Junkyard Gem: 1976 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible

Murilee Martin

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Convertibles rode high well in 1960s America, with Detroit selling more than 500,000 ragtops in 1965, but sales collapsed by the early 1970s and tightening federal crash-safety regulations made it seem less worthwhile to even bother producing new ones. Chrysler halted convertible production after 1971, with Ford following suit by 1973. By the 1976 model year, the Cadillac Eldorado was the last new American car you could buy with a convertible top from the factory, and it appeared that none would ever be built again. I've found one of those "last convertible" Eldorados in rough-but-identifiable condition in a Denver junkyard.

As it turned out, the convertible never really died in America. Car shoppers could still buy new European-made convertibles after 1976, coachbuilders modified new Detroit cars with factory-grade drop-tops, and then Chrysler began selling K-Car convertibles starting with the 1982 model year.

Because the '76 Eldorado appeared to be the absolute end of the convertible line, however, buyers thought they were investing in a sure-fire collector car that would be worth vast sums in the not-very-distant future (this belief led to lawsuits against GM later on, when the Cadillac Division resumed production of the Eldorado convertible for 1984). While a one-of-200-made Bicentennial Edition Eldorado with red-white-and-blue trim really is worth plenty these days, an ordinary 1976 Eldorado in beat-up condition doesn't seem worth restoring.

This car appears to have sat outside in Colorado with the top down for decades, filling with snow each winter and enduring high-elevation solar irradiation each summer. A 1960s GTO or Camaro might be worth fixing up after falling into this state of disrepair, but not one of 14,000 "last convertible" Eldorados made in 1976.

GM's Unified Powerplant Package front-wheel-drive system, which used battleship-strength chains to transmit power to the drive wheels, proved to be extremely reliable on the street, joining the small-block Chevrolet engine and Hydra-Matic transmission in the pantheon of The General's Greatest Engineering Hits. Even gigantic motorhomes used this system. In 1976, the Eldorado got the last of the 500-cubic-inch (8.2 liter, or litre as GM's marketers spelled it) V8s, rated at a disappointing 190 horsepower and an impressive 360 lb-ft of torque. Gas prices were scary in 1976, but those who could afford to pay $11,049 (about $51,000 today) for a new Eldo weren't going to flinch at single-digit highway fuel economy.

Fuel injection! Pretty futuristic stuff for 1976, though even boring econoboxes started to get EFI within a decade of this car's manufacture.

So, even while its "last of the convertibles" title deserves an asterisk today, the '76 Cadillac Eldorado is an interesting piece of automotive history.

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