For decades Cadillac’s advertising catchphrase was “Standard Of The World,” and rather than being a pompous boast, it was a simple statement of fact. No Automotive manufacturer was the source of so many iconic engineering breakthroughs. Cadillac pioneered the self-starter, the synchromesh transmission, independent suspension, the automatic transmission, automotive air conditioning, multi-cylinder engines, thin wall casting procedures essential for modern automotive power plants; the list goes on and on. Many of these engineering breakthroughs were created exclusively by Cadillac, others were developed simultaneously with other automakers, but were aggressively put into service by Cadillac, so that they consistently led the industry. (Rolls-Royce, lacking Cadillac’s resources, were content, from the late thirties on, to license Cadillac engineering and produce what was essentially a painfully complex, beautifully made, second rate Cadillac.)
Gilding the lily, Cadillac maintained a standard of quality that buyers could count on, and which prevented their engineering breakthroughs from being put into service until they were thoroughly tested and reliable. I can personally attest to this fact. At around 300,000 miles, my engine had finally had enough. Leaving San Francisco on highway 280, I heard a bang and my old Cadillac immediately lost power. I pulled over, lifted the hood and expected the worst. No smoke, flames, or holes in the block, but the motor was visibly vibrating and sounded like it was chewing walnuts. I knew a major repair was in order, but it was late, the car was still running, and even if the engine blew up, would the cost to fix it really be any more than it was already going to be? With all the wisdom of a twenty-two year old, I decided to soldier on. I drove in the slow lane at about twenty-five miles an hour and finally arrived home after midnight – the car had gone about thirty miles since whatever terrible thing that had happened had happened. The next day, I decided to pull the heads to see how bad things really were.
At least one valve was bent and two of the pistons on one side looked like somebody’s dog had been chewing on them. Awful, but fixable. Yet even in this condition, the car had gotten me home. I’m a big fan of Lincolns, but I have to admit that every Lincoln I’ve ever owned managed to leave me stranded, at some point, out in the middle of nowhere. My ’37 Cadillac never did – like Gunga Din mortally wounded and crawling to the summit to sound a warning, it always got me home before dying.
So what’s it like to drive one of these machines? I can only speculate on what a ’37 Cadillac was like when new, based on the years I spent behind the wheel in mine as it underwent myriad forms of restoration, and my experiences driving very low mileage, original Cadillacs from the period. Climb behind the wheel and two things standout immediately, how sublimely comfortable the front seat is, and how narrow and intimate is the front compartment.
With Marshall springs and cotton padding, the overstuffed front and rear seats of these cars are far more comfortable than anything to be found in a contemporary luxury car. Better, still, the old ads about arriving at your destination feeling refreshed and relaxed were not exaggerating – I never got a back ache or any kind of fatigue behind the wheel of my Series 60, and it’s the perfect car if you’ve got kids. Put them in the back seat, and they’ll be asleep after twenty minutes. (No, not because of a carbon monoxide leak.) There’s just something about the slow, musical hum of the engine, the gentle, vaguely nautical ride, and those super comfortable seats.
Unlike modern cars, the windshield, in fact, all the windows, are very small, creating a cozy ambiance – but vision is not compromised – at least not looking forward. Seen through that narrow windshield, far, far away is a shining chromed goddess with glass wings – pointing the way and giving the impression that this motorcar has someplace very important to go. An absurdly long hood is another thing one no longer finds in a modern car and more’s the pity.
Assuming this Cadillac Series 60 Sedan is brand new, one is immediately aware of the quality – dusky taupe patterned broadcloth seats, and smooth broadcloth door panels, combine with dark woodgrained garnish moldings to create a very formal, almost corporate environment. Heavy, brightly chromed door handles and window cranks seem to float in space, and the gleam of the woodgrained metal window surrounds create a serious and expensive feel.
Deliberate simplicity of design is a trademark of most luxury cars of the thirties, where modernity becomes a showcase for the finest materials. Even the chromed Phillips head screws that hold the windshield and rear window moldings in place provide unexpected dashes of elegance, as do the patterned pipings on the seats, and rear armrest, made of the same material as the assist straps and windlacing around the doors.
This intense attention to the subtlest details conspire to create an atmosphere of great elegance. Sadly, when chrome tarnishes even a little, broadcloth fades, and false wood begins to peel and dim, this magical effect is lost. It can only be reclaimed by the sort of perfect – dead-on accurate restoration that is rarely seen today.
Starting the car is easy – even by today’s standards. And the starkly simple dashboard reinforces the notion that this will not be a hard car to drive. In fact, the dash, like most 30’s dashes, is a marvel of deception, packed with hidden complexities. The driver gets complete instrumentation, for instance, no idiot lights. There are more settings for the outside lights than in a modern car, and the glove compartment is so deep you can bury your arm in it up to your elbow. A delightful feature is the map light, which looks like a second cigar lighter.
Pull it out and one discovers a long cylinder with a hole in the side that emits light. The genius of the device is that the cylinder can be rotated 360 degrees so that light can be shown all around the cabin – up down – sideways. Why this feature didn’t catch on industry wide is beyond me. There is also a hand throttle, which can be used as a primitive cruise control by a brave driver.
The fact is that cars of the twenties and early thirties were demanding to operate. One had to set chokes and throttles, retard sparks, double clutch, pump the brakes – on and on. As a result, and I confess this is my theory, dashes were designed to look as simple as possible so the driving experience would come off as easy, friendly, and not nearly as intimidating as it truly was. By the mid-thirties cars had gotten a lot more user friendly, but the old perceptions persisted and had to be countered – especially with more and more women driving. In the Cadillac of 1937 the bad old days were very much on their way out. Not only was the front seat sinfully comfortable, but it was also adjustable – backwards and forward only – but that was a feature that many cars still lacked. Regardless, the designers of the car got everything just right – the armrest is perfectly placed, the steering wheel at just the right angle, all controls easy to reach.
Put the key in ignition in the center of the dash and switch on the juice. Depress the clutch, put the car in neutral to reduce strain on the engine and press the starter button to the left of the steering wheel.
This is one of the first cars with an automatic choke, as well as a spark advance, so nothing more is needed and the car starts immediately. UNLESS, it’s been sitting for a week or so. In that case, the six volt battery will crank the power plant so slowly that complete electrical death seems imminent. Somehow, the motor just keeps grinding away and grinding away and twenty to thirty nerve-wracking seconds later, (the Cadillac’s owner’s manual actually states that it can take that long,) the beast roars to life.
Unlike modern cars, it’s important to let the engine warm up for about five minutes, at which point the r.p.m will drop to a lethargic, and barely perceptible 600 r.p.m.
Backing out of a driveway is something of a challenge because the car is high and the windows, particularly the rear window, are small. As a result, low things like hedges, or small frolicking children are hard to spot.
Limited review vision aside, the car remains easy to operate. The clutch is light and engages right away. The floor mounted shifter requires little effort to operate, but throws are long and there’s a fair mount of wiggle-waggle. This slack, however, is not unwelcome, it adds to the feel that the car is friendly and forgiving. Reverse is up and toward the driver, first down and close. Second is high and away, and third is down and also away, a traditional H pattern. Occasionally, things are resistant to going where they belong, in which case it is helpful to bump second.
If the car is slightly out of position before moving, a steering correction is not impossible. With the correct four ply tires, it takes effort, but not an excessive amount to move the wheel when the car is at rest. Once moving, steering lightens up considerably, and at any speed over 5 m.p.h. steering effort is so light as to rival modern power steering units. In fact, over, say, 30 m.p.h., steering effort is actually lighter than on a modern car with power assist.
It’s wise to let the engine warm up, but assuming that we’re in a brand new 1937 Cadillac, studying the gauges is important. Not only should the temperature gauge move to the one quarter position, where it will remain seemingly for eternity, but a constant glance at the oil pressure gauge reassures the driver that the motor has not died. Why is this an issue? Because the engine of a brand new 1937 Cadillac is so smooth and so quiet that once the idle settles down there is almost no sensual clues that those eight cylinders are in motion.
Okay, let’s go. Depress the clutch, put the car in reverse, rev the engine a little, let out the clutch slowly, crane your head to look over your shoulder and back out the drive. With any luck, you reach the street without flattening any children or maiming any pedestrians, and you straighten out, put in the clutch, bump second, put the car securely in first and you’re ready to take on the world. The Cadillac accelerates smartly, its no hot rod, but it has plenty of power. In some very unscientific, seat-of-my pants acceleration tests, I determined the Series 60’s 0 to 60 time to be 16 seconds. (Interestingly, this is the same that I estimated for a friend’s 1938 V-16.) Ironically, the limiting factor is not engine power, but the transmission. Though very popular with hot-rodders in the 50’s, the Cad’s three speed is slow to operate by modern standards. If I had really practiced with it, and been somewhat less genteel, I imagine I could have gotten the 0-60 time down to about 12 seconds. In contrast, over 50 the old girl really picks up her skirts and takes off. I’m guessing that the long stroke is the reason why – slow to get going, once the engine builds momentum – watch out! As a result, acceleration over 50 m.p.h. is very brisk and is comparable to contemporary cars. Driving back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles in the ’70s I loved going down Highway 1. Tourist traffic could be a headache, and in the Cadillac I’d often effortlessly pass a line of five cars at a time. Cadillac listed the top speed of the 1936 Series 60, which had the old transmission and 125 hp, (as opposed to the 37’s 135,) at 92 m.p.h. My experience suggests that the peak speed of a ’37 Series 60 would be higher, especially with the aid of modern gas. In fact I read an account of a Canadian back in the thirties who bought a ’38 LaSalle, had 1/16 milled off the heads, a 2.9 crown wheel and pinion cut, and then installed a special set of valves and springs. The result was a zero to sixty time of 10.2 seconds and a top speed of 107.2 m.p.h. On good roads he could cruise all day at 85-90 mph. This hardly seems far-fetched, on the freeway my unmodified, high mileage Cadillac seemed happiest cruising at 65 m.p.h., though a constant 70 wasn’t much of a stretch.
