The running epitome of ’50s excess

The ’50s were a strange decade: on the one hand, the danger of nuclear annihilation grew bigger and bigger as tensions between East and West reached new peaks and, on the other hand, automotive design also reached new peaks - peaks touched by the ultra-high fins of cars like the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible, a true symbol of its time.

When you think of American cars from the ’50s, depending on who you are, you’re bound to first picture in your head one of three cars: the 1957 Chevy Bel Air, the 1955 Ford Thunderbird or the 1959 Eldorado Biarritz Convertible. The latter is most definitely the showboat, figuratively and literally, of a whole design trend; a trend that climaxed with this very car that, in a way, managed to kill off the trend altogether. The trend I’m talking about is of aeronautical inspiration, and it took off (pun intended) in the late ’40s and early ’50s thanks to concept cars like the Buick Le Sabre and a host of other GM Motorama creations.

No, those chrome-bathed fins didn’t help the cars corner better nor did they aid the back end in sticking to the ground better - they were just for style, and 1959 was the year of all-out chrome and all-out fins. Some think those cars are everything that’s wrong with American cars, others simply think they’re flamboyant while others still adore them. I guess it’s a matter of personal preference but, undoubtedly, the ’59 Eldorado continues to turn heads 60 years later.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Exterior

  • The height of the jet-inspired trend
  • Boasted 45-inch-tall tail fins
  • Part of yet another yearly restyle of the Cadillac line
  • Front diamond-shaped grille split by chromed bar
  • Front bumper new
  • Twin taillights on each fin
  • Trunk lid decorated with a chromed bar
  • The 1959 C-bodies measured 225 inches
  • Fins started to shrink after ’59
1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Exterior
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In very much the same way the Countach is the epitome of the wedge-shape design, the 1959 Eldorado Biarritz is the final and most outlandish expression of the jet-inspired fashion or, if you wish, fad. It all started all the way back in 1948 when Cadillac introduced the upward swooping rear fenders with the taillights perched on the tip of the fender.

The taillights, much like the U.S., were looking up at the skies, dreaming of a future in amongst the stars that shine on the night sky.

The jet age was officially on and, soon enough, so was the race to conquer outer space.

Due to these sky-high aspirations of more than one generation, everything that was part of the consumer culture started to be influenced by aeronautical cues: sharp edges, pointy tips, lush surfaces, and swooping lines. In the car industry, it all started brewing in the heads of designers a bit earlier still. Sometime in the late ’30s, Harley Earl, the famous Head of Design at General Motors, was allowed to take some of his best designers to Michigan’s Selfridge Field to see a secret military aircraft. Among them were Bill Mitchell and Frank Hershey, both legendary figures in the world of automotive design.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Exterior
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GM’s top design brass got to see with their own eyes the Lockheed P-38 Lightning bomber and was mesmerized by the plane’s design. Of course, there had been aerodynamically-efficient cars before (think of the Chrysler Airflow or the Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow to name but two American automobiles), but the plane had the designers think above and beyond the smooth shape of a rain droplet.

"You have to understand the value of what we saw in that plane’s design," said Mitchell remembering that day. "We saw that you could take one line and continue it from the cowl all the way back to the tip of the tail - that you could have one unbroken, flowing line."

The design idea, borrowed from a plane that was built to be fully functional, not aesthetically pleasing, was ultimately incorporated into the 1948 Cadillac designed by Hershey

In the following years, even the European automakers incorporated fins in their cars, including the otherwise sober Mercedes-Benz brand. In America, meanwhile, Virgil Exner came forth with an exuberant design for the 1957 model year Chrysler Imperial which stole the limelight from Cadillac. To bounce back at the top of the finned pile, Cadillac countered with the 1959 Eldorado credited to Chuck Jordan, although the project was already underway when he became the chief of design on the project.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Exterior
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As was the norm back then, Cadillac gave its Series 62 line a new look for 1959 and that included the Eldorado. That year, the Series 62 was renamed ’Series 6200’ and the De Villes and 2-door Eldorados were moved from the Series 62 to their own series, the Series 6300 and Series 6400 respectively. The four-door Brougham was also moved, from the Series 70 to Series 6900. Of all of these cars, the Brougham, with its Pinin Farina-built body, featured the most subtle fins, a sign of things to come. On the other side of the spectrum was the Eldorado Biarritz, the open-top two-door model with a soft top. The Seville, as before, was the name of the two-door hardtop model which came with ultra-thin pillars, a swooping roofline, and wraparound windshield. The same windshield which offered unbridled vision all around was available on the Biarritz too.

