We didn’t waste any time. We were three issues old, but we were already naming our first Car of the Year and establishing an award that would change the industry. As would often be the case into the mid-1960s, the award was given not to a specific model but to an entire brand lineup, in this case Cadillac Division.
Whether it was founder and publisher Robert E. Petersen, co-publisher Robert R. Lindsay, founding editor Walter A. Woron, or someone else on staff who first proposed a Car of the Year award is lost to history. The task of selecting a winner and defending it to our readers was delegated to future Road & Track owner and publisher John R. Bond, who at the time was a contributor to the other magazine as well as a design engineer for Frank Kurtis, whose Kurtis Sport Car was featured on the cover of our first issue.
Being an engineer, Bond focused his selection almost entirely on mechanics, and he got straight to the point.
Ford had been struggling to shift back toward civilian automotive production following World War II, and although its new models employed significant mechanical updates that helped save the company from bankruptcy, those changes didn’t rise to Bond’s level of expected engineering improvements, instead relying on prewar ideas.
The Cadillac lineup, by contrast, introduced a new V-8 that Bond felt truly moved the industry forward. He extolled the virtues of the new overhead valve engine while excoriating other manufacturers for sticking with a flathead design, complete with charts and technical drawings. To Bond’s eye, the gains in fuel efficiency, weight savings, power output, and durability in Cadillac’s new 331-cubic-inch (5.4-liter) pushrod V-8 far outweighed anything Ford or Oldsmobile had done. Weighing nearly 200 pounds less and making 10 more hp than the flathead it replaced, it was the most powerful engine on the market, with 160 hp (sans accessories, which brought it down to 133 hp “as installed”).
Today we consider advancement in design a key part of Car of the Year, but Bond went the opposite way, praising Cadillac for not making any major styling changes for 1949. Tailfins and front fenders flush with the body had been introduced in 1948, a major update, but only experts can spot the visual differences between a ’48 and a ’49. Bond, apparently sick of GM design boss Harley Earl’s predilection for face-lifting a car every year, was thrilled the ’49 Cadillac was otherwise nearly identical to the ’48.
Curiously, Bond never remarked on the smoothness or quietness of the engine, which is impressive even today. Every time we touched this ’49 Series 62 Sedanette, owned by Randall Wixen, we stopped and strained our ears to check whether it was already running then made sure it was in neutral before starting it. (The four-speed Hydra-Matic automatic didn’t have a parking gear but rather engaged a parking pawl in reverse with the engine off.) The driving experience can only be described as stately, the engine quietly humming along, making just enough power to move the car at a relaxed pace. Some automatics today don’t shift as smoothly, and the unassisted brakes inspire refreshing confidence compared with early power brakes, which operated like light switches. The steering is slow by any standard, needing 90 degrees of rotation to begin a turn and another 90 to complete it.
With the Cadillac easily retaining its crown as the self-proclaimed “Standard of the World” and ushering in a new era of more powerful overhead valve engines, it’s no wonder Bond picked it. Ford’s car may have saved the company, but it didn’t change the automotive world the way Cadillac did.
Read more about our Ultimate Car of the Year finalists:
1968 Pontiac GTO
1986 Mazda RX-7
2013 Tesla Model S
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