The transmission is pretty quiet, there’s very little of the sharp whine associated with cars of the period – instead, the driver is rewarded with a wonderful, deliciously purposeful “whoosh” as the car gains speed. Up ahead is a stop sign and so it’s time to test the brakes. The pedal is right there, no play, minimal travel, and moderate effort is required, (only the big Cadillacs have power assist.) By moderate, I mean moderate, and after a few stops, the driver forgets that the brakes lack the help of a servo. The other surprise with the brakes is that they STOP – no fuss, no fade, no locking up, the old adage of “stopping on a dime,” immediately comes to mind. In 1937, Packard tested their new light eight against a 1937 LaSalle, which was mechanically nearly identical to the Series 60, and only weighed about 100 pounds less. Packard reported, with all the smugness that they could muster, that the LaSalle’s stopping distance from 60 was no better than the Packard’s at 128 feet. Translation: it was no worse. 128 feet from 60 is what modern cars do.
Brake fade is something I don’t remember, if I ever experienced it it was minor. Everything was over-engineered back in the thirties, and it wasn’t until after the war that things began to slip. Prior to 1940 designers were consumed with making the product better each year, after 1945 they were focused on providing what the customer expected at the least cost to the factory. As a result, quality took a hit, and the horror stories about frightening handling and dangerously fading drum brakes began. I can say from years of experience that the brakes in my old Cadillac never let me down, to this day they inspire more confidence than the brakes on my ’97 Ford F150, and are far superior to the brakes on Cadillacs and Lincolns from the 50’s and 60’s. (Brakes on those cars, especially Lincolns, did get pretty good in the late 60’s and the 70’s, however.)
Driving around town, the ride on the series 60 seems pretty good, but nothing to write home about. It’s only when you go over the same stretch of road in a new car that you realize how amazingly good the old Cadillac’s ride actually is. In the a modern car several blocks of pavement, which you assumed, behind the wheel of the old Cadillac, was fairly smooth is suddenly filled with ruts and bumps and potholes you never knew were there. So why wasn’t the old Cadillac more impressive the first time around? The reason is because the driving experience in a series 60 is more akin to a sports car than a luxury car. The driver has to attend to a manual transmission, which requires constant shifting, after regulating engine speed, and operating the clutch. The engine is quiet, but still very mechanical – the sounds it makes are wonderful and captivating, so you’re aware of them. Finally, turn indicators weren’t offered on American cars until 1938. Because of this, around town, the driver’s window is going to be down to allow for manual hand signaling, with only the left hand available to steer and shift. With all this going on, the ride goes unnoticed, overpowered by a lot of busyness behind the wheel. On the freeway, it’s a different story. Assuming that traffic is light, and the windows are up, the engine becomes a subdued hush, barely heard, and the ride is so smooth and steady it’s like floating. Occasionally, this smoothness becomes unsettling – I would take to moving the wheel rapidly back and forth, (while staying within my freeway lane,) just to be sure that I hadn’t lost traction due to a tire about to go flat. A friend dubbed this maneuver “rumba car.” It’s a check I rarely feel the need to exercise with a modern car – even the smoothest riding – because today’s smooth rides simply aren’t as smooth as yesterday’s.
Handling is contemporary. As previously stated, steering is light and not unduly slow: three and a half turns lock to lock. Lean on turns is minimal and road feel is a perfect balance of informative and subdued. There is a certain caveat to the easy steering, however, because the system is manual. Power steering is a great equalizer, suppressing input from the road as it assists. In a way, it’s an additional shock absorber. Manual steering, on the other hand, has greater road feel. In the case of the Cadillac, a heavy, well-engineered car, shocks and unpleasant kick backs from the road are barely felt. But when the car turns, changes in steering geometry and weight shifts express themselves as increases and decreases in steering effort. These fluctuations are subtle, but they can make the steering feel less effortless than it actually is. On the other hand, it’s one of those sensual qualities that causes the Cadillac to feel more like a sports car than a stereotypical luxury barge. A unique characteristic of Cadillacs from this period is that steering wheel return is aggressive, for lack of a better word. On my Series 60 return wasn’t unduly strong, unlike a friend’s 1938 V-16 where, coming out of a turn, the wheel returned to center so fiercely that I felt I should check my palms to see if they were smoking.
One thing I should add, in the 150,000 miles I put on the car myself, I can never recall enduring the kind road bullying that old cars are so often accused of being subjected to. The front wheels of my old Cadillac had no tendency to be pulled from one irregularity in the pavement to another; it always tracked straight and clean.
On the highway the Cadillac is nearly silent, the engine a subdued hum, droning rhythmically in the manner of an old propeller plane. Where the Cadillac really shines, however, is on a twisty mountain road. This is a car that exhibits moderate understeer, in other words the old beast wants to go in a straight line and doesn’t like to be coaxed away from its course. This is great on a freeway, where an understeering car settles down to a very stable ride and is disinclined to wandering. On curves though, a car with a lot of understeer will tend to plow. Moderate understeer is a different story – more manageable, and more tolerant of sharp turns taken at high speed. Combined with the remarkable flexibility and low speed torque of the 346 V-8, mountain driving is a pleasure. The Cadillac has no problem accessing steep grades in high, but second gear is the best choice for switchbacks. Because the motor is low revving, second gear is not the strained roar that it can be in a contemporary car, and the Cadillac seems to enjoy eating up the pavement at a very swift velocity. Where the car really comes into its own is on down hill grades – the engine is so powerful, and so flexible that braking is a mere afterthought – it’s easy to go down hill for miles quickly and in full control, without stepping on the brakes once. Another good description of a Series 60 is “nimble.” The turning circle is unusually tight for a car of the Cadillac’s size, and this also makes it a fantastic city car, one that is very easy to maneuver through traffic and confined spaces.
Let’s assume that you are arrogant and delusional enough to modify a car like my old Series 60. Let’s say you install a modern, fully independent suspension, disk brakes, power steering and slap in a 327 Chevy V-8. Here’s what you will gain: A higher top speed, a better 0-60 time, improved fuel mileage, quicker steering, and the ease of an automatic transmission. Here’s what you will lose: Your ride will become rougher and bumpier. Your engine will be noisier and will lose a great deal of its hill-climbing ability. Sure it can rocket up the grapevine on I-5, but only with lots of downshifting and extra work. Engine braking and flexibility will be essentially gone, you’ll have to ride the brakes constantly going downhill, and the ability to effortlessly zip up and down winding mountain roads will be diminished. Brakes will be spongier, and though they’ll provide an anti-lock feature, stopping distances will be no better than had they been left stock. It’s even possible that stopping distances will be longer. Steering will be quicker, but most road feel will be lost. Steering effort will be less at very low speeds, but heavier from 5 M.P.H. upwards. Body sway and overall handling will be about the same, though the addition of radial tires will probably result in a lumpier feel. If the car is under-stabilized, lean on hard turns will increase – over stabilized and the car will corner flatter, but body shakes and rattles may result. Hitting the ride/handling sweet spot that the factory achieved will be a daunting task, probably doomed to failure. If a modern set of bucket seats are installed overall seating comfort will decline dramatically, and fatigue on long trips will increase. It needs to be said that most resto-rods are butt-ugly, the aesthetic equivalent of tagging the lobby of the Chrysler Building. Wonderful original cars are too often destroyed to satisfy some owner’s misguided fantasy. The chances of improving on a factory design are miniscule, as anyone with the creative talent to do so would respect what the original builders had accomplished – just as an artist who could paint as well as Rembrandt would never consider getting their hands on one and making “improvements.” The only way that a resto-rod can possibly be justified is if it’s made entirely out of random parts gathered from a scattering of unrestorable parts cars.
Having mentioned how the old Cadillac is much better at going up steep grades than a modern car, it seems an appropriate time to launch into my theory about the difference between torque and horsepower. Not being an engineer, my exclamation should be taken with a grain of salt. To boil it down to a light froth, imagine you’re holding a hammer in your hand. Horsepower is how hard you hit a nail with your hammer – torque is how big and heavy the hammer is. Most modern cars have a healthy amount of horsepower, but their hammers are small and light. In the case of an economy car it’s like trying to pound a nail ferociously with a little tiny hammer more suited for shoe repair. On the other hand, the big classics were like sledgehammers where all it takes is one lazy swing to drive a nail home. My 1937 Cadillac has decent horsepower and a pretty big hammer, which is why it has no trouble climbing hills. In fact, when I’d go up the grapevine on the way to L.A., the old Cad didn’t realize it was climbing a steep grade, we were still on level ground as far as it was concerned. My new Ford truck, on the other hand can, like the Cadillac, go up the grapevine at 70+, but only with a lot of downshifting. Ferraris and Lamborghinis and big old muscle cars are kind of like a bodybuilder wielding a medium size sledgehammer – the kind with a short handle, which can still do an awful lot of damage.
