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Cadillac stepped up its game in '33

Harley Earl's Aerodynamic Coupe show car set the bar for the future of automotive styling and design.
Cadillac’s Aerodynamic Coupe debuted at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and dazzled automotive designers and the public alike. This unique show car is not known to have survived to the present.

Cadillac’s Aerodynamic Coupe debuted at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and dazzled automotive designers and the public alike. This unique show car is not known to have survived to the present.

The “concept car” matured in the 1950s and 1960s as a plethora of special models dotted the auto show landscape. Terms popularly applied prior to that era were “show car” or “special model.” In many cases, the idea was to check the potential sales waters by sticking a little toe-of-an-idea into the auto show pool and measure the temperate result. Did the eager car-buying mercury rise or fall with an innovative design?

Since the dawning of the auto age in the late 1800s, owners of cars have wanted theirs to look unique. Colors and fancy pinstripe detailing added glamour. Appointments in quality leather were much better than oilcloth options. Bronze couplings gave way to pewter, silver, then gold, sometimes with added gemstones. Hand-tooled accents gained favor. Owners wanted their vehicles to stand apart from the crowd, and often reflect the man or woman at the wheel as being a step up from others.

Automobile ownership became more than a trend. Cookie-cutter production of basic cars seemed mundane and lackluster, even though it was a practical way to efficiently build vehicles for the masses. Yet, car buyers often wanted more than that. They wanted something yet to come.

Car makers tinkered with styling and special features amid mass-produced cars in the industry’s early years. But back then, more concentration was given to reliability, road ability and rugged long life. Buyers wanted their money’s worth with a modicum of headaches from breakdowns, stalls, flat tires, broken spokes and rims and other hindrances. As a result, styling generally hit a doldrum by the late 1910s and early 1920s. As the performance and reliability of cars improved, time was ripe to turn attention to special design and styling, as was seen on the LaSalle. Which brings us to Cadillac, the senior brand to which LaSalle was coupled.

Harley Earl was the live-wire designer grabbed by General Motors to design the first LaSalle, then became GM’s chief cornerstone of styling for the present and future. As the 1920s faded, he geared his energy toward the potential of designs for the 1930s. Whatever was designed had to be done with purpose in mind. This equated to production capability (even though some figures may be small); cost of manufacturing (understanding that some models may register losses to attract buyers to showrooms where they will purchase lesser-priced models with higher profits); and image (for the company and brand name, resulting in intangible current profits, but nurturing future growth).

For 1933, Cadillac’s Aerodynamic Coupe show car built upon the Series 452-C chassis was a sensation. Earl gathered great attention for the GM display when the model was unveiled at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago that year. The car was a fabulous feather in GM’s corporate hat at the event, heralded as the “Chicago World’s Fair.”

The show car was built upon the production Series 452-C V-16 chassis with a 149-inch wheelbase, and it used the standard Series 452-C and its grille surround and hood, so it had production capability. As a racy, one-off body design, it had image. And as a racy design on a production chassis, it had potential for the cost of manufacturing model.

What made the 1933 Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe so sensational was its fastback styling, its heavily rounded “pontoon” fenders, its deeply Veed windshield, its all-metal roof and its recessed rear license plate. Just this single example of the show car on the would be built for 1933, but 20 more copies of this body style would be built on V-8, V-12 and V-16 Cadillac chassis from 1934-1937.

Matching the externals of the Aerodynamic Coupe was the very tastefully formed and outfitted V-16 motor which, in itself, was a marvel of period styling. Launched for 1930, the Cadillac V-16 was the first engine to be externally styled, and thus made lesser motors appear crude in appearance.

Cars of the 1920s had not been built with wind drag and resistance in mind. Speed was not a necessity in those days when roadways generally lacked smooth surfaces and engineered inclines, sweeps and slopes. By the conclusion of the 1920s, those factors were shifting. More speed was wanted on roadways. Better surfaces were happening, albeit slowly. And car design was cognizant of air resistance that could ease the wear on operation while enhancing savings in resultant mileage per gallon. By the early 1930s, aerodynamic design was in vogue, and Cadillac was at the forefront with the Aerodynamic Coupe.

Sadly, depressed finances kept dollars from flowing freely toward new car purchases. When Cadillac put forth its snazzy 1933 Aerodynamic Coupe show car, the sensation was dazzling and dreamy, but would not equate to tremendous uptake in income from the subsequent copies built. But it gained attention for the maker and related brands in the GM stable of cars.

The automotive industry has had its share of spies, so to speak. Car officials sniffed out their competition as often as possible to stay up with the times and perhaps take a step or two ahead. At the same show, Lincoln entertained the notion of the sleek Zephyr show car as its projection for future designs. Other car makers were lining up in anticipation with their own aerodynamic expressions.

Some historians have written that the Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe directly inspired the front-drive Cord 810 of 1936. Some have said the Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe was among the first to be made for aesthetics. Perhaps to a degree, but this idea may be overly simplistic. No doubt the car was meant to send a nice, loud clarion call for the future, which was to still rely on cars for transportation in comfort and class. But it also sounded the note of change, of futuristic outlook, of better dreams.

The Aerodynamic Coupe influenced the design of fastback cars well into the 1940s and even the 1950s. It was a landmark design meant to be just that. Cadillac proceeded to go where few car designers had chosen to go — right to the heart of the future in shape, beauty, dynamics and design.

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