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But I doubt you’ll ever see the rear end of a 2011 Cadillac SRX sticking out from the front wall of a restaurant fifty years from now. Just try spending thirty minutes poring over any plastic new car grille; thirty seconds is too long for that. They were part of the radically restyled Chrysler family that styling head Virgil Exner gambled the company on. Chuck Jordan’s “Suddenly it’s 1960” moment had a galvanizing effect on the GM stylists and Bill Mitchell, long slated to take over Earl’s job.
And there was one truly profound and lasting design innovation in these 1959 GM cars: the headlights migrated down from the upper edge of the front end, where essentially every car in the world had them, and were now integrated into the grille directly. Earl swallowed hard and embraced the new direction (he had little choice), and his stamp on the final products is still all too obvious. Although the new ’59 proposals had a substantially improved clarity of line and organic cohesiveness, which the clean Cadillac flanks show to best advantage, the need for a degree of continuity was still considered essential by Earl, especially so with the Caddy. The new 1962 GM hardtops were undoubtedly a concession to Ford’s influential wide C-pillar coupes, and Mitchell’s superb knife-edged 1963 Buick Riviera owes more than a passing nod of the hat to the influential 1961 Continental. Yes, the ’59 Body by Fisher was lengthened as needed, spanning everything from the Chevy’s 119” wheelbase to the Caddy’s 130 incher. While the ’59 Cadillac is plenty long overall thanks to that highly aspirational rear end, the afterthought of a passenger compartment is none too roomy. Today’s interiors might be a lot more ergonomic, but they’re dull and dreary compared to this absolutely stunning blaze of black, white and chrome. The front seat is reasonably commodious once my legs have successfully squeezed past that gate-keeper dog leg. Once behind the wheel, that symphony of black,white and chrome quickly dissipates all thoughts of ergonomic shortcomings. Even hunched over and on fire, the rear passengers can at least dispose of their neck hair ashes in the beautifully finished and ample ashtray, and enjoy the nice detailing that the cabin exhibits in every direction.
And in case one finds oneself desperately trying to find some privacy in the glass bubble from the public’s peering eyes by hiding on the floor, the view from down there still affords visual delights.
Watchful of my knee caps, I slide out and immerse myself some more with that mind-boggling grille-work. Prostrating myself in veneration to this die-cast and chrome altar, I have a changed perspective. Those massive twin jet intakes nacelles with their protective covers designed to look like turn signals are straight from a B 47. My allotted thirty minutes of grille-gazing is up, bedazzled, I stagger back into the street, but without fear of being run over. Perhaps that was my trepidation in finding a ’59 Caddy: that it would be something like that or an over-chromed Eldorado. The 1961 Continental may have paved the way and shown us the future (think Chrysler 300, among others) while the 1959 Cadillac was an evolutionary dead end, but what a way to go out, in (or out of) style. The ’61 Continental was conceived right in depth of that recession, and that is reflected in its smaller, trimmer size, and an actual reduction in horsepower.
You could make the Eldo side intakes functional and remove the lights from the cowlings in the rear bumper. The current state of German cars reminds me of the American luxury cars of the late ’50s.
I can remember being fascinated with these when I began my obsession with cars at age 4 in 1963, yes I was born in the year of the ultimate tailfins as I refer to it. When I was young and fascinated by automobiles, I did a good deal of washing and waxing of the family cars. Now, having not washed a car in about 20 years, the thought of cleaning that gigantic Caddy makes me tired…that grille work alone! When Earl left for Europe, the Market softened, and Exner’s 1957 line up was discovered, the GM design staffer staged a coup. The 1959 GM cars shows GM out of control with a bruised ego, an nearly bottomless wallet and a callous disregard for their products beyond facade.
My grandfather had a 1960 Cadillac 4-door Sedan-de-ville – similar style with slightly restrained tail fins. Late 1980s, delivering used auto parts across Oakland, CA to various repair and body shops. I stood in rapt admiration as an old guy in a 1950s era hat and a female of similar age slowly drove by in their 1959 2-door pinker-than-pink Caddy with those stunningly beautiful tail lights and all the other visible from 75-feet-away exterior adornments.
Who could envision winning any conflict with a country capable of creating such a wondrous conveyance?
Two-bit shop (common in the poor part of town) for various reasons unable to get a lifting device into the front parking area, the only place I could get the small truck backed into.
Shove engine across Nissan-based trucklet flat bed wooden floor to the edge and let ‘er drop.
