The Cadillac Eldorado has featured many designs in its 50+ year evolution, and they don’t get much more classic than a red ’59.
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Cadillac has long been synonymous with American luxury, and no other car is more responsible for that reputation than the Eldorado. Over its fifty years of production, the Eldorado’s looks evolved to not just reflect current taste but also shape them. Designers like Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell ensured the Eldorado consistently looked the part of America’s premier luxury car.
Indeed, the Eldorado featured many guises, from the 1950s models with their swooping lines and chrome to the boxy barges of the 1970s to the understated elegance of the 1990s. Below we’ll explore the different generations of the Eldorado and explain why the fourth generation and the 1959 model in particular isn’t just the best-looking Eldorado but arguably one of the greatest automotive designs of all time.
The Cadillac Eldorado launched as a new top trim level of the Cadillac Series 62 in 1953. The Eldorado was intended to be a showstopper, and the Harley Earl design, all 220 inches of it, was certainly jaw dropping. At the time, it was Cadillac’s most expensive car at $7,750, twice that of the Series 62. It featured a 5.4L V8 making 210 horsepower, a massive chrome grille, and an Eldorado signature wraparound windshield. All 532 of the initial ’53 Eldorado can as two-door convertibles.
The second generation (or first depending on your perspective) arrived in 1954 when the Eldorado was given its own unique nameplate. The grille, along with other design elements, was modified to align with the rest of the Cadillac lineup more closely. These changes allowed for a lower sticker price and helped improve sales. Two new engines were also on tap, a 5.4L V8 and a 6.0L V8, both matched to a four-speed Hydramatic automatic transmission. Pointy tailfins came in for the 1955 model. A two-door hardtop was also added that year, while a new coupe body style arrived in 1956.
The third-generation Cadillac Eldorado arrived in 1957 with more styling changes that included a new grille, new fenders, and new quad headlights. The top trim Eldorado Brougham cost a staggering $13,074 in 1957, more than a Rolls-Royce. The Eldorado truly was the pinnacle luxury car of the time with luxury features that included air-conditioning, electric door locks, power front seats, and a signal-seeking radio.
The fourth generation of the Cadillac Eldorado closed out the decade with an ostentatious design that spoke to best of automotive design of the 1950s. Now a full 225-inches in length, the Eldorado was as big as it was bold. It boasted a new three-deck grille design both front and rear and a lower belt line that further accentuated its length. Most notable are the 45-inch tailfins finished with twin-bullet taillights. The 1959 Eldorado came in three body styles: a two-door convertible, two-door hard top, and a four-door hardtop. A new 6.4L V8 was now under the hood.
An economic downturn in 1959 had Cadillac pulling back on the Eldorado’s design. For the 1960 model, design was slightly more conservative (at least by the eye-popping standard set by the ’59 model). The tailfins were lowered and less prominent, gone were the signature twin-bullet taillights, and there was less chrome overall. The Brougham trim bodies of the Eldorado were built by Pininfarina in Italy.
The fifth-generation (’61 and ’62) Eldorado saw major changes. There was less chrome, a new convex grille design, and the length was shortened, if ever so slightly, back to 222 inches. The line was also trimmed back to just a two-door convertible. And while the 6.4L V8 remained, the Seville and Brougham trims were not.
With the sixth generation, the Eldorado received a more conversative look with long straight lines, flattened body panels, and minimal fins. New engines were in store too with a replacement 6.4L V8 and, for the 1964 model year, a larger 7.0L V8. Also new for ’64 was automatic climate control and a new Turbo-Hydramatic three-speed transmission.
The seventh generation of the Eldorado arrived in 1965. Though it had already carried a Fleetwood body through the sixth-gen, the new seventh gen gained the Fleetwood titling to go with it. Meanwhile, the Biarritz naming was dropped. Also gone were the Eldorado’s fins. The older 1950s touches, like copious chrome, were replaced by a thoroughly modern look, doubling down on the long, angular lines of the prior generations and an even wider grille. The 1966 model added heated seat cushions to its list of luxury features. Th seventh would be the final generation of Eldorado to feature a rear-wheel drive configuration.
Though each successive generation brought new wrinkles to the Eldorado formula, the eighth (’67-’70) saw a major redesign as the Eldorado jumped to the E-body platform shared with the Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Toronado. Front-wheel drive was in, along with a two-door hardtop as the sole body style. Concealed headlights were an interesting touch that lasted through the 1969 model. Initially, just a 7.0L V8 was available, but it would be followed by a new 7.7L V8 in ’68, and a massive 8.2L V8 in 1970. The new formula worked, with the eight-generation Eldorado selling well for Cadillac.
The ninth-generation Cadillac Eldorado was the longest to date, spanning from 1971 through 1978. Back was the excessive size, with the Eldorado stretching 224 inches in length. Given modern car design, it’s hard to fathom just how enormous the Eldorado was for a two-door car. Despite cosmetic changes, the original spirit of proud ostentation was alive and well in the ‘70s Eldorado. A ’73 model year refresh brought a larger egg-crate grille and a new bumper design both front and rear. The wallowy and heavy Eldorado was an ironic pick for that year’s Indy 500 pace car. In 1978, both the 8.2L V8 and the convertible option were dropped.
The malaise era tenth-generation (‘79-’85) Eldorado was a smaller (down to 204 inches in length) and the grille shrunk as well. In fact, the Eldorado’s entire style was much more reserved than at any other time. Refinement rather than flash informed the design. The deviation proved wise as the new tenth generation broke sales records for the Eldorado. The introduction of an independent rear suspension as well as digital displays kept the Eldorado at the luxury cutting-edge. New fuel standards forced the introduction of smaller engines including a new base 4.1L V6 as well as smaller V8s ranging from 4.1L to 6.0L and even a 5.7L diesel. For the 1984 model year, the Barritz convertible made a brief return.
The eleventh generation (’86-’91) saw the Eldorado get even smaller to a very un-Eldorado 191 inches. The conservative styling trend continued but failed to pay dividends with a massive 72% drop in sales. With neither luxury looks nor any real speed, it was hard to know just where the Eldorado fit into the current automotive market. A 1988 update added back some 3 inches in length, along with new anti-lock brakes and a stylish rear-tire cover.
The final twelfth generation was also the Eldorado’s longest stretching from 1992 to 2002. The Eldorado gained back a bit more length (now 202 inches) and added three inches in width. The larger Eldorado was also smoother and more aerodynamic, in keeping with current ‘90s design aesthetics. A 4.9L V8 was joined by a new, smaller 4.6L V8 in 1993. Luxury features included automatic climate control, wood trim, and an electronically adjustable “Road Sensing” suspension. For the final year of production in 2002, Cadillac released a 50th-anniversary edition Eldorado in either red or white (the two original paint options in 1953). The exhaust note was even modified to emulate that of the ’53 model.
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Through twelve generations and fifty years of continuous production, the Cadillac Eldorado remained an icon of American automotive luxury. Not all those years were great business, and not all of those models possessed inspired design, but those early generations, and the fourth generation in particular, were some of the very best representations of 20th-century design, automotive or otherwise.