©2018 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s
  • One of 1,320 produced
  • Height of the era’s design
  • Striking black-and-red color combo
  • 345-hp Tri-Power 390-ci V8
  • High-tech features
By the late 1950s, Cadillac reigned supreme over the full-sized luxury-car market in North America with exciting products that featured advanced engineering and the leading-edge styling of Harley Earl. While the 1959 Eldorado was controversial and misunderstood in its heyday, the collectors and critics of today agree that it possesses an unmatched combination of power, presence and extravagance.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz
Years Produced:1959
Number Produced:1,320
Original List Price:$7,400
SCM Valuation:$165,000
Tune Up Cost:$175
Chassis Number Location:Frame (right-hand side), door pillar (left-hand side, center)
Engine Number Location:On left-hand side of the block
Club Info:Cadillac LaSalle Club
Alternatives:1959 Chrysler 300E, 1959 Chrysler Imperial, 1959 Lincoln Continental
Investment Grade:B

This car, Lot 187, sold for $324,000, including buyer’s premium, at RM Sotheby’s Petersen Automotive Museum Auction in Los Angeles, CA, on December 8, 2018.

Imagine for a moment driving on a road along a coastline. The wind is in your hair, the car floats over the bumps like a yacht on calm waters, and you are, or are with, someone fabulously wealthy with taste to match.

This is the line Cadillac has always sold, and it still applies — at least to Cadillac models like our subject, the 1959 Eldorado Biarritz.

If you have even the slightest doubt that Cadillacs were meant for people of means, allow me to remind you that one of the quality-assessment tests done in designing a Caddy was called “The Mink Test.” The test involved rubbing expensive weasel pelts across the interior to make saure that the fur coats that the owner and passenger would surely be wearing wouldn’t snag on any seat trim.

While it won’t catch on your clothes, a classic Cadillac will definitely catch the eye.

The height of fins and flashiness was the 1959 Eldorado Biarritz. Cadillac purists may prefer the earlier years of Harley Earl’s design reign, with their delicate window pillars, streamlined fenders and V16 engines, but for a car that epitomizes the American optimism and enthusiasm of the post-war era, collectors can’t resist the chrome and rockets of 1959.

Fins forever

During World War II, U.S. auto manufacturers didn’t design or build new cars, but that doesn’t mean that the design teams weren’t thinking about them.

When the war ended in 1945, designers went to work with heads full of fighter planes, which manifested in the cars they penned.

The first automotive tailfins were inspired by a trip to see Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning. The sleek plane’s tails showed up as rounded protrusions on the 1948 Cadillac. Although fins would later become a Harley Earl signature, it’s said that his initial response to the ’48 was to demand their removal.

The designers resisted, Earl forgave, and the rest is sky-high history.

Fins became so popular that aftermarket companies offered weld-on reproductions so owners of pathetic, finless machines could get that classy Caddy look. By the mid-1950s, there was a full-on fin war, with stylists expanding the rear fenders to cloud-cutting heights.

The fin frenzy culminated in the undisputed finner winner — the 1959 Eldorado. The peak of this massive fin, adorned with glowing bullet taillights, was 42 inches above the pavement.

Eldorado with everything

The Eldorado wasn’t just a pretty pair of fenders. It was packed with cutting-edge technology for the time. Items such as cruise control, automatic signal-seeking radio, power windows and multi-way climate control were all available, and in most cases, standard. Our subject Caddy also came with the stylish-for-its-time Autronic Eye automatic headlight dimmer.

If you think all the chrome and wiring made for a heavy machine, you’re right. The ’59 Caddy will swing the needle to 5,000 pounds and then some. Despite its weight, the Eldorado got good reviews for performance, thanks to a 390-ci V8 and three 2-barrel carburetors to feed it. Since shifting oneself was for the working class, Cadillac had stopped offering a manual transmission in the early ‘50s. It was a 3-speed Hydra-Matic transmission or nothing for Eldorado owners.

All this luxury wasn’t cheap. A brand-new Eldorado Biarritz cost $7,401, and while Cadillac produced more than 138,000 Cadillacs in 1959, only 1,320 of them were drop-top Eldorados, making not just the car, but also the parts to restore one, quite rare.

Well sold

Even if you divide it by fin — $162,000 per side — this Eldorado sold for a high price. It is a nicely restored car, in a desirable black-with-red interior color combo, but it’s a bench-seat car, rather than the rarer bucket option, which means a bucket-seat car could expect to sell for even more.

RM Sotheby’s Chief Marketing Officer Ian Kelleher explained the car’s performance on the block by pointing out that there were several interested parties bidding on the convertible.

Kelleher said the car’s combination of late-1950s glamour and recent appearance on the market added to its appeal, but in his opinion, it was the color combination that really sold it.

“The Eldorado sold for a strong price as determined by today’s market,” Kelleher said. “What really set it off was the black-over-red color combination. When you find an example in this kind of condition — you buy it.”

It’s a little startling to realize that our subject Caddy’s fins were considered garish and excessive for decades, but now they’re a symbol of a time and place in American life. We will never see fins like these on a modern car, but they’re special on this car. And they help make this car very collectible.

Well done by the seller, but the new owner did well too. The new drivers have a car they know can be used in comfort — even while driving in fur coats — and they will never fail to be the center of attention. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of RM Sotheby’s.)

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