Why is the ride so good on the ’37? There a couple of obvious explanations – a relatively long wheelbase and heavy chassis rails, which conspire to insure that road shocks are pretty well played out by the time they reach the driver. Low pressure, non-radial tires, and fairly gentle spring rates. But there’s another factor, a subtler one. Modern cars utilize rubber or neoprene bushings. To understand how these works, imagine you have a big pencil eraser in your hand. Twist it and it snaps back. Rubber bushings do the same. Their advantage is that they don’t have to be lubricated, and they essentially represent one part – simple and cheap by nature – and low maintenance. What they also do, by “snapping back” is resist. Modern drivers like this, because resistance provides more feedback from the road. Too much, however, can be annoying and exhausting, so there’s an art to striking the right balance – and not all new cars successfully master it. The old Cadillac, on the other hand, uses steel bushings. This sounds harder and harsher, but the reality is the opposite. A steel bushing is very similar to a big bolt in a nut. Imagine sampling one in a hardware store. When well made, the bolt screws into the nut with finger-light effort. Now imagine that the nut and bolt are both heavily greased before being united – the result is NO resistance. What this means on the road is that small imperfections in the pavement go unnoticed, the wheels respond without resistance and the movements are so small as to be undetectable. When the bumps get big, the springs and shocks take over, end of story.
A modern car, with neoprene bushings, resists these tiny road imperfections, and the result is that they’re felt. It’s like punching a well toned boxer in the abs, the blow is absorbed, but felt. On the other hand, the Cadillac responds like a Karate expert, where the opponent’s blow is deflected. Here’s another way of looking at it: imagine a poorly maintained city block where there are 36 lumps and bumps, most of them small, a couple being minor potholes. In a modern, SUV all 36 are felt to one degree or another. Most are barely felt, but they’re there for the counting, should the driver be so inclined. In a luxury barge from the 60’s or 70’s only twelve are felt, the other 24 go unnoticed. In the ’37 Series 60, just 7 are felt. For this, you can thank steel bushings. For the record, in a big Cadillac, a series 75, or even a V-16, 4 to 5 will be felt. The champion in the ride department, is undoubtedly a Model K Lincoln, where no more than 2 bumps are likely to be felt.
Another contributor to gentle riding are the rear leaf springs. When a modern car utilizes leaf springs it installs one or two leaves per rear wheel. On old cars many leaves are used, anywhere from seven to sixteen. I’m not an engineer, but I’m guessing that multiple leaves allow for spring action to be carefully tuned for varying road conditions – soft response on smooth pavement increasing to firmer resistance on rough roads. If only one leaf spring is used, or one coil spring, this spring has to do dual or triple duty, which has obvious limitations.
Why are the seats so comfortable? The 1937 Cadillac utilizes Marshall springs – another word for coil springs. These are wrapped in cloth and attached to a wooden frame, which is good for absorbing shocks. Then the surface level is stuffed with cotton.
In contrast, modern cars use flat springs, (cheap with limited flexibility,) and molded foam rubber rather than cotton. It’s the difference between an upholstered dining chair in a decent restaurant and an over-stuffed living room sofa.
So what are the flaws of a 1937 Series 60? Start with fuel consumption, which is a reliable 13 m.p.h. – city or highway, it doesn’t matter – it’s going to be 13 m.p.h. On the other hand, the engine was built for 77 octane regular, so it can probably run on ant piss, or anything moderately combustible. However, certain modern fuels can corrode gaskets and brass parts, so additives are needed.
There’s no air-conditioning – no power windows – no power seats, or anything for that matter. On the other hand, there’s less to go wrong – and the simple ventilation system is really effective, as are the broadcloth seats, which breathe on a hot day.
The gauges never falter, but the electric clock will last for about a week.
Vapor lock. I got it rarely, but it’s there, lurking. Measures can be taken, but like hurricane shutters, only so much can be done if things really get bad.
Tune ups. The 346 V-8 is very easy to tune and maintain by the standards of its time, and the payoff of a perfectly timed, sweet running engine is wonderful. But electronic ignition and fuel injection is still better.
Maintenance. If you love working on cars, you’ll be in heaven. A 1937 V-8 Cadillac is far from temperamental and finicky, you can neglect routine maintenance for years and it will keep soldiering on and driving more or less like a Cadillac. But change the oil regularly, lube it like the factory recommends every 1000 miles or so, check the tires, top off the cooling, etc., etc. and the damn thing will last forever. Actually, you can double or triple the recommended schedule because modern oils and coolants are far superior to what was available in the thirties – but be very sure to use the right stuff. Unleaded fuel and certain motor oils will poison the engine. Fortunately, valves can be reconfigured to run on unleaded and the proper lubricants are available – just do your research.
The heater and defroster system, one of the earliest to be offered in an automobile, is comical, to say the least. Does it work? yeah, kind of like castor oil for a malady, I suppose. The heater has a couple of blower speeds, but the only way to moderate the temperature, is to open or close little doors on the heater, which sits below the dash. The result is that the driver’s compartment gets really hot, really fast, and the only solution is to turn the heater off or open the windows. The front vent windows also must be opened if complete windshield defrosting is required, as the vents above the dash only clear a semicircle in front of the driver and the passenger, and the side windows fog up swiftly.
Vacuum windshield wipers – need I say more.
Limited trunk space – but at least it has one.
Air pollution. No smog control – no catalytic converter. I do wonder if that long stroke creates more complete combustion and less smog. Back in the 70’s I got stopped by an impromptu police checkpoint, where all cars were stopped and a probe was stuck up their exhaust to check for pollution. Of course, the standards of the 70’s weren’t as strict as today’s, but a checkpoint suggested that the powers that be had gotten serious. The old Cadillac hadn’t been tuned in a while and was a far way from being fully restored; nonetheless it passed, to the surprise of the local constabulary.
No seat belts or air bags. Then again, after market seat belts can be installed, and to the Cadillac’s credit no modern car would want to be on the receiving end of a collision. I heard a story about a 1939 Cadillac that had an unfortunate encounter with a stone retaining wall. The Cadillac received a grapefruit sized dent in one of its front fenders – the wall had to be replaced. A more extreme account came to me from Jack Passey, retelling a dramatic evening he experienced back in the ’50’s while piloting a 1933 Cadillac V-16 Seven Passenger Sedan. On California’s Highway 17, a notorious deathtrap, he had a ’55 Chevy pull in front of him from a side road. He slammed on the brakes, started to slide off the road, and head for a cliff, said to himself “what the hell, ” let up on the brakes and smashed into the rear of the Chevy instead – crumpling the trunk all the way up to the rear window. No one was hurt, pertinent information was exchanged, and Jack went on his way. A few minutes later, the same thing happened, this time the recipient being a 1948 Chrysler, which was also rendered trunkless by Jack’s V-16. Once again there were no injuries and information was exchanged. It should be noted that a ’55 Chevy is a substantial car by contemporary standards – a ’48 Chrysler even more so.
I asked Jack what damage had been done to the V-16, which was conveniently parked a few feet away. Jack walked over to the Cadillac and pointed to the front bumper – “Do you see that scratch there on the left?” I nodded my head politely, but must confess that I didn’t see any damage at all. In fairness, the 1933 V-16 is probably the most formidable car that Cadillac every built, it would easily intimidate a Hummer.
That said, all Cadillacs from the Classic Era are not cars you’d want to go head to head with today.
Weirdly, the narrow tires are really good on a rainy road. I think it’s because there’s less surface to be coaxed into hydroplaning. Despite this, stopping distances don’t suffer. I know it sounds odd, but even with the miserable defroster, the awful vacuum wipers, and the low-illumination headlights, I always felt very safe and relaxed in the big old Cadillac when it had to plow through a storm. It was more reassuring than many other cars that I’ve driven under such conditions, and that includes new ones. Go figure.
I bought my ’37 Series 60 from Jack Passey when I was sixteen. He pulled it out from one of his sheds at his old Bascom Avenue location, and it was waiting for me when I arrived around four in the afternoon, after school. The Cadillac needed paint and a muffler, it made a hell of a racket when revved, but it ran. My dad came with me, and I think he drove the Cadillac eighty percent of the way, then turned it over to me at the bottom of the steep hill that led up to my mom’s house. I’d never driven a car with a manual transmission, and I had to learn on the spot – the results were pretty ugly. Typically, my first attempts ended with my stalling the car in the middle of the narrow winding road that made its way up to my mom’s. No surprise, as I made my third attempt to coax the car forward, another car appeared behind me and honked its horn impatiently. Okay, I hadn’t given the car enough gas, and I had to get out of the way – so the solution was to give the Cadillac lots of gas. I revved the engine to about 2,500 r.p.m. and let out the clutch, or more appropriately, popped it because I hadn’t mastered the art of letting it out slowly. What happened was a surprise to no one but myself. The car leapt forward, burning rubber, and heading for the stone edge of a small bridge. I turned the car hard to the right, darting into a private road, which culminated in a very swiftly approaching dead end. I slammed on the brakes right before hitting a wall, and of course, the car stalled. The impatient driver, followed behind me, very cautiously and slipped into a driveway – this time they didn’t honk.
