Wednesday July 17, 2002
Tickle Me, Eldo
Early models of the luxurious Caddys with the big fins still bring smiles to collectors.
Home Edition, Highway 1, Page G-1
43 inches; 1536 words
By SCOTT DOGGETT
Rumor had it that the chief of a tribe in South America 500 years ago was so rich he routinely powdered himself with gold dust. When word of the chief's unusual taste in cosmetics reached Spanish explorers, they dubbed him El Dorado—the Gilded One—and began a decades-long
quest for him and his precious yellow metal.
The explorers never found the legendary figure, but his nickname lives on to connote extraordinary wealth and luxury. In that vein, it was chosen as the name for the finest model from General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac brand.
The Eldorado, as they misspell it in Lansing, Mich., arrived in 1953 as a "special sports convertible" weighing 4,799 pounds and stretching 18 feet, 4 inches.
Most Americans got their first glimpse of the bulbous-yet-sleek glamour-mobile as it carried Dwight David Eisenhower to his inauguration as 34th president of the United States.
It has been 49 years since the Cadillac of all Cadillacs rolled into showrooms.
Since then, some early Eldos have soared in price as collectors' dream machines, other model years have proved themselves to be reliable daily drivers, and most of the rest have earned deserved reputations for shoddy engineering.
With Cadillac ending the Eldorado line this year, prices for the most desirable models are expected to climb.
All Eldorados through 1955 were convertibles featuring a wraparound windshield; a flush-fitting metal cover, or tonneau, that concealed a folding cloth top; a sumptuous leather interior; elegant chromed wire wheels; and white sidewall tires.
Options included air conditioning and Autronic Eye, which automatically dimmed the high beams at the approach of oncoming traffic.
In 1956, Cadillac offered a hardtop Eldorado Seville coupe (3,900 made) and the Eldorado Biarritz convertible (2,150 made). Options included a six-way power seat, a signal-seeking radio with pre-selector and a gold-finish grille.
All of the early Eldos featured tail fins, but the fins of the '57s were especially eye-catching, thanks to 23-year-old design engineer Ron Hill.
By dramatically sloping the trunk lid, Hill—later chairman of the transportation design department
at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and now retired—accentuated the pointy tail fins to
the degree that they took on the menacing appearance of a shark dorsal fin.
More remarkable than either the finny '57 Biarritz or Seville was the Eldorado Brougham, a new model that year. It was a handcrafted hardtop sporting many industry firsts, including pillar-less four-door body styling, an air suspension system, front seats with electronic memory, quadruple headlights and air conditioning as a standard feature.
A mere 400 Broughams were built in 1957, fewer still in '58, '59 and '60, their last production year. At nearly the cost of a Biarritz and Seville combined, the Brougham was attainable only by the well-to-do. Original owners included Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
For 1958, the Eldo saw only minor changes, but the '59 models were redesigned at the dawn of the Space Age and came out as stunners, with long, low, sleek bodies that culminate in "Jaws"-size fins and brake lights that resemble rocket engines. They were launched by a 390-cubic-inch V-8 engine generating 345 gross horsepower.
All of the Biarritz convertibles from 1956 to '59 have become collectibles, with models in working condition usually fetching $20,000 to $35,000.
Expect to pay $100,000-plus for a fully restored '53 Eldo. (The originals—there were 532—cost
$7,750 apiece, or about four times the per-capita personal income in the U.S. back then.)
The same goes for an immaculate '59, versus the $7,401 price tag on each of that year's 2,295 Eldorados when they were new.
Cadillac began tempering the outlandish fins of its Eldorados in 1960 and did away with them altogether by the 1967 model year, which also was when the Eldos forever switched from rear- to front-wheel drive. Of the 1960s-era Eldos, the '60, '61 and '62 models are becoming increasingly popular.
"The most popular, of course, is the '59, but everybody has one and I wanted a Cadillac that not everybody has," said Mike Lund of Los Angeles, explaining his decision to buy a '61 Eldorado Biarritz three years ago.
Lund, who also owns a 2000 Lexus RX 300, says the luxury sport utility vehicle scarcely turns a head, whereas his topaz-colored, ostrich-upholstered Biarritz is a major attention magnet.