The convertible Eldorado was named 'Biarritz' in honor of a chic French resort along the famously posh Riviera.

The resort, known for the Hotel du Palais, is located 22 miles from the border with Spain on the Bay of Biscay. Cadillac kept the Biarritz name for upper-trim Eldorado up until the 1985 model year.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Exterior
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The 1959 Eldorado comes from a different era, one characterized by painstaking attention to detail. This car is, quite literally, a moving piece of decoration with all the chromed and metal elements. The details take hours to sink in and you’d need a magnifying glass to spot all the little bits and pieces around the humongous body of the Biarritz. Of course, the car is massive with a wheelbase of 130 inches (shared across the Eldorado range) and an overall length with the huge bumpers in place and everything of 225 inches. That’s a whopping 21 inches longer than Cadillac’s current full-size luxury sedan, the CT-6. It’s also three inches longer than the 2020 Lincoln Navigator L which, in itself, is 12 inches longer than the Navigator SWB. Even the extended Cadillac Escalade ESV falls one inch short off the length of its distant relative, the ’59 Eldorado Biarritz. The car is so big you could almost fit two entire 1959 Fiat 500s in the length of one Biarritz!

In the front, there are just acres of chrome, enough to cover a BMC Mini in its entirety I’d guess. The 1959 bumper is brand new and unique to this model year.

The fenders protrude beyond the line of the pointy hood, covering dual headlights on either side.

There’s a chromed trim piece that runs from the A-pillar all the way to the curved tip of the fender and even features a tiny little fin. There’s also a metal V-shaped trim element placed horizontally and split by this aforementioned trim piece as a nod to the car’s emblem. The headlights themselves are embraced by chrome and, just below them, there’s a thick dividing bar that separates the headlights from the dual fog lights incorporated in the bumper. On the ’59 Eldorado, the whole grille wraps around the front end and extends as far back as the front wheel arches. The fog lamps are enclosed in rounded openings in the bumper and, in comparison to the 1960 models, the glass is transparent and the lights themselves are bigger too. On the 1960 model, the lights in the bumper are smaller and the one placed outboard has orange-tinted glass as it is the indicator.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Exterior
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The grille is divided into two parts as well by a continuation of the trim piece that separates the headlights from the fog lights/indicators. The mesh of the intake in the front features small circular elements where the egg crate-like bars meet. The bumper doesn’t feature any low-speed rubber over-riders like on the ’57 Brougham, the only thing sticking out in the middle being the number plate housing.

The massive hood of the Eldorado is home to the typical Cadillac V below the emblem. They sit in the middle of the hood in the front precisely on top of the only crease that crosses the hood.

To appreciate just how large the '59 Eldorado is, you have to look at it from its side and, in order to do this, you have to take quite a few steps back.

Once you can fit all of it in your field of vision you will see how that unbroken line translates in practice. The that starts at the tip of the fins continues down, past the doors and ends in the front. The styling ridge that underlines the headlight covers runs above the front wheel arches before it blends in with the bodywork. On the Biarritz, the name ’Eldorado’ is spelled out in the space between the wheel arch and the doors, directly above the chromed rocker panels. The theme of the chromed rocker panel plates is continued in the back with the chromed skirt that covers the rear wheels and another plate that goes all the way to the back.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Exterior
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The frame of the wraparound windshield is, like everything else around this car, polished to perfection and then there’s also the bar that starts from the tip of the power side windows and then curves down to emphasize the climbing fins which get their own chrome trim piece all the way to the top. That trim piece follows the shape of the fins all the way around the twin-bullet taillights and then down below until it meets the jet-like backup lights. If you look closely on the driver’s door, you’ll notice a small ’Biarritz’ logo on the chrome bar that crosses the car’s beltline.

An element that sets apart the Eldorado from the standard 1959 Series 6200 model is the bar that runs across the width of the trunk lid.

This upper bar effectively encloses the rear grille which has the bumper just below it and the two protruding backup light housings (with a stylized ’V’ placed in there) on both sides. Again, on this bar, the name ’Eldorado’ is written letter by letter. The soft top is hidden under a metal cover painted in the color of the body placed in front of the trunk lid.

