Beauty luxury… 1964 Cadillac de Ville convertible – those were the words Cadillac used to describe its de Ville range in 1964, five decades on Bob Thomas’ beautiful convertible just proves how correct Cadillac was. There was no better success statement in the Fifties and Sixties than to own a new Cadillac. Back then Cadillac really was, ‘The Standard of the World‘ in quality, desirability, engineering and perhaps most of all, styling. Any successful innovation developed for cars during that period probably debuted on a Cadillac. Owners were devoted to the brand. Even those lower on the social scale would get heavily into debt for a new Caddy, taking advantage of cheap credit, and using money intended for a new house as a Cadillac down payment.
The 1964 Cadillac de Ville convertible you see here belongs to Bob Thomas, he’s owned a number of American cars, but his first wasn’t quite as desirable as this example. “In 1982 I bought a 1978 Mustang II,” remembers Bob, “the 2.8l version. I had that for about four years then got a 1973 Caprice convertible – that was quite a change from the Ford. A few friends had American cars and I then bought an ’88 Thunderbird. In 1992 I sold it and bought a 1964 Coupe de Ville and I’ve owned Cadillac’s ever since.” A 1988 Eldorado – the small, front-wheel-drive version – followed when Bob needed an everyday car. Then came a 1997 Eldorado in 2005, “that was a European spec export model, remembers Bob, “but I always fancied another 1964 or maybe a 1961 – they’re my favourite years.”
Bob found a ’61 in New York State, but a friend looked it over and said it needed too much work. Then Bob’s son spotted this ’64 convertible in Long Island. “I bought it in May 2010 and sent the money, but the seller kept hold of it, I still don’t know what the problem was but after I got a lawyer involved, the Cadillac arrived at Liverpool Docks in late September.” Thankfully, it looked like a decent example, “I drove it home to Wakefield,” says Bob, and it never missed a beat, it showed 79,000 miles and I believe that’s original. It doesn’t look like it’s been messed about with.”
In October 1957, General Motors truck designer Chuck Jordan became chief designer for Cadillac. “The 1959 model was almost finished when I took over,” he recalls. “The studio had a 14 member team: designers, modellers, and technical people. We got comfortable with each other as we face-lifted the 1960 Cadillac, so we were ready when it came time to start on the 1961.” It was a new era; everybody in the Cadillac studio was young. In early 1958, when the 1961 project started, Jordan was 31, his assistant, David R. Holls, was 27.
The ’61 Cadillac was one of the last designs Harley Earl had a hand in, when he retired in December 1958, Bill Mitchell took over as GM’s design vice president. Dave Holls says: “We wanted to get off the big fins, Chuck came up with the idea of skegs – long, pointy fins along the bottom of the fenders.
At first, we were going to make the skeg the main fin – some versions didn’t have upper fins at all – Mr Earl didn’t like that, neither did Bill Mitchell. So eventually we put regular fins back on, but the skeg remained in a reduced form.”
While the 1961 Cadillac looked entirely different from its 1960 predecessor, it remained similar mechanically. The biggest change was a new front frame, which lowered the tubular X-member chassis to give more seat height and headroom. “Mitchell didn’t like the 1961 front end,” remembers Holls, “he said it would make a great front for a Chevrolet. When I was transferred to Chevrolet, we did the 1963 Chevrolet grille like the 1961 Cadillac.”
Jordan’s staff face-lifted the 1962 Cadillac for a more traditional look with a floating, horizontal grille bar and clear tail-lights that turned red when illuminated. The tail-lights were upright and their bezels smaller than in ’61 because, according to designer Jerry Brochstein, “hearse and ambulance builders wanted more tailgate width.” Notable improvements for 1962 were the addition of a dual-circuit brake master cylinder and the inclusion of radio and heater as standard equipment in the Series 62. 1962 would prove a good year; Cadillac assembled 160,840 cars for the model year breaking a production record that had stood for six years and bettering 1961 output by more than 22,000 units.
For the ’63 Cadillac, Mitchell told Jordan, “let’s get off those skegs.” Brochstein, who joined the Cadillac design studio in 1959, recalls the 1961 Lincoln shook everyone with its clean design, making Cadillac stylists simplify the body sides for the 1963 Cadillac and “get away from those corrugated surfaces.” Brochstein also remembers Jordan had the idea for the 1963 Cadillac during a flight back to Detroit after visiting his parents in California. He sketched it on an airsickness bag and it became the concept drawing for the production car.
“The 1963 Cadillac had more of the substance, the solidity, and presence of the 1959-1960 production models,” says Jordan. “We were after a leaner-looking Cadillac; lighter. In 1963 and 1964, we went back to that smoother, more solid shape, and the regal, snooty front. We started first doing the Coupe de Ville, I had an idea when I saw this new four-door hardtop they were working on at Chevrolet. I said to myself, ‘why not put the Chevrolet four-door hardtop roof on the Coupe de Ville? Mount it on the Cadillac lower and see, because of the Cadillac’s extra length, if the Chevy sedan roof doesn’t make a good Cadillac coupe.’ And boy, that was it. With that shorter four-door Chevrolet roof, nobody ever caught us. It looked great.” The more compact roofline gave coupes a 7in increase in rear deck length, despite a 1in gain in body length.
