On a Manhattan Rooftop, Talking Tail Fins With the Designer of the Cadillac Ciel

After its debut at Pebble Beach last month, the Cadillac Ciel concept has been on a whistle-stop tour en route to the Frankfurt auto show, turning up in Michigan on Monday and New York on Thursday. The car was displayed on the rooftop of a gallery building here in Chelsea, against a backdrop of wooden water towers and blue September skies.

There is no shortage of emblematic American land yachts that the Ciel, which is a foot longer than a Cadillac CTS sedan, evokes. Take the Lincoln Continental of the early to mid-1960s, for example. Not only the car’s long, slab sides and sharp fender creases lend that impression, but the words of the executives who rolled the car out in California on Aug. 18.

Clay Dean, the design chief for the brand, said the car, which took its name from the French word for sky, was inspired by the ideal of open-air road trips in California. Executives evoked a drive to Big Sur, with morning fog and bright sun at noon. “This could be the ride of a movie star in 10 years,” one publicist said in New York.

Indeed, the ‘65 Lincoln driven with its top down in the opening credits of the television series “Entourage” — Johnny Drama’s car — could be swapped out for the Ciel, presuming the show endured for a few more decades.

The Ciel does have Hollywood roots, albeit North Hollywood, site of the West Coast advanced design studios for General Motors, which is directed by Frank Saucedo.

In the ’60s, Lincoln, Cadillac and Chrysler cut back on the chrome of their luxury cars, pulled in the tail fins and focused on sweeping, tailored extents of sheet metal. At Cadillac, the tendency reached its apogee with the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado, designer Wayne Kady’s realization of Bill Mitchell’s sheer or London-tailored look.
The rear quarters of the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado.

The fin of the Ciel seems to pay explicit homage to that of the ‘67. “Yes, the graphic is in line,” said Niki Smart, the Ciel’s exterior design director, on Thursday.

Mr. Smart, a graduate of the Royal College of Art’s transportation design program in London, helped design the Ariel Atom.

“I grew up seeing all those great, long, low American cars in old magazines of my father’s,” he said. “We lived near Silverstone racetrack,” he added, referencing the English circuit that is host of the British Grand Prix Formula One race. His father built exhaust systems.

“We sought a sense of presence in this car,” he said. “It is almost boatlike. We wanted the body to have the feel of a fuselage.”

At the car’s keel, as it were, the visual energy is supplied by a chromed line that sweeps along the side from the front fender to base of the finlike edge at the rear. Carefully planed surfaces fair back from the front fender. There is little chrome, save for a side vent behind the wheels, which are positioned remarkably, if impractically, forward.

The grille, a conventional if oversize variant on the marque’s traditional egg crate, swings up in a smile.

As with the ‘61 Lincoln, there is an interesting set of symmetries to this Cadillac. The grille’s shape is echoed in outline in the rear, where it looks like the end of an America’s Cup yacht. And the headlights, narrow and upright, echo the traditional upright tail light of Cadillac, Mr. Smart said.

“This is an extension of our art and science language,” he said. “Art and science is very flexible. This is more the art side, lyric and elegant. With the ULC, it was more the science. Grittier,” he said, referencing the subcompact Urban Luxury Concept, unveiled at last fall’s Los Angeles auto show.

The Ciel was built without a top of any kind. Viewed from the side, the reason may be evident: any line drawn from the top of the windshield to the rear deck would be impractically low.

The central question, does Cadillac have room for such a car as the Ciel, even as a halo model, went unanswered Thursday. The company has a smaller car on the way, the ATS, as well as a full-size sedan, the XTS. It also recently announced plans for the ELR, a sibling to the Chevrolet Volt.

Appearing with the Ciel on Thursday, Don Butler, the Cadillac vice president, displayed a graph of Starbucks coffee cups to illustrate the size of the brand’s coming models. The XTS, not surprisingly, was a venti. On that chart, a Ciel would figure as the convenience store belly buster.