Car of the Week: 1951 Cadillac Series 61 coupe

A look at the rare short-wheelbase 1951 Cadillac Series 61 coupe
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Car of the Week 2020
51 Cad June 2019SML

Bob Schuman is a Cadillac man, specifically, a ’41 Cadillac guy. He’s owned a couple of them because they’re great-looking cars and fine touring machines, which is just how he has enjoyed his own 1941 Cadillacs. He’s also a fan of 1950-’51 Cadillac Series 61 coupes, although that fan club is much smaller (if one exists at all). It’s not that the Series 61 coupe is unloved, it’s the fact that this shorter-wheelbase Cadillac was uncommon when new and is almost unheard of today.  

Schuman has admired the Series 61 coupe since he was a car-crazed kid, and it took decades and his connection to 1941 Cadillacs to find the 1950-’51 Cadillac perfect for him. Well, almost perfect.  

“I have got a friend who lives near Seattle, Washington, who invited me to go with him and his wife on the Cadillac & LaSalle Club National Driving Tour in 2010 and I did that,” he said. “Before we went on the tour, we stopped by a friend of his with two 1941 Cadillacs and this ’51. I saw it in his garage, in the back — I looked at it and asked, ‘Is that a 61 Series?’ I said, ‘I would like to buy that car and drive that one home.’ He said, ‘That would be the last one I would sell.’

The Cadillac steering wheel had two spokes connected by a horn ring through much of the 1950s.

The Cadillac grille and bumper ensemble was very similar through the 1950-’53 styling cycle, although the bumper guards grew noticeably larger as the years passed.

“I didn’t look at it too closely,” Schuman continued. “A year later, my friend said the fellow decided to sell the car and maybe in a week or so I ought to give him a call. I thought about it and decided I better not wait. I ended up buying the car sight unseen.”

The car was in just the type of condition a hobbyist could hope for — it looked great, drove great and was in mostly original condition. But there was just one thing Schuman would have changed.

“What I had hoped to find was a 1950 or ’51 Series 61 coupe with a manual transmission,” Schuman said. “They made a fair amount in 1950, but in ’51, I have some Cadillac literature that says Hydra-Matic (automatic transmission) was standard in almost all models but it was still optional in the Series Seventy-Five and Series 61... I had hoped to find one with a manual and that’s fine, the Hydra-Matic is a fine transmission.”

The seat upholstery of the Series 61 used two different fabrics without pleating. However, the door panels were pleated.

The seat upholstery of the Series 61 used two different fabrics without pleating. However, the door panels were pleated.

Despite the obscurity of the Series 61 and manual transmission Cadillacs of 1950 and ’51, the most famous Cadillacs of this period were both. Sam and Miles Collier shifted to a 10th place finish at Le Mans in a manual transmission Series 61 coupe; car owner Briggs Cunningham was just behind when he rowed the gears to an 11th place finish in a second Series 61 that had its coupe body replaced with a unique roadster body. Stateside, legendary Mechanix Illustrated automotive critic Tom McCahill put his money where his keyboard was and bought as his personal car a 1950 Cadillac Series 61 coupe with a manual transmission. He mentioned the “straight shift” Cadillac several times in his popular road test column.

Schuman well remembered reading McCahill’s comments on his Cadillac Series 61, but he came to covet what he regularly saw in the tin.

“I always liked the Series 61 since the ’50 and ’51s were new,” he said. “There was somebody not far from where we lived that had a 1950 Series 61 coupe,” Schuman said. “I always liked the shorter back end of the 61 because I thought they were better proportioned.”

Short on wheelbase, long on Cadillac

Indeed, when Cadillac received a major restyle for 1950, for the first time the Series 61 Cadillac used a shorter wheelbase than the Series 62, which also offered coupe and sedan body styles (plus the Series 62 convertible). Starting in 1950, the Cadillac Series 61 shared a body with General Motors’ smaller B-body cars (think contemporary Buicks and Oldsmobiles). The Series 61’s shortness came in its wheelbase, which was 4 in. shorter than that of the Series 62. This wheelbase difference had an obvious impact on the Cadillac’s proportion, but there were other differences. On the outside, the Series 61 wore shorter rocker trim. Whereas other Cadillacs had full-length rocker trim, the Series 61 had trim along the rocker panel only at the bottom of the vertical chrome faux side vent that ran to the back the rear wheel opening.

The Cadillac steering wheel had two spokes connected by a horn ring through much of the 1950s.

The Cadillac steering wheel had two spokes connected by a horn ring through much of the 1950s.

