Cadillac Series 62
The 1959 Cadillac was the epitome of American automotive styling taken to the illogical extreme. If you believe in the tenets "less is more" and "form should follow function" then the '59 Cadillac may strike you as some evil alien life-form, as appealing as fungus, as pleasant to the eye as a sharp spike. But if, on the other hand, you believe the goal of a car is to please its driver, to send him or her off into the distance affixed with a smile, then the Cadillac that arrived in showrooms for the 1959 model year was a very big success indeed.
Of course, one cannot discuss the design of the 1959 Cadillac, or any other General Motors car built between 1930 and 1960, without first speaking of Harley Earl, the man who, virtually single-handedly, invented automotive styling. At the direction of the forward-thinking Alfred P. Sloan, he established the GM Art & Colour Section, which marked the first time any auto manufacturer officially recognized and institutionalized the importance of styling in selling its wares. Before Earl retired in 1959, his status and power within General Motors and the American car industry as a whole reached unparalleled levels. If you wanted to know what American cars were going to look like in the future you had but ask one man - Harley Earl.
As is fitting for the man who turned auto styling into show business, Earl was born in Los Angeles, the first city built for the automobile, and he began his career in Hollywood, the world's dream factory. The year was 1893, and Earl's father, J.W. Earl, was in the carriage trade - more accurately, he built and repaired carriages. Harley Earl grew up in the trade, and, though his father once packed him off to Stanford to become a lawyer, the effort didn't take, and the younger Earl returned to the family business.
By that time (1914) his father had sensed the future and changed the name of his business from the Earl Carriage Works to the Earl Automobile Works. At first the company did little more than customize existing automobile bodies, an endeavor that was fueled by the legion of nouveau riche Hollywood movie stars who worked within a stone's throw of the Earls' business.
Though they weren't "coach built" in the traditional sense, some of these customized cars did gain a significant amount of attention, and that attention brought out even more movie stars. The Earl company, and its successor, the Don Lee Coach & Body Works, produced custom coachwork for the likes of Jack Pickford, Mary Miles Minter, Anne May, Pauline Frederick and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.
Don Lee, who had acquired the Ears' company, was a well-known Los Angeles area Cadillac dealer, and his success peddling coach-built Cadillacs brought Earl's designs to the attention of Alfred P. Sloan. The General Motors president hired Earl to style the company's then-upcoming La Salle line, which was meant to fill the niche between Buick and Cadillac, and the car, launched in 1927 was a stupendous success. The one-time assignment for the La Salle then turned into a lifetime career, when Sloan installed Earl as the official head of GM styling on January 1, 1928.
Though the years Earl's ability to develop a good design and to wield influence with Sloan made him a very powerful man in Detroit. Before his first decade at GM was over, he had established General Motors as the styling leader of the American automotive industry. And he, of course, dictated what General Motors styling would be.
Though not talented with pencil, airbrush or clay, Earl proved to be a fabulous manager and developer of stylists. His early work with Chevrolet helped establish that brand as the low-priced segment leader, zooming right past Ford in the process. Through the Thirties he was able to create and perpetuate distinct personalities for Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, La Salle and Cadillac, despite the fact that the divisions often shared basic body structure. And the concept cars that emanated from the GM styling studios under his command included such memorable work as the Buick Y-Job, Le Sabre, Wildcat and Chevrolet Corvette.
As a great comedian is often a better selector of jokes than a writer of them, Earl was a much better selector of good designs that he was a creator of them. But in the overall scheme of things, that was a much more important talent to General Motors and the industry than the ability to draw pretty pictures.
Earl also encouraged innovative thinking, at least within the boundaries that he imposed. Enamored of aircraft design, he arranged to have key members of his design staff get a sneak peek at the then-secret P-38 fighter plane. The aviation influence went on to influence GM's designs through his tenure at the company.
The unquestioned exemplification of Earl's design philosophy was the 1959 Cadillac, which brought excess to an entirely new level. One of the most amazing aspects of the '59 Cadillac was that, despite its awesomely massive size, it never looked clumsy, no matter the angle. Although some portions of it are baroque in the extreme - the huge tailfins, the "jet exhaust" rear bumper treatment - the entire car has a gracefully inevitable shape. Long and low, it wears its enormous size very, very well.
How long was it?
At 20 feet, it was longer than today's lengthiest Cadillac model by almost a yard. It featured both an expansive hood and an expansive tail that served to make the passenger space seem small in comparison, but, in reality, none of the car's six passengers suffered for lack of space. And none suffered for lack of amenities either. The '59 Cadillac offered such seemingly "modern" features as central door locking, power-actuated seats, power-operated windows, automatic headlight dimming and remote trunk release. It should go without saying that the Cadillac offered niceties like power steering, power brakes and a Hydra-Matic automatic transmission.
Providing the power to haul all this luxury around was a mammoth 390 cubic inch overhead valve V-8 engine. With a peak output of 325 horsepower at 4800 rpm, the engine rarely had to work hard in day-to-day traffic, but when called upon it could hustle the Cadillac up to 110 miles per hour.
Handling in the sports car sense was certainly not the model's strong suit, but the rigid cross-braced X-frame and coil spring suspension made certain that the passengers rode in serene comfort. And the car was responsive both to throttle and to its quick power steering.
Perhaps even by Fifties standards the Cadillac was too garish for some. For the 1960 model year, GM stylists trimmed the fins, removed the bullet-red turn signals and gave the car a tonier look. But as the car that spoke for Earl's entire career and for the exuberance of post-World War II America, the 1959 Cadillac had no equal.