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Cadillac Index

1938 Cadillac

What may well be the single most influential prewar Cadillac originated during the most difficult period in the marque's history. The year was 1934, and General Motors' prestige outfit stood at the crossroads. The luxury-car market had all but disappeared in the chaos of the Depression, and Cadillacs weren't selling very well. Production that year stood at only about a fifth of what it had been back in record-setting 1928, and the operation had been a consistent money-loser in the intervening years. Worse, the division's medium-price companion make, LaSalle, wasn't doing much better, yet its sales volume was looming ever more crucial to Cadillac's survival. To be sure, Cadillac was protected from the economic upheaval of the Thirties in a way its rivals were not: by the great size and financial strength of its parent company. But clearly, even Cadillac would have to change if it hoped to return to prosperity. Indeed, GM management had already instituted a number of measures toward this end, such as reducing the number of components unique to each car line. Into this sour situation stepped a new general manager, the man who would lay the foundations for the fabulous Sixty-Special.

1938 Cadillac

Nicholas Dreystadt was certainly no stranger to Cadillac. Before being promoted to the division's top post in late 1934, he had been manager of Cadillac's Clark Avenue home plant for more than two years, and served as general service manager for six years before that. Efficiency was his stock-in-trade, and cost-effectiveness ranked high among his goals. As Ernest Seaholm, Cadillac's chief engineer in those days, would later recall: "Nick made us look closely at everything .... If someone else made a part for two dollars, why did ours have to cost three or four?"


Dreystadt knew better than anyone at GM that Cadillac could literally no longer afford to pursue the cost-bedamned practices that were by then customary among "carriage trade" automakers, yet he was determined to maintain the marque's standards of quality and engineering excellence. Interestingly, an important development that would reconcile these seemingly contradictory aims was already in the works at the time he took over the helm. It was a new monobloc V-8, so-called because the cylinder head was cast integrally with the block. Devised under the leadership of Owen Nacker and, later, John E "Jack" Gordon, it was projected to be much cheaper to build than Cadillac's existing 353-cubic-inch V-8, let alone its mighty 368-cid V-12 and 453-cid V-16. Moreover, it was expected to be quieter, thanks to hydraulic valve lifters, and to have better performance and durability. As time would prove, this smooth, strong, and refined powerplant was so good that it would be continued without major change from 1936 through 1948. It also hastened the departure of the V-12, which it rendered virtually obsolete.

Meanwhile, Dreystadt had been taking a close look at the market. Inevitably, his attention was drawn to the $900 price gap between the new straight-eight LaSalle, introduced for '34, and the least expensive Cadillacs. What this amounted to was that a buyer could have both a LaSalle and an Oldsmobile for the price of one new Caddy -- and still have enough money left over to purchase a first-class living room radio. The difference was even greater at Packard, still the leading U.S. luxury marque at the time, where a fat $1325 separated that firm's new 1935 One Twenty series from its least expensive senior models. It's not clear why it took so long for the powers at Cadillac -- or Packard, for that matter -- to see that the market was ripe for a car priced to bridge this gap. What is clear is that once he recognized the problem, Dreystadt moved swiftly to solve it.

The answer was a new low-end offering for 1936. Designated the Series 60, it rode a 121-inch wheelbase, 10 inches shorter than the 131-inch chassis used for the Series 70 and Fleetwood Series 80, and shared the General Motors "B" bodyshell used by LaSalle, Buick, and Oldsmobile. All Cadillacs this year featured GM's much-ballyhooed all-steel "Turret-Top" construction for closed body styles, plus big duo-servo Bendix hydraulic brakes, doubly effective on V-8 models because the new monobloc engine weighed less than the previous V-8. Other changes included a more rigid frame, a refined front suspension, and a handsome face-lift carried out by GM's Art & Colour section under the direction of Harley Earl. Marked by a stylishly tall, narrow grille and a divided vee'd windshield, it suited the new Series 60 especially well. Lean and trim in appearance, the "budget" Caddys were arguably the best-looking models in the '36 line. Best of all, they were the lowest-priced cars to wear the Cadillac crest since 1908, listing at $750 less than the cheapest 1935 V-8 Series 10, a savings of more than 30 percent.