Inside, the Series 61 featured a slightly plainer look than other Cadillacs. Vertical upholstery pleating throughout the 1951 Series 62 line added glamour to those models’ interiors while the only embellishment to the Series 61’s simpler, unpleated seats was piping where its two different cloth materials met. The Series 61 also had less chrome trim on the door and side panels and had ash receivers in the rear compartment, but lacked rear lighters of other Series 62 models. While hydraulic window lifts were standard in the Series 62 Coupe deVille and convertible and optional in other Series 62 models, Series 61 owners were forced to make do with manual labor when changing the window position.

With a plainer interior and a shorter wheelbase, it’s not surprising the Series 61 was the lowest-priced Cadillac. However, it was still a Cadillac and the car maker was quick to note that the Series 61 remained a quality car, even if it was more affordably priced.

“In basic mechanical design and quality, there is only one standard for Cadillac,” stated the Series 61 description in the company’s 1950 brochure. “All Cadillacs offer the same incomparable performance — the same standards of operating economy — the same long life and dependability. That’s why the Cadillac series Sixty-One... is such a favorite with Cadillac buyers everywhere — for it offers all the basic Cadillac virtues at an extremely moderate price. Like all other Cadillac models for 1950, the Series 61 is dramatically new in appearance and luxurious appointments. It is powered by the great Cadillac overhead valve engine whose performance, power and economy is so outstanding.”

The iconic Cadillac crest.

The iconic Cadillac crest.

Cadillac’s Series 61 story was similar in 1951, but better addressed the car’s price point and how it related to the potential Cadillac buyer.

“The motor cars of this Series 61 are, indeed, most remarkable. For they offer every detail of Cadillac’s thorough-going goodness, at a price actually competitive with numerous other makes of cars. In basic mechanical design and quality, in operating economy and — as you can readily see — in beauty, the Series 61 is every inch a Cadillac. Because of its moderate price, this series is particularly popular with those motorists who are taking their first step up to Cadillac.”

All Cadillac customers received a lot of beauty for their money in the early 1950s. The 1950-’53 styling cycle eliminated the pillar between the side windows on all two-door models, an innovation that debuted at Cadillac on the 1949 Coupe de Ville Sport Coupe two-door hardtop. Until the midyear introduction of the Coupe de Ville, all postwar two-door Cadillacs had been fastbacks with frames around the door windows. The hoods and decklids of all 1950 Cadillacs were also lowered to meet the fender tops, which were likewise lower than they had been in 1949. It all created a very “Cadillac” design, albeit a lower and wider and perhaps even more cohesive Cadillac design.

DSC00187

Oversquare overhead-valve power

Power for these Cadillacs came from the soon-to-be-famous overhead-valve V-8 engine that went into all Cadillacs beginning in 1949. This completely new 90-degree V-8 engine design had an oversquare configuration in which its bore (3-13/16 in.) was greater than its stroke (3-5/8 in.). Also innovative to this engine was its new “slipper” pistons, developed by Byron Ellis. The lower sides of the new engine’s pistons were cut away so as to allow them closer to the crank at the bottom of their stroke, thus allowing for shorter rods and an overall more compact engine design. The new overhead-valve 331-cubic-inch V-8 engine — engineered by Cadillac employees Harry F. Barr, Edward N. Cole and John F. Gordon — weighed 188 lbs. less than the flathead V-8 it replaced, was 4 in. shorter and 4 in. lower than the flathead, displaced 14 fewer cubic inches and yet it developed 10 more horsepower. There was a lot of room to grow, too, and Cadillac would begin to take advantage of the engine’s performance potential as the 1950s progressed. Through 1951, though, only minor revisions were made to its engine components, such as the two-barrel carburetor. The 331-cid V-8 retained its original 160 hp rating until 1952 when power jumped to 190 hp.

The 331-cid V-8 pumped out 160 hp in 1951. Note the 1952 power steering pump on this car; it is believed to have been added by the dealer that resold the car in 1953.

The 331-cid V-8 pumped out 160 hp in 1951. Note the 1952 power steering pump on this car; it is believed to have been added by the dealer that resold the car in 1953.

With an efficient and powerful V-8 engine in Cadillac’s lightest body, the Series 61 was a hot car in its time. Its closest rival was an Oldsmobile 88, which also featured an overhead-valve V-8 engine. Although the 3795-lb. Series 61 coupe weighed over 100 lbs. more than the 3659-lb. Olds in 1951, the Cadillac’s 331 put out 160 hp compared to 135 hp from the Olds 303-cid V-8. The performance came at a price, as the Cadillac Series 61 coupe had a factory base price of $2809 compared to $2267 for the top Oldsmobile two-door model, the Ninety-Eight Holiday coupe. That $542 in 1951 equates to about a $5300 difference today.

