Having produced a blockbuster for 1948, no one expected much in the way of new excitement from Cadillac for the 1949 model year. They were wrong.
Shortly before the war, engineers at General Motors had realized that the old Cadillac V-8 needed to be replaced. Engineering was rapidly reaching the limits of what could be extracted from the reliable, but aging, L-head V-8 design. In fact, engineering had attempted a redo of the heads on the old engine to yield an 8.0:1 compression ratio. But the point of diminishing returns had been reached. Despite pushing the ratio this far, engineers saw no substantial increase in economy or performance, and there was a breathing loss. It was time to move on.
Ernest W. Seaholm, who had been in charge of Cadillac engineering for 20 years, came to this conclusion long before his retirement in 1943. Indeed, he had directed that work he started on a new powerplant shortly before Pearl Harbor, but the ensuing war had halted progress on the new engine's development. After the war, the top engineers at GM, now under the direction of Harry F. Barr, Edward M. Cole, and John F. Gordon, tackled the problem. Their final creation set the pace for engine design and performance for years to come -- and it powered the 1949 Cadillac.
1949 Cadillac flip-up fuel filler
Not only did the new engine give the car unequaled performance and ability, but it did so at a substantial gain in fuel economy. The engine weighed in nearly 91 kg less than the old L-head, but because it was cooler running it required less radiator mass, making the savings in weight even greater (100 kg). Cadillac was able to offer all this, plus an engine which allowed for sleeker styling due to the fact that it was 127mm shorter and 102mm lower than the L-head. And even though the compression ratio was just 7.5:1, the new powerplant was designed to take full advantage of higher-octane postwar fuels because it could tolerate a compression ratio of 12.0:1 or more.
By 1948, 88-octane premium fuels were reaching the pumps, and higher octanes were promised by the oil companies, so this was important in looking toward the future. So was the fact that there was ample block space for cylinder enlargement, and indeed displacement would be increased to six liters in 1956. Also featured in the new V-8 were wedge-shaped combustion chambers and advanced "slipper" pistons. The latter, devised by Byron Ellis, traveled low between the crankshaft counterweights to permit short connecting rods and thus reduced reciprocating mass, meaning the engine could run more smoothly at higher rpm without undue wear or damage.
1949 Cadillac 2-door
The engine was a sensation, so much so that it was rushed off to race tracks across the country. Almost-stock Caddys with big racing numbers plastered on their sides were seen roaring down race track straightaways within a few short months after the '49 models bowed. The cars were so hot that famed Briggs Cunningham took the Caddys racing, even to the 24 hours of Le Mans in France. There, a near-stock Coupe de Ville finished tenth overall against the world's finest racing machinery. The British Allard Company even used the engine in its new J-2 sports/racing car.
Out on the street, buyers could tell the difference, too. Though road test magazines were few in 1949, "Uncle" Tom McCahill reported in Mechanix Illustrated that "With this engine, Cadillac, despite its large size, out-performs just about every car being made." He backed that up by posting a 96.6 km/h romp of 12.1 seconds (with stick shift) and a top speed of around 169 km/h. No other car he tested that year did better. Author Hendry quoted slightly more conservative figures of 161 km/h tops and 96.6 km/h in 13.4 seconds. Either way, probably only the lighter-weight Olds 88 could keep up.
Introduction of the new engine helped erode a consumer problem Cadillac Division had faced since the close of the war. Cadillac had advertised heavily during World War II that M-5 and M-24 tanks were powered by Cadillac engines, so some consumers tried to get hold of the military engines and modify them for domestic use. Of course, such attempts at modification were more often than not fraught with a host of technical problems. Cadillac had tried every way it could to discourage such modifications, but it was the arrival of the new overhead V-8 that made the L-heads seem far less attractive.
1949 Cadillac 2-door
In retrospect, the new Cadillac V-8 arrived on the scene just when it was needed. The L-head had served its era well, including the emergence of the automatic transmission. But now roads were getting better -- there were already a few limited-access roads and talk of many more to come -- and gasoline octane ratings were climbing. The new V-8, under constant development even after introduction, could handle these, so the first major redesign wasn't deemed necessary until 1964.
1949 Cadillac convertible
Sheetmetal surfaces on the '49 Cadillac remained the same, except that the hood was made a bit longer. Shortly after production was underway a larger decklid was phased in on notchback models. The grille, now with just one horizontal bar, was given bolder lines and the parking light housings wrapped around the fenders.
