The history of the American auto industry has been a comic opera for a long time. Brands come and go with pretty fair regularity with the erratic decisions of executives and investors. Sadly more than one company has gone completely off the rails after badly misjudging its market. Cadillac is no exception. The recent decision by GM executives to develop a line of electric sedans and offer them through a newly restarted subscription service demonstrate this short-sighted lunacy. This idea is dumb. And it will do damage to the brand. Fortunately, Cadillac has lasted longer than most American cars by pioneering its own market niche as the standard of luxury. For over 100 years, Americans (and Japanese Yakuza, reportedly) have bought Cadillacs for the upscale, gentlemanly look and feel they offer. It’s worth taking a look back at the history of the brand. Especially as the Cadillac division of GM decides to follow Studebaker and AMC by falling on its own sword.
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Cadillac started by accident, after an argument, by opportunists who were supposed to be cleaning out a warehouse in Detroit. In 1902, Henry Ford was the manager of, among other things, a small custom auto shop that made open-top sedans for high-end consumers. Ford, who had a knack for pissing people off, pissed off investors William Murphy and Lemuel Bowen and left in a huff to start the Ford Motor Company with new and better investors, the Dodge brothers – who would eventually sue him all the way to the Supreme Court when he withheld their dividends in 1913. In the meantime, Murphy and Bowen were left with a ramshackle workshop, a bunch of spare parts, and lots of debts. They hired an engineer named Henry M. Leland to inventory what they had and pack it up for sale. Instead, Leland got excited at all the cool stuff lying around and built a couple of cars out of it with a relatively reliable single cylinder engine that delivered almost 10 hp flat out. These horseless carriages were the Runabout and Tonneau, both virtually identical to the Ford Model A, but finished with such unprecedented quality and tight tolerances that 2,000 orders rolled in from the 1903 auto show where the new marque premiered. The Cadillac company, named for the French guy who founded Detroit in 1701, had arrived.
Cadillac got properly organized in 1905 and started churning out mass-produced luxury carriages in bulk. From the start, the idea was to combine high-quality engineering with more luxury than a Victorian cat house for customers who wanted the best of both power and privilege. Building on what was basically a ripoff of the Model A chassis and engine, Cadillac expanded from luxury cars to trucks and limousines, and even funeral hearses, until 1909, when the company was bought by General Motors. In 1915, GM pioneered the 90-degree V8 engine, which delivered a then-stunning 70 hp that drove the open-top models at hair raising speeds of up to 65 mph. This was actually a lot faster than any car at the time could actually drive safely, especially with roads being what they were back then, so the power of the GM engine was mostly a lifestyle statement – like getting flashy rims, but for white people.
That “for white people” thing isn’t a joke. From the start, Cadillac was supposed to be GM’s “prestige” line, well above the Buick, Oldsmobile and Oakland marques. To that end, GM executives felt it would send the wrong message if potential customers saw their vehicles being driven around by negroes, which is why sales were restricted at the dealership level to whites only. Not that this was going to stop anyone, of course – a black customer who showed up on the lot with $6,000 would certainly have driven off in a new Brougham while the dealer dabbed his eyes at the beauty of it all – but corporate didn’t really approve. That changed during the Depression, when nobody had $6,000 for anything anymore, except maybe buying a new house, and suddenly turning away customers seemed like a dumb idea. In 1933, sales were down by 84 percent from 1928, and GM set up a committee to decide whether or not to kill the Cadillac brand. A mechanic named Nick Dreystadt spoke to this committee, pointed out how balls-in-your-face stupid it was to discourage sales to blacks, and took over marketing. In 1934, sales shot up by 70 percent and Dreystadt was put in charge of the entire division.
Cadillac spent the ‘30s innovating. The company had already set new standards as the first fully enclosed car, the first mass-produced car made with all interchangeable parts and the first to have an electric ignition and other components, but now they got serious and started using innovation as the selling point of the brand (to blacks and whites alike, presumably). Dreystadt oversaw a 1,000-percent rise in sales between 1934 and 1940, and he used the extra money to renovate the Cadillac factories and revamp the engine designs. This was when the four-pronged threaded screw came into use, designed by engineer Henry Phillips, who designed the screw and the driver that now bears his name as a time-saving innovation that allowed a few minutes to be shaved off of the construction time for each engine. So he’s the reason you have to keep sending your son back to the toolbox to bring you the right damn screwdriver all the time. Other Cadillac innovations at this time included the first (non-Oldsmobile) automatic transmission and the use of standardized engines and drivetrains in all models.
