Cadillac began building V-type engines in 1914, followed by its infamous OHV V-16 in 1930, and the OHV V-12 in 1931. They continued building their V-8 flathead through the 1948 production year. Then, in 1949, the new OHV V-8 engine was introduced. Most of the buyers loved it, but some thought the old flathead to be smoother and quieter. In truth, the new V-8 was 220 lbs. lighter, faster, easier to work on and was the engine Cadillac needed to propel the company into the new decade of interstate travel.
As good as the new engine was, it was not without troubles. The early '49s had hard-start problems after the car had been driven. This was blamed on the wiring harness, which was replaced in the second half of 1949. The hard-start problem continued, however, and it was now thought to be a hot spot of gases created in the intake manifold after the car had been run and shut off. A new manifold and 4-barrel carburetor replaced the 2-barrel setup in 1952. I remember in 1952, living in Montgomery, Alabama, my uncle Claude (my Dad's cousin) had come to visit us It was in the middle of the summer, probably at least 100 degrees, and my Dad and Uncle Claude had both just bought new cars: Dad's a '52 Chevy, and Uncle Claude's a '51 Cadillac (he worked at the Buick dealership in Atlanta and the Cadillac had been traded in on a new Buick when he bought it). They decided to drive the Cadillac to get a drink to cool down from the blistering heat. When they came out, the car wouldn't start! In about 20 minutes, it had cooled down and started right up.
I always admired the styling of these cars, and in the mid-90s, I bought a '54 Cadillac Coupe deVille. The '54 had a 12-volt system (introduced in '53) and supposedly all of the early problems worked out. We drove the '54 back from Indiana where it had been purchased, with no trouble. It was a cold November, and the engine started fine. By late Spring, I began to experience vapor lock and the hard-start problem. After several times waiting for the Cadillac to start, we nicknamed her "Marilyn" after a movie star of the '50s who, although beautiful, was rumored to be a bit of trouble on occasion.
The car was a 57,000-mile car and needed very little. We had already gone through the car bumper to bumper mechanically: Tune up, carburetor rebuild, new plug wires, etc. We decided to pull the engine and "go in" and see what the trouble could be. Since we had another '54 engine with 27,000 original miles, we decided to use that. Joe Rabelskie carefully disassembled it, mic-ing and checking each part. The block was cleaned and everything was reassembled, including the original "slipper pistons". We contacted the Cadillac Archives Department at GM to advise us on the details of correctly installing this engine. They were rebuilding a '55 at the time, and were very helpful. In our research, we found that in '55, a new water pump was developed which moved 15% more water then the previous pump. We got one for our engine and found it necessary to open up the water ports in the block to match those on the pump. We also changed to a 5-blade fan as those used on the '54 75 series Cadillacs. The manual fuel pump was exchanged for an electric one with an on-off toggle switch conveniently mounted near the steering column under the dash, so that on a hot summer day we can turn off the switch just before we turn off the car, to eliminate the pooling of gas in the intake. A consensus of opinions says that part of this problem is from modern gasoline. The new unleaded gas has more alcohol content and a lower boiling temperature, causing it to expand and help create the heat soak start problem.
Our car has air conditioning and every option available in '54, putting a strain on even the largest 12-volt battery. The car really wants two batteries! So we mounted an Optima 12-volt, 900 cold cranking amp marine battery in the trunk, and ran the positive cable to the starter and the negative cable to a grounded master disconnect switch under the dash, making sure the switch could carry both the continuous amps and start up amps, although we use the booster only briefly to start the car on a hot day. With all these upgrades, the car starts every time, runs great and we can enjoy it without the worry of a no-start. (You can't discreetly jump-start a 21-foot, Blue and White, Continental Kit Cadillac!)
Our car has all of the available options: Air Conditioning, Power Brakes, E-Z Eye tinted glass (blue), Fog lamps, 4-way electric front seat, Autronic Automatic headlight dimmer, Signal Seek (Wonder bar radio), Sabre wheels (a '55 option), Continental Kit and white wall tires, as well as standard equipment Power steering.
Cadillac offered an array of colors for '54, including the Azure Blue with Alpine white top combination our car has. Other colors offered were: (Ditzler Acrylic Lacquer) Black, Newport Blue, Viking Blue poly, Iris, Cobalt Blue poly, Shoal Green, Biscay Green, Arlington Green poly, Cabot Gray, Norman Gray poly, Gander Gray poly, Russet poly, Driftwood, Copper poly, Apollo Gold, and Aztec Red
1954 was a transitional year for Cadillac. The Harley Earl round styling with lots of chrome was still evident, but the silhouette was lower and longer than the previous year. The new '54s had a new panoramic windshield, lower hood, new gold "V" crest and Coupe deVille script, egg crate grille, chrome goddess hood ornament, Continental vent panes (vent windows), functional cowl air intake providing fresh air for passengers, and dual exhaust ports exiting through the rear bumpers.
The design theme for '54 was the "V" theme. This design was carried out on the door panels and seats, which were covered in nylon with metallic leather bolsters, thick plush carpeting and leather-padded dash. The gauges were set in a horizontal theme. The heating system works very well, as does the air conditioning. The unit is in the trunk, and blows air into the car via air vents in the deck mat, aimed toward the front of the car. Our '54 is a very smooth, comfortable driving car. The engine provides plenty of power for interstate travel, and the 4-speed Hydra-matic is quiet and reasonably smooth. There is no feeling of slipping, but a little momentary surge upon downshift, coming to a stop. The power steering is light, but you have a good feel of the road. The ride is soft with a little wheel bounce at speeds over 50 mph. The over-stuffed interior provides for a quiet ride with very little engine noise heard inside. The seats are at a comfortable height and are soft with good lower back support. The brakes with the power option stop well. The original brake shoes had a groove in the primary lining to dissipate heat. Ours has these original linings and work well. We are very happy that we didn't give up on this car. With our modifications, it is one of our favorite cars to look at and drive. We will do more drive reports in future issues, giving you a real sense of owning and driving these cars, and what we did in some cases, to make them dependable drivers. Keep 'em driving!