Story and photos by David W. Temple
To say that it was challenging to sell luxury automobiles during the Great Depression of the 1930s would be an understatement. A reduced demand for luxury cars made the competition intense for those limited sales. Cadillac, like many other luxury manufacturers, was struggling. However, it had the strength of General Motors behind it and a long history of proven performance and prestige.
A modern, new Cadillac
The position that Cadillac was presenting in 1934 can be interpreted from the sales message that was being presented at the time. The following is an excerpt from the company’s 1934 “Features of Construction” manual:
“Cadillac’s leadership through its affiliations with General Motors has been of pioneering developments that have contributed most to the real progress of the automobile industry. This policy of constant progress is again most impressively revealed in the four new car lines…
“In all Cadillac’s history value has never been so evident and pronounced as in these new 1934 cars. At their new prices Cadillac offers the finest and most luxurious and modernized transportation. These new prices will open up broader markets for Cadillac.”
For 1934, the four lines of Cadillac (Series 355D V-8, Series 370D V-12 and Series 452D V-16 Cadillacs and LaSalle) introduced a more streamlined design that featured teardrop-shaped headlamps, airfoil-shaped front and rear fenders, sloping windshield and a rear deck that covered the chassis. Overall, the bodies were two inches lower than the 1933 models. New streamlined “biplane” bumpers looked very stylish, but proved to be expensive to produce and lacked strength, thus they were not used beyond the 1934 models. Seeing 1934 Cadillacs (and LaSalles) with stronger 1935 bumpers installed was not especially unusual just one or two years after the cars were new.
A new chassis
The 1934 model year was a year of many firsts for Cadillac, one of which was the implementation of independent front suspension (IFS), the short and long arm (SLA) front suspension offering much superior ride characteristics than the semi-elliptic leaf springs and I-beam axle once used in front. (IFS was not a new idea, but there was no perceived need for it during the early years of the automobile.) Engineer Maurice Olley, who came to General Motors from Rolls-Royce of America after its demise in 1930, was responsible for the research and design of IFS for Cadillac.
The rear suspension received some reworking, too. Instead of being shackled at both the front and rear, the front end was attached to the frame by a steel spring bolt covered in rubber to cushion the contact point. The rear end was shackled by a threaded anti-rattle bolt, while the shackle was connected to the frame by another rubber-cushioned bolt. A ride stabilizer (a cross-rod, torsion-spring mounted on the rear cross member of the frame) was added to prevent body roll or side sway. The end result was a more comfortable ride and flatter cornering.
Considering the advances incorporated into the 1934 Cadillac, one can be understandably confused by the retention of mechanical brakes — especially when the “one-third priced” LaSalle, Cadillac’s companion model, had hydraulic units. This fact surely could not have been an oversight, but rather a nod to the more conservative customer base of Cadillac. (Hydraulic brakes were still relatively new at the time, and stories of fluid leaks in early systems still gave some a reason to doubt them.) General Motors fully switched to hydraulic brakes for 1936.
Additional upgrades included improved engine performance through higher compression, dual-valve springs (in the V-8s), lighter anodized-aluminum pistons and cold air intake to the carburetor that provided 15 additional horsepower over the previous year. Economy was improved by these changes, also, with gains averaging 1/2 to 1-1/2 miles per gallon. Additional upgrades included a semi-automatic choke for quicker warm-up, rubber-cushioned engine mounts at five points on the frame and a new water pump packing process that kept the lubricant from mixing with the water.
Another significant alteration for the 1934 Cadillacs was its new X-frame. Cadillac boasted that the improved rigidity of the frame “has been increased many times over that of previous models. This greater strength and rigidity eliminates frame flexing and twisting… It also increases the safety factor in the car and materially improves the riding comfort.”
For V-12, V-16 and 146-inch wheelbase V-8 cars, the “X” unit was actually a separate component with the arms extending to the side bars of the outer frame and then to the front and rear end cross members. On the shorter 128- and 136-inch wheelbase V-8 cars, the arms extended to the front cross member and about half way to the rear cross member. Both frames were welded and riveted together to form a solid box-type girder construction. The center junction box had steel plates welded on top and bottom to tie the structure into a single rigid unit. Extra cross member arms connected the X-center frame to the side rails on each side of the center junction box.
An improved interior
In addition to the mechanical refinements was the car’s redesigned interior. A thick layer of wool and cotton padding placed over the coil seat springs increased seating comfort. The contours of the seat-uprights were given careful attention as well. Seat covers were pleated on all models except the seven-passenger Imperial Sedan. Other types of trimming were available as an extra-cost option.
Interior ventilation was achieved by opening the cowl vent, which opened toward the windshield. The air was forced in by currents moving along the steeply sloped windshield. Pivoting vent windows also directed air to flow through the automobile.
The last survivor?
The featured 1934 Cadillac 355D Series 30 V-8 Stationary Coupe, style 5776 with body by Fleetwood, is built on the 146-inch wheelbase, the longest available in the V-8 series. This wheelbase was shared with V-12. The large and commanding coupe is currently owned by Mike Ames of Arlington, Texas, and is the only known remaining example of its type. Only 45 coupe bodies of this style were built by Fleetwood from 1934 to 1937 of which six were V-8s, all produced in 1934. The remaining 39 style 5776 coupes had V-12 or V-16 power.
Incidentally, all Series 30 Cadillac bodies were built on the 146-inch wheelbase by Fleetwood, which offered the V-windshield on some styles. Series 10 and Series 20 versions were built by Fisher Body on the 128-inch and 136-inch wheelbases, respectively. As a result, there is a confusing array of styles in multiple series between body builders Fisher and Fleetwood for 1934. Overall production for Series 355D V-8-powered Cadillacs that year totaled 5,080 cars.
Not only is this car a unique Cadillac from the Classic Era — enough to warrant interest by itself — it has its original interior. According to Mike, “Although I did restore the car in my garage at home in 2001, it was only a partial restoration, not a body-off. It has less than 21,000 original miles and I wanted to maintain as much originality as possible. The interior materials are 100 percent original as is the instrument panel. They are in almost unbelievable condition and required only a very careful and thorough cleaning to appear virtually new.”
Mike displays it at auto shows and notes the fact that “It is a massive car — almost a foot-and-a-half longer than the Suburban I tow it with.” Indeed, this 1934 Cadillac Series 355D is a large automobile with a wheelbase of 146 inches and a weight of well over 5,000 pounds.
Mike, who is an active member of the Classic Automobile Club of America, pointed out that, “The body design is a dramatic departure from the 1933 models and marked the beginning of the streamlined era. Interesting to compare is the radical difference between this car and a top-of-the line 1934 Packard that maintained a traditional ‘Classic’ architecture. This car is the perfect balance between the earlier era and the radical Chrysler/De Soto Airflow that also debuted in 1934, the transition year in automotive styling.”
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