Okay, I have to admit that they’re not quite my cup of tea, but when I spot something like a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, dripping with enough chrome for 10 cars and with a boot lid half the size of your average tennis court — and almost large enough to be used as a helicopter landing pad — then it’s at least worthy of a lasting gawk.
And that’s precisely what happened to me a few weeks ago when I spotted Graeme and Gwen MacKay’s fabulous ’57 Cadillac Coupe de Ville at an event in Albany. I was standing at the entrance to the venue, watching some 200 or so cars file past, and couldn’t help but notice this magnificent red Caddie in all its full glory — complete with original hub caps and riding on super-large whitewalls. Once all the cars had arrived, I then went looking for the Caddie — it wasn’t too hard to find. A car the size of an aircraft carrier with fins seemingly large enough to grace the tail of a Boeing 747, painted bright red and glittering like Liberace on a bad night could hardly be termed inconspicuous.
The de Ville wasn’t even pretending to blend in with the cars parked around it. This Caddie has a presence all its own, as if to say, ‘look at me, I helped to define advanced engineering, luxury and style early in automotive history, I know I’m one of the world’s finest-made vehicles.’
In actual fact, Cadillac introduced for the first time many modern technologies that, today, we take for granted in our cars. For example, in 1912 Cadillac was the first to introduce a complete electrical system that consisted of cranking, lighting and ignition. In 1915 it was the first to regulate engine cooling by thermostatic means, and in 1922 was the first to introduce thermostatic control of engine carburetion. Cadillac was also, in 1923, the first to build inherent balance into the V8 engine.
Cadillac introduced the Coupe de Ville late in 1949 as part of the Cadillac Series 62 line-up. It was intended as a prestige model, and was one of the most expensive models in the range. It was a closed, two-door coupe, Cadillac’s first pillar-less hardtop. The Coupe de Ville was luxuriously trimmed, with leather upholstery and chrome ‘bows’ in the headliner to simulate the ribs of a convertible top.
The Coupe de Ville name also followed a tradition; two-door cars with steel roofs were always Coupe de Ville, four-doors were always Sedan de Ville, at least until the elimination of two-door models. Convertibles were always simply de Ville, as they were neither a coupe nor a sedan by design.
Cadillac’s identity as an American automotive icon hit its stride for 1957 and 1958, and it has since become famous through pop culture, with references in popular songs, movies, and other media. These cars celebrated the good life, at least in the US, with ever-more voluptuous styling and striking chrome appointments, backed up with some genuine engineering creativity.
For 1957, the Cadillac division’s 5834cc (356ci) V8 gained an additional 11kW to take it to 224kW (300bhp), mostly thanks to increased compression to 10:1.This engine powered a rebodied 1957 Cadillac line-up. The look wasn’t exactly going to win any prizes for aerodynamics, but was recognisably evolutionary. It was inspired by the Cadillac Orleans, Eldorado Brougham, and Park Avenue show cars of the mid ’50s.
In 1957 Cadillac incorporated a tubular X-frame chassis, without side rails, on all models, resulting in greater structural rigidity which provided for lower bodylines without loss of useable space. Rubber bumper guard tips marked new front-end styling and dual, circular parking lamps were set into the lower bumper section. The side trim was revised and a dual taillight theme was used throughout the range. By utilising different centre frame sections the wheelbases and overall lengths of specific body styles were altered.
General Motors styling chief, Harley J Earl, originated many of the styling features that came to be famous with the classic (late 1940s to late 1950s) American car, including tail-fins and wraparound windscreens. Cadillac’s first tail-fins, inspired by the twin rudders of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, appeared in 1948 — although the 1959 Cadillac, which sports the most recognisable and largest tail-fins of any production car, remains as the ultimate expression of US car manufacturers’ obsession with aircraft-like fins.
Enthusiasm and passion
Meeting Graeme and Gwen MacKay, the owners of our featured Cadillac, for the first time was a real pleasure. Their enthusiasm and passion for all things Cadillac runs through almost their entire married life of over 38 years, and Graeme admits that he’s had a soft spot for them since he was a child as his father, a mechanic, would often talk about them.
