Once known as the ‘Standard of The World”, Cadillac automobiles have seen the best of times and the worst of times.
Named for one Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac—the founder of the city of Detroit—the company is the top tier luxury brand of General Motors and arguably the most prestigious of all American brands. Technically (and quite ironically), the company was founded by Henry Ford, as the Cadillac Automobile Company was formed from the remnants of Henry Ford’s second automobile company.
When Ford left the Henry Ford Company in 1902, his financial backers William Murphy and Lemuel Bowen consulted Leland to appraise the assets Ford had left behind with an eye toward liquidating them. Leland checked it out, realized he was looking at a potential gold mine, and talked Murphy and Bowen into continuing—with him at the helm. Leland, an engineer and the owner of the Leland & Faulconer Manufacturing Company had developed a one-cylinder engine, which became the first Cadillac powerplant.
Soon after, the first Cadillac cars were offered for sale in August of 1902. Perhaps not surprisingly, they were virtually identical to the 1903 Ford Model A. At the 1903 New York Auto Show the Cadillac vehicle garnered in excess of 2000 orders and the company was off and running.
Leland & Faulconer Manufacturing merged with Cadillac Automobile Company in 1905.
Precision manufacturing and reliability became the calling card of Cadillac autos. Leland’s big innovation, in a time when cars were made pretty much one at a time by hand—with every piece machined as it was needed—was the introduction of standardization. This development enabled the use of interchangeable parts. Sounds like a no-brain decision today, but in 1908, this was a significant advancement.
Knowing a good thing when he saw one, William C. Durant used the profits from Buick to acquire Cadillac autos and installed it as the top brand for the fledgling General Motors Corporation. In addition to producing large luxury vehicles, Cadillac also produced limousines, ambulances, hearses, and funeral home flower cars for General Motors.
Other innovations of Cadillac automobies included the first volume production of a fully enclosed car and the first incorporation of an electrical system. This development enabled the use of a starter motor, an ignition system, and electric lighting. Additionally, Cadillac vehicles are credited with being the first to mount a switch on the dash for headlights, use a thermostat in their cooling systems, and the first to use a V8 engine.
By the way, that V8 enabled Cadillac cars to hit a top speed of 65 miles per hour. Back in 1915, when that engine was introduced, most roads would barely accommodate speeds of 30 miles per hour. The first clashless Synchro-Mesh manual transmission, utilizing constant mesh gears was another innovation introduced with Cadillac autos. Shatter resistant glass and all-steel roofs made their debuts on Cadillac cars as well. Smooth and powerful V12 and V16 engines were also hallmarks of the brand.
Riding high and running fast, it seemed the sky was the limit for Cadillac vehicles.
Then the Great Depression hit.
Wealthy people curtailed their discretionary spending considerably and manufacturers of luxury goods were particularly hard hit. Between 1928 and 1933 the sales volume of Cadillac cars dropped by some 84 percent.
Exacerbating the situation was a decision by the company’s top management to refuse to sell Cadillac automobiles to African Americans. The situation was so bad, Black people, attracted to the brand because its prestigious nature made it the ultimate American status symbol, were actually paying sympathetic (and yes, some opportunistic) white people to buy Cadillac autos for them.
In those days, wealthy African Americans were also prohibited from joining country clubs, entering luxurious hotels, and purchasing homes in affluent neighborhoods. The only way they could exhibit their prosperity was in their choice of automobile. After all, out on the street, the one thing everybody could see was the car you drove. Nick Dreystadt, as he traveled around the country in his role as the head of Cadillac automobiles service, took note of this issue and urged a reversal of the policy.
Ultimately, Cadillac’s senior management team—desperate to save the brand—relented, ending the deplorable practice. As a result, Cadillac sales surged some 70 percent in 1934, and Dreystadt was promoted to head the Cadillac Division. Rather poignantly, as this is written, the president and chief marketing officer of today’s Cadillac—Don Butler—is an African-American.
Under Dreystadt’s leadership, sales increased by a factor of ten by 1940. During his tenure, Cadillac also became the first car to incorporate Phillips head screws. This innovation decreased production time considerably and thereby improved the profitability of Cadillac automobiles significantly. Cadillac also became the first car to use a mass produced fully automatic transmission.
Mentioning Cadillac cars to individuals of a certain age conjures visions of huge tailfins and massively bulbous front bumpers. The tailfins were originally meant to evoke the image of the twin-tailed Lockheed P-38 Lightning aircraft, one of the planes that helped win World War II. Similarly, the bumpers were said to be intended to resemble artillery shells. Thing is, since they also looked a whole lot like a prominent part of the female anatomy, they ultimately came to be associated with Dagmar, the rather buxom first major female television star.
Over the years, the styling of Cadillac cars played just as much a role in the success of the company as technical innovation. The massive Fleetwoods and Eldorados of the 1960’s and 70’s were the epitome of high style in their day. Ultimately though, their behemothic natures fell victim to escalating fuel prices and the changing tastes of automotive consumers growing used to the sophisticated agility of European luxury cars.
Today’s Art and Science design philosophy distinguishes the sleek new Cadillac automobiles with sharp lines and acute angles, while still incorporating vestiges of the tailfins and vertical taillights of the heritage models. As part of the rejuvenation of the brand, contemporary Cadillac cars also place just as much emphasis on performance as luxury. Every Cadillac vehicle is now a driver’s car—while still possessing the capability of transporting its lucky occupants in supreme comfort and high style.