I have no idea how I ever managed to back out and get up the hill. I almost didn’t make it – when nearly home, I backed off the road onto a steep dirt driveway. I succeeded in leaving the dirt, ending up in high, dried grass, which offered as much traction as wet glass. Each time I tried to go forward, the car slipped backwards. By some miracle, I extracted myself, though I can no longer remember what the miracle was.
I used the Cadillac to motor to high school, and though it got some attention, old cars weren’t that uncommon in the sixties, so it hardly made me a celebrity. It did, however, get the once over from a very unusual classmate. Fred Woods, who was my age, went on to kidnap 26 school children near the town of Chowchilla, aided by two more classmates, the Showenfeld Brothers. One morning, as I was climbing out of the Cadillac, Fred came up to me and smiled, looking not unlike the bad guy in “The Heat Of The Night,” which had recently been released.
“Nice car,” he said.
“Thanks.” I answered.
“Say,” he asked, still smiling, “do the doors make any noise when they close?” He laughed, softly, and headed on to class.
It’s common, when someone is revealed to have committed some terrible criminal act for their friends to say, “He’s the last person I would ever have thought could do such a thing.” Not so Fred Woods, at least in my opinion, from the first time I saw him I thought, “He looks like the kind of guy who’s going to kidnap 26 school children someday.”
The old Cadillac needed a lot of repairs to make it school ready. A very competent local garage relined all the brakes and turned the drums, installed a new exhaust system, and replaced the entire steering unit. I found a box and column from a junked ’37 Buick Special in a local yard and handed it over to them. The unit was identical to the one in my Cadillac, though the Buick’s had a steering lock. A number of other repairs were performed so that the car was safe and reliable. The black wall truck tires that the car had when I got it were replaced with 6 ply wide whitewalls. They looked great, but did little to improve ride or handling. Years later I was able to purchase a set of reproduction Firestone 4 ply tires, which were made from the original molds used back in 1937. These were the exact tires that car was equipped with when it was brand new and the difference was astounding. The ride became 50% smoother and the steering was rendered about 70% lighter.
In the early 70’s I had a pretty adventurous road trip in a 1959 Edsel, returning it from my east coast college in the summer. The Edsel lived up to its reputation by blowing a head gasket and leaving me stranded for a week in the town of Floodwood Minnesota. Once it was repaired, I headed west and rendezvoused with friends at the base of the Sierras, (Nevada side.) They met me in the Cadillac. We traded cars, and began the long steep climb to the summit. The Cadillac was displeased with the climb and kept discharging water through the overflow tube, causing the temperature to rise. I solved the problem by converting the non-pressurized system to a pressurized one by jamming a rag under the cap and cutting off the overflow – problem solved.
Several hours later we all stopped at Vallejo to get gas, and the Edsel lit out first. Perhaps because I was adding water, or maybe because the Cadillac was so low on gas, whatever the reason, it wasn’t until twenty minutes after my friends’ departure that I got back on the highway. I was kind of annoyed and determined to catch them, so I simply put my foot all the way to the floor and kept it there. Rush hour had begun; however, as rush hour in those days was nothing like today, I was still able to make good time by moving in and out of lanes with a high degree of recklessness. The needle on the Cadillac’s speedometer pegged itself at 110, and that’s where it stayed for the twenty minutes it took me to catch up to my friends, (who were doing 70,) just as they were entering the toll plaza for the Bay Bridge. The Cadillac didn’t seem to mind the workout, though it did get “a little light in its loafers” over 90 m.p.h.
I pulled a similar stunt a year or two later, driving out to the beach on a lonely stretch of highway late one night. The road was smooth with gentle curves and the Cadillac went right up to the indicated 110, (probably an exaggeration on the car’s part – but still damned fast,) and, as before, the ride was fairly unnerving and uncontrolled. Years later, I discovered that some crucial elements of the suspension were not as they should have been for either of these speed tests, and I feel strongly that a brand new 1937 Series 60 would have been far more steady and reassuring at very high speeds.
One example of the car’s legendary quality came when I was driving from San Francisco to Cupertino for some regular maintenance – a distance of about 50 miles. The car had around 250,000 miles on it and the water pump froze up. This snapped a fan belt so that I also lost the generator. I stopped, appraised the situation, discarded the broken belt and soldiered on, figuring I’d call a tow truck when the temperature started to rise or the engine began to fade. This, however, never happened, the Cadillac continued on as if everything was normal, the temperature never getting out of the cold range. I arrived at the shop on schedule and without any fuss.
I never fully restored my Cadillac, just did what was needed to keep it functioning. It got a new paint job early on and the engine was completely rebuilt at around 300,000 miles. The water pump, radiator, generator, voltage regulator, etc. all needed attention at some point or another. After being forced off the road one dark and stormy night and only avoiding a plunge over a cliff because the rear wheel lodged on a rock, it was necessary to replace one of the rear spring shackles and a bent front steering knuckle support.
The old beast always drove well, but never reached anything approaching perfection. The handling was good, but it leaned a lot on corners and under hard acceleration, the rear end would squat down. According to a salesman’s reference book it had a rear cross link unit that was touted to prevent both of these things from happening. For years, I assumed that the book played up primitive, not very effective engineering. As time went by, however, I started to wonder. If this cross link was such a lame design, why did Cadillac use it well into the fifties? Besides, a friend’s low mileage 1938 V-16 used the same device, and that car barely leaned while cornering hard. Numerous times I crawled under my Cadillac to inspect the unit, and it seemed fine, though it didn’t help that I could never figure out exactly how it worked. Finally, after a number of years, I decided to spruce up the suspension, and started by replacing the rubber bushings on the rear cross link. As I dismantled it, I quickly discovered that a critical nut securing one side of the unit to the frame was completely missing. What this meant is that for all the years that I owned the car, the cross link was completely non-functional.
I moved on to have the front shocks rebuilt, learning that one was also not working at all. Unlike a modern car, these shocks double as the upper control arm, so their proper functioning is pretty important. I adjusted the steering box so that the annoying half-inch of play all but disappeared and replaced the bushings on the front anti-sway bar. The most critical part of this job is to be sure to install new rubber bushings where the sway bar bolts to the front cross-over plate – otherwise you’re essentially revarnishing deck chairs on the Titanic. Once all the changes were made, I took the Cadillac out for a test drive. All the lean was gone and there was no tendency for the rear to squat down during hard acceleration – a very pleasant car to drive had become one of the nicest vehicles I had ever piloted.
There was a tremendous lineup of models in 1937. The small Series 60 was offered as a sedan; there were also two coupes, a convertible coupe, and a convertible sedan.
Then came the Series 65, a sedan only, which bridged the gap between the 60 and the far more expensive Fleetwood bodied Series 70.
The top of the line V-8s were the Series 75.
After that was the Series 85, which offered all the Series 75 bodies with a V-12 powerplant.
Finally, the Cadillac pinnacle was reached with the Series 90, the legendary V-16. I only drove one ’37 V-16, a seven passenger sedan, and the experience was unforgettable.
A number of small cars drive like big cars, (not always a virtue,) while a select few big cars drive like small cars – the Cadillac V-16s, at least, the later ones, fall into this category. The ride, of course, is strictly big car, a V-16 is impervious to nearly all road flaws. The handling, however, is astonishingly nimble, and the nearly 20 foot long behemoth can be maneuvered about with ease and agility. Steering isn’t especially heavy, brakes, power assisted, are excellent, and comfort is outstanding. The second generation V-16s, which debuted in 1938, were even better – I would rate this model of V-16 as one of the finest driving cars I have ever encountered.
Ironically, it was the low rent models like my Series 60, which doomed great classics such as the V-16. Automotive engineering had advanced so much in the seven odd years since the twenties crashed into depression that a car like the Series 60 could do nearly everything expected of a V-16. It rode nearly as well, handled better and was probably faster. It was much cheaper to operate and far easier to maintain, and the quality, if not the best money could buy, was nonetheless damned good.
A perfect example of what superb motorcars these Cadillacs were is recounted in the Automobile Quarterly history of Cadillac published in 1987. According to David Scott-Moncrieff “A friend of mine left his hotel in Switzerland, and drove his Bugatti as fast as he could to Paris. As he drew into the Liotti, grimy and exhausted, he was followed by a chauffeur driven Cadillac containing two American matrons. They and their chauffeur were as fresh as paint and showed no signs of fatigue. They had been staying at the same hotel as my friend in Switzerland, and had left it an hour after he did!” This story illustrates how Cadillacs in the thirties were well ahead of their time, providing a swift, effortless, comfortable and reliable motoring experience. They were truly the Standard Of The World, and have aged so well that if I had to take a long road trip and was offered a choice between my old ’37 and a brand new Mercedes it would be no contest – I’d take the Cadillac in a heartbeat.