After WWII, the Cadillac we know today started taking shape. Postwar models were built like Captain Rocket sleds, with bulbous front and back ends, wraparound windshields (made from safety glass, another innovation (that they stole from Tucker) for the time), and chrome everywhere. Cadillac’s marketing at this time started easing back off the millionaire’s club approach that had sold the Broughams in the ‘20s, and toward the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses line that had sold La Salles in the ‘30s. Tailfins came in; then they went away. Nikita Khrushchev was a dick. Cadillac’s 1 millionth car was a knockoff Buick produced in 1950, one of the new “Coupe DeVilles” they were so proud of. The upmarket version of this, the El Dorado, had a self-leveling suspension that Cadillac salesmen were encouraged to say gave the car “ride.” They also had seats that returned to their original positions after the little lady drove to her hair appointment, automatic headlight dimmers and an all-transistor radio that could scan for local radio stations – just like in the Jetsons.
Cadillac spent the early 1960s building increasingly absurdly huge land yachts with features you could swear were invented years later than they actually were. It was around this time Cadillac introduced the four-wheel disc braking system and the master cylinder control that always turned into a 40-pound hunk of solid rust and screwed up your power steering – another Cadillac innovation. After Ralph Nader tore GM a new exhaust port in his book, Unsafe at Any Speed, GM started putting shock absorbing steering columns in its family sedans and padding the metallic dash surfaces a little, as well as making shoulder straps standard in all models. They also hired private detectives to find out if Nader was gay so they could blackmail him, but it turns out he wasn’t, so they had to keep the seatbelts.
The other great influence on Cadillac in the late ‘60s was the birth of the muscle cars. This wasn’t directly in conflict with Cadillac’s luxury market, but a gentleman like to have a bit of power under the hood, and so the engineers took a look at their power plants and decided it was time for an upgrade. To that point, Cadillac had been barely getting by with a pathetic 390-inch cast iron block V8 that got 14 miles per gallon and delivered 325 hp. Clearly, this would not stand. In 1964, they upgraded to a 429-inch V8 that got 340 hp, and then in 1967 to a 3-2 ported V8 that kicked at 375 hp. Still pretty weak, you’ll agree, which is why the early-‘70s De Villes came standard with a monstrous 472-cubic inch engine that got the same 375 hp and went from 0 to 60 in 10 seconds, tucked as it was inside a 5,500-pound, 18.5-foot long whale that got 10 mpg. That was the economy version, you understand. The optional 500 engine (which was standard on the El Dorado) got 400 hp and was worse on gas than a Kuwaiti oil well fire.
As much fun as it was to load an 8-track of Motorhead into your El Dorado’s deck while you shot down to the store for more mustache wax and polyester trousers, the ‘70s had to end sometime. For Cadillac, that end came in 1977 and 1979, when the DeVille and El Dorado were forced to downsize, along with all of the other GM A-bodies. Federal emissions regulations were forcing automakers to sabotage their own engines at the time, and for steam locomotives like the Cadillacs, the only short-term solution to less power was to lighten the load and call the marketing department to gradually lower the expectations of customers for the next few years. Throughout the ‘80s, Cadillac would churn out offerings in the DeVille, Fleetwood, Eldorado, and Seville lines, most of which looked like somebody in the design shop had gotten mad and kicked the clay model from behind. In 1982, the madmen finally did it and released the Cimarron, Cadillac’s first compact car. Worse – it was sold as “entry-level,” for the budget-conscious Cadillac customer, maybe. This went as well as it sounds, and the Cimarron was mercifully aborted in 1988, just after the Eldorado and Seville were downsized yet again and made into front-wheel drive vehicles.
We all go through our ups and downs, and it’s probably not the end of the world if you go through a phase where you wear a beret for a few years, or whatever. Things change, and the world keeps turning. Sooner or later, however, you’re going to have to snap out of it, or else your friends and family are going to kick you off the couch. For Cadillac, the intervention they needed was ever-plunging sales, which inexplicably went along with churning out a decade’s worth of hideously ugly tin pots that made engine noises like bees in a coffee can. Stirring from the ’77-early ‘90s stupor, Cadillac engineers decided to rob a bank to get things going again. In this case, the “bank” they robbed was Oldsmobile, which had just invented a new engine for their bigger models with a bit of kick, called the Northstar. The original version of this was a double overhead cam, four valve per cylinder, aluminum block/aluminum head V8 that beat up your dad and got your mother pregnant. Cadillac, having snatched the design from Olds (a brand that was soon to die, by the way), found new life in its traditional market.
Throughout the ‘90s, Cadillac was stabilizing its offerings for the market it knew it couldn’t upset anymore. Like a cheating spouse, Cadillac knew it had done wrong, and so they brought us flowers every so often and never forgot our birthdays again. Unfortunately, they kind of overdid the rehab, and now the brand is trying to go high-tech on us again. That wouldn’t be so bad in itself, but GM insists on calling this “art and science for the 21st century.” Among the Cadillacs that are, apparently, being marketed to the Jetsons are such exotic and exciting sounding models as the XT4, XT5, XTS, and the CT6, with CT4 and CT3, planned for the future. Apparently, the major innovation lately has been Cadillac’s offbeat decision to stop using human words for model names and art-and-science the heck out of us with Borg unimatrix designations instead. However this bodes for the future, it’s still Cadillac. And I still miss that DeVille.