You could say the styling of the ’59 Eldorado is ’excessive’ or even ’vulgar’ and that you’d be better off with whatever Mercedes was selling at the time or Rolls-Royce, or Bentley, or even Facel-Vega from France. However, you can’t deny the fact that the flashy Caddy is the one that’s the biggest attention-grabber today thanks to both its imposing size and unique, unmistakable styling.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Exterior
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1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Exterior Dimensions

Wheelbase 130.0 inches
Length 225.0 inches
Width 80.2 inches
Height 54.4 inches

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Interior

  • Covered in leather
  • Top-of-the-line creature comforts
  • Lots of brushed aluminum
  • Options included Cruise Control, Autronic Eye
  • Six-way adjustable seats standard
  • Seated six adults easily
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The Eldorado was offered jam-packed with the latest features, many of which weren’t even available as options on most other mainstream models. For instance, the ’59 Eldorado’s trunk could close on its own. You also got for no added cent electric windows, an AM radio set with speakers in the back, six-way adjustable seats, electric locks, power steering, and power brakes. In fact, there were only four options that you could add and one of them was the Autronic Eye self-dimming interior rear-view mirror. Cruise control, with a ’low’ position included, was another option.

Basically, anything you could wish for in terms of luxury and comfort was already aboard the Eldorado, as it should’ve been given this was Caddy’s flagship model named after a mythical place where wealth and opulence was the norm.

With bench seats both in the front and in the back, the Cadillac could easily carry six adults although the folks standing in the middle would've probably complained about the total lack of a headrest in the front and, respectively, the carved backrest in the rear.
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This particular Eldorado Biarritz brought to the Chicago Auto Show straight from GM’s Heritage Center, features an attractive combination of red exterior and red leather interior with polished and chromed materials across the dash and door panels. The Biarritz was available in an assortment of 15 basic colors that were also available on the De Ville as well as five other special tints. Fifteen more were available for the Brougham, but that didn’t help it sell any better with less than 100 units being sold in 1959 although the price must’ve had something to do with this.

The dashboard of the Eldorado is wrapped in leather and presents you with a handful of recessed areas where all the things you need are located.

First off, behind the thin twin-spoke steering wheel, there’s the rectangular instrument cluster with the horizontal odometer in place. The cruise control knob is placed to the left of the instrument cluster within a protruding circular housing as seen to the right where there is an incorporated analog clock and another rotating button just below.

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The air vents of the A/C are placed below the dash and there’s a sign reading ’air conditioning’ just above the steering column which probably lets you know when the A/C is on. The AM radio is placed within the recessed center panel of the dash that’s adorned by polished vertical strakes.

There are two more knobs to the left of the radio and the Cadillac logo is on the extreme right of the dashboard center panel.

As I mentioned, the Eldorado had power brakes from standard, and you’ll know this the moment you prepare to stomp on the wide brake pedal as they’ve bothered to write on it ’Power Brake’ in white lettering. On the door panels, there’s again leather as well as strips of polished metal and chrome trim pieces. In the back, you have ashtrays on either side in the armrests.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Drivetrain

  • Four-speed automatic gearbox
  • Underpinned by the C-body platform
  • Tipped the scales at 5,000 pounds
  • 6.4-liter, V-8 engine
  • 345 horsepower and 435 pound-feet of torque
  • Top speed of 130 mph
  • 0 to 60 mph in about 11 seconds
  • First to come with air suspension
1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Exterior
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Cadillac put in the work to make the 1959 Eldorado better than ever before, but the C-body platform was an old friend of the company, one that’s been the base of many Cadillacs since the pre-World War II days. Still, there were improvements in the department of power steering as well as when it came to the suspension and the engine.

For 1959, all of the Eldorados came with the 6.4-liter, OHV, naturally-aspirated, V-8 engine that cranked out 345 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and 435 pound-feet of torque.

The Eldorado offered 20 more ponies than any other Cadillac at the time, and that's because the engineers increased the stroke to 3.88 inches to make the total capacity jump up from 6.0-liters on the '57-'58 models to 6.4-liters.

The compression ratio was also tweaked, and this proved to be the most powerful RWD Eldorado ever.

In spite of its gargantuan weight, anywhere between 5,000 and 5,200 pounds, the Eldorado was happiest on the highway, effortlessly cruising at 120 mph while gauging away fuel at an impressive rate. In fact, the Eldorado averaged about 9.5 mpg on the highway! Its top speed was 130 mph and the 0 to 60 mph time was in the region of 11 seconds depending on how well the four-speed Hydra-Matic transmission acted and how aptly the whitewall tires, with their fancy ’fluted’ steel wheels, responded.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Exterior
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Cadillac’s crown jewel was a huge car in its day. The four-door Chrysler New Yorker, for instance, was light in comparison at just 4,165 pounds while the Dodge Custom Royal, the flagship sedan from Dodge, weighed under 4,000 pounds. The top Oldsmobile, the Ninety-Eight, only weighed 4,530 pounds and only the four-door 1959 Lincoln had a similar +5,000 pounds curb weight. All of these cars offered similar power outputs, so you can imagine they were hard to stop with drums all around.

