Both the automobiles and movies America produced following the cataclysmic World War II years exhibited a peculiar kind of bipolar quality: They were unguardedly optimistic and forward-looking, while also rather circumspect and even reluctant to let go of the pre-War world to which they could never return.
The vehicle featured here is a near-perfect embodiment of the zeitgeist of the late Forties and early Fifties. This is the last of six custom Cadillac studio limousines, built on a 1949 Cadillac Series 75 chassis--Cadillac's "senior" model, used primarily for limousine and professional cars like ambulances and hearses.
This particular automobile was ordered by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Los Angeles and crafted by one of the most renowned of the original coachbuilders of the classic automobile era: Maurice Schwartz of Bohman and Schwartz fame.
From their Los Angeles headquarters, Bohman and Schwartz had earned a worldwide reputation for their stylish, sometimes flamboyant, and always meticulously crafted custom luxury automobiles during the 1930s. And from Hollywood came some of their best customers.
Many automotive enthusiasts are familiar with the beautiful custom Duesenbergs that Clark Gable and Gary Cooper each owned--creations of Bohman and Schwartz. The coachbuilder also constructed such famous cars as the Phantom Corsair. The futuristic, streamlined sports coupe was based on a Cord 812 chassis that Rust Heinz, the young and ill-fated heir to the Heinz ketchup fortune, designed for himself in 1938.
The coachbuilt era came to an end with World War II, and by 1947, the firm of Bohman and Schwartz ceased to exist. Maurice Schwartz, however, remained active in his trade and in the Hollywood scene.
MGM was a movie factory, and Louis B. Mayer knew that despite working the stars like rented mules, they were still artists who should be treated with some manner of deference. Thus, these magnificent Cadillacs were commissioned to carry them in style and grace to their places of work.
Cadillac had the Midas touch in 1949. The company was producing cars that people aspired to and actually purchased in great numbers--at great profit to GM. Starting in the Thirties, Cadillac had begun to eclipse Packard, the dominant carmaker in the prestige/luxury car field.
Cadillac management made the canny decision to avoid going downmarket as Packard had done--a move that damaged Packard's image almost irreparably and led eventually to the company's demise 20 years later.
Cadillac chose the high road of an all-luxury line of cars, along with a post-War spirit of technological innovation. By the late Forties, the division had established itself as the "standard of the world," as its now-revived slogan so proudly declared.
The Schwartz Cadillac you see here is a blend of the brilliant young engineers' thinking and the division's more traditional virtues of stateliness and elegance. The Series 75 vehicles retained the general look of the pre-War Cadillacs with a post-War facelift. The car stands tall and dignified. This look was a stark contrast to Cadillac's all-new 1949 Series 60 cars, which introduced the tailfin to the world and embodied a style that was low, sleek, and almost racy for its time.
Yet under the imposing hood of this wood-bodied star-carrier could be seen the future.
The engine of the Schwartz Cadillac is the revolutionary, all-new, overhead-valve/high-compression V8 that established Cadillac (along with its sister division Oldsmobile) as the technological leader of the immediate post-War era.
Edward Cole was the primary engineer for this landmark engine (he would later design the legendary small-block Chevrolet V8 and the Corvair before ascending to the presidency of General Motors itself).
The Cadillac's engine was coupled with the equally futuristic GM HydraMatic automatic transmission. Indeed, it would be several years down the road before you'd hear "European automotive superiority" without bursting into laughter. America's carmakers set the pace back then, without question.
Enough background. Let's take a closer look at the car itself. The high, prominently domed hood dominates the car's façade (the hood was something of a design fetish of GM vice president/dictator of styling Harley Earl's). Cadillac's trademark egg-crate grille work provides gravitas and a feeling of heft and width to the overall look. No one mistook a Cadillac for an ordinary automobile, not with this face.
Schwartz designed and built the body from scratch. Its pleasing lines are simple and, more importantly, well-proportioned, which helps mask the car's huge size (it was built on a 136-inch wheelbase chassis). The wood elements don't dominate the design. They complement it, living in harmony with the surrounding sheet metal of the fenders, roof, and decks.
The windows are large and airy--whether to allow its VIP passengers a better view out or the public a better view inside is open to speculation. Compare this image of yesterday's stars with that of today's celebrities, who insist on being driven in cars with windows so darkly tinted the passengers are invisible to everyone outside.
The wheel covers are the new-for-1949 Cadillac sombrero style that became a hit with the custom and hot rod car scene in later years. They are a simple and elegant decoration for the wheels.
The interior is a visual feast of natural colors and beautiful materials, rendered with the panache for which GM was known. The wraparound effect of the dashboard into the front doors is especially appealing --an achievement today's designers still strive for in contemporary cars.
A stunning automobile manufactured by a legendary carmaker at the top of its game, customized by a deservedly renowned coachbuilder and carrying world-class actors who worked for a first-class studio... The Schwartz Cadillac is a fine testament to the era from which it came.
It seems natural, even comforting, to picture a young Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn riding in the backseat of this wonderful car on their way to filming Adam's Rib as they were chauffeured to silver screen immortality. Some cars just spark the imagination that way.
Larry L. Tebo is an aficionado of antique and classic automobiles and a classic cinema buff. He is often found in the Car Lounge discussing automotive history or politics.
This historically significant and classically beautiful automobile will be one of the offerings at the upcoming RM Auctions Automobiles of Arizona event scheduled for 20-21 January 2011 at the elegant Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa in Phoenix. The vehicle is one of a multitude of top-echelon classic and antique automobiles being offered at this prestigious event. This unique and beautiful machine will surely be one of the stars of the show, befitting its traditional place as a transporter of stars. We thank shooterz.biz through RM Auctions for providing the color photos used to illustrate this feature.