SPECIFICTIONS AND FACTORY DELIGHTS
Posted in NO SIN MYSTERIES by firstname.lastname@example.org with 1 comment.
How on earth could a bulbous Lincoln from the fifties possibly compete with the relatively modern engineering of a 1995 BMW? On face value this seems like a bizarre match-up, with the older car begging to have its lavishly chromed, baroque front end ground into the dust by “the ultimate driving machine.” But these two cars have a lot more in common than one might expect, and in a couple of surprising areas the Lincoln actually excels.
(A rarely seen ad for the Lincoln Premiere – possibly because it was considered racist all the way back in the fifties.)
Buyers were not especially interested in handling back in 1957, Mr. and Mrs. Plushbottom wanted a cushy ride augmented by heaps of chrome and riotous styling that told the world that they were more special, (as well as more fearlessly tasteless,) than their neighbors. Because of this, Ford never promoted its Lincoln as a driver’s car, even though it was carefully engineered to be one – it was, in fact, the BMW of its era. From the period of 1952 to 1955 “Road Race Lincolns” dominated the Carrera Panamericana rallies through Mexico, consistently winning in their class. The race was finally called off in 1955 because of the large number of spectator casualties. Starting at the top of Mexico in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas and working its way to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, the route wove its way through many small Mexican towns. As the race was the most exciting thing going on, townsfolk would hurry out to the main boulevard to watch the cars streak by, at which point they were summarily mowed down. For several years after the race was terminated, Lincoln continued to be a driver’s car, and its characteristics mirror those of the BMWs made years later.
So what do these cars have in common? The BMW utilizes a Macpherson strut front suspension, developed by the very man who was in charge of Lincoln chassis engineering during the fifties. Both cars have power assisted recirculating ball steering boxes with nearly identical gear ratios. The Lincoln’s box gives 3.3 turns lock to lock, the BMW’s is 3.7. (Critics complained that the steering on both cars was a bit too slow and lacked feel.) Both cars came equipped with shock absorbers designed to provide a neutral point for smooth riding over good pavement, and which quickly firmed up when the going got rough. Both cars have close to perfect 50/50 weight ratios. The Lincoln is heftier at 4,538 pounds as compared to the BMW’s 4,145 pounds – portly by today’s standards, but lightweights by the luxury car standards of the fifties and sixties. The Lincoln is also bigger, riding on a 126 inch wheelbase, as opposed to the BMW at 115.4. Overall length on the Lincoln is a whopping 224.6 inches, whereas the BMW’s is 196.2 inches. Despite this, the ’57’s were reputed to handle slightly better than earlier Road Race Lincolns, which were considerably smaller.
Behind the wheel, the cars are remarkably similar. Rides are close to indistinguishable, silky over smooth, well maintained roads, but the moment the pavement starts to give sass, both suspensions immediately firm up and fight back. Both cars corner flat, though lean can be induced in the Lincoln when speeds increase, especially on long gentle curves. Ironically the Lincoln does better in the tight twisties. Going swiftly on a road with plenty of switchbacks, the BMW, with its radial tires, stays glued to the pavement, whereas the Lincoln goes into a four wheel drift when pushed hard. Frightening as it sounds, a four wheel drift is something of a kick, and strangely reassuring to the driver. Rather than feeling like the car is on the verge of flipping, or losing control, the entire vehicle simply slides sideways about six inches to a foot, while remaining completely flat. On twisty mountain roads, both cars are easy to throw around, maintaining their composure at all times. There is a caveat to this, however, in the case of the Lincoln. If the driver is too cautious and moderate in his/her actions, the Lincoln tends to plow. Good handling isn’t achieved unless the driver is aggressive, really giving the big wheel a vigorous swing. I experienced a similar situation when I was allowed to drive a Mercedes-Benz Gullwing many years back.
At the time, I was a salesman at the shadiest used car lot on the west coast, specializing in true classic cars, muscle cars and exotics. The owner expected me to be impressed with the Gullwing, and was disappointed when I was not. The legendary Mercedes didn’t seem all that fast, it’s steering was heavy and it’s handling was plodding – it reminded me of a mid-sixties Ford Falcon. “Don’t be scared of this car,” the owner told me, “you’ve got to be brutal. Just put your foot all the way down and don’t worry – it can handle it.” What the hell, I thought, and did as I was told, stomping on the gas, and heading toward the nearest turn, going into it far faster than I thought was wise. The Gullwing changed its character immediately, handling much more like a late sixties Ferrari or Lamborghini, supercars that drive so well that the driver is merely an accessory.
On the highway, the Lincoln and BMW are again eerily similar, composed and rested at high speeds, with a very slight tendency to wander – typical of motorcars with moderate understeer that can be quickly transformed into moderate oversteer. (The result of that nearly perfect 50/50 weight distribution.) For those who don’t quite get these terms, understeer is created when a vehicle has a lot of weight up front, causing the machine to abhor turning. Shopping carts provide a great example of understeer, as do dogs on leashes who want to sniff grass and resist an owner’s desire that they move along. When a corner is encountered, an understeering car wants to keep going straight. An oversteering car, on the other hand, loves going into turns, sometimes too much. Porches are notorious for excessive oversteering, and if the driver isn’t careful the rear end can break loose and come forward to say hello.
The BMW is most comfortable in the 85 to 90 m.ph. range on the straights, the Lincoln at 70 to 75 m.p.h., and it’s on the highway in particular where the Lincoln gets the edge. The reason is something of a surprise – the Lincoln’s seats are simply much more comfortable.
Equipped with a wide bench seat lacking a center armrest, the Lincoln would seem no match for the BMW with its ergonomically correct, reclining buckets.
But in my experience, the BMW produces a nasty back ache after twenty minutes of driving. No degree of fiddling with the lumbar controls or changing positions ever altered this woeful condition. On the other hand, I never got a back ache in the Lincoln and always arrived feeling relaxed and refreshed.
The BMW has an early onboard computer allowing the driver to calculate arrival times, as well as a speed control, a telephone and a means of determining outside temperatures. The Lincoln, on the other hand, could be ordered with a dash mounted, old-fashioned compass, an automatic headlight dimmer, a self-lubricating system for the chassis, and any number of idiosyncratic options. Quaint as these options sound, the easiest way to level the playing field and bring the old Lincoln into the BMW’s high tech realm is with a standard smart phone.
Unlike the BMW, Lincoln offered a great many colors, fabrics and upholstery styles. Some of these choices accommodated those with refined tastes –
While others appealed to those for whom good taste was, at best, an abstract concept.
Good or bad, style was everything in the Lincoln’s day, compensating for Detroit’s lack of engineering innovation. (Lincoln was an exception in this department.) The Lincoln’s front door is simple but very stylish. The manual door lock is next to the interior light. (The power lock switch is on the dash.) The power window controls are awkwardly placed on the dogleg. (Not visible here.)
The BMW’s front door has plenty of storage and real wood trim. Window controls are black plastic and built into the armrest. The door panel itself is molded vinyl with a genuine leather insert for the armrest. The memory seat controls are between the two storage compartments.
Unlike modern luxury cars, the Lincoln’s rear area is sparse, even austere. Partially, this is due to the designers wanting to create a look of modern simplicity. But also, this was a time when modern gadgetry, like power windows and air-conditioning, was considered the ultimate in luxury and more old fashioned pamperings, such as vanities and storage compartments, were passe. (They were also expensive, and the fifties were a time of planned obsolescence and cheap manufacturing.)
In lieu of high tech electronics, the Lincoln offered a vast carry of colors inside and out. (Less than a handful of conservative color choices were available for the BMW’s interior.)
The ride in the rear tells a similar story. No back ache from the BMW, but its rear seat just isn’t as comfortable as the back seat in the Lincoln, or as commodious. However, the BMW has map pockets, cubby holes, map lights, cup holders – all manner of ways to pamper the passenger.
The BMW even has a factory installed first aid kit.
With the Lincoln you get a glove compartment and that’s about it. (One has to go back to the 1930’s to get comparable adornments in a Lincoln.)
However, one area where the Lincoln shines is with its heater/ventilation/defroster system. Despite having a “sophisticated” climate control system, the BMW’s heating and defrosting characteristics are woeful, to say the least. There might be a sweet spot, a heater, air-conditioning mix that gets everything just right, but I never found it – and I certainly wasn’t going to search for it during the middle of a torrential downpour. What the driver has to put up with is a windshield that fogs up quickly and when the defroster button is pushed, the fan comes on with so much sturm und drang that a hurricane outside the car would seem less raucous. Only a few seconds can be tolerated, so it’s fortunate that the glass is cleared of mist swiftly – that is until the windshield starts to fog up again. As the defroster only has one setting, that being “windborne concussion,” the BMW is best suited for drives in sunny weather.
In contrast, the Lincoln’s system is a joy.
Two matching sets of blower controls and toggle switches allow for easy adjustment where the driver’s side of the car can be heated or cooled separately from the passenger’s side. Defrosting is swift, quiet and efficient. And although there are only two blower speeds, each seems just right. A treat is the old fashioned, fresh air ventilation system, which allows for a trickle of fresh air or a full torrent. Unlike modern cars, where the fresh air always seems tainted and warmed and slightly humid, the air that the Lincoln lets in is so refreshing that one only feels the need for air-conditioning when it’s really, really hot out. Incidentally, both cars have rear window defrosters, and under seat heating vents for both front and rear passengers.
