The coolest car at the Detroit Auto Show is from 1959

Walking the main hall at Detroit’s Cobo Center, I find myself in a sea of new automotive metal. There are a number of interesting cars on display. The one that’s captured my eye, however, is from 1959.

It’s sitting high above the Cadillac display stand. And it’s a stunner. This is a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible. It’s an inch longer than a new Suburban. The fins mark the height of Cadillac style at the end of the 1950s. Every inch of this stunning machine evokes strong emotions.

Picture yourself in the driver’s seat. The top is down and you’re driving along the coast. It’s warm out but not too hot. The sun on your face feels good and the wind whips over the top of your hair, but not through it. On the radio, your favorite song plays. Lean deeper into the throttle and let the 6.4-liter V8 surge forward and pull this big Caddy like a freight train.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz

Modern cars can’t pull off chrome like this. It’s too plastic. Too take. And often, it’s just too much. Here though, it’s perfect. The grille and tail are works of art. If an alien nation made contact and asked us to provide an example of the automobile, this might be the one we hand over. But if they scratch it, we’ll enter an intergalactic war.

And we’ll win… because we’re a planet that once built cars like this 1959 Cadillac Eldorado.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz


  1. Meanwhile, the new XT6 shows that Cadillac are committed to the impossible to remember model codes. At least the old SRX had a styling nod to the fins, this new one could wear a new Chinese nameplate and nobody would bat an eyelid.

    1. Wow, you’re not kidding. I hadn’t seen pics of the XT6 until just now. It’s remarkably… dull. I’ve not been an outright fan of Cadillac’s Art and Science design language, but at least it was distinctive. The XT6 suggests they have Volvo envy, but somehow missed the mark.

      1. It looks like an XC90 with a Mazda CX-[insert number] face. What sounds attractive is totally disfigured by Cadillac stylists…at least to my taste. The common denominator of Cadillacs over the last few decades have been incongrous angles and downright unpleasant design. I know they don’t make them for me, but can’t fathom how they sell any.

  2. I have restored a couple of these. One Seminole Red like this one & one Persian Sand. A new Cadillac is a better car, but not when viewed against its contemporaries. The US owned the world in ’59 and could afford mass market luxury cars like the Biarritz. Never again. US was once the New Roman Empire…

    1. Arguably the ‘state of the art’ for GM barely progressed for the next 20 years. The technological experiments that were the Corvair and Y-body B-O-P cars were interpreted as a clear message that technical innovation was not required.

      1. We could go back and forth on this all day long. What really “did GM in” was the Johnson administration intervening in the ’67 UAW strike when GM chairman Roche decided to starve out the strike fund rather than cave in to their non-economic demands which was the beginning of the end for GM and the ability to build competitive product using UAW labor, but that’s another story. I do not know if you are aware of the story of GM hosting Mercedes engineers at the GM Tech center ca. 1966 and demonstrating the use of radioisotope tracking to find seal leaks to assist in design. The Stuttgart engineers were gob-smacked and left with their tails between their legs. The market demands of “Longer, lower, wider” (plus faster and who cares about brakes?) and UAW cost impacts killed GM. Take a look at the engineering in a ’66 Toronado/’67 Eldorado FWD package and try to find anything from anyone else at that time with the ability to produce that product at an affordable price. You can’t.

        1. Gene, the UPP had slipped my mind when I wrote that – perhaps the exception that proves the rule? – even if it was a bit of a dead-end technically. I was not thinking in terms of what killed GM, more so that their cars largely stopped leading the way technically. On reflection that’s not entirely fair, eg they probably had the earliest airbags on sale, but things like fuel injection, addressing emissions regs in a non-bandaid way, disc brakes, etc are things I think they could have introduced earlier than they did. On the other hand the size of the US market meant that vehicle development was on a different plane to other countries manufacturers, and it showed in terms of reliability/durability.

          I hadn’t heard about the radio isotope story, and it does illustrate that they had the know-how to do things better than carry over so much componentry for so long. Likewise that UAW contract would seem to coincide with the period that people discuss as the start of cheapening aspects of the cars. Must look into that one more.

          Market demands are one thing, but I would refer you to Henry Ford’s “faster horse” quote.

          1. LBJ’s Washington forcing Roche to cave into the leftist, non-commercial demands of the UAW was the beginning of the end of being able to produce US vehicles competitively using UAW labor. It also coincided with cheapening in materials. Similarly today, you can’t build a competitive vehicle using European labor. So BMW, MB and other German manufacturers have some of their largest factories here in the US. They are NOT UAW shops and they EXPORT the finished products all over the world. Democratic party support of the UAW was a large reason GM and Detroit declined. Not “corporate largess and incompetence”.

