by James Kraus
The other day I was discussing season two of the television drama Mad Men with a friend and not surprisingly, talk soon turned to Don’s new Cadillac. Prototypical of what a successful New York executive would have purchased in the 1960’s, it was quiet, smooth and comfortable; equipped with a full measure of the latest developments in convenience features and driving aids.
Did Don care about how much power it had? How fast it was? No; these were more the concerns of men further down the totem pole. They amused themselves with lower-cost, larger-engined Fords, Chevrolets and Plymouths. All of which could easily out-power Don’s posh new Cadillac. No matter; Don had no need for mere demonstrations of power; he possessed power.
This phenomenon was not unique to the U.S. In Germany, a top-range 300 SEL Mercedes could be outpaced by an Opel Diplomat. In Italy, a prestigious Lancia Flamina or Alfa 2600 Berlina would likewise both be left behind by the more prosaic Alfa Giulia TI Super. In the U.K., the Rover 95, 110 and P5 and Humber Super Snipe were all quite sedate. Only Jaguars could hustle, and thus became favorites of the underworld (à la Peter the Dutchman in the classic 1971 Michael Caine film Get Carter.)
Jet Age kingpins, power brokers and men about town did not concern themselves over such matters. When you have been through the rigors of war and are now commanding Madison Avenue or Wall Street, or overseeing the design of skyscrapers, jet aircraft or mainframe computer systems, there is little need to concern oneself over being able to out maneuver some stranger in the next lane. The idea was simply to travel in a modicum of style and arrive comfortable and refreshed after commuting to the office, county club or favored purveyor of libations.
Don had a powerful sway over women, and wielded considerable power at the office. Today, women often exhibit as much sexual assertiveness as men (witness the rise of the popularly celebrated cougar) and exercising power at the modern workplace can lead to censure from Human Resources or legal retribution by disgruntled or terminated employees. The inexorable rise of the often-questionable team ethos has also served to erode individual power in the executive suite.
Thus today’s striving Don Drapers often grasp for a show of power by commuting daily in harsh-riding, flatulent-sounding “executive” cars far better suited to contesting the European Touring Car Championship. Executives in the 1960’s enjoyed an innate sense of masculinity that allowed them to drive cars that were not conceived to overtly express the same trait. They were free to drive cars that were simply elegant. They aspired to be gentlemen rather than bad boys.
When Don first visits the Cadillac showroom, he gets a taste of his own advertising hyperbole when the salesman asserts that while Don’s Dodge was wonderful for “getting you where you are going, this (gesturing toward a new Coupe de Ville) is for when you have already arrived;” thus subjecting Don to the same marketing psychology on which the entire existence of Sterling Cooper is based.
There is a sizable contingent that believes the 1961 and 1962 Cadillac marked the pinnacle of the brand. Still bearing the thematic futurism of the late-50’s models, they mercifully shed the flamboyant bombasticism of their immediate predecessors in favor of a design that was created to ideate grace and spirit.
In 1963 the design team elected to pursue an emphasis on more ‘traditional’ Cadillac styling cues and began phasing in more ostentatious grilles, broader C-pillars and more blunt detailing. Brashness and gravitas unfortunately displaced the short-lived grace and spirit.
The clearest and best expression of the grace and spirit motif can be seen in the 1961 Coupe de Ville with its elegant, slender C-pillars; and the rare 1961 four-window cantilevered-roof version of the Sedan de Ville with its sleek, monumentally scaled one-piece wraparound rear glass. I believe these two models represent the epitome of post-war Cadillac design. Another intriguing pair of ’61 and ’62 models are the short-deck Town Sedan and Park Avenue, both of which are a svelte 18 cm (7”) shorter and 18 kg (40 lbs) lighter than their standard brethren. Since today’s cars have grown so portly themselves, these Cadillacs are not so comparatively gargantuan as one might think. They are less than 10 cm (4”) wider than a Porsche Panamera, and these shorter versions are less than 20 cm (8”) longer than the current Audi A8L.