Though it was very much a "junior edition," the Series 60 was no less a Cadillac than its larger linemates -- which would prove to be an enormous sales advantage. The engine was a smaller version of the one used in the big Series 70 and 75 V-8 cars: 322 cid, 3.38 x 4.50-inch bore and stroke dimensions, and 125 bhp, compared with 346 cid, 3.50 x 4.50-inch bore/stroke, and 135 bhp. It drove through a redesigned transmission that was so smooth, fast-shifting, and durable that it would become a prime favorite among hot-rodders. "Knee-Action" independent front suspension was still something of a novelty in 1936, even in the luxury field, but the Series 60 had it, a noteworthy sales point for passenger comfort.

What Cadillac had here was an entirely new kind of automobile: a high-quality, high-prestige package of compact dimensions, fast and powerful, easy to handle, and priced within reach of many Buick and Chrysler buyers. Predictably, the Series 60 brightened Cadillac's fortunes in a way the LaSalle by itself could not. Sales went up by an astounding 254 percent, with the new line accounting for more than half of Cadillac's model year production.

Another event took place in 1936 that would brighten the division's fortunes even more: the arrival of 23-year-old William L. Mitchell to head the Cadillac design studio. In January of that year, Mitchell's mentor assigned him to create another new model using the Series 60 as its basis, but roomier, more luxurious, and more stylish by far than any previous Cadillac. The result was announced less than two years later. A predictive design with features that would be quickly copied by the rest of GM -- and the industry -- the Sixty-Special was a masterpiece that made everything else on the road old-fashioned.

Naturally, corporate brass had a few apprehensions about this daring new Cadillac. Don Ahrens, the division's sales director at that time, remembers: "As the Sixty-Special took shape ... there were moments of uncertainty. The feeling arose not because we were apprehensive of the car's beauty but because, in its presentation, we were breaking with tradition .... The Cadillac market is ultraconservative. The bulk of our business is conducted with sound and substantial families. How would this revolutionary car affect our position in the industry? Was it too startling for our price class? Was it too rakish for our reputation?" In a word, yes -- which is precisely why it had Harley Earl's enthusiastic endorsement. It was the sort of car that could only come from a younger designer: sporty yet sober, advanced yet appealing. It was an entirely new concept: the total car, with each design element fully and tastefully matched to all the others.

The Sixty-Special's styling represented a major departure for Cadillac in several respects. Presenting a smart, ultra-modern silhouette, it stood three inches lower than any previous Cadillac, yet it had no less headroom inside. Running boards were conspicuous by their absence, a trend-setting move that GM chairman Alfred P Sloan observed "made it possible to widen the basic body pattern to the full tread of the wheels, so that the standard car became one that could hold six passengers." An extended rear deck, a first for a U.S. production model, made the trunk an integral part of the main body. All four doors of this elegant sedan were front-hinged, an unusual arrangement then and one that would be widely imitated. Fulsome pontoon fenders front and rear added to the illusion of extra length, though it was really no illusion as the 127-inch wheelbase was three inches longer than that of the Series 60. The bright belt molding that traditionally separated the greenhouse from the lower body was eliminated. No brightwork adorned the sides, a brave move in a day when lavishly applied chrome was de rigueur for all but the cheapest cars. Equally bold was the use of very slim roof pillars, which allowed the windshield and doors to be wider than on any other car in the class for superior visibility. Replacing the expected, bulky upper door frames were tall, chrome-banded windows with thin-but-strong frames, a look clearly patterned on the convertible sedan body style that was still very much in vogue in the late Thirties. By combining closed-car comfort with the suggestion of an open car, the Sixty-Special was the precursor of the pillarless "hardtop convertible," the body style that would dominate the American industry more than a decade later.

"There has never been a car like the Cadillac Sixty-Special," enthused the ad writers, "a car with such definite modernity of line, yet so obviously right in taste ... a precedent-breaking car prophetic of motor cars not yet on other drawing boards, yet a car wholly devoid of freakish trappings." Indeed, Mitchell's avoidance of "freakish trappings" was laudable, and the Sixty-Special was a sensational launch to his career. It can lay claim as the first Detroit "specialty" car, the sort of high-style, premium-price product that would appear from a number of manufacturers in the years that followed, cars like the 1940 Lincoln Continental and, much later, Mitchell's own 1963 Buick Riviera.


