fit, although of course it was tight.

      The people that de-finned their 59’s did it for aesthetic reasons, no safety.

      They certainly are not cramped inside, and will carry six people comfortably. I’m a bit puzzled by this comment.


  4. I owe it to our author to thank him for the information about the threat from the Chrysler Corporations fins in this piece, which I incorporated into my piece of for The New York Times of Dec. 19, 2010, and which can be found here:
    www [dot] nytimes [dot] com/2010/12/19/automobiles/collectibles/19CADDY.html

  5. I have a 1959 Fleetwood 60S, and have to disagree re the all-too-frequent comments (here and elsewhere) regarding windshield distortion (where the windshield wraps around). There is, in fact, none, or it is so imperceptible as to be insignificant. Images don’t “change” or “distort” as the scenery flies by. This keeps getting repeated in the literature. I drive this car frequently, and I have checked for distortion over and over, and can’t find it.

    Similar comment re knocking your knees on the wraparound lower part when entering or exiting. It is simply too high relative to your knees. If you are a 7 foot NBAer, then maybe so…

    The 1959 Cadillac actually handles somewhat better than you would expect. No, it will not be mistaken for a Porsche. Fits, finishes and general build quality are high. I am lucky to have an almost 100% original ’59, and these attributes are easy to spot.

    Great article! I knew Dave Holls, and asked him once what they were thinking re the ’59 Cadillac (fins in particular). His answer: “Well, things got a little crazy then”.

    Currell Pattie

    1. I just wanted to chime in and back up your observations on the Cadillac. I own a ’59 Cadillac Series 62 6-window that’s a bit rough overall, but in driving condition and all original. I’ve never noticed an issue with anyone knocking their knees on the front overhang nor have I ever noticed any distortion out of the wraparound glass. In fact I’m curious as to where that rumor got started as I hadn’t heard about it at all until a few years ago.

      The build quality was amazing – the doors, which must weigh a ridiculous amount on their own, are balanced such that they’re feather-light to operate, with the most satisfying “thud” I’ve ever heard upon closing. It’s like locking up a bank vault. In fact, the only other car I’ve owned that even comes close is a low mile ’72 Mercedes, and it’s just not as fun without the extra bulk.

      Contrast that with the build quality on my 1957 Plymouth Savoy, which is abysmal. Those cars looked awesome as could be, but feel like rickety rolling steel crates going down the road. Granted, a more fair comparison would be a ’57 Chrysler up against the Caddy, but still – the differences are quite remarkable.

      I like the Dave Holls quote… crazy indeed!


    2. I am convinced that psychedelics had an influence on mid-late ’50s automotive design. The timeline for the introduction of those substances matches up.

    3. I have a 57 tbird which has a very wrap around windshield. There is no distortion. People assume it will be distorted but when they designed them and fabricated them, they did so as to NOT create distortion. The tbird is hard to get in and out of however, due to the dogleg.

  6. My first car was a 59 dynamic 88 olds 4door. It was the best car to have at 18. It was like lounging on a 3 seat couch HUGE. Wish I could afford one today.

  7. I have owned my ’59 cadillac for over 25 years and never had issues with glass distortion or knee knocking.
    Have you noticed they made three different shaped fins on ’59 Cadillacs?

    1) 4 doors have about an 18″ flat section at the top, rear of fins.

    2) 2 doors have about a 24″ flat section on top.

    3) 75 series limo fins are about 2″ lower.The die cast chrome piece between the dual bullet tail lights and fin tip is

  8. It would 4 types of fins if you count the Brougham

  9. Also note that the Fleetwood (Model 60 Special) had the same 4 door fin but with chromed nacelles, or the “ice cream cones” immediately in front of the back tail lights. I see many chromed ones added Eldorado’s.

  10. I owned an 80,000 mile 1958 Caddy Series-62 back in the early ’80s and drove it frequently to work, play etc. While it was an impressive automobile for it’s time, both aesthetically and technologically, it just was not much fun to drive for a 21 year old. Felt like floating a battleship around.
    At the same time I also owned a 1962 Series-62 Coupe and what a difference 4 model years made in the look, feel and performance! The upgrade in power from the 360 to the 390 power-plant, the lighter look and feel of the car, responsiveness of the steering, brakes, acceleration…Just a wonderful car.

    1. In many respects, the early sixties seem to have been a peak era for Cadillac — not quite as iconically gaudy as the late-fifties cars, but mechanically well-sorted, more tastefully styled, better-performing than many people would expect, and still built to a very high standard.

