Cadillac – the company borne in 1902 of the ashes of Henry Ford’s first automobile venture and named for the French founder of Detroit – earned its reputation as a pioneering automobile brand with the very first model engineered by Henry Leland. It was a motor car that blended technology with refinement at a time when most fledgling auto builders were turning out crude horseless carriages.
Over the next fifty years, the brand would become synonymous with style, luxury and quality, and by the time the post-war consumer boom hit its stride in the mid-1950s, Cadillac ownership represented the fulfilled aspirations of a new generation of increasingly sophisticated consumers. The company pioneered the basic overhead-valve V-8 engine configuration that would inspire the Chevy small-block and similar designs from all other American manufacturers, while pushing the technology envelope with electronic features that were, in some cases, decades ahead of their time.
By the late-1950s, Cadillac’s styling, led by Harley Earl protégé Bill Mitchell, reflected the optimism and confidence of the era, with soaring tail fins and jet-age styling cues. The 1959 Cadillac epitomized that aesthetic, with the tallest fins to date, acres of chrome and a quartet of taillights mounted high on the fins that had the appearance of four jet-engine exhausts.
Under Mitchell’s direction, Cadillac’s styling quieted down in the 1960s, as the fins receded and the chrome abated, but the long, low and powerful proportions that characterized Cadillacs of the previous two decades got stronger. Its reputation as the undisputed luxury leader in America grew stronger, as well, with features such as the industry’s first automatic climate control system, which was introduced in 1964. The company also pushed boundaries with vehicles like the 1957 Eldorado, which featured hidden headlamps and a front-wheel-driven powertrain – radical attributes for a brand long known for formal luxury.
The unconventional Eldorado proved successful at luring new and younger customers, expanding the brand’s reach and pushing sales to record levels by the early-1970s, despite a tumultuous economy and fundamental shifts in the auto industry. Changes were on the horizon, but Cadillac’s core customers found comfort – figuratively and literally – in the brand’s unapologetically large and luxurious personal coupes, sedans and convertibles. Nearly 300,000 Cadillacs were sold in 1976, including 14,000 Eldorado convertibles, which were the last known convertibles to be offered by the company.
The close of the 1976 model brought an end of an era that started in the mid-1950s. A new stage in Cadillac’s history began in 1977, with downsized sedans and coupes, but the legacy of those long, low and powerful Caddies would only grow stronger in decades since. That golden age is the image enthusiasts the world over have of America’s premier luxury car.
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