The performance of the engine was impressive. Cadillac had settled on the 346-cid version of the monobloc V-8 for all its eight-cylinder models except LaSalle beginning in 1937. Rated at 135 horsepower at 3400 rpm, the 346 had five more horses than the 1935 V-8 and 10 more than the one-year-only 322-cid monobloc. The Sixty-Special arrived weighing only some 230 pounds more than a comparable 1938 Series 60 sedan, so its power-to-weight ratio was less than 31 pounds per horsepower, quite good for the period. By contrast, that year's Packard Super Eight -- which, incidentally, cost $700 more than the Special -- carried nearly 35 pounds per horsepower.

For 1938, Cadillac fielded five models. The first four (Series 38-60, 38-60S, 38-65, and 38-75) were eight cylinders and the 38-90 was a V16. The V12 series 85 was dropped this year. Also the Series 70 and Fisher bodied Series 75 Specials were dropped, but a Convertible Sedan was added to the Series 65 line. The styling bonanza for 1938 was the sensational new Sixty Special Sedan.

Series 60 was restyled with a squared off grille made up of horizontal bars extending around front and sides of the nose. Three sets of four chrome bars decorated the side panel louvers. Hood was front opening alligator style and headlights were fixed to the sheet metal between fenders and grille. Sixty Special had much the same nose as the Sixty, with one less bar in the grille assembly. The body was entirely new and unique, on a double dropped frame three inches lower than the Sixty. There were no runningboards, the floor being at normal runningboard height. Large side windows in chrome frames were flush with the sides of the body. The convertible-shaped top featured a thin roof section and a notched back.

Series 65 (Custom V-8) and Series 75 (Fleetwood) shared a new front end style featuring a massive vertical cellular grille, three sets of horizontal bars on the hood sides, alligator hood, and headlights on the filler piece between fenders and hood. Optional sidemount covers were hinged to the fenders. Quarter windows were of sliding rather than hinged construction. Rear of bodies had rounder corners and more smoothly blended lines; trunks had more appearance of being an integral part of the body. Bodies were all steel except for wooden main sills.

New chassis details included: Compression ratio on Series 75 was raised to 6.70: 1, necessitating use of high octane fuel.


Fisher Series 30-60, 124" wheelbase
Style NumberStyleSeatingPriceWeight
38-6167Convertible Coupe218103845
38-6149Convertible Sedan522153980

Fisher Series 38-60S, 127" wheelbase
Style NumberStyleSeatingPriceWeight
38-6019SSpecial Sedan520854170

Fisher Series 38-65 132" wheelbase
Style NumberStyleSeatingPriceWeight
38-6519-FImperial Sedan 523604580
38-6549Convertible Sedan526004580

Fleetwood Sedan 38-75, 141" wheelbase, Business Cars
Style NumberStyleSeatingPriceWeight
38-7523-LBusiness Transformable Sedan731054945
38-7533-LBusiness Transformable Imperial732555105

Fleetwood Series 38-75 141 in. wheelbase
Style NumberStyleSeatingPriceWeight
38-7567Convertible Coupe
38-7519-FImperial Sedan531554925
38-7559Formal Sedan539904865
38-7539Town Sedan536354900
38-7529Convertible Sedan 539405110
38-7533Imperial Sedan 733605105
38-7533-FFormal Sedan 739905105
38-7553Town Car751155175



ModelWheelbaseOverall lengthFront TreadRear TreadTires
Series 38-60124 in.207-5/8 in.58 in.61 in.7.00 x 16
Series 38-60S127 in.207-5/8 in.58 in.61 in.7.00 x 16
Series 38-65132 in.211-3/8 in.60-1/2 in.62-3/8 in.7.00 x 16
Series 38-75141 in.220-5/8 in.60-1/2 in.62-1/2 in.7.50 x 16
Series 38-60Commercial Chassis160 in.   
Series 38-65Commercial Chassis160 in.   
Series 38-75Commercial Chassis161 in.   




NEXT: History of the 1938 Cadillac 16-cylinder
NEXT: History of the 1939 Cadillac

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