By John Gunnell
The signature car for The Automobile Gallery (www.theautomobilegallery.com) in Green Bay, Wis., is the bright red 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville that often sits on the concrete pad next to the Galley's entrance. This iconic 1950s finmobile sums up what Gallery founder Red Lewis sought to exhibit in his art gallery-like setting: the car as art, the car's design influence and the array of bright hues that cars of all era offered.
Inside the Gallery you can see up to 50 cars from 1917 models to new millennium masterpieces. There are horseless carriages, Classics, hot rods, dragsters, sports car, SUVs, limousines, muscle cars, exotics and everything in between. Each car is either a well-preserved original or has a beautiful restoration. And the '50 Cadillac is special.
The world was changing in 1959 and some of the revisions were radical. Fidel Castro took over in Cuba. A Russian Lunik III space probe took photos of the moon. In America, a racy men's magazine named Playboy made its debut (with Marilyn Monroe in its centerfold) and Alaska and Hawaii changed the traditional 48-star flag for the first time since 1912. The new models from General Motors Cadillac Division were radical, too.
“A new measurement of greatness” said the punch line in one ad, but it's unclear if the copywriter was suggesting measuring the length of the yellow Sedan de Ville or the height of the four-door hardtop's rocketship-like tail fins. He described the new-for-'59 styling as “elegant and graceful and majestic almost beyond description.” Not everyone agreed, although it's universally accepted that the '59 “Cad-doo” is an official icon of the '50s. Even U.S. Postal Service honored the fins and bullet taillights on a postage stamp.
The '59s were longer and lower, but the length increase was not especially dramatic — about a half-inch for most body types. The Series 62 models, Eldorados and Sixty Specials shared a 130-inch wheelbase and 225-inch overall length. Heights were in the 54.8- to 56.2-inch range, which was more than a 3-inch drop in many cases.
Cadillac stroked the overhead-valve V-8's displacement to 390 cubic inches and the compression ratio rose to 10.5:1. The single-four-barrel V-8 produced 325 hp and was standard in 62s, Sixty Specials and Fleetwood 75s. Other Cadillac selling points were Hydra-Matic, power steering, power brakes, a tubular-center X-frame, helical-coil front and rear springs, aluminum pistons, full-pressure lubrication and Magic-Mirror paint.
A new jeweled-pattern grille was seen. A wide horizontal chrome bar ran across the full width of the cars and continued around the front body corners, just below headlight level. Everywhere below this bar was grillework. Above it, the grille filled only the area between the two side-by-side headlights on either side. The front bumper was a massive affair with two light-holding pods on either side and a built-in license plate frame. Finned ornaments, chrome moldings and winged emblems decorated the front fender tops.
At the rear, the high tail fins dominated. A projectile bulge ran horizontally down either side of the fins, with two pointy taillights emanating from the end of these “guided missiles.” The chrome trim on the fins ran down to meet the bumper ends, which looked like jet engine outlets with back-up lights in the center. The horizontal bumper was rather plain, but above it was a full-width beauty panel that carried a jeweled texture like the grille. On the trunk was a V-shaped badge and Cadillac crest or other model identification.
Standard equipment for all '59 Cadillacs included the 390-cid overhead-valve V-8, power brakes, power steering, automatic transmission, dual back-up lights, windshield washers, two-speed electric windshield wipers, full wheel discs, an outside rearview mirror, a vanity mirror, an oil filter, power windows and two-way power seats.
Identifying features of Series 62 models included a straight, sweepspear type side molding extending from the front wheel opening to the back of the car, with a horizontal crest medallion attached below this molding, on the front fenders. The Coupe de Ville had its model name in script on the rear fenders. These cars did not have the front-fender crest molding and had a simpler rear grille. Prices for base Cadillacs started at $4,770. The de Villes were put in their own sub-series and priced from $5,252 to $5,498. The Coupe de Ville sold for $5,252 and model-year production of the 4,720-lb. car was 21,924.
With its sure-to-catch-your-eye '59 model, Cadillac continued selling its “standard of the world” image to upward-mobile buyers wanting the best Detroit had to offer. “Universal symbol of achievement!” boasted one ad. “World's best synonym for quality!” said another. A third heralded “The world's most eloquent possession.” Showing a white Cadillac, with diplomatic license UN-304, parked in front of the United Nations Building was an ad that boldly stated, “In every part of the world where highways exist and quality is recognized, Cadillac has become the accepted symbol of automotive goodness.”
Did the '59 Cadillacs sell when new? Model-year production was 142,272, an increase from 1958, but lower than in 1956 and 1957. Even worse, the brand's market penetration dropped 3/10ths of a percent. But company sales executives said they could have set an all-time divisional record if a steel strike had not occurred. In fact, first-quarter sales of 39,491 cars were the highest in the company's history. By June, deliveries to U.S. customers had hit 77,134 — the highest ever for any Cadillac model year.
The Coupe de Ville parked outside The Automobile Gallery is a nice, but not perfect car. It has a non-original interior, a Custom Autosound Cadillac logo AM/FM radio and an engine compartment that is very clean, but not detailed out completely. The car also has power windows, clock, cigarette lighter, heater and defroster and wide whitewall tires. It has excellent paint on an excellent body, new brakes and dual exhausts. It may not win awards in Cadillac-LaSalle Club judging, but it's an eyeball car that catches the attention of people going by and lures them inside to see the rest of the Gallery's vehicles.
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