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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

January 17, 1997

The years 1954 to 1956 were prolific for the U.S. War hero Dwight Eisenhower was the president, the economy was still booming, television grew from its infancy and the "police action" in Korea was ended. For me, the best part of that last statement was that I had come back from intact.

Those were three good years for Cadillac, too. Millions of TV viewers saw President Eisenhower driven to his inauguration in 1953 in the back of a Caddy, and the company was justly proud of its boast that it was the standard of the world - at least as Americans viewed it. Together, the other American luxury car builders, Packard, Lincoln and Chrysler combined, produced less than a third as many autos as Cadillac did during that decade, and the mass invasion of luxury cars from Europe and Japan was decades away.

The '54 Cadillac appeared as a totally new design, and very different from its immediate predecessor. The wheelbase had been stretched to 129 inches, the body was lower, longer and wider and its 331 cubic-inch engine that had started life in 1949 with 160 horses had been "tweaked" to 230. The cars needed those extra horses, too, since the lightest of the '54 models, the standard Series 62 four-door sedan, weighed in at 4300 pounds, while the Series 75 limousine tipped the scales at an additional 735.

There were several other things that immediately distinguished it from previous models, too. The grille was a lighter-looking "egg crate" design and the ends of the massive bumpers swept up a few inches to meet the twin bullet-shaped "Dagmar" bumper guards. The windshield was now a wrap-around unit, a feature that had been the particular darling of Harley Earl, the legendary G.M. design and styling vice-president, and his famous tail fins-cum-tail lights were intact. The claim to fame of these lamps was that the on the left side, the lamp covered the fuel filler cap and at the touch of the reflector button, the entire lamp would pop up to reveal the gas cap.

The glamour boy of Cadillac during that era was the Eldorado, a more-or-less standard 62 Series convertible that had been lowered and gussied-up with numerous special items to make it stand apart from the more mundane versions. But the bread-and-butter sellers were the more conventional coupes and sedans that average well-heeled Americans bought to announce to the world that they had "arrived." The Coupe de Ville model was a particular favorite and in 1955, this upscale version actually outsold its more plebeian stablemate, despite the fact that its price was nearly 20 percent higher. When Cadillac introduced its Sedan de Ville four-door version in 1956, its sales numbers were more than both coupe models combined.

In those days, Cadillac buyers were faced with a multitude of choices. They could select standard Series 62 sedans and coupes, the De Ville versions, the upscaled Series 60 Special Fleetwood sedan (which was mounted on an even longer chassis and carried more luxurious interior trim) and gargantuan Series 75 Fleetwood eight-passenger limousines. Also, commercial chassis of the Series 75 were available to custom shops to be made into funeral cars and ambulances.

Cadillac participated in the horsepower race among the American auto industry at the time and when the '54 to '56 design was dropped in favor of the next generation, the Eldorado was offered with a 365 cubic-inch engine that mounted two four-barrel carburetors and produced 305 horsepower. This from a 40-year-old luxury car that was designed for boulevard cruising.

Another American milestone was reached in the early '50's when air conditioning was offered as a "regular" option on '53 and later Cadillacs. Now those of us who lived through less-than temperate summers wonder how we lived and drove without it.

In 1993, Rosemary Douglass, an ex-patriated Scot, mother of one of my former high school auto shop students and owner of a pizza parlor in my home town, decided to buy herself a birthday present. Being an auto enthusiast (she also owns an early Chevrolet Camaro), she decided that her present should be an unusual car and through an ad, settled on an unrestored but very nice original 1955 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Recently, I happened to meet her in the parking lot of our local post office where she had driven her Cadillac to pick up her mail. "I don't believe in just driving a car like this on special occasions," she told me, "so I drive it every day - it's my everyday car." In addition to its regular duties as a mail runner, Douglass occasionally presses her old de Ville into delivery service at her pizza parlor.

I think it would be worth ordering a pizza just to watch Rosemary Douglass deliver it in her 1955 vintage Cadillac Coupe De Ville.