1949 Cadillac 2-door fastback sedanette
The heavier grille on the '49 was the product of consensus between Earl and Hershey. Back when the '48 was being designed in Hershey's farmhouse, there wasn't enough space to get a full-size clay model of the car into the room, but there was room for a full-size mock-up of the front end. Earl had come by the farm every week or so to check on the progress the design team was making. During one of his visits he told Hershey that he wanted a delicate, almost jewel-like grille treatment. Hershey complied, and this "delicate" grille appeared on the '48. When it came time to do the '49 facelift, Earl asked Hershey if he really liked the delicate grille. Hershey said that he did not. Earl then suggested a heavier treatment, which became the '49 front end.
1949 Cadillac 2-door fastback
One quick way to tell a '48 Caddy from a '49 when seen from the rear is that the '48 had only one back-up light, while the '49 got two. Also, the '48 Series Sixty-Two models sported neat-looking triple horizontal chrome slashes between the taillights and bumper, but they were absent in 1949.
1949 Cadillac 4-door
The story of the changes made inside the car for '49 paralleled that for the grille. Hershey found that he wasn't ecstatic about the "rainbow" dash. Thus, the large bulge over the instrument cluster which has endeared the '48 to so many automotive enthusiasts was replaced in the '49 model with a more conventional hooded horizontal speedometer. Critics have continually pointed out over the years that the 1948-49 interiors were rather bland for Cadillac, the '49 especially so. Others, as would be expected when dealing with matters of taste, exclaim over the richness and simple elegance displayed by the interiors of the two model years.
1949 Cadillac Fleetwood 75
The formidable 3454mm-wheelbase, limited-production Series Seventy-Five remained much the same as it had been in 1946-48 except that it, too, was now powered by the new V-8. It might be noted that Cadillac had entered the decade with 10 distinct bodies and exited with only five, the loss coming at the expense of the Seventy-Five lineup. Explanation of the varied and often unexplainable tastes of automobile collectors would probably merit writing a book. For example, many collectors today prefer the '48 Series Seventy-Five models for the sole reason that they were powered by the faithful old L-head, despite the new engine's increased economy and efficiency.
1949 Cadillac convertible interior
One '49 Caddy much sought after by collectors is the Series Sixty-Two Coupe de Ville, a "hardtop convertible" introduced late in the model year. Though Cadillac had to share the honors with the Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Holiday, this trio was the first to market this pillarless body style. The Coupe de Ville was basically a Series Sixty-Two convertible fitted out with a steel top, and featured a large wraparound three-piece rear window. Fitted out every bit as luxuriously as the ragtop, the Coupe de Ville even sported simulated top bows inside under the roof. That explains why the $3497 price tag was only $26 less than the ragtop's base price. Coupe de Ville output reached just 2150 units, but this new body style was destined to become all the rage in the Fifties.
Perhaps it's fitting, then, that when Cadillac produced its 1,000,000th car on November 25, 1949, it was the sporty Coupe de Ville that rolled off the Clark Street assembly line in Detroit. Though this milestone car was the last Cadillac of the Forties, it was in truth a car fully poised for the Fifties.
1949 Cadillac 2-door
Also in November, Motor Trend magazine named its very first "Car of the Year." The field was narrowed down to three: Ford, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac. Ford was eliminated first. Despite "an entirely new chassis and body, plus many mechanical changes," wrote auto journalist John Bond, "[the Ford] offers nothing new or outstanding from an engineering viewpoint, since it now falls in line with conventional design practices established by competitors before the war. The Cadillac was chosen in preference to the Olds because, while both have outstanding new V-8 engines which are similar, they are not by any means the same. The Cadillac, with 10 per cent more piston displacement than the Olds, develops 18.5 per cent more bhp and weighs a few pounds less." In addition to the increased power of the new V-8, Bond cited "an even more important advantage" of greatly increased durability. He also pointed out that the new V-8 "is brand new, and can normally be expected to be continued with little change for a period of at least seven years." In this regard, his assumption was certainly on the conservative side -- Cadillac doubled that time period. Incidentally, Motor Trend followed up the honors it bestowed on the '49 Cadillac by giving the similarly engineered '52 models, now up to 190 bhp and about 91 kg heavier, its "Engineering Achievement Award."
1949 Cadillac convertible
The 1948-49 Cadillacs have also come in for latterday accolades. The Milestone Car Society, which honors the crème de la crème of postwar cars, has bestowed "Certified Milestone Car" status on the following models: Sixty-One Sedanet; Sixty-Two Sedanet, Convertible, and Coupe de Ville; Sixty Special; Seventy-Five Sedan/Limousine.
Cadillac Division could certainly take pride in the achievements of the Forties. And Franklin Q. Hershey could certainly take pride in the fact that he had finally been able to design production models of his first love -- Cadillac. In fact, with his development of the tailfins and the full-length flowing line, he had redefined Cadillac. And only about a million examples of the "Standard of Excellence" separated his last production Caddy from the first one his mother, Clara, had driven back in 1903!
1949 Cadillac Notes
1949 Cadillac 2-door