The Evolution of the Cadillac

GM Corp. 1978

It’s been a while since they were the height of cool. But the new CTSs could change all that.

Not counting Tony Soprano in his Escalade, the last time anyone got truly excited about Cadillac as a driving experience was back in the sixties, when jazz great Dizzy Gillespie performed “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac” in homage to the Eldorado, of supersize–tail fin fame.

Cadillac, of course, has a long, storied history, beginning with its first model in 1902. A recent Cadillac retrospective at the Saratoga Automobile Museum highlighted the cars that many consider icons of 20th-century motoring, among them the 1920 Model 59 that featured legendary designer Harley Earl’s custom coachwork. The 1931 Touring Car, with its powerful V-16 engine, counted Babe Ruth and Marlene Dietrich as proud owners, and it was the 1949 Series 62 Coupe DeVille that reestablished Cadillac as the top luxury brand after World War II. In 1959, with the Eldorado, Cadillac introduced the towering tail fins that became the brand’s signature and set the pace for the futuristic look of cars for decades.

But in the last half century, Cadillac faltered. By 1978 the company’s idea of innovative design was the Seville Elegante, a two-tone model based on an elongated Chevy Nova. Notorious design miscues—the Cadillac Cimarron (1981–1988), for one—left the brand in the faltering embrace of a graying generation, while a younger crowd crammed into the seats of high-end German and Japanese cars. The Cadillac image, once synonymous with luxury and success, seemed irretrievably tarnished.

The company was ripe for a 21st-century comeback and got lucky when TV shows and hip-hop stars embraced the Escalade, exposing the brand to a younger generation. Almost simultaneously, Cadillac decided to forego developing new cars based on retro designs, adopting instead the “art and science” approach revealed in its 1999 Evoq and 2003 Sixteen concept cars. Sales exploded in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. And even in a newly fuel-conscious United States, the company has seen a double-digit increase in sales since the millennium.

Cadillac’s recent success is palpably evident. Just listen to the throaty sound of the 2009 CTS-V’s supercharged V-8 engine as the car accelerates along a very technical racing course at the new members-only Monticello Motor Club in Monticello, New York. Donning a helmet to drive a Cadillac seems silly at first, but the CTS-V quickly proves to be a surprise: Racetrackworthy performance combined with handsome interiors makes even hairpin turns agreeable. Ask for more power and the 556-horsepower engine responds with a roar. Inside the cabin, however, the engine noise barely registers, thanks to an extraordinary level of acoustic dampening.

Added performance comes from the fast-reacting suspension system, which uses electromagnets rather than mechanical valves to control the shocks; the system is aided by electronic sensors on each wheel that “read” the road every millisecond.

Like its predecessors, the 2009 model retains the CTS-V’s aggressive, angular look. The hood has been raised slightly to accommodate the supercharged engine, and the dihedral grille was enlarged for greater air intake. The interior is elegantly subdued, with electronic features ranging from a pop-up GPS panel to an entertainment system with a 40GB hard drive. And at a time when Wall Street stock prices are fluctuating wildly, the CTS-V, starting at $59,500, looks to be a good hedge bet.

But the main appeal of the CTS-V is its distinctly American look. It’s a car with a spine, and it seems to say that Detroit isn’t finished yet. This style is now crossing over into other CTS vehicles, as in a recently displayed two-door concept coupe and the 2010 CTS Sport Wagon.

And while the truck-size Escalade might seem like a dinosaur in this age of high fuel prices, the new hybrid version suggests that large vehicles may still have a place on the American road. The hybrid ups gas mileage to around 20 mpg—not exactly a green revolution but double what previous models averaged. It also has Cadillac’s innovative new dashboard indicator, which shows how efficiently gas is being used, allowing drivers to vary throttle pressure as required to stay on a maximum mileage heading. This device should be in every car, and it’s evidence that Cadillac can still be a leader in both design and technology.

The Way It Was

The best place to find pristine old-model Cadillacs, like the 1959 Eldorado Biarritz convertible shown here, is at vintage-car auctions held at various sites around the country. For example, during the Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach, California—the Super Bowl of the classic-car scene, held there each August—the two-day Gooding & Company ( auction is where bidders often find mint-condition models. Prices can vary widely: This year a 1930 V-16 roadster sold for $693,000, while a 1941 Series 62 convertible coupe fetched $99,000. At a concurrent event in nearby Monterey, a 1959 Eldorado Biarritz was sold by RM Auctions ( for $148,500. At presstime, Bonhams ( was estimating that a 1936 Series 90 V-16 convertible sedan, one of four of its kind known to exist, would go for between $300,000 and $500,000.

As Blackhawk Collection ( has demonstrated, these cars often come with interesting provenance—a recently offered 1938 V-16 Fleetwood limousine was once owned by comedian W. C. Fields, who bequeathed it to a longtime girlfriend.

Another tack is to scour the ads on specialty Web sites such as,, and for vehicles in all states of repair. Restoring an old Cadillac, however, can quickly become a six-figure project, particularly if you seek out the original parts preferred by steely-eyed judges at classic-car shows.