It was the late 1950s, and Harley Earl’s tenure as head of General Motors’ style department was drawing to a close. What began in 1938 with the Buick Y-Job would end with the 1959 Cadillac Cyclone; the last of his concept vehicles to be built. Like all of his creations, it would feature both stunning design and a bevy of futuristic features that would confirm Earl’s place as one of the great visionaries of automotive history.
On first glance, the Cyclone resembles the Mach 5 of Speed Racer fame. The most noticeable elements are the twin nose cones, mounted where the headlamps would normally be found. They contain radar antennas intended to alert drivers to objects in the road ahead of them.
For example, say the driver was cruising down a dark country road and, unbeknownst to him or her, a deer was standing 100 yards directly ahead. An interior warning light and a chirping sound would activate, with the volume growing louder as the vehicle approached the animal. A major crash would be averted and both motorist and creature of the forest would be saved. Considering that radar based crash warning systems have only been available in cars for several years, this was decades ahead of its time.
The ’59 Cyclone had other ingenious features as well. The panoramic windshield gave the operator full 360° views. Constructed of clear plastic, it was attached to the power-operated rear canopy, which rose up to give driver and passenger access to the vehicle.
When closed, the canopy cinched against the independently mounted windshield for protection from the elements. The driver could speak to persons outside the vehicle without having to raise the canopy, thanks to a built-in two-way speaker system.
The muffler and exhaust system were located in the engine compartment, with the outlets just ahead of the front wheels. And, at a height of only 44 inches, the Cyclone presented a narrow profile when speeding down the highway. Overall length was 196.9 inches, with a wheelbase of 104 inches.
A 325-horsepower, 390 cubic inch V8 rested under the hood, joined to a stock Hydra-Matic automatic transmission. The engine was fed by a four-barrel carb that used a filtered air scoop instead of a top-mounted air filter, in order to achieve a lower design. One feature that did become standard-issue on future Cadillacs was the Saginaw rotary-valve variable-ratio power steering.
Like most concept vehicles, the ’59 Cyclone never made it to the mass production phase. Nevertheless, it was a fitting close to Harley Earl’s amazing career, during which he wedded the notions of design and function together into one package. This approach remains a guiding principle for today’s automakers, proving that Earl’s vision was truly ahead of its time.