Cadillac’s first front-wheel drive production car - The Eldorado

On October 6, 1966, Cadillac debuted an entirely new class of automobile, albeit one with a familiar name. Designed as the brand’s first entry into the personal luxury coupe market, the E-body Eldorado was advertised as, “…the first motor car in the world to combine the precision of front-wheel drive with the maneuverability of variable ratio power steering and the balance of Automatic Level Control.” Here’s a look back at this revolutionary, yet often overlooked, Cadillac.

As it happened, Cadillac began experimenting with front wheel drive during the Brougham years. But though a running chassis tested in late 1959 looked promising, FWD was still a relative novelty and by no means proven. Thus, when General Motors stylists began sketching a "new Brougham" that October, they devised shapes adaptable to either front or rear drive. The 1967 Cadillac Eldorado originated in 1959, with experimental project XP-727, which underwent several rethinks through early 1962. Management then settled on front-wheel drive for a new "personal" Cadillac, and further prototypes evolved with that in mind.

For a while, Cadillac considered calling the car LaSalle, but ultimately chose Eldorado as a name with higher recognition. A clay model called XP-825, with razor-edge lines and formal roof treatment, was essentially the final production design.

The clincher was the successful engineering effort toward what would be GM's first production front-driver, the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. Engineering for both models was more or less combined by summer 1963, in project XP-784, but Eldorado styling originated in two separate programs: XP-820, begun in September, and the evolutionary XP-825, begun in December. The latter was production -- approved in May 1964, with shorter overhangs the major subsequent change. Unlike previous Eldorados, only a coupe was planned, with no evident thought of a convertible. Many prototypes and styling ideas were made for cars with 12 or 16 cylinder engines.

It's unclear whether the clean-slate V-12 or the crude V-16 were ever seriously considered for production, but there's no doubt that development stopped at the prototype stage. Still, Chuck Jordan and his colleagues came up with a remarkable group of design studies for a new multi-cylinder Cadillac.

Cadillac began to examine the viability of a “personal car” as a successor to the Eldorado Brougham. Enthusiasm for the project among Cadillac executives was mixed, but GM was simultaneously developing a new front and rear-wheel drive platform that would prove suitable for such an application. In the winter of 1959, testing of an experimental front-drive chassis showed the potential advantages of front-wheel drive in low-traction situations, when one test driver reportedly doubled his speed on glare ice compared to a rear-drive test chassis. Still, front-wheel drive was not a given at this point in the Cadillac project.

At roughly the same time, Chuck Jordan and his team, working under Bill Mitchell, started to model the proposed car’s exterior, a project that would drag out over several years. The final decision to build Cadillac’s new personal car in front-wheel drive came in the spring of 1963 (prompting a series of exterior design revisions), but it wasn’t until May of 1964 that the exterior styling of the model that would become the 1967 Eldorado was approved.

GM divisions Buick and Oldsmobile had a head start in finalizing the design of their own E-body personal coupes (the rear-drive Buick Riviera and the front-drive Oldsmobile Toronado), meaning that both would debut as 1966 models. Cadillac, understanding that it couldn’t match the other divisions to market, took time to refine the ride quality of the Eldorado, making it more compliant and quieter inside the cabin. The Cadillac also delivered Automatic Level Control, a self-leveling pneumatic rear suspension able to compensate for trunk loads up to 500 pounds.

Like the E-body Oldsmobile, the Cadillac took a novel approach to front-wheel drive, mounting the engine and transmission longitudinally and next to one another. Power from the V-8 (rated at 340 horsepower and 480 pound-feet of torque) was transmitted to the Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission via a heavy-duty enclosed chain drive, which required a bit of reengineering to make the components fit in the allotted space. A new oil pan was developed to allow for transmission and axle shaft clearance, while new exhaust manifolds, engine mounts and a revised accessory drive were added.

From the onset, Cadillac envisioned a different (read: younger) buyer for its Eldorado, and its sales projections for the model were relatively modest at 10-percent of total production volume. In its first year on the market, the front-drive Eldorado sold a healthy 17,930 units, compared to 2,250 units sold of the outgoing 1966 Eldorado. Even the period magazines were (generally) positive about the all-new Cadillac, praising it for everything from interior room to ride quality and handling.Automotive Quarterly went so far as to award the Eldorado its “Design and Engineering Excellence” award, stating that the “traditional unpleasant characteristics of front-wheel drive cars had been eliminated” in the new Cadillac.

The E-body Cadillac Eldorado remained in production until 2002, switching from a longitudinally-mounted engine to a transverse-mounted engine in 1986. It outlived both the Oldsmobile Toronado (which ended production in 1992) and the Buick Riviera (killed off after the 1993 model year, after switching to FWD in 1979, but revived for 1995-’99), and in some ways, predicted the future of the American automotive industry.

Today, the majority of domestically produced automobiles (excluding, ironically, most Cadillac models) utilize front-wheel drive, marketed to customers for its increased interior room and potential traction advantages in inclement weather. From a manufacturer’s perspective, front wheel drive typically costs less to produce and lowers vehicle weight (thus boosting fuel economy), so it’s no surprise that automakers favor the platform.