For 1963 the fins were reduced about an inch in height. A new dashboard placed gauges to the right of the existing speedometer, and pulled the clock and radio closer to the driver. Cadillac offered a tilt steering column, but the biggest difference was under the bonnet – finally an engine not derived from that of the 1949 Cadillac. Engineers knew any displacement bigger than 390cu in would overstress the old block, but the cars were getting heavier and had more power zapping accessories – three quarters of the Cadillac’s being built had air conditioning fitted. Almost in secret, Cadillac chief engineer Charles F. Arnold developed a completely new V8 – few were aware the 1963 engine was different from the previous V8. For one thing the new engine displaced the same 390cu in and had the same bore and stroke. Horsepower and torque were also near identical.
Why go to all that effort? Because the 1963 powerplant now had room to expand, it could be bored out to 500cu in (and would be for 1970). The new 390 was an inch lower, 1.25in shorter, and 4in narrower. The new block’s Arma Steel cast crankshaft was stronger and, with increased use of alloys, 50lb lighter than its predecessor. It was also easier to manufacture and work on. The only components carried over were the heads, connecting rods, valves and rocker arms.
New styling and engineering meant another record year for production with 163,174 Cadillac’s born in 1963. Output rose to 165,959 for 1964. Cadillac knew better than to change a good thing, and besides it was still restricted to the two year design cycle that began over a decade earlier. The 1964s gained a half inch in length as the tail-light bezels in the bumper got a slight outward bend at the centre. Larger, square parking lights were integrated into a new V-shaped grille with the main horizontal bar carried around the body sides.
A new, lower blade design marked the 17th consecutive year for tailfins, and vinyl roofs appeared for ’64. Engine bore increased to 4.13in and stroke grew to 4in, adding up to a 340bhp, 429cu in V8. The 1964 Cadillac boasted a top speed of 122mph, with 0-60mph in 8.5 seconds and the quarter mile coming in 16.8 seconds at 85mph. Cadillac owners valued effortless performance, and this engine provided it with silence and reliability. Fuel economy dived from 13mpg in 1963 to 10 miles per gallon of premium gasoline in the ’64 models, but few cared.
Series 62 and Fleetwood 75 models continued with the Hydra-Matic automatic transmission, but de Villes and 60 Specials were fitted with a new Turbo Hydra-Matic three- speed auto. It made use of a torque converter and was a big improvement. Cadillac’s other big innovation for 1964 was optional Comfort Control, the industry’s first fully automatic, thermal resistor-type climate control system. It allowed the driver to choose a temperature setting then never need adjust it again. Summer or winter, interior temperature and humidity remained the same. Also available were Twilight Sentinel automatic headlights.
You might wonder how well that technology would hold up over 50 years of use, but Bob reckons if it’s looked after you rarely have problems, that’s certainly been the case with his ’64. “Mechanically I went through it replacing anything that might be worn such as the brakes. The water pump had a collapsed bearing, but was still working – it shows how high quality the parts were on these cars, I also put in a new radiator and replaced the rotten exhaust with a stainless steel system.”
Bob then stripped out the all black interior, “the front seat was a bit worn and although the backseat looked okay, I had a lot of trouble replacing the leather inserts. The cheapest material I could find was $800 in New York, so in the end I did the worn sections in white – it was an option when new so it still looks correct. But that’s why the steering wheel is black rather than two-tone. We found two mice nests and a programme from a wedding in Bedford, Massachusetts from 1967. From information that came with the car I believe it was originally sold in Minnesota.”
Decoding the VIN shows the Cadillac left the Clark Street, Detroit plant in the third week of January 1964. List price was a hefty $5612 but it would have rocketed up with the $113 for six-way power seats, another $118 for power windows, a Wonderbar radio with rear seat speaker added $247, another $52 for tinted glass and $22 for front seatbelts. The leather interior would have bumped it up a further $474. Being a cold state car the original owner didn’t see any point in specifying air conditioning or climate control. Cruise control, power quarter lights and remote trunk release were also not seen as necessary, but we wonder if he or she ever wished they’d spent the extra $54 for a limited slip differential during those icy winters?
How well do you know your Cadillac ﬁns?
Under the Cadillac’s bonnet is of course the 429cu in V8 coupled to the Turbo Hydra-Matic three-speed auto, “it’s as good as any modern automatic,” says Bob, “unless you really accelerate hard you can’t tell when it’s changing.” Surprisingly, Cadillac hadn’t moved to disc brakes in ’64 and was still using self-adjusting drums all round, though Bob makes a scornful noise saying: “You certainly know about it when they’re not adjusted correctly. Otherwise it’s a pleasure to drive.
“I’ve never been an engine polisher – I use it as much as I can. We went to Holland in it last year for a club meet and I’ve driven down to the Ace Cafe in it too – that’s about a 400 mile round trip but it’s never let me down.
The only slight problem was a leaking exhaust manifold, so I’ve just removed the head to do the valve lifters at the same time. I couldn’t tell the difference between the old and the new parts – there’s no wear at all on the engine. It keeps up with traffic, feels happy at 70mph and even has a decent turning circle. I’m well pleased with that.”