The Cadillac Eldorado helped define American luxury and design in the Fifties, but by the end of its life in 2002 it was an outdated and overweight coupe.
Cars with big horsepower numbers and world-class cornering ability are all well and good, but they aren't necessarily what you want in every driving situations. Sometimes a drive isn't supposed to get your adrenaline flowing, but rather to relax you. And that calls for a very different kind of car. These cars tend to be American, since the geography of our country calls for cars which are comfortable on a long drive, and Detroit has turned out some magnificent cruisers.
In the years following World War II, economic prosperity was changing the landscape of the United States. Soldiers home from the war were settling down and raising families, and vast tracts of suburban homes were being built to house those families. Americans would, from this point on, commute to work in their cars, often by themselves. This would give rise to the "personal luxury car" in the early Fifties, which were essentially big coupes (larger than most sedans today) without any sporting pretenses whatsoever. One of the first, as well as one of the longest-lasting, was the Cadillac Eldorado.
It was originally a show car built in 1952 for Cadillac's 50th anniversary, but it was such a hit that Cadillac decided to put it into production for the following year. The Eldorado was actually one of several special series convertibles produced by GM in the early Fifties, but as it was a Cadillac, it was the flagship car for all of them. The 1953 model was based on the third generation of the Series 62, but had a completely unique body. The car was loved not only by the public, but also GM's then-styling chief, Harley Earl. This would work to the Eldorado's disadvantage, since the following year saw the introduction of a new Series 62.
The new model incorporated several styling cues from the 1953 Eldorado. It eliminated the need for a separate body for the Eldorado, and it became essentially a trim level. But although it was less unique, it was also cheaper. A price tag that was nearly double that of the regular Series 62 had kept the 1953 model from achieving very high sales figures, but starting in 1954, the car became hugely popular. The definitive Eldorado was the fourth generation, built in 1959 and 1960. This year saw changes to the Series 62 which resulted in the Eldorado and De Ville becoming completely separate models.
The 1959 Eldorado we all remember is the 2-door version with the giant tailfins and dual-bullet taillights. Thanks to the 1989 film "Pink Cadillac", this car is most famous in that particular shade of Pepto pink. The '59 Eldorado is the single greatest example of Detroit's styling excesses during the Fifties. All of the rocketship cues and the 5,300-lb curb weight can only come about as a result of a styling department which hasn't heard the word "no" enough. It is as much a classic as a car can be, but it's not difficult to see why they don't build them anymore.
Curiously, 1959 also saw a much more subtle Eldorado, one which is frequently forgotten as a result of being overshadowed by its flamboyant stable mate. This was the Eldorado Brougham, hand-built in Italy with styling by Pininfarina. The more restrained look of this car was actually much better suited to the automotive market following the economic downturn of 1959, and this car would inspire Cadillac's in-house design efforts for the early part of the Sixties. The Eldorado would again become a trim level in 1965, when it merged with the Fleetwood model, and then a separate model again in 1967.
From this point, the Eldorado would share a platform with cheaper models from Buick and Oldsmobile, and it would lose a lot of its uniqueness. There was the inevitable decline during the mid-Seventies, and then the introduction of a new generation in 1979 which was, frankly, pig ugly. This generation would also receive Cadillac's V8-6-4 variable-displacement engine in 1981. The idea has since been successfully reintroduced, but in 1981, the technology wasn't ready yet. The electronics governing the cylinder deactivation were overly complex for the time, and were prone to failure.
Even when working properly, they were also sometimes prone to exploding. Nonetheless, this generation of the Eldorado, produced until 1985, was by far the most popular. The Eldorado would live on until 2002, actually outliving the cars with which it shared its platform. The fifty-year history of the nameplate is an impressive one, and one of the longer ones in automotive history. Days and long nights spent tooling around in an Eldorado with the radio on and little in the way of corners to bother you was never time wasted. With as appealing an idea as this, it's not difficult to see how the Eldorado lived on for so long.