As light, nimble and speedy as the Series 61 was compared to the rest of the bigger and heavier Cadillac line, demand soon evaporated for the smaller Cadillac. American prosperity was high and to show it, bigger was better. In 1950, Cadillac had sold 6434 Series 62 coupes and another 4507 of the slightly dressier Series 62 Coupes deVille compared to 11,839 Series 61 coupes. When tallied, the number of 122-in.-wheelbase Series 61 coupes and longer 126-in.-wheelbase Series 62-based coupes was pretty equitable. Once 1951 rolled around, buyers jumped to the bigger Series 62 coupe models in droves, and the Series 62 coupe and dressier Series 62 Coupe deVille each sold about 10,000 cars on their own. Yet by mid 1951, the Series 61 coupe had accounted for only 2400 cars with Series 61 sedan sales equally bleak. In May 1951, the price-leading Series 61 went the way of the LaSalle it essentially replaced and suffered its own extinction.

Enjoying a survivor

Schuman’s 1951 Series 61 coupe is extremely uncommon today, and as a largely original car, it’s a rare survivor by any measure.

“It is a really nice original car,” he said. “It was repainted some years ago in a darker green than the original color, but it’s very much like another color that was available. The carpeting had been replaced, but otherwise the car is all original.”

Its good condition today is at least partially credited to the mild climate in which it has been kept.

The Series 61 Cadillac was most easily identified in 1950 and ‘51 by the lack of full-length rocker trim. Also notice the exhaust exits under the bumper in 1951; it would exit through the bumper in ’52.

The Series 61 Cadillac was most easily identified in 1950 and ‘51 by the lack of full-length rocker trim. Also notice the exhaust exits under the bumper in 1951; it would exit through the bumper in ’52.

“The Cadillac owner card that is on the support in front of the radiator has a purchaser’s name from 1953 and it’s the same dealer that sold the car new in 1951 — I know that because the factory invoice shows the dealer it went to,” he said. “Beyond that — who owned the car between 1953 and maybe about 1990 when the fellow I bought it from obtained it — I don’t know the history. It shows 90,000 miles and I believe that is original. It was sold new in Montana, it was resold in 1953 in Montana. About 1990, it ended up with this fellow in Seattle, Washington, and it either wasn’t driven in winter or they didn’t use salt. It is not a show car underneath, but it obviously wasn’t driven in winter.”

Although he can tout a mostly original car, Schuman notes the car does have one modification, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

“1952 was the first year for Cadillac power steering, and from what I can tell, it has 1952 Cadillac power steering that I think was installed in 1953 when the car was traded in and resold.”

Despite representing Cadillac’s entry-level model, Schuman’s Series 61 is no “stripper” model. Factory-installed options on this Series 61 include full wheel covers, whitewall tires, heater system, auto-tuning radio with a rear speaker and a windshield washer. He says the car is fitted with a tinted windshield, although that option is not noted on its factory invoice. He’s proud to say nearly all of the accessories still work after 70 years.

“The clock works and it’s original; even the vacuum antenna works,” he said. “Everything works on it like it should but the windshield washer, but I will never use it anyway.”

Note the seam between the fabric of the seat upholstery and the horizontal pleats in the side panels of the Series 61. This car’s optional rear speaker can be seen on the package shelf.

Note the seam between the fabric of the seat upholstery and the horizontal pleats in the side panels of the Series 61. This car’s optional rear speaker can be seen on the package shelf.

Schuman wishes it had one more option, one that wasn’t available from the Cadillac Clark Street factory until 1953: air conditioning. However, that doesn’t stop him from driving the Cadillac, although he usually saves his drives for the coolest part of the day during the summer months.

“I bought the car nine years ago and I don’t drive it as much as I like, but I do drive it to breakfast often. Not having air conditioning is hard — it runs beautifully and drives so beautifully.

“The ’51 is ready and willing to continue the long-distance touring but the driver is not. About 100 miles is about as far as I want to drive at my age.”

“Park” is not seen on the Hydra-Matic gear selector, but exists on the transmission by placing the car in “Reverse” and shutting off the engine.

“Park” is not seen on the Hydra-Matic gear selector, but exists on the transmission by placing the car in “Reverse” and shutting off the engine.

Cadillac famously hid the fuel filler beneath the driver’s side taillamp in the 1940s and through much of the 1950s.

Cadillac famously hid the fuel filler beneath the driver’s side taillamp in the 1940s and through much of the 1950s.

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