  11. I agree, Aaron. The Cadillacs in this time period do show significant handling improvements, vs the ’59 and ’60. My favorites from a styling standpoint are the 1965 and 1966.( I like that straight beltline, compared to the 1967 and up, although I own a ’67 Calais coupe). Some prefer the ’66, preferring a “cleaner” look. For example, the chrome strips on the front fenders were removed, leaving an empty channel. The grille has less detail, too. And you can find some other examples.

    Interestingly, a friend of mine, Pierre Ollier, who worked as a stylist for GM just after this period, told me that GM ordered Styling to “take some money out of the ’65s.” They did a good job, because, arguably, the ’66 is slightly better looking.

    But I like ’em both…Currell

  12. My favorite 60s era Cadillacs are the ’65 and ’66. Some Cadillac folks prefer the ’66, with its “cleaner” look. For example, the chrome strips on the front fenders are removed, leaving a clean “valley”. Also, the grille is simpler, as are the taillights.

    Interestingly, a friend, Pierre Ollier, who was a GM stylist just after this period, told me that Styling was ordered to “take some cost out of the ’65s.” Looks like they accomplished that in a very tasteful way.

    I like both the ’65 and ’66, my favorites for the era. The richness of the ’65 grille is especially attractive.

  13. Due respect to Mr. Earl and GM aficionados, but the Cadillac response to the Forward Look just didn’t measure up aesthetically. Yes, I know; this is subjective. But put a ’59 Caddy next to a ’59 Imperial anad ask yourself where you’d put the descriptor, “cartoonish.” Seems like a no-brainer.

    1. Obviously a highly subjective call. I tend to think the 1959 Cadillac has a cleaner basic shape than the contemporary Imperial (as evidenced by the 1960 Cadillac, which cleaned up some of the silly details), but both are really buried in gimmicks. Personally, my favorite of the Forward Look Imperials are the 1955–56 models derived from the Parade Phaeton; arguably, a little stodgier, but a lot of class and dignity.

  14. Would like to learn more on the 1959-60 Eldorado Brougham Pininfarina.

    1. One of these days, maybe. It was only built by Pinin Farina, of course; it was styled in Detroit and certainly previewed the direction of 1961 and later Cadillacs.

  15. Great article!

    Couple of observations.

    I had a ’59 Electra 225 in high school, 1981 and own a ’59 Coupe de Ville currently. Never experienced any windshield distortions. Yes. I’ve banged my knee several times on the dog leg (both cars). I’m only 5′ 7″ . It’s a small learning curve, but just takes a bit of mindfulness.

    And 6 people fit comfortably if they’re not +250 lbs.

    Handling is sloppy compared to our ’63 Fleetwood.

    Styling is practically restrained (even with the fins) compared to contemporary cars of the period. My opinion only.

  16. Dear Mr. Severson,

    I stumbled onto your treatise detailing the history of Hydra-Matics and that led me to more of your offerings–great fun; thank you! I can answer a question I believe you asked: Did Lincoln ever use a Borg-Warner designed auto trans? Yes, they did. From at least the early ’60s until the Ford C6 AT came out, Lincolns were equipped with their own giant cast iron 3 speed Cruise-o-Matic that gave excellent service and IMO, formed partly from working as a Lincoln-Mercury mechanic in 1967, early to mid-sixties Lincolns were the most luxurious American cars being produced at that time. Cadillac, Imperial, and even Buick made some cars that were close, but (again IMO) not quite up to the Lincolns.

    As a consequence of being a teenager during the 50s American cultural fascination with cars and hot rods, I spent 48 years in the automotive service industry and for the first 15 years, I only worked on domestic cars. But of course, now historical changes in the U.S. auto marketplace demanded that most of we mechanics learned to repair at least Asian cars. Cadillac is no longer the “Standard of the World”; Toyota is. Having owned Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Chryslers, Cadillacs and Lincolns, my present car, the finest of my lifetime, is a Toyota Avalon. Toyota simply builds the best mass produced cars on earth.

    In the ’60s, I owned many of today’s “Classics” that were nothing more than used cars then and never gave a thought to their present day values. I’ll try to give you some perspective of some of them from my 74 year old memory bank.

    The first now “Classic” I owned was a ’54 Lincoln Capri HT that was a very nice car. It had the highest quality leather upholstery of all the cars I’ve owned and was very comfortable to drive.

    But no, I was about 20 years old then and fast-n-loud ruled. I dumped the Lincoln for a ’57 Chev Bel-Air convertible that I think I paid $700 for. If required to use it now as a daily driver, I wouldn’t spend even that $700 on it. Nothing remarkable about it at all except the worst heater I’ve ever experienced; it would BBQ your right foot while the rest of you needed a parka.

