Standard of the World - Looking Back at a Mid-Century Cadillac Sedan
Through most of the last century, Cadillac was considered to be one of the ultimate expressions of wealth in America. Elvis, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, Nat King Cole, and numerous other A-list celebrities drove or were driven in Cadillacs. Since the early 80s, the President of the United States has been chauffeured in heavily modified Cadillac limousines. As a car guy – nay, an American – I felt it was my duty to find out what it’s like to drive the ultimate symbol of success in mid-century America. So today, I’m going to be offering perhaps my most completely unbiased and totally fairest review ever – a review of my very own 1964 Cadillac Series 62.
Starting, as I always do, with the exterior - what else can I say but that it is very definitively a Cadillac? Cadillac is often regarded as the winner of the “fin wars” of the late 1950s for the famous bullet taillights on the 1959 model range and was the last of the Big 3 to ditch them. 1964 was the last year that Cadillac put proper tail fins on their cars (which is part of the reason I bought mine), though they were much smaller than the fins on the 1963 model. Aside from the fins, though, the styling of the Cadillac range remained fairly consistent from 1963 to 1964 and shows a clear lineage back to 1959. Another touch that I’ve grown to really like is the pillarless design. Dropping the four windows leaves on large uninterrupted opening on either side that gives great air flow through the cabin, and also just looks really cool in my opinion.
*Special thanks to Chris Lee (@chrisleestudios) and Issac Chan (@issac_photo) for the amazing photo shoots they've done with my car*
On the interior, my car is a little different. In 1964 the two bench seats were mostly covered in vinyl but had silk inserts in the four main seating positions. When I redid the interior, I opted to swap the vinyl out for a contrasting white vinyl against a much darker green vinyl than stock for durability’s sake. Compared to a modern luxury sedan the interior of the Series 62 is blissfully free of clutter. The lack of a center console allows for front and rear bench seats, which means seating for up to six. The other items noticeably absent from the car are seatbelts. In 1964 seatbelts were optional, and my particular example only has seatbelts for two front passengers. Modern safety laws very, but here in California seatbelts are only required where installed by the manufacturer in cars of a certain age. In other words, it is legal for my rear passengers to be riding without seatbelts since the car didn’t come with them originally, but since I and my front passenger do have them, we must wear them. What you don’t find yourself looking for at any time, though, is an ash tray. There are two in the dash, on beneath the radio and the other on the passenger side of the glovebox, as well as one on the armrest of each rear door for a total of four ashtrays. Both rear doors and the ashtray beneath the radio also have lighters as well so you find yourself very well equipped should you care to smoke in your Cadillac – it was built in the 60s after all.
The experience from behind the wheel of American cars of this era is better described as “captaining” than as “driving.” The suspension obviously isn’t as well developed as the suspension on a modern luxury sedan, but the ride is extremely comfortable and cruising at 55 or 60 mph (highway speeds for the time) is effortless. For the purpose of being thorough I will mention the word “handling,” but a roughly 4800-pound (~2150 kg) car with soft suspension that can be easily steered with one finger isn’t exactly going to be the ideal choice for a lap of the Nürburgring. The 429 cubic inch (7L) V8 fitted to all Series 62 models in 1964 produced 340 horsepower and quite a bit of torque. While Cadillacs of the era weren’t exactly known for their prowess on the quarter mile, if you were to put your foot down to overtake someone on the highway, you’d begin to understand what “pulling like a freight train” really means.
Photo by me the night I brought her home
Normally I’d take this moment to talk about options and features, but by today’s standards the Series 62 didn’t really have any. In its day, though, the power adjustable front bench seat, power windows, power antenna, and “Comfort Control” automatic heating and air conditioning system were considered the top of the line for luxury. Comfort Control was actually the first completely automatic system in the industry. Tragically, many of these components become… temperamental… as they age and tend to become a source of headaches for owners today.
Moving on in that vein of reliability or lack thereof, these low revving V8s from the middle of the century are typically quite easy to work on, or, if you’re as useless with a wrench as I am, quite easy to have worked on. When I first purchased my car, she had only recently been pulled out of an almost 30 year hibernation in a barn in Texas after her previous owner had gotten to the point where he was driving by the Braille System (in other words, guiding himself around by feeling for the bumps). Being an excited 17-year-old, I immediately began driving her around until one day she started choking out at traffic lights. The problem didn’t resurface the next day but did inspire a well needed trip to my mechanic that revealed a laundry list of repairs including rebuilding the drum brakes all around and completely rebuilding the front suspension. Over the following two years or so she ended up traveling as many miles on the back of a tow truck as she did under her own power, but that was far more my fault than hers. Because of her history, she really should have gotten a full tear down and rebuild to find all the issues but being a dumb teenager, I didn’t realize that and ended up finding all her little gremlins the hard way. Now though, as long as she is given the proper attention, she runs just fine. The moral of the story when it comes to reliability with cars of this era is that you really just need to take the time and spend the money to get them properly sorted all at once unless you want the onslaught of headache inducing and wallet emptying repairs that go along with letting the gremlins pop up like I did.
Circling back to the original question of what it’s like to drive a 1964 Cadillac, frankly the only word to describe it is “easy.” From a modern perspective it can be difficult to get used to driving a car with only one tiny exterior wing mirror and a carbureted motor and drum brakes and no ABS and no other driver’s aids, but once you do you find yourself ready to cruise on down the Pacific Coast Highway or over to the best jazz club in town.
Photo by another friend