Cadillac Goes Hot Rod . . . Or Did They?

1956 was the first year that a hardtop joined the Eldorado line. If you were choosing performance the Seville would have been your selection.

Was the Eldorado’s Special V-8 a Response to the Chrysler 300’s Hemi?

Background – Out of World War Two Comes the OHV V-8.

In today’s world, if we want horsepower, we can buy it prepackaged or off the shelf. We can stuff it into any size and shape automobile – and it will run flawlessly. But if we flash back to the 1950s in the US auto market, such was not the case. We were coming out of WW II, where the Allies and the enemy made huge advances in technology in order to win.  A lot of that was filtering into the auto industry, especially from the aircraft industry.

As a way to increase power in aircraft, two things came home to roost, cylinder head design and compression ratio.  Without getting into detail, compression and air flow were essential to high altitude performance.  At all of the manufacturers who were involved in the War effort, much of what was learned started to trickle down into automotive engine design.

Over at GM, engineers had been developing better cylinder head design for their Allison aircraft engine and what they learned they realized could be applied to automobiles. They know that lightweight, compact, and more efficient powerplants could increase performance and they set about designing engines to meet that criterion.

First was Cadillac and Oldsmobile with very similar overhead valve V-8s. The engines easily outperformed their older L-Head counterparts by a wide margin.  Cadillac sought silent, smooth power and good torque in a compact package, while Oldsmobile found that their 303 CID V-8 when stuck in the six cylinder chassis (Olds model 76) became the famous “Rocket 88” and launched Oldsmobile from a stolid mid-price car into the first modern performance machine.

Meanwhile over at Chrysler, their experience with their XI-2220 aircraft engine led to the famous 331 CID “Hemi” in 1951 with an unheard of 180 HP!  At Ford, they weren’t sleeping but plodded along carefully and released the Lincoln 317 CID OHV V-8 in 1952. We all know that all the Big Three went bonkers between 1953 and 1955 by installing OHV V-8s in all their cars, while the other smaller makers seemed to lag, except Studebaker, who introduced their 232 CID V-8 in 1951 – an almost perfect scaled-down copy of the Cadillac V-8.

Packard waffled then caught up, but too late to keep their customers interested, AMC/Nash got with it almost too late with their won design in 1956. And the others? They died – Hudson, Kaiser, and more. What it proved to the makers was that a modern powerplant was necessary to survive. What it also proved was that if all OHV V-8s were about performance, then you needed something to show that yours was better than the other guy.

Later – A V-8 is not Enough

Enter 1952 – Lincoln goes from plodding to outright performance and wins a major stock car endurance race, the Carrera Panamericana. A 2,178 mile north-south Mexican section of the Pan-American Highway completed in 1950. It was a nine-stage, five-day race across the country. In 1952 and 1953, Lincoln finished 1-2-3-4 in the stock car division. The following year was a still-impressive 1-2 finish. And they advertised the heck out of it! All of a sudden, in 1954, Chrysler – who thought their Hemi invincible gulped.  GM examined their V-8s and realized that racing headlines were important.

Enter 1955. Chrysler, who had gone through extensive engineering and expense to put a Hemi head in Chryslers, DeSotos, and Dodges, took the Lincoln lesson to heart. They saw that Ford’s prestige line received a huge boost in popularity with those race wins. But competitive racing is expensive, so their concept was to build a car anyone could buy with all the race goodies and that person bear the expense and time – but make sure they could win! With the revamped styling of 1955 they went all in with the famous Chrysler 300. The rest is history – and there is no doubt that the Chrysler 300 letter series cars added huge amounts of prestige to the Chrysler line.

Cadillac has got the message too, but they saw the answer a bit differently.  They knew that they needed to talk horsepower, but they took a bit different path – ostensibly since they’d launched a very exclusive custom bodied convertible called the Eldorado in 1953. The car was supposed to be a sleek powerful roadster that would rule the highway.  The trouble was, it was sleek, but its power was ho hum by 1955. When the Chrysler 300 was rumored, Cadillac knew they had to jump – and jump they did releasing the 1955 Eldorado 270 HP twin four-barrel. In my opinion, I think Cadillac was astounded by the Hemi’s 300 HP – and trust me – that 300 could walk all over everything on the road and on the track too – as their race record in NASCAR and USAC displayed I 1955-56.

But the lesson of the 300 letter series cars stuck with Cadillac and the Eldorado V-8 jumped in horsepower each year, just a bit less than the 300 but usually a bit ahead of Lincoln and just behind Packard. There was no doubt that part of the prestige of a luxury line was horsepower and multiple carbs seemed to have been necessary for bragging rights. Surprisingly, Lincoln, with those three wins in the bank, stayed away from that scenario – even with their famous Lincoln Continental in 1956-57.

How Did It Net Out?

Were the Cadillac Eldorados a match for the Chrysler 300?  Head to head, not likely, but they were no slouches, especially when in those days a 20-30 MPH roll to 100 was the mark of performance. Compared to a standard Cadillac – did they offer more performance? Yes, but an Eldorado was easily $1,000 or more expensive than a Series 62 convertible.

What it really said, was that if you were going to plunk down that kind of coin for an Eldo – you had better have more HP at your disposal than what you’d find in a regular Caddy. It was more about bragging than it was about trying to put a hit on a Chrysler 300 or a Lincoln Capri. Unless you ordered the Eldorado V-8 in your Series 62 Coupe, which was an option, well then it would have been interesting.

Hot Rod . . . not really. Fast and luxurious  . . . yes. Cadillac may not have truly gone hot rod, but they sure as heck made some beautiful and powerful custom coupes and convertibles.



Coming Up Soon – Cadillac Tries Performance Again – With More Success?

We’ll be exploring the V-Series Cadillacs after December –
be sure to stay tuned!

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