A smile or growl and typically MUCH huskier physical build quelled the excitement as I explained the realities of life in the USA and THEIR need to ease life for the down-trodden delivery MAN of the USA’s used-auto part industry. Interestingly, The Iranian (uhhhh we are Persians they would proclaim with a hopeful look you would not despise them due to their origin and past hostility from the USA hostage incident of… 1979? The Vietnamese refugees never fed me and tended to be frequent whiners for the least little thing.
I would imagine that more than one Cadillac customer in 1959 was not all that crazy about the car. I have a special attraction to the ’59 Caddy thanks to one of my favorite boy hood movies.

False Prophet or not, one of these in Black with a Black and Red interior and a 500ci heart transplant would be an automotive wet dream come true for me.
It’s one of the ultimate American icons ever, and it’s been adulated, mocked, analyzed, deconstructed and reconstructed endlessly.
So when I finally encountered this ’59, I tossed all that baggage aside and let my inner child out of its mental cage. Trumpeted with the ad headlines of “3 Years Ahead of the Other Two” and “Suddenly it’s 1960”, the ‘57s were Exner’s imagining of the automotive future: longer, lower, wider, glassier and finnier.
Having birthed the ‘57s, did he have a vision for were this direction could go when it came time to design the actual 1960 Chryslers?
It was the first time that GM’s vaunted design machine abdicated its leadership role, and ran on the fear of being left behind. It’s not quite as prominent in the Cadillac as some of the others, like this 1959 Olds. The rounded sides, bubble tops and fins of his beloved Firebirds would find their culmination in the ’59s. The 1961 GM lineup, the first under his full control, is delightfully light and buoyant, and show his live for crisp knife edges, but the bubble hardtops that had their origins in the first hardtop coupes by Earl in 1949 were still out in full force. Designer gowns, whose time in the spotlight of fashion is usually as long-lived this Caddy’s fashion statement, are often none too comfy either.
I’ve got just the matching vintage cashmere black & white hounds-tooth jacket for the drive to the dinner club in the DeVille.
The gap between it and the seat is mighty narrow, and this comes from a time when yoga was still almost unheard of. Drop that long chrome lever into Interstellar Overdrive, wait for the afterburners to spool up, and set the controls for the heart of the sun. This kind of attention to detail of every nook and cranny is what really separated the boys from Bill Mitchell’s Mad Men. There is nothing about this car that would suggest that anything but a gleaming alloy jet-turbine engine is residing under that jet-smooth hood.
Yes, guys, that Sixty Special really needed those two extra side intakes for the additional JATO rockets it was blessed with. The four doors really needed to have those fins clipped a bit, like the ’60 models, but the two door hardtop wears them proudly. It belongs at MoMA, although they’re probably too stuffy to have the Cisitalia share its stand. The Lincoln was subdued, understated, more expensive and much more exclusive, especially in how it hid its occupants from view. Gas got cheaper and cheaper all through the sixties, and the seventies ushered in a new round of Bulgemobiles, minus the fins. Gadgets, gimmicks, overstyling without thought ot function or authenticity, planned obsolescence, cultivating and then mining customer ignorance are all still alive and well in the luxury car maket. He had not had a real design success recently enough by 1957 to keep his design team believing in him. They threw out a perfectly fine 1958 set of bodies and spent the next months one-upping Exner.
It took the heart of a Scrooge and the bookkeeping skills of a miser to force upon Lincoln a dwarf originally designed as a Thunderbird. Around that era) customers were among the easiest to deal with; often offering you some of the ever-present food cooking inside their sub-par auto repair facility. It’s weird, un-PC, informal, and I’m not sure where it went from where it was, but I love it! That the Beatles would appear, that MLK would have a dream, and that Andy Warhol would recreate a Brillo box? I was in car heaven, again, and I could have spent hours gazing at this finned creature from outer space, losing myself in its endlessly enthralling details, just as I did on that day I first encountered one on the streets of Innsbruck in 1960.
The ’59 GM cars’ creation story has been oft told, but it’s (hopefully) worth repeating in Cliff Notes form: in August of 1956, GM stylist Chuck Jordan stumbled upon a storage lot full of brand new 1957 Chryslers still cooling off from their birth in the forges of the Jefferson Avenue Plant.
Perhaps understandably so, given the internal leadership transition under way at the time: Harley Earl, who created the modern in-house design studio system at GM, was on the way out, due to retire in late 1958. It was a radically new front end theme that played a role key role in instigating a global design language revolution. It still had to be instantly recognizable as a Cadillac coming down the street to protect its dominant position in the luxury car field.
