That icon of ostentation, Cadillac's 1960 convertible, owes its existence to a chance encounter. In the summer of 1956, General Motors designer Chuck Jordan stumbled across the first 1957 Chryslers while on his lunch break. The clean, sleek appearance of the competition's fall fashions sent him hustling back to the drawing board.
According to the late Cadillac designer Dave Holls, "We all took our turn inspecting the '57 Chryslers through a chain-link fence. Even though we had finished our '59 designs, we returned to the studio and started all-new programs.
"We thought the Chrysler thing - razor-thin roofs, sweeping fins, high integrated bumpers - was fantastic. It was everything we'd been sketching but not doing. While Harley Earl was traveling, every GM studio immediately started working on a new car. Our pudgy, fat '57 cars had been face-lifted for '58 by throwing chrome at them. We hated the cars that defined Earl's last gasp. He had a wonderful sense of direction throughout his career, but that last year [Earl retired in 1958], he didn't know.
"The '59s were overdesigned in that they were flamboyant, but we certainly didn't think so at the time. They had to be good to surpass Chrysler's Forward Look. Everyone at GM styling did their damnedest to make a wild new car.
"Earl had a difficult time with this new direction, although he acknowledged that Chrysler had stumbled onto something. A week after he returned from his trip, he came into the studios to be a part of what was going on."
When the wraps were whisked off the '59 Cadillacs, dealers responded with a universal gasp. Buyers considered the rolling rocket ships, now regarded as the ultimate in '50s excess, as too exaggerated. "Cadillac's general manager, James Roche, encouraged us to make sure the 1960 models were in better taste," Holls recalled.
"We took Roche at his word. The '60 Cadillac has my favorite set of fins and is prettier than the '59. Lowering the height of the fins and raising the rear fenders' upper surfaces made a dramatic difference. Thin taillamps replaced the twin rocket pods. Round lamps within the bumper ends were designed to shine forward as well as back to illuminate the whole polished-stainless-steel pan that surrounds them.