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Golden Oldies

Tickle Me, Eldo

Early models of the luxurious Caddys with the big fins still bring smiles to collectors

July 17, 2002|SCOTT DOGGETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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