Back in the ’60s, the automobiles I owned were all from General Motors’ Chevrolet family — a Corvair, an Impala and a Super Sport. In 1969, a friend encouraged me to purchase a Mercedes Benz and I did. With my first luxury automobile, I just knew I had arrived. In my mind, my “Benz” was one sharp automobile. It was a 350 SE, silver body, black top with all the extras. I vividly recall driving to my parents’ home to show it off. One of my sisters asked, “What made you purchase such an ugly automobile?” Such a question may sound strange to those who drive a Mercedes Benz today. Today, not only are large numbers of Black folks driving the Mercedes Benz, they are driving BMWs, Lexus’ and Jaguars. Some who want a sportier automobile choose in that expensive, two-seat, Porsche 911 Turbo. Now, go back to the ’60s and visualize the luxury automobile many, if not most, Black folks owned — the automobile of choice; the automobile that set us apart from our peers. We had a Cadillac parked in front of our homes, in our driveways or in our garages, back in the day.
In the ’60s, Black folks treasured the “the Caddy,” as it was nicknamed. You were not “somebody” back then unless you owned one. It was a status symbol for rich whites. Blacks thought they could appear to be big shots also, if they owned a Cadillac. Forget about where one lived or the type of home in which they lived. The Cadillac, in the minds of many, was the equalizer. One became somebody big as a result of Cadillac ownership. In spite of the love Blacks had for the Cadillac, I have been told there was a time when Blacks would show up at dealerships and the salesmen would simply ignore them, concluding they did not have the means to purchase such an expensive automobile. While the Cadillac was driven by many Black professionals and entertainers, it was also driven by pimps, numbers writers and hustlers, which sometimes gave the Cadillac a bad name. In fact, it appears that many Cadillac dealers did not want to sell to Black Americans because of the stereotype associated with Blacks that involved questionable, if not illegal, activities. As a result, Black doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs stopped buying Cadillacs and moved to other luxury automobiles, particularly, the Lincoln. Many Black folks had to have a Cadillac and would get one by any means necessary back in the day.
Because of its popularity, thousands of songs were recorded with “Cadillac” in the title or the body of the song. Chuck Berry was one of many artists who recorded Cadillac songs; “Maybelline” is undoubtedly the most popular. You may also recall the R&B group The Cadillacs. Their recording “Speedo” was a Cadillac-inspired song. Bo Diddley recorded, “Cadillac” and Albert King, recorded “Cadillac Assembly Line.” Some jazz musicians also got in on the subject; Dizzy Gillespie with “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac” and Hank Mobley with his recording of “Caddy for Daddy.” Whites also had their love affair with the Cadillac, evidenced by songs they recorded. For example, The Everly Brothers recorded “Always Drive a Cadillac,” Bruce Springsteen recorded “Cadillac Ranch” and then there was Elvis Presley’s recording of “Pink Cadillac.” I cannot identify anyone who owned more Cadillacs than Elvis. If you cannot relate to any of these songs, here is one I just know will jog your memory. Some of it goes like this: “Though you may not drive a great big Cadillac, gangsta whitewalls, TV antennas in the back. You may not have a car at all, but remember, brothers and sisters, you can still stand tall. Just be thankful for what you got, diamond in the back, sunroof top…”. William DeVaughn recorded “Be Thankful for What You Got,” in 1974, which in my book is a time that fit well into back in the day.
Not only have we witnessed the love for the Cadillac demonstrated in life, we have also witnessed it in death. You may have heard of people selecting a funeral home based on the fleet of automobiles used by the funeral director. If it did not have a Cadillac hearse, Cadillac flower car and Cadillac limousines to transport family members, it was not used. Even in death, family members insisted that their Cadillac-loving relatives go out in style. There was more concern with how they were leaving this world than whether or not they would pass through the “Pearly Gates.” If you can reflect back to the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, I know you can envision that huge, tank-looking Cadillac in a funeral procession. If the Cadillac hearse, flower car and limousines were white, you were really receiving the grand send-off.
Do you recall those popular Cadillac styles of the past? Someone you knew owned a Coupe de Ville. Those who owned the Eldorado were “larger than life.” One of my cousins owned a powder-blue fishtail, fast-back Cadillac in 1948, the first year of the fishtail model. These stubby fins that eventually were adopted by other automobiles. Shortly after the fishtail came an extensive use of chrome and of vinyl upholstery. A number of people viewed the fishtail, fast-back Cadillac coupes of 1948 and 1949 as the loveliest postwar Cadillac of its era. Besides the Eldorado and fast-back style, I know that at least two of you reading this column owned Fleetwoods. Two co-workers shared stories about this model. One told me he had owned a pink Fleetwood. He wanted it so badly that he delivered newspapers out of his pink Cadillac, with a Continental kit and large white-wall tires, with no concern and with no shame, back in the day.
Another co-worker told me that while he was growing up in Detroit, his father hit the “street numbers.” His mother, a janitor in the Detroit School District, passed a Cadillac dealership while walking home from work and became fixated on a green and white Fleetwood in the dealer’s showroom; an automobile she just had to have. His father, dressed in his coveralls, visited the dealership and expressed an interest in purchasing the automobile. As in many stories I have heard in the past, the salesman only waited on him when he insisted on service. He was asked how he planned to pay for the automobile. He reached into a bag, pulled out his money and purchased the Fleetwood Cadillac for his wife. Now, you cannot do this today, as you would immediately be reported to the authorities. However, a number of folks made purchases in this manner back in the day.
While there was some risk involved in that cash purchase, here was a cash Cadillac purchase that was not risky, but just dumb. This occurred right here in Philadelphia. After two brothers robbed a Center City bank, their first stop was at a Cadillac dealership. As you guessed, they paid cash. As you undoubtedly further guessed, they were arrested before driving out of the showroom. If but for a moment, they fulfilled their dream — they owned a Cadillac.
I know you will think I am exaggerating in the following story, or that I am telling a story I fabricated. Not so, as strange as it seems. Back in the early ’60s, right here in Philadelphia, in the vicinity of 47th and Aspen streets, the police saw a late-model Cadillac with smoke appearing to come from it. Closer inspection revealed that a couple was cooking alongside their Cadillac. Yes, some people valued owning a Cadillac more than having a place to live.
The love some old-school Cadillac owner, had for the car enabled them to list the model and year of each one they had owned. They could also rattle off the dealership where it was purchased. These included Center City Cadillac; Bernecker’s Cadillac; Delaware Valley Cadillac and Webb Cadillac. So as you observe, brothers and sisters driving along proudly in the luxury automobiles of today, just remember that many of these drivers were maneuvering a Cadillac, the automobile of class and style, while “digging the scene with a gangsta lean” back in the day.
Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.