The BMW has a modern, climate control air-conditioning system with outlets in the dash, as is common today.
The Lincoln’s air-conditioning comes from outlets in the headliner.
As I never got my air-conditioning working I can’t comment on which system is best. I have to interject, however, that climate control baffles me. The idea is that you can set your preferred temperature and just forget it, the car will do the rest. In practice, every climate controlled car I have ever encountered requires so much constant fiddling with the temperature settings and blower speeds that I could never understand the advantage over a straight-forward system.
One area where the Lincoln falls short is with its windshield wipers – they’re vacuum operated, need I say more? The theoretical advantage of vacuum wipers is that they can be set to any conceivable speed – the reality, however is grim. Indeed, vacuum wipers work great – until the driver steps on the gas, at which point they slow to a crawl or stop altogether – just what you want in a violent rain storm. The Lincoln has a vacuum tank that’s supposed to compensate for this rather serious flaw, but I never found that it made a damn bit of difference. The BMW’s wipers are modern, competently electric, and have a multitude of settings. Ironically, the first set of wipers had to be replaced on my folk’s 740I. (As did the original transmission.) The wipers were a special kind designed to work efficiently at very high speeds – but the springs used to hold them tight against the windshield were so strong that the wipers actually ground dirt into the glass – as a result the entire windshield had to changed. The new, “less efficient” wipers worked just fine.
In the braking department, the BMW is the clear winner. Its panic stopping distance from 60 m.p.h. in 128 feet is a lot better than the Lincoln’s, which I’m going to guess is about 150 feet – the luxury car standard in those days. The BMW has disc brakes, the Lincoln comes with drums all around and no ABS. Under most driving conditions, the Lincoln is okay, its power booster is powerful and it stops well enough three or four times until the brakes start to fade. Fortunately, the brakes are not prone to fade under regular driving conditions, only if you’re doing a lot of squealing stops from high speeds. All the same, the BMW is far more capable and reassuring in this area.
Both cars have electric windows all around and power door locks – though the Lincoln’s only lock, unlocking has to be done manually. (It was Detroit’s first year for this feature.) Each car comes with power seats, which go up and down, forward and back and also tilt. The Lincoln has no reclining backrest, however, while the BMW also has a memory seat feature, which remembers three driver settings. (A feature pioneered by the 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.)
Not surprisingly, trunk space in the Lincoln is far greater than the BMW’s. With the Lincoln, it would be easy to smuggle a full family of four through any border.
In the BMW you could only get through a rather smallish mother and her daughter.
The engine compartment of the Lincoln is typical fifties – disorganized and aesthetically challenged. Despite the car’s enormous size, the space for the motor is cramped and repairs are not especially easy to execute.
In comparison, the BMW’s engine compartment is very pleasing to look at – though many of the decorative panels are of plastic. Servicing is also easier than in the Lincoln – to a point. Anything serious is beyond the means of a backyard mechanic.
One “luxury” that the Lincoln offered was a variety of body styles. Besides two sedans there was a coupe and a convertible.
The BMW, on the other hand, had a long wheelbase version, and a V-12 known as the 750IL.
So, let’s go for a ride.
Starting with the Lincoln, the first thing you notice is how big it is. ’57 Lincolns are mercurial in appearance. From certain angles they come off as hulking and strange, especially if paint is faded and chrome is tarnished.
From other vantage points they are dramatic and thrilling, sleek and magnificently sculptural.
More than most cars, condition makes all the difference. In photographs, they don’t look all that much like luxury cars. Luxury cars by nature are restrained, imposing, intimidating. Tinted glass, or large blind rear quarters should conceal and protect passengers, hinting at a rarefied world off limits to those who aren’t wealthy and privileged.
Worse, the tail fins, the silly “I’m rich” logos, the two-toned upholstery and flamboyant colors so popular in the fifties are the opposite of intimidating. The lack of skirts for the rear fenders add a sporty, plebeian touch to the Lincoln, which further diminishes its luxury car image. The fact is, most expensive American cars from the fifties fail to be intimidating due to comparable styling choices. I remember watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as a kid and noting that a lead baddie lost nearly all his mojo if he transferred from a ’65 Lincoln or Imperial, to a ’55 Cadillac limousine. In the sixties Imperial he was “Doctor Evil:”
Likewise the Lincoln.
while in the fifties Caddy he was instantly demoted to “Louis The Louse:”
Ironically, the only cars I can think of from the fifties that truly looked like luxury cars were the ’56 Lincolns, and the Continental Mark II.
The Continental was restrained and sported a true blind rear quarter, while the Lincoln, with properly skirted rear fenders and a simplicity of design that greatly outclassed its competitors, was an oasis of relative refinement in an unrepentant landscape of girth and bling.
In person, the ’57 Lincoln presents a far more flattering visage. Its sheer size, a platform for silky paint covering massive, sculptural shapes, and lots and lots of chrome leaves the observer thinking “Wow! People got all that for their money? Amazing!” One isn’t buying a car as much as a full Broadway musical on wheels- not a vehicle for introverts. The Lincoln also seems a good deal lower and sleeker in person, even tasteful, particularly evident if parked next to its main competition – a 1957 Cadillac.
In contrast, the Cadillac is unpleasantly plump and dumpy, its use of chrome random and desperate.
Coming closer and and activating the sleek, fifties style door handle, one is struck by how heavy the door is. My grandmother had a ’62 Continental, and if she parked on a slight incline, and had to push the door upwards to exit, she couldn’t get out of the car. I wonder how many wealthy old ladies have been trapped in their Lincolns over the years?
The interior of the Lincoln appears sparse for a luxury car, and not terribly lavish.
The sense of touch, and a closer look, quickly dispels this first impression. The door panels, for instance, though vinyl, are upholstered, not stamped, and all the fixtures are heavy and substantial and nicely detailed. Even the controls for the heater and defroster, which appear to be plastic, are actually painted metal. When plastic is used, on the shifter knob for instance, it seems an aesthetic choice, not one of economy. Fit and finish is very good and the leather seats are exceedingly smooth and comfortable.
There are lapses, the front kick panels lack stitching to match the door panels, and the loop carpeting, so popular in the fifties, comes off as cheap rather than chic.
Getting behind the wheel is easy, so long as you take care not to bang your knee on the dogleg. Immediately you’re aware of how different this car is from modern vehicles – it’s a whole different universe. The car feels very wide, (because it is,) yet despite a vast acreage of glass, the windows are narrow – looking through the windshield gives the feel of wearing a baseball cap with the visor pulled down low over the eyes. This is no mere illusion, Lincoln offered an optional prism, which attached to the rear view mirror and allowed the driver to see when a stoplight changed without having to crane his/her head.
In front of you is a handsome, space-age style dashboard with a lot of bling by today’s standards – by the standards of its time, however, it was quite restrained. In contrast, the dash for a 1957 Cadillac shows what a prosperous fifties motorist was more accustomed to.
The interior of the Lincoln comes across as too flashy for a bank president, but not sparkly enough for a successful entertainer – one feels more like a record producer, or with the car’s definite Las Vegas flavor, a professional gambler.
The padded dash, more common on the 57’s, was an industry leader. In 1955 Ford led the way by being the first auto company to promote safety, offering seat belts, padded dashes and concave steering wheels. These features were resisted by the marketing department, which warned that talking up safety would spook buyers, who didn’t want to be reminded that their cars were inherently dangerous. The naysayers felt themselves proved right when Ford and Mercury sales took a small dip in ’56. Lincoln, however, bucked the trend, seeing its sales rise – mostly due to its dramatic new styling.
Put the unusual, rectangular handled key in the ignition, press the accelerator pedal to the floor to activate the automatic choke, release it, and turn the key. After the distinctive high-pitched growl of the Ford starter, familiar to viewers of old Perry Mason episodes, the car comes instantly to life. It’s good to let the engine warm up for a minute or two, then tap the gas and the engine swiftly settles down to a very quiet, unobtrusive idle, the exhaust burbling like an old motorboat. In front of you, the minimal gauges are not easy to read, due to the white letters on silver. (Fifties critics didn’t like this.) Idiot lights were in vogue so the Lincoln has a speedometer, a clock, a gas gauge, a temperature gauge and that’s all. However, the oil pressure light and the ammeter light flicker when things aren’t quite as they should be, and this imparts some information – also these lights fade away when the engine is revved, (unless something is really wrong.) The gas gauge also has a red warning light to let you know when the tank is low, and there’s a light to warn if a door is ajar.
The shift lever is on the steering column, (another remnant from the past,) but, mercifully, the quadrant is laid out in the modern sequence with “R” following “P” for park. (Early automatics had “D” following “P”, which resulted in far too many drivers, ready to back out of their driveways, plowing into their garage doors instead.)
In preparation to shifting, one steps on the extra wide power brake pedal and is confronted with yet another foreign sensation – the pedal barely gives, it’s like stepping on the floorboard. (This is assuming that the brakes have been properly adjusted, something that had to be done by your mechanic in the bad old days.) Select your gear, and you’re off.
