Of all the automobiles of the late prewar era, few were as beautiful as the Cadillac Sixty Special of 1938-41. And none was more significant from the standpoint of styling.
Back in 1936, Cadillac had introduced, in the Series Sixty, not just a new model but a new class of motorcar. More luxurious, more powerful and more expensive than the Packard One-Twenty and the other "premium" medium-priced cars, it was nevertheless about 30 percent cheaper than the least expensive 1935 Cadillac. Powered by a brand new monobloc V-8, the Sixty was a quality product, a Cadillac through and through. Yet--thanks to the judicious use of components commandeered from other General Motors divisions--it was priced as low as $1645.
Not surprisingly, the Series Sixty paced Cadillac to a whopping 254 percent sales increase during its maiden year.
Equally significant during the 1936 season was the arrival at Cadillac of a new chief designer, 23-year-old Bill Mitchell, the man who would ultimately replace the great Harley Earl as head of styling for General Motors. Mitchell, looking ahead to the 1938 season, began to think in terms of a high-fashion, up-market version of the Sixty. And with Harley Earl's blessing he set about to bring that concept to reality.
As the new model began to take shape, some Cadillac officials became nervous. Don Ahrens, head of sales at the time, later recalled his own misgivings: "I do not need to remind automobile men," he had said, "that the Cadillac market is ultra-conservative. The bulk of our business is conducted with sound and substantial families. How would this revolutionary car affect our position in the industry? Was it too startling for our price class? Was it too rakish for our reputation?"
And indeed the Sixty Special was revolutionary, startling and even rakish.
It was radical, no doubt about that. Yet the Sixty Special was tastefully done, strikingly handsome and, in the years that followed, widely imitated.
The copywriters had a field day. "There has never been a car like the Cadillac Sixty Special," they enthused. "A car with such definite modernity of line, yet so obviously right in taste ... a precedent-breaking car prophetic of motor cars not yet on other drawing boards, yet a car wholly devoid of freakish trappings."
Copywriters are paid for their high-flying hyperbole, of course; but in this instance they weren't far off the mark. For the Sixty Special represented the first of the "specialty" cars--high-styled and premium-priced models that would come in later years from many manufacturers. Cars, for instance, like the Lincoln Continental; and other designs by Bill Mitchell himself, such as the 1963 Buick Riviera and the original front-wheel-drive Eldorado.
Still, there was cause for concern. For 1938 was a recession year, and Cadillac found itself introducing this daringly different new automobile into a severely depressed market. And its appeal was restricted by the fact that it was built only in a single body style, a four-door, four-light sedan. Selling as it did, at a premium of nearly 25 percent over the price of the mechanically identical Series Sixty, the new car faced an uncertain future.
Or so it was thought. But the public loved the Sixty Special. Loved it so much, in fact, that it out-sold the cheaper Series Sixty sedan by a margin of nearly three to one.
To the original, single model two variants were added for 1939. One of these featured a sun roof, while the other was a formal Imperial type, complete with divider window. And by 1940 there was even a pair of Sixty Special town cars, offering a choice of leather or metal-backed top. Styling was little changed, apart from an aggressive prow-shaped grille, introduced for 1939 and continued the following year with minor alterations.
Sales for 1939 eclipsed those of the Sixty Special's initial year. But Cadillac's new Series 62 stole a little of the Sixty Special's thunder in 1940. It was another Bill Mitchell design, a stunning one, utilizing the new, bustle-backed General Motors "C" body, a configuration that had clearly been inspired by the Sixty Special. Offering more than a touch of the latter's styling for substantially less money, the 62 naturally cut into the sales of the more expensive car, replacing it as Cadillac's best-seller.
A dramatically re-styled front end (which some critics thought was too heavy) characterized the 1941 model. But again it proved to be a trendsetter, with long sweeping front fenders that extended back onto the doors. Even the grille presaged the frontal appearance of Cadillacs yet to come. But sales of the Sixty Special slipped a little further.
Bill Mitchell's stunning styling theme had run its course; the fickle public was ready for something different. It came in the form of a new Sixty Special for 1942. Basically a stretched, upscale version of the 62, this one simply didn't have the panache of its predecessors. It is noteworthy that among today's collectors the 1942 version is worth scarcely more than a third as much as the 1938 original.
Two more versions of the basic sedan appeared among Sixty-Special offerings for 1940, and all models now carried Fleetwood instead of Fisher bodywork for the first time. The Imperial Sedan could now be ordered without the sunroof, and a new Town Car style was added in both steel- and leather-backed forms--at a hefty surcharge over the standard version.
Styling on all Cadillacs stayed mostly the same except for heavier horizontal grille bars, slightly less restrained use of bright metal and, along with most other American cars that year, standardization of sealed-beam headlamps.
Arriving in the price bracket just below the Special was the new Series 62, a replacement for the 61 featuring two predictive "torpedo" body styles fresh from the Art & Colour studio, a sedan and a five-passenger coupe. The 62 stole some of the Special's thunder. Another Bill Mitchell design, it employed GM's new C-body, with lines obviously inspired by the Special. This together with prices that were some 16 percent lower--enabled the 62 to oust the Special as Cadillac's volume leader for 1940.
Cadillac had settled on the 5.678 Liter version of the monobloc V-8 for all its eight-cylinder models except LaSalle beginning in 1937. Rated at 135 horsepower at 3400 rpm, the 5.678 Liter had five more horses than the 1935 V-8 and 10 more than the one-year-only 5.277 Liter monobloc. The Sixty-Special arrived weighing only some 105 kg more than a comparable 1938 Series 60 sedan, so its power-to-weight ratio was less than 14 kg per horsepower, quite good for the period. By contrast, that year's Packard Super Eight--which, incidentally, cost $700 more than the Special -- carried nearly 16 kg per horsepower.
1940 Cadillac Notes