Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cadillac Ciel Concept recalls former flagship, Cadillac's "Golden One," the timeless Eldorado

At the exclusive Pebble Beach Concours over the weekend, Cadillac introduced the Ciel Concept Car, a radical, highly-stylized convertible that might hint at a future Cadillac flagship. The opulent Caddy features suicide doors and a direct-injected 3.6 V6 paired up with a lithium-ion hybrid battery system. Cadillac states in their press release that the Ciel is a “new expression of Cadillac’s historical grandeur, as well as a celebration of open-air motoring.”

Now, one thing I like about that statement is that they are acknowledging their “historical grandeur.” Don’t get me wrong, I like CTS-V coupes as much as the next guy, but they hardly recollect the no-holds-barred luxury of Cadillac’s past. I’d even go as far as to say that the Escalade SUV line holds closer to traditional Cadillac philosophy than most of the cars. The thought of an excessive Cadillac convertible seems very appealing to me.

The notion of a serious Cadillac flagship certainly isn’t unprecedented. From the 1950s, and well through the 1970s, there was no doubt which car was the Mac-Daddy. It was the Cadillac Eldorado. If you were a real, genuine mogul, muckety-muck, big wig, top dog, big cheese, or head honcho, you drove an Eldorado. It was that simple.

When the Eldorado strutted on the scene in 1953, it was designed to make an impression. Even the name, Eldorado, came from the mythical South American city of El Dorado, or “the Golden One,” where explorers searched for untold riches. Only 532 Eldorado convertibles were built in the pilot year, which wasn’t surprising given that they cost as much as two ordinary Cadillacs. But they were dream machines with their hand-built custom bodies, wraparound windshields, and exquisite attention to detail. The limited-run ’53 Eldorados shared rarified air with GM’s other exclusive show rides—the Chevrolet Corvette, the Buick Skylark, and the Oldsmobile Fiesta.

In 1954, the Eldorado got away from the fancy custom body, although now regular Cadillac convertibles gained the wraparound windshield treatment, so they still looked plenty special. An Eldorado also had huge chrome moldings along the rear quarter panels, so in that way, they looked even more different from a standard Cadillac than the ‘53s did. They were still among the most expensive cars you could buy, although they were nearly $2,000 cheaper than a ’53. That ought to give you an idea how high that ’53 really was.

Eldorados continued to be the very successful man’s car of choice as the years went on, and were built in both Biarritz convertible and Seville two-door hardtop varieties starting in 1956.

But then, in 1957, Cadillac outdid even themselves, by introducing the most bodacious, most upscale, most daring car conceivable—the Eldorado Brougham. Where a regular Cadillac Sedan cost about $4,700, and a luxurious Eldorado Seville came in at a lofty $7,300, the hand-built Eldorado Brougham four-door hardtop positively broke the bank at more than $13,000. They were the first car sold with quad headlights, and one of the first pillar-less four-door hardtop. They had power-electric everything, and were decorated with a stainless steel roof and glass bud vases. They only made 703 Eldorado Broughams between the 1957 and 1958 model years, but they were the bee’s knees.

The 1959 Eldorado is probably the quintessential Cadillac. Those big fins, bullet taillights, and make-no apologies grill treatment are a perfect example of 1950s American optimism and style. There was also a ridiculously expensive Pininfarina-bodied Eldorado Brougham four-door hardtop built in 1959 and 1960, but frankly, I’ve never seen one beyond the pictures. These were rare, indeed.

The Eldorado sort of followed the styling of the Cadillac Deville line as the 1960s wore on, but then something really special came out in 1967. The ’67 Eldorado is still considered to this day as one of the most perfectly styled cars ever made. They were big, and they were brash, but they had a very clean design with perfect proportions and very little brick-a-brac to clutter things up. It was also quite revolutionary mechanically, as it followed its GM sister car, the Oldsmobile Toronado, with a robust front-wheel-drive platform.

Throughout the 1970s, the Eldorado picked up some of the bloated styling cues that the decade was known for, but it remained the choice of high-rollers everywhere. Most auto manufacturers placed a moratorium on convertibles during the 1970s for safety reasons, and the ’76 Eldorado was the last American convertible produced that decade. 1978 was the final year for the big Eldorado coupe.

Spurred by heightened governmental fuel mileage standards, all of GM’s big cars shrunk significantly by 1979. The Eldorado was no exception. It was smaller. Much, much smaller. And while it was quite a shock to see the new squared-off Eldo after the previous year’s land barge, it actually managed to sell very well for the next six years.

If the ’79 Eldorado seemed small compared to the ’78, the ’86 model was an out-and-out econobox compared to the ‘79. They were supposed to be comparable to a BMW 3-Series, but most people likened them to a Chevy Celebrity with a little V8. They were nice enough cars, but certainly a far cry from the original 1953 concept.

Mercifully, the Eldorado got longer, wider, and better by 1992, and the high-tech and highly regarded Northstar V8 founds its way under hood in ’93. The Eldorado got better nearly each year after that. More power, more refinement, and tasteful styling changes sustained Cadillac’s flagship coupe for several more years, but as the 1990s came to a close, do did public demand for two-door luxury cars.

The final Eldorados rolled off the line for the 2002 model year. There wasn’t much fanfare, although Cadillac did offer a special Collectors Series model in either red or white. And just like that, the Golden One was gone.

Not many people today appreciate the significance the Eldorado nameplate had on the automotive landscape back in its heyday, but there are still those who remember when this car set the standard, even for the Standard of the World.

The slideshow below has some great General Motors publicity photos of Eldorados throughout history, as well as a few beauty shots of the new Ciel. Check ‘em out!

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