Backing up the enormous beast is a lot easier than one might expect due to an unexpected feature – the tail fins. Because of the fins, and the wraparound rear window, it’s extremely easy to gauge exactly where the car ends – there’s simply no guessing. The shark-like shrouds over the front lights are equally informative – all that crazy styling turns out to be weirdly practical.
The fins are useful in other ways, it’s been theorized that they work like a spoiler and keep the rear on an even keel at high speeds, (I’m inclined to believe this,) and there’s no missing the Lincoln’s over-sized taillights – or stoplights during the day.)
The extra-large backup lights in the rear bumpers are also very bright and useful. (Except in a collision, of course – though I wouldn’t want to go up against that bumper in a modern Toyota.)
From the rear, the BMW’s styling is quite a bit more restrained.
Out on the road, the Lincoln continues to feel, well, big. The ride is quiet, the engine barely audible. Road feel through the steering wheel is excellent, despite what the critics had to say. The kind of steering feedback that automotive writers gush over is generally appropriate to a sports car, too harsh for a luxury car. Both the Lincoln and the BMW hit the balance just right, enough road feel so that the driver feels in control and well-briefed, not so much as to make the driving experience unpleasant and wearing. Additionally, steering is positive and responsive. What exactly does this mean? Sticking a shovel into fresh earth gives a positive, responsive feel. The effort expended is directly proportional to the amount of dirt extracted, one can feel, through the shovel’s handle, exactly how much resistance the packed earth is kicking back with. There’s a direct correlation between the movements of the shovel and the earth that is moved. The experience ceases to be positive when the shovel is raised into the air and the dirt is tossed to the side. Maybe all the dirt in the shovel will go flying, maybe only half of it will; and it won’t necessarily land where it’s supposed to. Similarly a car’s steering is not responsive when there’s too much slop in the system, usually from wear. Overly-assisted power steering creates an additional, disembodied, non-responsive feel, as can weird suspension geometry, where the front wheels seem to have a mind of their own. The positivity of both the Lincoln and the BMW is like sticking a shovel in smooth, thick mud – one feels a direct connection between the turn of the wheel and the response of the car, but the feedback through the wheel is silky and easy.
Coming to a stop, the brake pedal continues to feel unyeilding, yet the car deaccelerates smartly and with little effort – assuming the driver uses a light touch. Too much pressure and the big car will literally come to a screeching halt.
Entering a freeway is no problem, stomp down on the gas and the big car surges forward with a wonderful, turbine-like smoothness. There is no problem whatsoever keeping up with modern traffic, and all that glass allows an unhampered view in every direction. (Though nausea can ensue if the driver becomes overly fascinated with the distorted corners of the wrap around windshield.)
On a fast road with sharp curves, the Lincoln heels over – more than I care for. That is until I look at the speedometer and realize that I’m going ten to fifteen miles per hour faster than I thought. This happens a lot, taking a turn on a challenging road like highway 17 out of Santa Cruz, for instance, and assuming that I’m doing 55, then discovering that I’m actually doing 70. This is a characteristic of big, old luxury cars, the tendency to suppress the sensation of speed. Nonetheless, handling remains top notch, and even when one enters a turn faster than expected, the big car can be powered through it, quickly regaining its equilibrium.
If the Lincoln has a real Achilles heel in terms of handling it’s from a surprising source – the lack of an intermediate speed hold. Going up hill is fine, the Lincoln tears exuberantly and competently through even the tightest turns, but when heading downhill the automatic transmission shifts into hi and can’t be dissuaded from staying there; the only alternative is to downshift to lo, which is only appropriate for speeds under 15 m.p.h. Locked in hi, the Lincoln swiftly gets away from the driver, and riding the brakes until they fade into oblivion is the only option for an aggressive driver. What an amazing road car the Lincoln would be if it had been offered with a manual four speed transmission.
It’s always a disappointment for me to pilot the Lincoln back home, it’s such an entertaining ride. And despite its over the top styling, or perhaps because of it, I find myself constantly sneaking peeks of it as it sits in the driveway.
Like the Lincoln, the BMW’s door feels heavy to open, but not to the same degree, it’s like comparing Seth Curry to Hulk Hogan. The outside handle is recessed and painted, far more conservative than the Lincoln, but still expensive in look and feel. Getting behind the wheel is also easy, and there’s no fifties dogleg to bang one’s knee against. The cabin of the BMW is best described as high-tech cozy – surrounded by soft leather and gleaming touches of genuine wood, one feels like the villain in a James Bond movie.
As with the Lincoln, instrumentation is minimal, consisting of a speedometer, tachometer, gas gauge, water temperature gauge and a peculiar instrument that does an inept job of registering fuel efficiency. Radio, and tape deck controls controls are hidden behind a wood covered plastic slab in the center of the dash, which raises elegantly with a slight inward push. Also included are setting for the CD player, located in the trunk. Air conditioning and heater controls are below, but out in the open. There are cubbyholes and hidden cup holders and sliding consoles galore, one could spend hours discovering all the little secrets in the car’s interior.
The starter turns over busily and quietly, sounding not unlike a racing sewing machine and the engine comes quickly to life. It’s not necessary to step on the gas to set the choke and the engine settles into a smooth idle without coaxing. There’s a lot to be said for modern fuel injection and electronic ignition. The wooden gearshift knob is in the center consul, rather than sprouting from the steering column, and there are a variety of gears to choose from, including a sport selection for furious driving. Seats are power assisted with three possible memory selections, (for three separate drivers,) and the steering column is adjustable, a feature that Lincoln wouldn’t get until 1961.
On the road, as stated earlier, road feel, ride and handling is eerily similar to the -57, in fact, if fitted with the Lincoln’s large, thin plastic steering wheel, Al Pacino’s blind character in Scent Of A Woman would be hard pressed to know what car he was driving. One giveaway is the BMW’s tuned exhaust, which imparts the car with a classic sports car sound, and the German car’s automatic transmission makes its presence known almost immediately. Despite some early bugs, (my folks’ transmission had to be replaced within the first five thousand miles,) this unit is simply magnificent, exceptionally responsive and intelligent, with a remarkable ability to pick the perfect gear for any driving situation. Acceleration is brisk, and almost any speed under 110 can be accessed effortlessly. The BMW’s top speed of 135 m.p.h. is considerably higher than the Lincoln’s 112 m.p.h. Though a 0-60 time of 8.0 seconds is not staggeringly better than the Lincoln’s 11.2 seconds.
After driving the Lincoln, the BMW’s brakes feel spongy, but they do the job exceedingly well, stopping quickly and without any tendency to lock up or fade.
Pushed hard, the BMW handles better than the Lincoln, with less demanded of the driver. Its steering seems quicker, despite requiring nearly identical turns lock to lock – the BMW’s tighter ratio makes the difference here. Nonetheless, these performance edges on the BMW’s part are not so dramatically superior to the Lincoln that a race up a winding mountain road couldn’t be won by the older car if it was piloted by a more skilled driver.
So which is the “ultimate driving machine?” Frankly, neither. Both are very good, fine handling luxury cars, which strike an excellent balance between sportiness and comfort. Both are reliable and well made – but not ultimates in any way. My old ’37 Cadillac rides better than either of these two marques, and the BMW’s excellent handling is hardly in the Ferrari or Lamborghini league. All the same, these two motorcars were cutting edge in their day, achieving a standard of engineering excellence that their competitors were generally unable to match.
|Make and model||
BMW of North America,Woodcliff Lake, N.J.
|Location of final assembly plant||
|EPA size class||
Front engine, rear drive
|Price as tested||
Premium sound system w/CD,
Gas guzzler, $1000;destination, $470
|Typical market competition||
/JX12,Lexus LS 400, Mercedes-Benz
|Track, f/r. in./mm||
|Ground clearance, in./mm||
|Manufacturer’s base curb weight, lb||
|Weight distribution, f/r %||
|Cargo capacity, cu ft||
|Fuel capacity, gal||
|Weight/power ratio, lb/hp||
V-8, DOHC, liquid cooled, castaluminum block and heads
|Bore x stroke, in./mm||
3.50 x 3.15/89.0 x 80.0
DOHC, 4 valves/cylinder
|Horsepowerhp @ rpm, SAE net||
282 @ 5800
|Torquelb-ft @ rpm, SAE net||
295 @ 4500
|Engine rpm,60 mph in top gear||
MacPherson struts w/double-pivot lower
Multilink, coil springs, gas-pressureshocks, anti-roll bar
Recirculating ball, variable power assist
|Turns, lock to lock||
|Turning circle, ft.||
|Front, type/dia., in.||
|Rear, type/dia., in.||
|Wheels and tires|
|Wheel size, in.||
16.0 x 8.0
|Tire mfr. and model||
150-mph speedometer; 7000-rpm
Seatbelts; airbags; check engine;
PERFORMANCEAND TEST DATA
|Standing quarter mile|
|sec @ mph||
Lateral acceleration, g
|Speed through 600-ft|
|Speedometer error, mph|
|Interior noise, dB|
|Idling in neutral||
|Steady 60 mph in top gear||
|EPA, city/hwy., mpg||
|Est. range, city/hwy., miles||
1957 Lincoln Performance Figures
0-30 4.3 seconds
0-45 7 seconds
0-60 11.5 seconds
0-80 19.2 seconds
30 to 50 4 seconds
50 to 80 12.2 seconds or 10.4 seconds
112 m.p.h. Top speed
11 m.p.g. Average
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I couldn’t be happier – Red City Review awarded “Chinese Puzzle” first prize in its Mystery/Thriller category. http://redcityreview.com/2015-winners/ I never expected to win, contests are something I’ve had very little experience with, and when I went to check to see if I even got an honorable mention, I was traveling and used an old computer, which refused to display the whole page, leaving out the Mystery/Thriller category. Not realizing this at the time I signed off, dejected and depressed – “Oh well,” I told myself, at least I got a great review, (several months earlier.) When I returned home I remembered that my old computer was an established pathological liar, and figured that I’d double check with a new computer – still it took me a couple of days to muster the courage to take a look at the Red City Review winners page. Lo and behold there was Chinese Puzzle in all its red and yellow glory. I was stunned and delighted and I’ve been walking around since with a warm feeling in my heart. My thanks to Red City review, and congratulations to the other winners.