    Somewhere in the mix, I also owned a ’55 Ford Crown Vic. It was an okay car, but really just another grocery getter with a chrome strip over the roof. In drive, its Ford-o-Matic functioned as a 2 speed, starting in 2nd and automatically shifting to 3rd (high).

    By far the most belchfire offering I ever owned was a ’59 Chrysler 300E HT. First year Chrysler’s wedge engine replaced the Hemi. 413 CID, dual Carter AFBs, 425 HP and 435 ft.lbs. torque and the rest of the car was at least somewhat engineered to match. Pretty good torsion bar suspension and 10″x 2.5″ brakes with finned drums on all 4 wheels. It had a 25 gallon fuel tank and needed it, but who cared? Gas was under $.25 per gallon then.

    Probably the now most valuable car I’ve owned was a ’58 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible that had all the options except A/C. Factory tri-power carbs and air suspension that rode and drove well. The only problem I ever had with the air system was a leaky front level valve that let the front suspension collapse overnight. I was able to get a new valve from Cadillac; it wasn’t expensive and I never had another problem with it. Today, that Eldo would be a $100K car–I got $300 trade-in for it on my first new car, a ’68 Ford Ranchero. :)

    Buicks were intended to be a step below Cadillacs in the GM car lines, but in many cases, they were at least equal. I worked at a Buick dealership for about six months in 1964 and saw many really nice examples. A couple of years later I bought a ’58 Roadmaster Limited with acres of chrome and a dead Dyna-Flow for $150. I fixed the trans, drove the car for a few months and actually sold it at a profit–not my usual buy high/sell low practice. It was without a doubt the most luxurious American car I’ve owned.

    Thanks for your detailed offering on the original Hydra-Matics. They were fading fast when I began my career in auto service and other than some leakage problems (common among ALL transmissions of the time), I never repaired one. They were perhaps the most reliable auto trans until the late ’60s.


  17. Growing up in the ’50’s next door to neighbors who owned Cadillac’s I suffered the envy. My dad drove Buick’s and I loved our 57 Roadmaster. I have owned 6 Cadillac’s over the last 20 years and the latest, a 2014 CTS 3.6 is a great car. MRC handles like a sport car, but with 20 inch wheels and low profile rubber it does not give that soft ride of my 95 Concours or the Buicks. Nor is is able to carry more than 4. 5 is too many and stuffed in. I just love reading the history of the 50’s cars and in particular GM. I have owned 14 cars over the last 50 years and all but my 56 Fury (wish I still had that) were GM. I fell right in to what Billy Durant wanted, a car for every stage of growth and economic level.

    1. Yep. 2014 CTS replaced an is250 stick. It is way better than I expected & love it. Shame they discontinued it…

  18. Dad bought a new ‘59 DeVille with 2-tone green paint job. In Ohio, this was a color scheme I’ve never seen since. On wash day I got the job of the windshield and rear window. The lower edges were a bitch to get right. And the front/grilles tore up your rags and fingers. This when I was 11 years old and didn’t love these Caddies as I do now.

  19. >> it evolved into the more reliable Twilight Sentinel system, which could also automatically turn on the headlights at dusk.

    Twilight Sentinel was a completely separate system, with a photocell in the dash that faced up toward the sky; its function is only to turn the headlights off and on — there is no dimming capability. The Autronic Eye/Guidematic photocell was a forward-facing unit that started out dash-mounted but eventually made its way under the hood. Vintage Cadillacs can be equipped either system, or both.

    1. Ahh, you’re right — I also missed that Autronic-Eye switched from tubes to transistors for 1959. I’ve amended the text (and also fixed my arithmetic error!). Thanks again!

  20. >> 1959 was the eleventh year of the tail fin

    The 12th year, not the 11th — 1948, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59.

  21. The story I have gotten is that the 1958s were already tooled by the time that Chuck Jordan saw the line of 1957 Chryslers (Chuck told me he saw them during his lunch break). It was Mr. Earl that dictated the troweling on of the chrome trim for the 1958s upon his return from Europe. He grasped that his look for the ’58s was not going to stand up to Chrysler so he dictated the application of the chrome as a way to dazzle the eye and compete.

    Earl liked fat cross sections and “power dome” hoods. This changed with Mitchell as his aesthetic had much trimmer cross sections.

    It is worth mentioning that Chuck Jordan was installed as the Cadillac studio head over Dave Holls while the new 1959 design was already underway. Chuck had already been in an Advanced Design/Styling leadership position working the concepts for the new 1959 direction. In only a few more years Chuck ascended again to be the #2 to Bill Mitchell. Unfortunately Mitchell’s recommendation for who his successor should be, Chuck, was not heeded.

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