Eldorado ruled the 1970s

Horsepower drove the 1960s while conspicuous consumption pushed the 1970s to new physical limits.

Stand at the front corner of a Cadillac Eldorado and gaze — forever — down its long flanks and you’ll get the picture. There’s no end in sight and no boundaries that Cadillac wasn’t prepared to push.

The company was by no means dining all alone on a full refrigerator of parts. Plenty of Detroit iron, from Mustangs to Matadors, were gaining weight, growing soft around the middle — and getting bigger — just as the outputs of their smog-strangled engines began heading in the opposite direction. In fact Ford went so far as to brag that its giant 1977 LTD was actually comparable in length to a Cadillac Sedan de Ville. Conspicuous consumption was clearly reaching new, and some would say disturbing, lengths, widths and curb weights.

Despite being positioned as a personal-luxury car with sporting flair, the Eldo that rolled out on Sept. 29, 1970, was enormous: more than 18.5 feet long and almost 7 feet wide. By comparison, the most recent Cadillac DeVille was shorter by a whopping 15 inches and narrower by nearly a half foot. Tipping the scales at close to 5,000 pounds, the Eldorado was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the highways, ready to crush the asphalt at a moment’s notice.

As the “sport” model, the Fleetwood Eldorado — the Eldo’s official name — maintained a tradition as a something-extra Cadillac since the first limited-edition show-car-based model appeared back in 1953. Over the decades that followed, the marque earned a special position in the Cadillac hierarchy, receiving unique trim, luxury content and added power that would have made its more mundane DeVille, Seville and Fleetwood siblings green with envy. In 1967, the Eldorado became the first front-wheel-drive Caddy, sharing its platform with the Oldsmobile Toronado.

The bulked-up second-generation 1971 Eldorado maintained its front-wheel drive system, but brought back a convertible version for the first time since 1958. Both coupes and ragtops featured massive chrome grilles and bumpers, tufted leather interiors and rear fender skirts that accentuated the car’s extraordinary physical dimensions.

Also exceptional was the Eldorado’s massive powerplant, a 400-horsepower 500-cubic (8.2-liter) V-8 that was actually introduced in 1970. Two years later, the big mill was detuned and its horsepower rating, at 210, was expressed in “net” terms (calculated with all the engine accessories attached) adopted by the entire auto industry. Around town, Eldo drivers had to use a light touch on the gas pedal to stay above the 10-mpg mark, but cheap gas meant few owners cared.

Eldorado base prices started around $7,400 ($7,750 for the convertible), but a tempting options list that included climate control, power door locks, padded vinyl roof, tilt-telescoping steering wheel and cruise control, helped to balloon many as-delivered amounts.

To those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale, the Eldorado looked preposterous, bordering on the ridiculous. Still, demand remained strong among Cadillac loyalists with coupes outselling convertibles three to one.

Validation, of sorts, followed in 1973, when an Eldorado convertible, piloted by former driving champion Jim Rathman, was selected as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500. Perhaps there was something to this puffed-up land yacht’s sporting claim after all.

As a knee-jerk reaction to a brief period of gasoline shortages, Eldorado sales hiccuped in 1974, but the coupes quickly rebounded stronger than ever for 1975. Convertible sales lagged by a wide margin.

Sensing that the drop-top era was coming to an end — due to the proliferation of sun roofs and/or air conditioning — General Motors Corp. brass ordered the plug pulled on all such models. Cadillac’s marketing team used the occasion to trumpet the ’76 Eldo as “the last convertible,” and ordered a special run of 200 fully loaded all-white final-edition models that stickered for a no-nonsense $14,000. A feeding frenzy among would-be collectors hoping to cash in on the limited-edition craze ensued, which briefly drove prices into the $20,000 range.

The Eldo coupe soldiered on alone and untouched for another couple of model years, although its 500-cube monster engine had been supplanted by a more sane and sensible (for Cadillac) 425 cubic-inch V-8.

By 1979, a crisp and very formal looking down-sized Eldorado coupe arrived, equipped with a V-8 that displaced half as many cubic inches as its predecessor and easily doubled the older Eldo’s fuel economy.

As attractive as the replacement was, the new Eldorado was never able to duplicate the glitz and glamour that made its enormous predecessor an even bigger success.

Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.

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