    2. As a youth in in the late 50’s and early 60’s I was a euro-centric car snob who looked down on the excesses from Detroit. But when I matured I came to see that period as a golden age of automotive stying, design and engineering. Even mundane pieces like hidden door hinges, hood springs, and window regulators were far and away the best. I’ve owned european cars of the era but American cars still intrigue me with hidden engineering gems.

      1. After I got past the hype, I realized what a total piece of garbage my Aston Martin DB6 was vs my ’67 Eldo but today, the market hath spoken…

        1. No wonder. The Cadillac accounting department was probably larger than Aston Martin’s entire workforce, and I would be surprised if the company was profitable in that era. I’m sure you know the story of the guy who asked to buy a car at cost price as a favour?

      1. I once had a neighbor who was a young German lad in the late ’50s/early 60s. He saw a couple of my late 50’s Eldorados and told me when the Germans saw these cars new it underscored how futile it was thinking they could ever win WWII after America’s entry!

  3. Knowing now that the CT6 isn’t dead (yet), I should think that a coupified one wouldn’t be too far off the Elmiraj concept. Throw in the new V8, and while it might not be as dramatic and iconic as the ’59, it’d be compelling (yes, I look forward to decade depreciated CT6’s). I doubt there’s much of a business case for it, of course.

    1. I have to wonder how volumes would compare to some of the German models like the new AMG sedan, also how price sensitive it would be. Arguably they need to do something like this to turn Cadillac’s image around.

      1. I think they’d almost have to sell at a loss for 5 years or so to rebuild their reputation. I don’t think they can rebuild Cadillac without doing something bold and aggressive, but GM’s also proven they can’t stick with something long-term enough to make a difference. I guess their only other possibility is to figure out somewhere the Germans aren’t (difficult when they’re pursuing just about every niche imaginable), and target that. The Escalade has remained fairly successful because it’s a decent product, AND you can’t find anything similar in a Benz/BMW/Audi dealership.

        1. I’d agree about potentially having to have a loss-leader halo for a bit to rebuild reputation, but the point about going somewhere where the Germans aren’t is an interesting one. I don’t know whether you meant in terms of market niche or geographically, but does anyone know, is the Chinese market still buying a significant amount of American cars? This was some time ago, but I remember that there was a time when American luxury manufacturers (Buick in particular, for reasons I can’t recall) carried a particular cachet there. I have a feeling that may have tailed off, considering that I recall hearing that the Chinese luxury market was largely looking for more limousine-like cars to be chauffeured in, and the Korean companies are now building some excellent affordable luxury cars in the “cars to be driven in” vein (not to mention the fact that Cadillac nowadays seems to be aiming for somewhat more of an emphasis on the driving experience and being “active”). All that said, I haven’t been a fan of Cadillac’s styling for some time, but the CT6 is a pretty good-looking car, and if it got coupified into something like the Elmiraj, that’d be a definite positive.

          …I still think “Elmiraj” sounds way more like a ZZ Top album than a new Cadillac, though.

          1. Sorry, I meant trying to find niches the Germans aren’t operating in currently.

            I don’t know in specific numbers, but I think Buick still does well in China, and I assume Cadillac does okay (I know they did a couple long-wheelbase variants of their North America models, and apparently the CT6 PHEV was built there, even for North American consumption), but I also know Audi’s gotten there in a big way (I believe it’s the chosen ride of most high-level officials, which brings some clout).

        2. Trouble is they have been rebuilding Cadillac for about 20 years now it seems, although the first 10 years weren’t strong enough to make an impact and they have not been consistent or committed enough in the years since – have made some poor choices that undermine things; eg a new Alpha platform that can’t be used for crossovers?!? Even the CTS-V and the racing program haven’t transformed things, likewise the amazing concept cars they’ve shown and not built have probably been counterproductive.

        3. GM dropped the developmental ball so many times in the past. Just one example would be the Fiero. GM rebuilt a factory with new technology including robotics and a world class assembly line spending millions on facilities and employee training. The advanced chassis with bolt on plastic exterior panels was groundbreaking. But right after upgrading the Chevette and Citation suspension bits they pulled the plug because they didn’t want a cheap competitor to the Corvette. Millions $ wasted.

          1. I imagine some of that development at least paid off with the body panels on the Dustbuster vans and Saturn, but absolutely.

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