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.
“At the front, we eliminated the center bumper blade. While everyone in the studio thought the grille bullets were too Buck Rogers, Earl and the division liked that treatment. All things considered, the 1960 Cadillac was a cleaner design and a nicer car.”
I concur. In 1990, just before the collector-car balloon burst, I paid way too much for a rusty Series 62 convertible coupe (Cadillac’s nomenclature) advertised in the local classifieds. Following a summer of breezy excursions and minor repairs, I yanked the engine to commence a painstaking eight-month disassembly. To eradicate the dissolution caused by exposure to winter roads, I replaced both front fenders and major chunks of the main body. A local shop spent months patching, painting, and block sanding surfaces to restore my Cadillac’s original glory, while a talented trimmer stitched five hides into fresh upholstery.
In 1993, a Cadillac and La Salle concours served as my restoration project’s coming-out celebration as well as my son’s fourth birthday party. It was literally a blue-ribbon day, with Holls in attendance to provide reviewing-stand commentary. The trail of crimson transmission fluid that followed my Cadillac into the garage that evening left no dent in our joy.
While the big V-8 under the Cadillac’s hood musters a major show of force, smoothness always trumps the alacrity of its moves. Bumps and heaves that excite the suspension do little to disturb the long and massive body’s peaceful tranquility. The steering is light to the touch and blissfully free of feedback. Large, assertively power-assisted drum brakes provide sure stopping performance as long as you don’t ask them to work twice in the same mile. Handling is too modern a word to use in the same sentence with any car from the softly sprung, underdamped, roll-challenged, and bias-ply-tired era.
As a throwback to the days when GM ruled the design roost, a 1960 Cadillac convertible provides the best seat in every old-car parade.
14,000 (Series 62); 1285 (Eldorado Biarritz)
$5455 (Series 62); $7401 (Eldorado Biarritz)
$20,000-$75,000 (Series 62);
$40,000-$110,000 (Eldorado Biarritz)
To be the grand marshal in your own personal pageant. The mere sight of these sweeping fins evokes wistful recollections of America’s pre-J.F.K. optimism and/or utter bewilderment, depending on the seniority of the admirer. Bridging the end of the flamboyant Harley Earl era and the beginning of Bill Mitchell’s celebration of grace and taste, Cadillac’s 225-inch-long convertible is the ultimate expression of GM’s longer, lower, wider design ethos.