Photos by Brendan Moran
The end of a decade is typically met with phrases like “can’t wait to see you go” or “good riddance.” But for America, 1959 was a pretty good year. The U.S. was finally coming out of a recession that had left the domestic car companies hurting–although when you look at some of the 1958 models, many would argue they had it coming. In 1957, General Motors made the decision to completely redesign every model for 1959. No longer would the typical GM product blind you with excess chrome; They would be more refined. Well…that is if you call tail fins higher than a typical five-year-old more refined!
However, the GM studios were in turmoil. Harley Earl, who was the head of GM styling, felt the proposed 1958 body style could be used again for the 1959 models. Earl had been at the job for quite some time, and many folks were beginning to feel that it might be time for him to go–then bring in someone who could re-invigorate the product lineup. As things were heating up for the 1959 design, Mr. Earl went (or was sent) to Europe for an extended vacation. In his absence, Bill Mitchell led the styling group. Bill’s vision was to take Cadillac to a new level of sophistication. With Earl out of the picture, Mitchell set out to design a world-class Cadillac.
The 1959 Cadillac’s styling is almost impossible to describe. Over the top, excessive–innovative? How about all of the above. Even though the new Cadillac sat on a slightly shorter wheelbase than the previous year, it looked a foot longer. While the most prominent feature was the outlandish tail fin with dual, pointed taillamps, every body panel was beautifully sculpted. Never before had a car offered such a visual treat for automotive enthusiasts: It didn’t matter what model you were looking at, your jaw simply dropped at the handsome styling.
A view of the front end represented a look that was light years ahead of any other car. The grille featured a vast array of bulleted sections; Optional fog lamps graced the lower twin pods in the front bumper; The front-end design was massive and oozed “expensive.”
The interior was redesigned and was arguably the most luxurious interior of any domestic car for 1959. First off, it was big: Cadillac was designed to seat six in comfort, and did so without flinching. Those eats were covered in either cloth or fine leather. The instrument panel was designed around the driver, and included all of the necessary gauges and warning lights.
The De Ville series was the middle of the Cadillac line for 1959. Slightly upscale from the standard 6200 series, the De Ville was available as a four or six-window sedan, or a two-door coupe. Buyers who stepped up to a De Ville series received the added bonus of power windows and power seats, along with power steering and power brakes. The base engine was Cadillac’s 390 cubic-inch, 325 horsepower V-8, however buyers could ante up to the 345 horsepower Q-code, Tri-power engine. A four-speed automatic transmission was standard. And naturally, the ride and handling was superb with either the standard coil springs, or the optional air-ride suspension.
Decades later, the 1959 Cadillac took on a life of its own as enthusiasts from around the world discovered this unique gem. Collectors from Japan to Europe pay exceptional money for this one-year-only classic. To say that interest continues today would be a gross understatement: The 1959 Cadillac will always be looked upon as the blueprint for style, power, and excess, a true icon of American engineering.
Fuel For Thought
Want fins? I got your fins right here!
Possibly the most unique GM styling ever
Available in 13 models
Takes an hour to polish the grille
Number built – 21,924 De Villes
Construction – Body-on-frame
Engine – 390 cubic-inch V-8
Power/Torque – 390 cubic-inch V-8, 325 horsepower, 430 lb-ft torque, 390 cubic-inch V-8 Tri-power, 345 horsepower, 435 lb-ft torque
Transmission – Four-speed automatic
Suspension front – Spherical joint with Cadillac independent helical-coil type springs, optional air-ride suspension
Suspension rear – Helical coil springs with four-link suspension, optional air-ride suspension
Steering – Concentric gear with 18.9 steering gear ratio
Brakes – 12-inch four-wheel drum
Length/width/height – 225/80.3/54.1 inches
Wheelbase – 130 inches
Weight – 4,720 lbs.
0-60mph/quarter mile – 11.0 seconds, 18.0 seconds at 80 mph est.
Top speed – 115 mph
MPG – 10-14 mpg est.
Price – MSRP - $5,252; Today – $23,600 - $49,100
Engine – The Cadillac 390 cubic-inch V-8 was one of the most reliable powertrains General Motors had to offer. A derivative of the 1949 overhead-valve V-8, Cadillac engineers improved both its performance and quality to the point that by 1959, the engine was powerful, smooth running, and absent of problems. Many hot-rodders installed the Cadillac engine to improve performance.
Handling – While Cadillac was among the best in straight-line performance for 1959, the car was also designed to take families over roads with exceptional smoothness and quietness. It didn’t take a corner exceptionally well, but keep in mind the Cadillac wasn’t about winning sports car races, it was about providing great performance with a superb ride experience.
Room for six
Difficult to find one not rusty or picked apart
Poor gas mileage
Parts are difficult to find
1959 Chrysler Imperial Crown 2 door Hardtop
Number built – 1,728
0-60/quarter mile – 10.0 seconds, 17.5 seconds at 81 mph
Top speed – 120 mph
Price – MSRP - $5,589; Today – $8,550 - $20,900
1959 Lincoln Premiere Hardtop
Number built – 1,963
0-60/quarter mile – 10.5 seconds, 17.8 seconds at 80 mph
Top speed – 115 mph
Price – MSRP - $5,347; Today – $5,150 - $22,500
Most 1959 Cadillacs are show cars. While a small percentage are driven occasionally, most are seen only at automotive events.
What to pay
MSRP – $5,252
Low – $23,600
Average – $33,400
High – $49,100
*Based on prices from the Classic Cars and Parts Price Guide, fueled by NADA and available wherever Classic Cars and Parts magazines are sold.
Insurance cost is $276/year for a $33,400 1959 Cadillac Coupe De Ville. This is based on 3,000 miles per year of pleasure driving.
*Based on a quote from Heacock Classic Car Insurance, www.heacockclassic.com
Front brake shoes $46.00 per set
Convertible top $475.00
Water pump $150.00
Deck lid weatherstrip $39.00
Doorsill plates $175.00
Voltage regulator $45.00
Exterior door handle set $90.00
*Based on information from Cooper’s Vintage Auto Parts,
Cadillac: The Tailfin Years by Robert J. Headrick
Cadillac: 100 Years Of Innovation by Angelo Van Bogart
The Cadillac Story: The Postwar Years by Thomas Bonsall
Cadillac 1959-1966 Performance Portfolio by R.M. Clarke
Standard Catalog of Cadillac 1903-2005 by John Gunnell
The 1959 Cadillac represents an era of bygone years. Designed and built by true automotive enthusiasts, it was considered among the best of the best. With its boulevard ride, excellent performance, and luxury that few cars enjoyed at the time, it was considered a wealthy man’s car. Today, it commands top dollar at auctions. Never before and never again will taillamps and fins be the same as on the 1959 Cadillac.