Cadillac A Marque History
Cadillac is to America as Rolls-Royce is to Britain, only Rolls-Royce never took such daring risks with styling or technical innovation. Here is the story of The Standard of the World…
The Cadillac Automobile Company was founded in 1902, after an early incarnation of Henry Ford’s company broke up in disagreement. Some of the investors were persuaded to stick with car manufacture by businessman and engineer Henry M Leland, who had developed a reliable 10bhp single-cylinder engine and wanted to build a car to go with it. The name came from Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac, a French adventurer credited with the founding of Detroit.
Cadillac’s first cars were well made and therefore successful, thanks also to their modest price − $750 was a fortune to most, but less than many rivals. By 1907, though, Leland had decided on a deliberate move upmarket; yet, people need a reason to spend more. Part of the credit for Cadillac’s early reputation probably lies with FS Bennett, the marque’s British agent. He allowed a daring proof of Cadillac’s unmatched precision of manufacture: in an era when almost every component was still hand-fettled to fit, Bennett thought that three Cadillacs could be entirely dismantled, their parts mingled and the cars rebuilt.
Bennett and Leland brought their cars and mechanics to Brooklands in Surrey in March 1908 and accomplished the task, under the close scrutiny of RAC officials. The RAC then performed a 500-mile track test of each car. All three came through the test with top marks and Cadillac was awarded the Sir Thomas Dewar Trophy for the greatest contribution to the advancement of automotive science.
General Motors absorbed Cadillac the following year, and it was a clash with GM’s Billy Durant which led Leland to leave Cadillac in 1917 over a row about aero engines. By then, Cadillac’s reputation was growing fast. The company’s industry ‘firsts’ included introducing timing chains to American car engines, also the storage battery, electric lighting and electric starting, which were the inventions of one of Leland’s protégés, the brilliant Charles F Kettering, or ‘Boss Kett.’ This won the firm an unprecedented second Dewar Trophy.
In 1914, Cadillac introduced America’s first V8. This is the origin of America’s, and the world’s, association with the V8 engine format as being a desirable thing to have under your hood. A larger version of the V8 (by now with a cross-plane crankshaft, a development crucial for the engine’s smoothness and longevity) arrived in 1928, but it wasn’t until the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash that Cadillac’s major investment saw the light of day.
The Cadillac V16 of 1930 was a remarkable achievement. The engine used overhead valves, a forged crankshaft and an aluminium alloy block, but thanks to the narrow angle of the V (45 degrees) and only five main bearings, it was compact enough to use under bodywork with normal proportions. It was also pretty potent; nearly 200bhp and 320lb-ft of torque (up from just 208lb-ft for the 1930 V8) allowed it to lug the largest and heaviest limousines with ease.
Two extremely important names in Cadillac history arrived at General Motors in the inter-war period: Harley Earl and Frank Hershey. Earl joined in 1926 to design the new marque which Cadillac was launching as a less expensive companion – La Salle. He immediately included details usually only found on expensive coachbuilt bodies; dual side mounts, folding windscreens on phaetons, mirrors, chrome bands dividing the bonnet from the scuttle.
La Salle may have lasted longer without the Great Depression, which forced down prices and thinned the number of buyers in the uppermiddle bracket. It was outsold by the Packard 120 after 1935 and re-absorbed by Cadillac after 1940. Soon after, at the end of the war years, Harley Earl and Frank Hershey produced their most influential move of all.
Frank Hershey had decamped to his farm outside Detroit while a labour dispute made it awkward to work at the office. Here he came up with his famous aircraft-inspired tail fin, setting Cadillac’s styling on a course which would be emulated by so many stylists in America and elsewhere. Depending on which source you believe, Earl guided him wisely towards this vision or else told him to drop it, only to backpedal when some senior GM execs took a shine to it. Either way, the 1948 Cadillac changed the company’s fortunes from then on.
The sales figures nearly doubled that year, before Cadillac’s other great revolution arrived for the 1949 season. The overhead-valve V8 was a shared development with Oldsmobile, and though the two end products were different engines, they shared the important features – a stiff, compact block of cast iron, hydraulic valve lifters for lash-free, silent operation and minimal maintenance, almost ‘square’ dimensions to allow a greater rev range, high compression ratios and the clear potential for a great deal more power, which would soon come in handy.
Why? Because the 1950s were surely the greatest years in history to work as an American automotive stylist, and the scale and ambition of bodywork by Cadillac and its rivals would get more and more extreme. Consider GM’s Motorama shows, which paraded futuristic ideas in front of a gawping public at regular intervals between 1949 and 1961. For the first few years, only Cadillacs were shown, and from one of these dream boats arose the 1953 Eldorado.
Cadillac wanted a luxury line to separate a few rarefied products from the rest of production. After all, it had been 12 years since the V16 was dropped, and post-war Cadillacs were essentially all the same thing under the skin. The new V8 engines were so good that no larger or more exotic motors were needed, but if you could persuade a few people to buy an Eldorado convertible for $7750, rather than the $4144 needed for the Series 62 version without the wraparound windshield (another first), it had to be good for both profit margins and brand image.
In the end, only 532 were sold from a terrific yearly total of 109,000, but once again the stylists started a fire that was to burn brightly for Cadillac over many years. Also new for ’53 were the bullet- or bomb-shaped protrusions on the bumpers, a feature which spread rapidly throughout the industry. They were still there in ’56 when the Eldorado gained a coupe sibling, the Seville. Like previous Eldos, they existed not just to put some separation into Cadillac’s product line, but to try out the next year’s features in small numbers to test reaction.
