Without our appetite for US-made films and television programmes, most Australians wouldn’t recognise a 1950s Cadillac or understand its social significance.
Film-makers over many decades used the Cadillac metaphors of success and songwriters mention the brand more than any other. Bob Dylan, once regarded as an instigator of social change, starred in a wonderfully moody TV advertisement for the brand.
1949 saw big changes occurring within the Cadillac. There was an all-new 5.4-litre overhead valve V8 that began life with 160bhp (119kW) but by 1953 that had turned that into 157kW.
As Cadillacs grew larger and owners wanted improved performance as well, engine size went up to 5.9 and eventually 6.4 litres. With ‘dual-quad’ carburettors, the expensive Eldorado versions would reach 185km/h.
Various body styles were available, with the most popular being Sedan and Coupe de Villes. Several wheelbase lengths were available; ranging from the 61 Series’ 3099mm to the 3735mm used for seven-passenger 75 Series Limousines.
Convertibles were built on the 3200mm ’62 Series’ chassis with chromium plate and tail-fins inescapable features of 1950s Cadillac design. If you were a millionaire with aspirations to maintain a low profile you wouldn’t have bought a Caddy.
The vast majority of 1950s Cadillacs came with three or four-speed Hydramatic transmission. In 1953 a temporary switch was made to adapt Buick’s Dynaflow unit after the Hydramatic manufacturing plant burned down.
At a time when Australia was struggling to find enough foreign currency to pay for essential imports, Cadillacs did arrive here in significant numbers. Conversion to right-hand drive was mandatory and expensive however a lot of these cars were originally delivered to the owners of large General Motors’ dealerships, prominent businesspeople and entertainers so money wasn’t an issue.
Where a car is rare and its value dependent on authenticity, the closer to original it can be kept the better. When considering a 1950s Cadillac, especially a limo, convertible or scarce Eldorado, any history that comes with the car – original selling invoice, lists of previous owners, import documents – are worth money. So is detail that tells a potential buyer how many of the model were built in a particular colour or with a unique combination of options.
Most common in the local market are sedans and two-door Coupe de Villes. Usable cars which can be enjoyed while undergoing cosmetic restoration, start at $30,000 with Fleetwood sedans $10,000 more. That value range more than doubles when looking at cars that are substantially original and untouched or have undergone quality restorations here or in the USA.
Open-top Cadillacs from the 1950s are scarce and getting expensive, even in the US market. 62 Series convertibles in this country are likely to bring $130-150,000 but Eldorado convertibles and the very scarce Brougham Hardtop can exceed $200,000. Convertible Eldos in spectacular condition and often with celebrity connections can reach A$300,000 in US sales.
Despite being built to standards more rigorous than other GM products, Cadillacs still rust. Those chrome mouldings on their own provide a multitude of places where rust can fester and the only way to eradicate it properly is sending the car for a bare-metal restoration. A cheaper if more risky option is choosing a car that has been recently restored, preferably with photographic records of work done. Damaged bright-work is costly to repair or replace; used bumpers in the USA ask over $1000 each. New body parts being made include floor pans, door skins, sills, chassis repair sections, lights and badges. Replacement convertible tops from the USA start at $600, with correctpattern canvas at over $1000. Check that all components in the roof frame are connected and the hydraulics operate smoothly.
Exhaust smoke, cylinder head oil leaks, misfiring under load and radiator bubbling indicate an engine in need of reconditioning. Parts are still being made and are relatively inexpensive with complete rebuild kits at US$2000 – call it $3000 here with freight and the GST that now applies to parts from overseas. New camshafts for 5.4-litre V8s were quoted at less than A$450 and reproduction water pumps $300 from US suppliers. Cylinder sleeves are available to help resuscitate a worn block. Even when in good condition, the four-speed auto transmissions can be slow to downshift or engage gears. A car that comes with a fully reconditioned auto can save the buyer $5000 in repair costs.
NUMBER BUILT: 1,074,760 (1950-58)
BODY: all steel, separate body/ chassis sedan, two and four-door hardtop, convertible and limousine
ENGINE: 5424cc or 5981cc V8 with overhead valves and single or dual downdraft carburettors
POWER & TORQUE: 227kW @ 4600rpm, 547Nm @ 3100rpm (1958 single carb)
PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h – 12 seconds, approx 0-400m 17.5 seconds approx (5.9-litre)
TRANSMISSION: three-speed manual or four-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: Independent with coil springs, upper and lower control arms and telescopic shock absorbers (f) Live axle with semi-elliptic springs and telescopic shock absorbers (r)
BRAKES: drum (f) drum (r) power assisted
TYRES: 8.00x15 or 8.20x15 cross ply
These heavy cars pound their suspension so be prepared to spend money on new rubbers and perhaps entire sets of suspension components. Severe bouncing is a symptom of ruined shock absorbers. The 1957 Eldorado Brougham pioneered air-suspension which was also used in a few later Cadillacs but not successfully. Cars that were converted to right-hand drive when new must be inspected to ensure that modified suspension and steering parts are safe. Worn brake drums cause the pedal to shudder under light brake application but the hydraulics are no more complex than in other GM cars and parts are available.
Electrical problems are almost inevitable in cars of this age and especially those with the complexity of a Cadillac. Fabric interiors, even in well-maintained cars, wear quickly so cars with original trim are very rare. Replacement fabrics are available, however small items of trim that don’t justify part-makers’ attention need to be sourced second-hand. Before finalising a price, check everything electrical does work and negotiate hard on a car with power windows that don’t function or air-conditioners (where fitted) that blow warm air. Worn door seals let in water as well as wind, so look for stained door trims and carpets.
CADILLAC (1955-58 Coupe De Ville) FAIR $20,000
(Note: concours cars will demand more)