Why I Love the 1952 Cadillac

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 21, 2018

They say you get imprinted with the car you drove in high school, and it’s undoubtedly true. I have undying affection for my old 1962 Chevy II Nova convertible.

I was born in 1952, and taken home from the hospital in my parents’ faded 1949 Ford, and that one stayed with me, too. Plus, that jet-age Ford was a groundbreaking design that still looks good. That's all true, but the car that I just can't let go of is the 1952 Cadillac, in all of its many forms.

Cadillac was the pinnacle of style and attainment in Eisenhower’s 1952. The company's slogan around that time was, “Those who want the finest want…the Standard of the World.” It wasn’t just hyperbole, for once. Packard said, “Ask the man who owns one,” and that was true of Cadillac as well.

I remember one particularly effective ad. The period fellow in hat and suit has just parked his new ride (or maybe handed the keys to the valet parker) at some swank establishment, and as he walks away he glances pridefully back at the car, its taillights softly glowing. No, he wasn’t thinking, “Wow, I left the lights on,” he was kicking himself for his good fortune.

The Series 61 and 62 Cadillacs I like were introduced in 1950, replacing some fairly cool cars (including a great “sedanette” fastback) that were essentially carryovers of pre-war designs. They had fins! First seen on the 1948 models, those fins were inspired by the tail section of the Army’s P-38 Lightning fighter-bomber.

The new Cadillacs were lower and longer. Technical advances made the wraparound windshield possible, and that meant more curves that were echoed in the swoopy body lines. These Cadillacs are the rare American car of the period that actually look just as good in four-door sedan as in coupe form.

The 1952 Cadillac commemorated 50 years of the marque--note the gold crest. (Daniel Mennerich/Flickr)

Outlined in chrome, the four-door greenhouse gives the car an open, airy look. The bigger and toothier grille was complemented by massive bumpers featuring twin protective “Dagmars.” This reference dates me, but there was an early TV star named Dagmar, with two famous assets. Perhaps she was introduced the same way Jayne Mansfield was by Jack Parr, “Ladies and gentlemen, what can I say about my next guest except, here they are, Jayne Mansfield!” (Dick Cavett wrote that line.)

The '52 convertible was the last word until the Eldorado arrived the next year. (Sv1ambo photo/Flickr)

Inside, it was all wool cloth, leather, chrome and painted metal. Most of the cars of this vintage I’ve encountered smelled like mothballs, so I don’t know what the original scent might have been.

Cadillac had introduced its 160-horsepower, overhead-valve V-8 in 1949, so that 331-cubic-inch unit was front and center in the new cars. Having a modern V-8 was a big boost to sales, from 1949 on, because Cadillac was suddenly building the most powerful car made in the U.S.

The car didn’t change much in 1951—more chrome, and standard Hydra-matic transmission in the Series 61 (soon discontinued). But 1952, aside from ushering me in, was also the 50th anniversary year for Cadillac, named for the French explorer who founded Detroit in 1701. (The GM purchase was in 1909.)

Power was up in 1952, to 190 horsepower, and four-barrel carbs were now standard.  Zero to 60 was about 14 seconds, relatively fast for the period. The car also got ultra-cool exhaust tips exiting through the rear bumper (hell to keep clean, though), self-winding clocks and glare-proof mirrors. The Coupe de Ville—the world’s first pillarless hardtop—was graced with standard hydraulic power windows and seats.

The anniversary was commemorated with gold accents and emblems. The car was available as a two-door club coupe, convertible and the aforementioned four-door sedan. There were special models, such as the Sixty Special and Series 75 Fleetwoods. (Sometimes chauffeur driven!) These cars weren’t cheap—the Sixty Special Fleetwood was $4,720. That’s $44,885.60 today. Sales for the year were 70,255. That same year, Cadillac announced it had sold 13 million cars, which was fairly astounding. Eisenhower himself had one, and with 80,000 miles on the clock it was recently sold on eBay.

That same year, Cadillac held a contest to name its new ultra-luxury limited-edition model, and it was won by Mary-Ann Marini, a secretary who worked in merchandising at the company. She came up with “Eldorado,” and the model debuted the next year. A ’53 Eldorado convertible is a pinnacle of Cadillac-ness as far as I’m concerned.

Since Cadillacs sold so well in that period, there’s a lot of ‘52s around. A nice ’52 Series 62 Club Coupe sold for $30,800 at a Bonhams auction last year. But that’s the high end of the market. Hagerty puts a ’52 Cadillac 62 Club Coupe at an average value of $17,200. Sure, you can buy cheaper ones, but you’d get overwhelmed with restoration costs.

I’ll probably never own a 1952 Cadillac. I don’t have a garage big enough, and besides the fuel economy of these 4,500-pound beasts is terrible, 11.6 mpg. My dad could have bought one, of course, since he was making decent money as an engineer, but he hated to spend hard-earned dollars on cars.

Maybe I’ll get to drive one of these cars at some point. I imagine they have plenty of power, quiet operation, vague power steering and the cushy ride then in vogue. What a perfect Sunday cruiser! Here's some good video of a '52 Coupe de Ville. Don't get excited--I'm sure it's not for sale anymore, since the video is from 2016. But you'll get a good look at the car, inside and out:

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