Quite likely development money flowing into the new Corvair and its Y-Body offshoots played into that decision. And that expensive compound-curve windshield and other bubble-top parts undoubtedly interchanged. Between that huge dog-leg in the windshield, and the low roof; let’s just say there is a world of difference from today’s boxy people-mover pods. Everything hard is made of genuine chrome-plated metal, often attached with exposed plated screws.
It was another ridiculous affectation of late-fifties absurdity that quickly died along with the fins. With regard to the imminent rise of psychedelia, the Caddy did successfully predict the sixties after all.
Sitting back there on a sunny day is inconceivable without an astronaut’s liquid-cooled space suit.
It may not come as a surprise to know that Sputnik had just been launched about the time this grille was being designed.

If Warhol had cast a ’59 Caddy in acrylic, it would undoubtedly be sharing space with his plywood Brillo boxes there. That recession was the catalyst for the sea change that had been brewing for some time: a big chunk of the population suddenly saw that the forces propelling the big finned Detroit barges was utterly unsustainable. By 1977, the Lincoln Town Car was now the dinosaur, and the downsized Caddies were a trim new smaller size. The side intakes would just be for general cooling as the Turboniques were genuine rocket motors, not jets. They did not have a corporate vision or they would have not hobbled the Company in such a way, or for so long. The 1955 GM cars were fine, but both Studebaker and Chrysler demonstrated an ability to charm the auto design world too. Representing the World’s Largest Corporation, the designers were not going to allow someone else make them look bad. When I left (had entered with the truck to deliver several semi-heavy parts) the door rolled up and closed quickly behind me. It became a caricature of itself almost from the day it appeared, as well as perhaps the greatest symbol of American exuberance, innocence and…paradise lost? One can’t help but wonder what the original ’59 proposals looked like before they were Earlized.
An interesting tidbit: the DeVille hardtop coupe cost exactly twice as much ($40k in 2010 dollars) as that Impala sports hardtop.
If Kennedy had been riding around in one of these, the Cuban Missile Crisis might have ended up very differently. Opening the hood of this car is an utter violation of everything it so self-consciously projects, and I’m not going to spoil it by showing you its crude and banal contents; if you must, click here, and here.
The ’59 Caddy just qualifies for that, and its clean lines and chrome accents are set off at their best here. Gaudy and gauche is genuine art, as long as it’s been recreated by someone deemed to be a genuine artist.
The 1959 GM cars display a short-sightedness and a corporate chaos unusual for any large industrial organization, let alone the world’s largest in 1959. By 1956 when the 1957s were ready to roll, there appears to have been many designers unsold on Earl’s 1958 models. Damn the costs required for the new 1959 bodies, damn the engineering, damn the plans Earl and GM upper management approved earlier, the GM staffers lost faith in their management, had Earl’s replacement, Mitchell, walking a fine line between subordination and leadership, and lost sight of the long term design standards GM needed to retain into the next couple of years. These cars appear as dream cars because they were designed by men who designed dream cars, but reality quickly exposes them as dream cars too.
In the American automotive scene, a sea change ushering in the new decade took place between the autumns of 1958 and 1960.
His ponderous 1958 models may be endearing in a camp way, but were stylistic duds, especially the top line Cadillacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles. A white monochrome Caddy from the any other year on the fifties looks like an ambulance sedan. My dad lost his job that year and had one whale of a time finding a new job – he was 50 yrs. Being the world’s largest and recognized as dominating an industry has helped cover up this mistake. Knowing that they would be stuck with the 1958 bodies until 1961, GM’s designers grew edgy and seemed to feel vulnerable to the competition. The design team that gave us the 1959 cars felt that their reputations were being challenged by Exner and threw caution to the wind. Even their target, the 1957 Chryslers, could not be built with even the rudimentary standards that passed as quality in 1957. We can still love them, spend a fortune maintaining them, and wonder where the dreaming could lead. And they were delighted as we sat in a circle babbling away as I ate the plate piled full of what I hope was not bacteria-laden vittles and I never got sick so all was well!!!
The two cars that bracket that period perfectly are the 1959 Cadillac and the 1961 Lincoln Continental. People still bought these cars in numbers large enough to help mask the chaos represented here. The Old Man was on his way out and didn’t have to deal with his left-overs and the ones remaining were tired of listening to him and tired of not launching a car with the same adoration as the 1953 Studebaker and 1955 Chrysler lines. This car’s place in history is absolutely secured, and on a pretty lofty perch for a mass-produced vehicle.
Eisenhower took our home for I-70 then my dad’s company closed up shop after he spent 30 years with them.
Within a decade, few used car buyers cared for these cars because these cars were not good.
While they appeared to be road rockets for the Jet Age and Space Age, the GM and Chrysler lines were misguided missles for their companies and for their buyers.

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