By Bill Rothermel
Photos by Dan Vaughan, www.conceptcarz.com
In the years following World War II, Cadillac was, without a doubt, America’s leading luxury car brand, despite strong competition from Packard, Lincoln and Imperial. General Motors vigorously promoted Cadillac as the “Standard of the World” and reinforced the marque’s dominance through both upscale advertising as well as with dream cars it exhibited at Motoramas and car shows throughout the United States.
Bill Warner and the team at the Amelia Island Concours took a page from Cadillac history at this year’s event by featuring a class of Cadillac concept cars never before assembled.
The exhibit debuted at Sunday’s concours on March 10 and equally wowed show goers and fans of Cadillac alike. Appropriately situated in front of Cadillac’s on-grounds showroom, nine former stars of the show circuit were joined by two of Cadillac’s current concept cars, the 1,000-hp Sixteen and the Cien.
Many of the magnificent cars exhibited at Amelia Island were created under the watch of Harley Earl, GM’s legendary head of styling. All predicted the future with their styling, colors and features that became part of the standard Cadillac lineup.
1949 Coupe deVille prototype
Perhaps the most notable of the Cadillacs displayed was the prototype Coupe deVille, fresh from restoration. According to its owner, Steve Plunkett of London, Ontario, the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance marked “the first time the car has been displayed publicly in 64 years.” The car was initially displayed at the 1949 Waldorf-Astoria Transportation Unlimited Show in New York. The eight-day show later moved to the Detroit Convention Center with a total of 600,000 people visiting the displays at both locations.
The deVille featured Cadillac’s then-new 331-cid overhead-valve V-8 mated to a four-speed Hydra-Matic transmission as well as a 133-inch wheelbase, which was 7 inches longer than that used on production Coupes deVille that debuted later in 1949. The prototype also featured GM’s first one-piece curved windshield, a two-way radio/telephone, power windows (including vent windows), power seats, chrome wheel arches, a three-piece rear window, lipstick holder, perfume atomizer, back seat secretarial kit and leather seats and trim. The car took two months to build at a cost of $30,000 in 1949.
After show duty, the Coupe deVille was gifted to Charlie Wilson, CEO of GM from 1946 through 1953. Wilson received the car when he left GM in 1953 to serve as President Eisenhower’s secretary of defense from 1953 to 1957. The prototype remains the only surviving example of four prototypes reportedly built.
The two-seat special
John and Heather Mozart of Palo Alto, Calif., own a unique 1952 Cadillac convertible coupe specially built for Harold R. “Bill” Boyer, former executive vice-president of Cadillac Military Manufacturing. The one-off, single-seat car boasts a wheelbase 10 inches shorter than standard models and an overall height that is 6 inches shorter. It is fitted with a 1955 Cadillac V-8 installed later by the factory along with a convertible top that folds into a metal boot in a design used later on Corvettes. The car remained in the Boyer family until 2005 when it was purchased and subsequently restored by the current owner.
Harley Earl had a special custom 1953 Eldorado built with a supercharger for his friend, John Alexander, a Wisconsin industrialist and World War I Navy pilot, by test engineer Frank Burrell.
Cadillac’s Eldorado was new for 1953, and along with the Olds Fiesta, Buick Skylark and Chevrolet Corvette, was one of the darlings of that year’s Motorama shows. Currently owned by the Playtime Auto Collection of Potomac, Md., the one-of-a-kind 1953 Eldorado is powered by that year’s 331-cid V-8 fitted with a Roots-type supercharger and twin four-barrel carburetors producing 300 hp. Unlike any other Eldorado, it is also fitted with exposed exhaust pipes (a la Duesenberg) designed with cut-outs so they could be opened to draw attention to the special engine, or closed for quieter operation. The special engine is coupled to a Hydra-Matic automatic transmission. It is further fitted with Borrani wire wheels and 12-inch, cast-iron brake drums finned for improved cooling.
Short-run 1953 LeMans
1953 was also the year of Cadillac’s famed LeMans concept cars. The name was derived from the prestigious 24-hour race in France of the same name to commemorate the accomplishments of driver Briggs Cunningham, who formidably ran Cadillacs in the 1950 race. GM built four LeMans show cars as a design exercise using fiberglass, a novel material at the time. The cars included 250-hp Cadillac V-8s, and three of the four LeMans show cars exist today, including two exhibited at the concours; one owned by the aforementioned Playtime Auto Collection, and the other by the GM Heritage Collection.
The long-gone car was destroyed by fire.
The GM-owned LeMans is the fourth and final example to be built. It was restyled in-house to reflect changing design trends with the addition of quad headlamps, a first for GM and not 100 percent legal in 1957, although they appeared on 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Broughams. The rear of GM’s LeMans was also modified with sharper, more modern tailfins. Still later, the complete drivetrain was updated to 1960 Eldorado specifications.
Leonard and Michele Worden of Windham, N.H., displayed their 1956 Eldorado Brougham Town Car known as XP-48. It was featured in the 1956 Motorama and, later that year, the Paris Auto Show. It was ordered destroyed by GM, but the owner of Warhoop’s salvage yard in Michigan could not bring himself to crush the car. He covered it with a tarp where it remained until 1989. Made of fiberglass, the town car rides a 129.5-inch wheelbase and features styling that predicts the limited-production Eldorado Brougham. The rear compartment is upholstered in beige leather with gold accents while the chauffeur was treated to black Moroccan leather.
Sun-smart Eldorado Biarritz
From the Richard H. Driehaus Collection in Chicago came one of five 1958 Eldorado Biarritzes removed from the production line and modified into a GM Motorama display car. What sets the Bahia Blue car apart from nearly every other Biarritz that year is a moisture sensor in the center of the rear deck that causes the top to rise and the windows to close in the event of inclement weather. A deeper well for top stowage and a motorized tonneau make for a lower and sleeker appearance with the top down. Four bucket seats and an upholstered transmission tunnel complete the “Rain Car’s”
The 1959 Cyclone concept was presented at Amelia Island by GM and was certainly the most radical of the cars on the show field.
Designed to test styling and engineering ideas, the Cyclone features a power-operated canopy that fits tightly against the panoramic windshield. The canopy retracts beneath the surface of the trunk, enabling 360-degree vision. Its doors move outward 3 inches and slide rearward, allowing for entrance and exit. Object-sensing radar devices located in the twin nose cones scan the road ahead to audibly alert the driver of any objects in the path. A communications system enables those inside to converse with those outside without raising the canopy.
Power is supplied by a 325-hp V-8 with a cross-flow aluminum radiator and twin fans. The entire exhaust, including mufflers, is located in the engine compartment with the exhaust outlet just ahead of the front wheels.
The Craigslist Cadillac
A Cadillac not shown for about 30 years was looking a bit tattered by comparison to the others, but the 1961 Eldorado owned by Nadeem and Anna Khan of Orlando, Fla., was equally welcome. Unbelievably, this unusual vehicle was purchased off of Craigslist last year.
Originally built as the LeMans, it was assigned Order No. 50110 and modified for the upcoming show season. Ribbed aluminum rocker panel moldings were installed, the interior was modified with two bucket seats and a floor-shift center console and the rear wheel openings were enlarged and left without fender skirts. Unique features include its tail lamps, grille, Eldorado letters, wreath-and-crest badging and a fiberglass hood and lower front bumper. The car was updated about one year later for its appearance at the 1962 Chicago Auto Show.
A gathering of Motorama proportions
A total of eight traveling GM shows were held between 1949 and 1961, and thanks to Chairman Bill Warner and the folks behind the 18th Annual Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance for helping show goers relive an era that many of us never experienced and can only dream about.
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