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Over time I’ve grown weary of the hard boiled detective. It wasn’t always so, I grew up addicted to the exploits of Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, the Continental Op, and others of their ilk. “The Big Sleep” and “Out Of The Past,” are still amongst my favorite films, and “The Wrong Case,” is one of my favorite books. But, at its heart, the hard boiled genre is made up of colorful characters who don’t like each other and the cynicism of these works, no matter how wry and entertaining, wears thin – for me anyway. Moreover, the us against them mentality found in most hard boiled stories strikes my as especially unappealing in today’s world of Ferguson-style cops and countless innocents wrongly delegated to death row.
Agatha Christies’ Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot, and certainly Sherlock Holmes, are far from hard boiled, but they also don’t seem to have much affection for the human race – they fall into the category of the analytical detective, where villains and witnesses are simply pawns in a game of crime, which serves solely to stimulate the “little gray cells,” of a celebrated sleuth.
Possibly the most well-known soft boiled detective is Columbo, who often grows quite fond of the people he eventually puts away. ( I imagine, however, that with his reliance on entrapment and circumstantial evidence his conviction rate is pretty dismal.) The recently cancelled “White Collar,” also features two soft boiled detectives as the leads, as does “Granchester.”
The soft boiled detective strikes me as more suitable to our current times where grays seep into black and whites and corrupt them. The world is more overtly complex now, more filled with doubt and uncertainty, and a soft boiled detective, who can appreciate his adversary’s point of view, makes a more suitable standard bearer for modern justice. My three detectives, No Sin, Monica Marshall, and Zephyr Davies are not always nice people, in fact they can be absolute monsters, but ultimately they like each other and most of the people that they encounter – even Monica who would be horrified by this appraisal of her personality.
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I get annoyed when any story that contains a crime is categorized as noir. There’s a lot of argument about what constitutes a noir novel or movie, but as far as I’m concerned the definition is pretty simple: noir is about bad things happening to bad people – as opposed to tragedy, which is about bad things happening to good people. Using this rough definition it can be argued that “The Maltese Falcon” is noir, but “The Big Sleep” is not. I love both works but “The Big Sleep,” for my money, is a detective story – Phillip Marlowe is a little dodgy but is basically on the up and up, and he nails both the bad guy and the girl in the end, (two different kinds of nailing, of course.) On the other hand, Sam Spade is an adulterer and he sends a woman that he loves off to be hanged; things end pretty badly for both of them. In terms of film, “Out Of The Past” is classic noir, and so is “Detour” – but “Laura” is a detective story, no ifs, ands or buts. Also, I don’t buy the idea that noir has to be black and white, what could be more noir than “Chinatown?” And on the subject of black and white, going back to “Laura,” that film’s black and white photography creates a world that is lush, sophisticated, and glamorous, far from moody and menacing.
In terms of my writing, “Madness,” which will be out soon, comes the closest to being noir, with “Chinese Puzzle” coming in a close second. At least two of my three protagonists in “Chinese Puzzle” cannot be described as having sterling characters, and the ending is bittersweet at best. “Fear The Living” is a mystery/thriller and “No Sin In The House Of Death,” is more of the Gothic/horror variety.
I never set out to create noir, rather I try to create characters who are complicated, often troubled, and let their actions play out as honestly as possible with the chips falling where they may – the result often turns out to be noir. Which begs the question, is life itself, for most of us, an experience best described as noir?
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I don’t approve of hacking or censorship, but I certainly can’t blame North Korea for wanting to punish the makers of “The Interview,” a truly wretched film. In my previous blog I mused about how a good mystery inspires readers to get through life’s hardships with style and humor. Though it’s not a mystery, “The Interview,” takes the opposite approach, resolving a tough situation with stupidity and thuggery. Like a bad episode of “Family Guy,” the “Interview” is filled with poo jokes, flippant cruelty, and unneeded graphic violence, which makes the audience feel dirty and dispirited. It’s a textbook example of what a good mystery writer must struggle to avoid – getting the balance wrong.
One of the hardest things to write is a carefree mystery or thriller, mixing crime with humor. If the piece is too funny, there’s no real threat, no possibility of suspense. If the work is too grim and graphic, the humor is no longer funny and comes off as crass and distasteful. “The Thin Man,” is shining example of getting the mix just right, which is one of the reasons why it has endured. Not too much violence and the threats to heroes Nick and Nora aren’t so awful as to render joking inappropriate. By the time “The Shadow Of The Thin Man” comes along the writers have lost their way and the balance is gone – no longer sly and sophisticated, Nick and Nora become full-fledged sociopaths, joking about a brutal murder at film’s end, which plays out right before their eyes. In today’s world, where extreme acts of violence are acceptable to portray in movies and books, this balance is even harder to maintain. It’s certainly a challenge for me because my novels don’t hold back in this regard, but I do insist that my protagonists take a few moments to be properly horrified or saddened before they start wisecracking.
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Writers are expected to have opinions, and I’ve got plenty.
For instance, I often state that a story is a trip with a destination. I came to this realization after a writer friend of mine critiqued some of my work by proclaiming with a maximum of exasperation, “It’s not a story!” When I asked him to elaborate I got a lecture about a beginning, middle and an end, a rising narrative building to a climax, and several other “clarifications,” which left me thoroughly confused. I realized that I had to come up with my own definition and I arrived at the trip with a destination. The destination, however, must be specific and physical, it cannot be a feeling of self-acceptance, or a new awareness of one’s place in the universe. Furthermore, “physical,” is not limited to a spot on a map – it can be a swimming pool or the back seat of a car.
The best destinations promise to answer questions that are really interesting and provocative, questions that people really want answered. Often the destination is reached, sometimes it’s not, which also provides an answer to whatever question the writer has posed.
An obvious physical destination comes from “The Wizard Of Oz,” the destination being Dorothy’s Kansas home – will she get back or won’t she? However, destinations can change along the way, after all, in the beginning of the story the destination is Oz itself.
One of my favorite destinations is set up in “The Godfather.” The destination is the big chair behind the Godfather’s desk and the question is, who will be sitting in it when the story ends, and more profoundly, will the son be corrupted by the father? As the tale unfolds it becomes clear that Michael is the candidate to sit in the chair, and ironically, the story will have a happy ending if the destination is not reached. The destination is reached by Michael, and the story ends tragically and powerfully.
It’s important not to mistake a situation for a story. Five characters, beautifully drawn, full of angst, desire and contradictions, all sitting in a subway car – this is a situation. However, if one of the characters intends to hang themselves when they get home, or another has finally mustered the courage to go up and talk to that special someone who always gets off at their stop, then you have a story. Ironically, if a clear and compelling destination is set, the story can wander, take all sorts of detours, even slow down for reflection and the reader will still feel that they’re going somewhere interesting – whereas if the destination is never stated the narrative can head straight to the finish at breakneck speed and the reader will be impatient, distracted, confused and bored. One of the unintended flaws of many of today’s popular character-driven novels is that there is no story.
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Why do I like mysteries? Atmosphere has a lot to do with it, entering a world of fog and darkness and startling possibilities. Problem solving is another draw, not just in being able to guess “who done it,” but in pursuing the smug satisfaction that comes from successfully predicting the moves of another author, particularly a good one. Ironically, a greater pleasure comes when the author outwits me; humbling as it is, I love it when the outcome of a story is not at all what I anticipated. (That is, when the author plays fair and sets down a trail of clues that were right there for all to see.)
Ultimately, though, life is a mystery, and a good mystery story allows me to explore scenarios that frighten and fascinate me, which gnaw at my curiosity and cause me to wonder how I would hold up if confronted with such a reality. All of us wonder how we would react in the face of danger or tragedy, and a well written story allows us to experience a terrible event without actually living through it.
Of course, any fine novel allows the reader to experience harrowing events, but there’s a tradition to mysteries that offers another element. The protagonist in the most dearly loved mysteries solve their crimes, outwit evil-doers and face malevolent forces with style – often with good humor – at least with a spirit of gritty, world-weary romance. In this way, mysteries are inspirational, providing an aspirational blueprint for facing and enduring the worst that life has to offer.
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