Graeme and Gwen’s first encounter with a Cadillac was back in 1982, when they went to view a 1971 hardtop in the showroom of a Takapuna car dealership. Also parked in the showroom was a blue 1961 Coupe de Ville and, you guessed it, they instantly fell in love with the car. So after parting with $7000, they drove their new pride and joy home.
That magnificent Coupe de Ville had travelled a meagre 96,561km (60,000 miles) and had only been used for going to church on Sundays by its previous owner, a Whangerei baker. The car was in pristine, original condition — complete with factory plastic covers on the seats and door trims.
Three years later, in 1985, Graeme and Gwen decided to squeeze another Cadillac into the family garage and purchased a 1973 Coupe de Ville. This bright red Caddie, with white interior, became Gwen’s daily driver whilst the blue ’61 was kept for weekends and special occasions.
Both cars were eventually traded for a later model 1977 Coupe de Ville in 1987. This brown-coloured, immaculate, low mileage Caddie boasted matching brown leather upholstery, and was reserved for driving only when weather permitted and for weekend cruising.
Graeme and Gwen soon decided to trade up to a 1984 Sedan de Ville in 1989. In keeping with their previous carefully selected Caddies, this car was also immaculately finished in blue metallic paint with matching blue velour interior. Within three years the Caddie was placed up for sale and was eventually sold to a fisherman from Invercargill — who was out at sea at the time of the sale and, via ship-to-shore radio, instructed his wife to buy the car sight unseen. The sale left Graeme and Gwen Cadillac-less for the first time in almost 20 years.
Rekindling a love affair
It was another decade before Graeme and Gwen felt the Cadillac itch, and in 2002, when they spotted a teal green 1963 Eldorado convertible, they couldn’t resist the temptation. Their garage had been empty for a long time, apart from the odd Japanese run-around, and Graeme and Gwen knew it was time to rekindle their love affair with big Caddies.
“The Eldorado was used heaps,” Gwen says, they drove it whenever possible until 2004. This time a friend who had admired the car for some time, having offered to buy it on several occasions, finally got his wish.
It just so happened that in 2005, whilst walking around the Kumeu Classic Car Show, Graeme and Gwen spotted a 1992 Fleetwood Special. What a machine! This car had previously been a Taiwanese Embassy vehicle and was, as you can imagine, in supreme condition. Breaking the mould shortly after, a fully restored 1962 Buick Invicta convertible was purchased to sit alongside the Fleetwood Special. Graeme and Gwen’s garage was bulging at the seams once again.
Now the story gets interesting. In August 2007, whilst browsing eBay’s Cadillacs for sale section, Graeme noticed their favourite model up for auction — a 1957 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. After some fierce bidding, Graeme and Gwen were eventually out-bid and were disappointed that they had lost out. But as fate would have it, they later received a message from eBay to say that the highest bidder had defaulted on his payment, and the bright red 1957 Cadillac Coupe de Ville was theirs for the asking.
It didn’t take too long for the couple to make up their minds, and Graeme was soon arranging for the car to be shipped from its homeland to New Zealand. It finally arrived here in December 2007, pretty much as you see it in these pages. And it looks absolutely magnificent.
Graeme tells us the car’s history is still pretty much unknown for most of its life, although in later years it was part of a collection in California — during which time it was kept in a temperature-controlled environment. Apart from a repaint some years ago the big Caddie appears to be in completely original condition, a rare find indeed. But the story continues. Yes, Graeme has been at it again, and has now found a 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville on eBay.
By the time you read this story that car will also be in New Zealand. Not surprisingly, Graeme and Gwen are now searching for additional garage (for garage, read ‘aircraft hangar’) space.
|1957 Cadillac Coupe de Ville|
|Bore/stroke||92.07mm x 106mm|
|Valves||Two valves per cylinder|
|Max power||224kW (300bhp) at 4800rpm|
|Fuel system||single Rochester 4bbl carburettor|
|Transmission||Hydramatic drive, automatic|
|Steering||Recirculating ball, power-assisted|
|Brakes||Power assisted drum|