History originally published in AutoWeek September 19, 1988
It was the product of an era when the best the average man could hope for was a big cigar, a buxom blonde and a Cadillac convertible. It was, for 1958 at least, the popular conception of the signs of success, conspicuous at its conspicuously consuming best. Bigger was better in everything from bosoms to automobiles and Cadillac was still The Standard of the World and Jayne Mansfield made a career of just standing there. (So go ahead, if Jayne Mansfield was a great actress, name her most famous role).
Anyway, about the best Cadillac one could covet in 1958 was the Eldorado Biarritz convertible. It did for a man what a mink coat did for a woman. Here was 221.8 inches of rolling ostentation, more flash than a dozen diamond pinky rings and more noticeable anywhere outside a poker game. This was luxury, friend. This was a sign of achievement. Imagine, a 365 cid Cadillac V8 under the hood, 310 hp, almost 2.5 tons of Michigan metal!
Mercedes-Benz? Isn’t that the German car with a diesel engine that won’t start in the winter and is lucky to hold its own on a freeway ramp? A car you buy from a dealer who sells a half-dozen other foreign cars, or maybe even Ramblers? Don’t be ridiculous.
Listen, we’re talking about a two-door convertible that, if it were any longer, would require a hinge in the middle. Enough chrome to outshine a Hollywood premiere. Air conditioning – in a convertible – could you imagine? And price? List at $7,286! Most folks didn’t make that much in a year. You could buy a small house for that.
There were bigger Cadillacs. Four-door sedans and limos and earlier Eldos had been longer, but not by much. And the limited production Eldorado Brougham was more expensive at an incredible $12,500. But the ‘58 (and the similar ‘57) Eldorado Biarritz and the hardtop Eldorado Seville had distinctive bodies with rounded rumps and short tail fins, clearly different from the squared-off trunks of more practical Cadillacs. This gives the Eldorado, at least from behind or in profile, the look of a show car. Stainless steel spats adorn the rear flanks and a small Biarritz badge marks the fins. At the front are quad headlights, chrome bullets in an eggcrate grille and massive bombs or, ahem, Dagmar’s, dominate the bumpers.
Cadillac made 1,800 Biarritz convertibles in 1957 and only 815 in the recession year of 1958. One of the latter is now owned by Cadillac collector Frank Ruby of Temple Hills, Md., and of the earlier and later models he owns he considers it the gem of his collection. It’s not wholly original; the white is whiter than what Cadillac sprayed and the front fender-top vents are from a Fleetwood and the Dagmar’s are chrome instead of the original black rubber. But it is Frank’s car and he likes it that way.
This is a big car. The hood arches from fender to fender with only a center ridge, not even a hood ornament, to break the expanse. The rounded fender tops are accented with small chrome wings and the windshield wraps around in true 50s style. The driver is confronted with a big red plastic steering wheel, 17 ½ inches from side to side – the chrome horn ring is as big as most of today’s wheels – and its two spokes are shaped like jet wings. The two pedals are huge, the power brake pedal actually has two arms holding it. There’s no clutch pedal nor does any ‘58 Cadillac have one; all Caddies had automatic transmissions.
The engine is silent and the four-speed Hydra-Matic shifts almost imperceptibly. Acceleration was respectable for a car this heavy, 0-60 mph taking about 12 seconds. Top speed would eventually roll up to around 115 mph. Suspension felt biased toward ride; handling tests would be more a matter of tire torture. Contemporary tests of Cadillacs reported relentless understeer. I wasn’t about to try anything more with Ruby’s great white ride than to pilot it, cranking in endless steering lock for the simplest of turns.
But of course, a ‘58 Eldo Biarritz is no sports car and was never intended to be one. It’s about luxury and size, which were virtually synonymous at that time. A small car couldn’t be luxurious, no matter how many gadgets. But take a big Cadillac, one that stretches way out there in front and way back, past a spacious backseat and a long trunk all the way to the tall tailfins, and add power equipment. Power seats, power windows, and even the vent windows are power operated.
But controls are simple compared to a modern car. There really aren’t very many of them. The radio is AM but has a “signal-seeking pre-selector” and front and rear speakers. Other luxury touches include – ta da – a day-night mirror and a remote control trunk lock. And, this was on no Cadillac but the Eldorado, red warning lights on the doors that can be seen by drivers approaching from the rear. Then, too, those aren’t mere hubcaps, but fabulously styled wheels. Sure, that’s commonplace today, but 30 years ago…
Options Ruby’s Eldo fortunately didn’t have were Cadillac’s Air Suspension System, complete with air lift for clearing steep driveways and such, and “Autronic Eye,” a device that automatically dimmed your headlights for you. It’s just as well. The air suspension was notorious for leaking and most Cadillacs originally so equipped were converted to steel springs. And the Autronic Eye didn’t work that well, or so I was told by people who may have been jealous for not having it themselves.
And in the ‘50s just about everyone wanted a Cadillac. When something was described as the “Cadillac of” its category there was no doubt that it was the best. The last word, the classiest, the most impressive, the Standard, so to speak, of the World. But just as cigars have become an anathema and peroxide blondes have gone out of style, even Cadillac doesn’t build ‘em like this anymore.