|Gary Cooper and Sammy Chapin sitting in the '52 Custom Convertible|
Friday, August 26, 2011
1952 Cadillac Custom Convertible
A Gift from Harley Earl
Text by David W. Temple
Photos from author's collection
The first four years which followed the end of World War II were important ones for Cadillac. In 1947, they outsold Packard for the first time since 1934 (and continued to do so from that point onward), the 1948 models began a styling fad that would last throughout the decade of the ‘50s and into the early ‘60s, and then with the ‘49s came Cadillac’s advanced overhead valve (ohv) V8; it arrived just in time for the start of the post-war horsepower race. Such credentials helped solidify Cadillac’s image of being the “standard of the world” as they had long claimed to be.
The tail-finned Cadillac began to take shape during 1939. During this time Harley Earl and his team received an invitation to Selfridge Air Force Base to view one of the newest and most advanced fighter planes of the day, the P-38 Lightning. General Motors’ connection to the P-38 was their Allison Division which built the engines for the Lockheed-designed plane, a twin-boom fighter aircraft that later proved its worth in the skies over Germany, Burma, and the South Pacific during the second world war. Beyond its importance to the Allied war effort, the plane has the distinction of being the inspiration for the tail fin craze that consumed the Detroit auto industry and car buyers for many years.
There was more to styling the ‘48s than simply putting fins on the car. The Lightning also inspired the pontoon-like fenders and bullet shaped bumper guards as well as the wraparound windshield that appeared in following years. There was a problem to overcome in following through with the ideas that the fighter plane spawned, too. When executives received their first glance at what styling was doing, they were not exactly exuberant about the proposal, thus Earl ordered the styling department to delete the fins. Harley Earl was an intimidating person and when he said do this or that it got done – usually. The stylist in charge of the Cadillac design studio, Franklin Hershey, simply concealed the fins on the clay model with a cloth. Within a short time span, however, the idea of tailfins on Cadillacs began to appeal to management. Harley Earl went back to the studio and happily learned the fins had not been taken off the clay model.
As radically different as the 1948 and 1949 Cadillacs were, they were not as radical as they could have been. Other ideas for the new ‘48s included hidden headlights, skirted front fenders, and a very aerodynamic shape. These concepts were rejected because Harley Earl knew it was unwise to leap too far ahead of the styling practices of the day. In fact, he was quoted as saying, “A fundamental we have learned ... is not to step too far at a time, but every now and then we take a risk.” Dealers reacted the same way management did upon their introduction to the finned Cadillacs, but the general public was wild about the idea. Output for the next year’s model would nearly double the results of ‘48.
Bringing great excitement for the ‘49 model year was a replacement for the old L-head eight cylinder with the ohv V8. The new power plant displaced 331 cubic inches and provided significantly greater performance and fuel economy. With the upper limits of its capability being reached, the engineering department recognized that the L-head was due for replacement. A program was initiated during the latter part of 1941, but the war interfered with the project soon thereafter. Compression ratios were on the rise due to the availability of higher octane gasoline (up to a rating of 88 by 1948). Furthermore, still higher ratings (up to a range of 12:1 to 13:1) were being planned, thus the modern Caddy engine was designed with this in mind. The engineers apparently did their work correctly because the engine continued in its basic form through 1963. The only other street car that could measure up to Cadillac in terms of performance at that time was Oldsmobile which had their own ohv V8 displacing 307 cubic inches.
Harley Earl, the VP of GM Styling and his team of stylists made the cars of GM look exciting and thus desirable. In particular, a Cadillac was something to aspire to because in the eyes of many it made a statement like no other automobile could. It said of its owner, “I have arrived at the top.” However, there were a few Cadillacs that made that statement a little more boldly. A limousine, the two-door hardtop Coupe de Ville, and a convertible said so a bit more clearly. There was one more way that surpassed these – a customized Cadillac specially ordered by Harley Earl.
Harold R. Boyer was no ordinary person. He received an engineering degree from MIT – no small accomplishment in itself – and helped in the effort to convert American factories from civilian to war production in order to combat Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire. During the Korean Conflict, Boyer was in charge of the Cleveland plant that produced Cadillac engines for tanks. Much of his work was classified. Boyer knew the powerful like General Curtis LeMay (the man who masterminded the bombing operations over Japan in the latter part of World War II and who later became the commander of the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command) and he was also friends with Harley Earl. Through his association with Earl, Boyer also became acquainted with the famous like movie star, Author Godfrey.
Earl and Boyer met when the latter was with the Oakland Motor Division of GM. Eventually, Boyer was loaned by GM to the Department of Defense. His career brought him back to serve at GM until his retirement in 1964; his last major duty for the company was to coordinate the pavilion for GM at that year’s World’s Fair in New York City. Boyer served on the board of directors of various companies including that of Lear Jet, was a pilot, and owned & flew a Beechcraft Bonanza.
One day while Boyer was assigned to managing Cadillac’s Cleveland Tank Plant, he had a conversation with Harley Earl regarding automobiles. Mr. Boyer mentioned his dream car would be part Cadillac and part sports car. Evidently, Earl became intrigued with the concept of a Cadillac sports car and began having one designed with Boyer’s input. A regular production 1951Series 62 convertible was sent to GM Styling to be redesigned into the car shown here. Originally the special Caddy was painted black and had standard issue wheel covers. The body was shortened 10 inches and lowered six inches in overall height to achieve the sports car look. Grille extensions, turn signals, headlight rings, and the hood emblem were updated to 1952-model year components. The instrument panel was modified to include manifold and oil temperature gauges, as well as a tachometer and an aircraft-type clock. A newspaper article about the unique car which appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer stated the custom Cadillac was equipped with a 230 horsepower, dual-carb engine and that it was capable of 130mph. If the report was correct, then the engine, as originally configured, was essentially the same as the one which powered the 1953-54 Eldorado (though these models lacked dual carbs). According to the article, GM was “so impressed by the vehicle” that they were considering placing it into production. One must wonder if this creation was the inspiration for the sporty dream car, the 1953 Cadillac Le Mans of which only four were built. Reportedly, it, too, was considered for production; dealers who were quarried about it believed a market existed for about 5,000 of them. However, production was not forthcoming.
At Boyer’s request, the special Cadillac was upgraded and in 1955, the car got a new engine. The sporty wire wheels may have been installed at that time as well. A four-barrel carburetor replaced the dual-quad setup. At some point, the car’s color scheme was changed, too. This is the way the car remains today.
Harold Boyer’s granddaughter purchased the car upon his death in 1987, and she preserved it until selling it several years ago at an auction. The Custom Convertible now belongs to a Palo Alto, California resident who showed the car at the 2011 Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance.
In the opinion of many at that time, the 1950s Cadillacs represented the pinnacle of luxury, and sales of the make reflected this belief. However, the ultimate luxury cruiser of the time had to be a Harley Earl-designed Cadillac – something very few people could own.
To view photos of the car on display at Pebble Beach, click here: http://forums.aaca.org/f169/pebble-beach-1952-cadillac-custom-body-310368.html
Additional photos can be seen here: http://cadillacdatabase.org/Dbas_txt/Drm52-53.htm