Oh, and since we’re talking weight, let’s not imply that only American cars were almost obese. Take Europe’s top luxury car, the full-size Phantom V with a whole forest-worth of wood inside and tons of sheet metal. It weighed in excess of 5,700 pounds and wasn’t as powerful as the Cadillac. As a matter of fact, Rolls-Royce was hesitant to release power figures or performance specs of any kind as its customers didn’t really care about those things anyway. Also, let’s not forget the Malaise Era Fleetwood Seventy Five that measured 255 inches (!) and weighed almost 6,000 pounds. The 1974 model year remains the longest American-made series production car.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Exterior
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The Eldorado too had drums on all four corners but, as a first, it offered air suspension with gas-filled shock absorbers.

However, because the technology was in its infancy and it had to carry around such a hefty car, many customers decided to revert to the traditional coil spring setup after the air suspension gave up. The suspension was independent in the front.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Drivetrain Specifications

Engine 6.4-liter, OHV, naturally-aspirated, V-8
Power 345 HP @ 4,800 RPM
Torque 435 LB-FT @ 3,500 RPM
0 to 60 mph 11 seconds
Top speed 130 mph
Transmission Four-speed Hydra-Matic
Brakes Drums all around
Suspension coil springs standard, independent up front, with the option of air suspension with gas-filled shock absorbers
Weight 5,000-5,200 pounds

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Pricing

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Exterior
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The Eldorado Biarritz wasn’t a cheap car back in 1959. In fact, if you wanted to buy one you had to pony up $7,401 or $64,017 in today’s money. However, take into account the fact that the average car cost anywhere between $2,000 and $4,000 and that Cadillac offered an even more expensive Eldorado in the $13,075 Brougham. Only 99 of those were made and customers complained the Italians at Pininfarina didn’t put them together as well as the Detroit-built cars of ’57-’58. The Lincoln Continental Mk. IV (Continental was no longer a brand of its own in 1959) similarly cost about $7,000 in period, a lot less than the Mk. II that came before with its stratospheric $10,000 MSRP in 1956. Reportedly, even at that price, Ford lost $1,000 with every vehicle that left the factory!

The open-top Biarritz, on the other hand, proved rather popular and 1,320 examples were sold. Still, the fashion was starting to fade away and, although Caddy’s overall sales figure went up in comparison to 1958, it was high time to change the styling of the cars once more but, this time, it was time to go for less, not more.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Exterior
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Because the 1959 Eldorado was ’the last of its kind,’ it’s now a prized classic car and one sold at the RM/Sotheby’s Petersen auction in 2018 for $324,000. You can find cheaper ones (they used to sell for about $185,000 in 2015), but prices are on the rise. Still, the Biarritz should be the easiest one to attain since only 975 Sevilles left the Cadillac factory making the soft top, two-door model the best-selling Eldorado of ’59.

If you dig deeper, though, you can find cheaper examples today too, but beware that all those state-of-the-art features weren’t the most robust, so if you get your hands on a dodgy one it may take a while - and a small fortune - before you can take it out on the road or to your local cars & coffee. You can probably get one in decent condition for about $120,000. That’s not much when even an MG A from the same year costs $60,000 while Maseratis and Delahayes of the same vintage sell for anywhere between $500,000 and $700,000!

Final Thoughts

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The 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz can be viewed as the last hurrah of a whole trend in automotive design which would excuse it for its (maybe) too extravagant exterior features. Then again, these features - the tail fins, the protruding chromed bumper with the quad headlights, the sleek profile - transformed it into an automotive icon and, in a way, a car people refer to when they say ’Cadillac isn’t what it used to be.’

There’s no question that a 1959 Cadillac stands out today more than any CT-6 or Escalade could and one could argue that it was also more glitzy and spectacular even on its debut, 60 years ago. Now, whether or not that’s what Cadillac should focus on is a different discussion altogether, but it’s clear that we won’t see cars like the ’59 Biarritz ever again.

  • Leave it
    • Extremely big and somewhat cumbersome to maneuver
    • Rather expensive to buy in good condition
    • Not everybody is a fan of the styling

Further reading

1953 Cadillac Eldorado Exterior
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Read our full review on the 1953 Cadillac Eldorado

Cadillac Eldorado - A Look Back Exterior
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Cadillac Eldorado - A look back

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