"I've had people follow me and pull me over and say, 'I want to buy that car,' " Lund said the other day, shortly after a reporter followed him and pulled him over to ask some car-related questions. "I love it," he said of the attention.
The downside to owning an early-model Eldo is the cost.
In addition to the purchase price, restoration can easily top $15,000. Parts are pricey and often hard to come by. Fuel costs are another factor—you can expect to get about 10 miles per gallon
in any early Eldo.
Of the '60s-era models, the '68s and '69s made especially good daily drivers, thanks to their trusty 472-cubic-inch V-8 engines.
The Eldorados of the 1970s are notable for two reasons: First, Cadillac replied to calls for more power to the people by fitting all 1970-75 models with 500-cubic-inch V-8 engines, the largest passenger-car engine ever built for production and one of the most bulletproof. And then the car maker equipped them with colossal brakes and brawny transmissions.
If you find a '70 to '75 with fewer than 100,000 miles and aren't staggered by its fuel inefficiency, consider getting it as a daily driver. Eldos of the early '70s run $2,500 to $5,000, with many superb specimens available at the low end of the spectrum.
Cadillac offered a soft-top Eldorado in 1984, but the '76 was the last of the classic Eldo droptops, and it has become quite popular. A '76 Eldo ragtop usually lists for $12,000 fully restored, but handsome low-mileage models occasionally can be found for as low as $2,500.
With only two exceptions, Eldorados made after 1976 cannot be recommended.
The '77 and '78 Eldos, though still sporting an elephantine exterior, packed an unremarkable 425-cubic-inch V-8. In 1979 and '80, the engine shrank further, to a mediocre displacement of 350 cubic inches in '79 and 369 cubic inches the next year.
Cadillac fitted the 1981 Eldorados with a "V-8-6-4," which, through the magic of electronics, shut down either two or four cylinders when acceleration was not needed.
The idea was that the driver would enjoy the power of a V-8 with the pedal to the metal and the better fuel efficiency a four-banger could provide when cruising. Good idea, but poor engineering made it a problem-plagued system, and Cadillac discontinued the variable engine after only one year.
(The concept recently was resurrected, with much better engineering, on some of General Motors' pickups.)
The 8-6-4 engine was replaced with the HT4100 V-8, the letters standing for "high technology" and the numbers for "4.1 liters" as Caddy joined the rest of the domestic auto makers in dropping the old cubic-inch displacement measurements for the metric system favored by Asian and European auto companies.
(Doesn't 4.1 liters sound better than the paltry 250 cubic inches it represents?)
The engine featured a cast-iron head atop an aluminum block (as did the HT4500 that replaced it in '88). The HT might well have stood for "highly troublesome." Quality control with other systems also tanked. Buy an '80s-era Eldorado and you should expect problems with power locks, power windows, power seats and so on.
The '91 and '92 Eldorados, available in hardtop only, were the line's only dependable models of the last quarter-century.
Both featured a reliable 4.9-liter engine (299 cubic inches) that produced a respectable 200 horsepower at 4,400 rpm. Fuel efficiencies of 15 mpg city and 25 highway are the norm. A '91 or '92 Eldo typically costs $3,000 to $5,000 for a solid car with fewer than 75,000 miles on the odometer.
From 1993 to the present, the Eldorado has featured a 4.6-liter, 32-valve Northstar V-8 engine. It's made of aluminum and has two major problems.
First, it typically burns or leaks one quart of oil per 1,000 miles. Garages generally charge $2,400 to $3,000 to contain the oil flow.
The Northstar's second major flaw: The head bolts often strip out of the aluminum block. This can occur when the engine has logged a mere 50,000 miles. Cadillac should have recalled the engine. Instead, its service centers often charge as much as $5,000 to fix this particular problem.
If Cadillac had continued to build Eldorados worthy of their name, perhaps the model would be
seen as the golden one among today's luxury cars.
Instead, the last Eldo made—an alpine-white car destined for Cadillac's museum—rolled off the
assembly line in Lansing on April 22, the result of unmatched competition from Mercedes-Benz,
BMW and Lexus.