For ’57, the Biarritz convertible and the Seville coupe were joined by the extraordinary new Eldorado Brougham four-door hardtop. Here was a car without a direct rival anywhere in the world − pillarless, clap-door design, brushed stainless steel roof, air suspension, low-profile tyres, remote trunk opening, signal-seeking radio, memory seats, cruise control, dual-zone heating control, an Autronic eye for headlamp dipping and various dispensers of cigarettes, perfume and tissues. It was arguably the peak of Cadillac’s efforts for the decade, perhaps for any decade.
Frank Hershey had long since left and Harley Earl was winding down his involvement. Bill Mitchell was already director of styling under Earl, having been appointed as the first chief designer in the separate Cadillac design studio back in 1936. Mitchell had a penchant for sober design without unnecessary fripperies, something he had to suppress through the extravagant Fifties. These trends topped out with the 1959 range, whose place in history is not disputed (except perhaps by 1960 Cadillac owners!), but which at the time were seen as something of an embarrassment by nervous industry figures still reeling from America’s mini recession in 1958, but it suited Mitchell, who managed an evolution of the look into something cleaner, rather than a revolution.
Hence Cadillacs still carried tail fins in 1964 and to some extent after that; it wasn’t until 10 years on that there were no ridges either side of the trunk lid that you could look upon as fin-like. But Mitchell’s direction for Cadillac’s sobering-up process was undoubtedly a success. Despite (or because of?) those continuing fins and a front end not far from the ’59 look, the ’64 Cadillacs set a sales record for the division − 165,959.
The next milestone for the marque came in 1967 via another Oldsmobile link-up, this time an endeavour which Cadillac had little to do with. The 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado was reskinned with panels that gave a vague family resemblance to other Cadillacs, while the standard Caddy 429cu in V8 was fettled to work with the Toronado’s front-wheel-drive installation. A front-drive Cadillac? What if the public hated it?
They didn’t. It sold 18,000 units in ’67 and then maintained steady sales over 20,000 until 1970, increasing dramatically to a peak of just over 50,000 in 1974 after convertibles were introduced in ’71. The mid-Seventies found Cadillac in transition, even if the customers didn’t notice. All the full-size models were direct descendants of the land yachts of the Fifties, now bloated by market fashions and strangled by emission controls to the point where they needed 500cu in (8.2-litre) V8s. The sober looks of the late Sixties were now more curvaceous and ornamented, with features of dubious taste (a padded Elk Grain cabriolet-style roof, Dunlop wire wheels?) teamed with cod-French special edition names: Seville d’Elegance and Elegante, de Ville Phaeton.
America loved it. Cadillac production had been soaring and peaked in 1976 − 309,139. But the world was changing all around. Convertibles were effectively banned after more threats of oncoming safety legislation in ’76, and you didn’t have to be Nostradamus to predict another steep rise in fuel prices. Cadillac’s response through the next decade was a series of brave and original moves, though in the end they included more misses than hits. Some were just awkward bits of styling, like the bustleback Seville introduced in 1980. Others were conceptually flawed, like the optional Buick V6 that no one fancied or the surprisingly long-lived Cimarron of 1982-’88. Was a reworked Chevy Cavalier with a four-cylinder engine really going to help Cadillac’s image?
Still others were technically flawed, like the V86-4 with its innovative partial shutdown of pairs of cylinders depending on load. It shut down okay, it just didn’t wake up smoothly. Reliability wasn’t faultless either, though probably better than Cadillacs with the Oldsmobile diesel V8. This engine soon got a rotten reputation for blowing head gaskets and it contributed to America’s distaste for diesels for years afterwards.
Cadillac’s sales slumped (along with everyone else’s, to be fair) in the early Eighties but the company wasn’t deterred from bold ideas. Like other GM lines, it maintained full-size, RWD options for traditionalists while at the same time developing cars like the Allanté – Cadillac’s first two-seater. This was a 1987 equivalent of the original ’53 Eldorado, only even more exotic − every luxury was standard with only a car phone on the options list.
The marque wasn’t deterred from bold new engines either, as 1992’s Northstar V8 demonstrated. All aluminium, it sported four overhead camshafts. It was developed subsequently in numerous ways for both frontwheel-drive and rear-wheel-drive applications, with some extremely potent supercharged variants giving GM’s performance models a colossal kick.
The late 1990s were another transitional period, as the last of the old body-on-frame models were phased out and Cadillac searched in vain for a clear way forward. There were short-term fixes like the 1997-2001 Cadillac Catera (an Opel Omega in its Sunday best) and the Escalade, which started as little more than a rebadged GMC Yukon, rushed out in 1999 to combat Ford’s new Lincoln Navigator. Its continued success is probably Cadillac’s most unexpected hit.
‘Art and science’ was the name given to Cadillac’s new design philosophy for the 21st century, and it brought – in Cadillac’s words – “sharp, sheer forms and crisp edges”. It sounded good in theory, but the cars it spawned were not universally praised for their looks, which had little in common with the softer, more graceful forms of previous years.
The new three-letter approach to model names undoubtedly lacked the romance of old words like Eldorado, Coupe De Ville or Fleetwood Brougham, but the STS, CTS, DTS and others eventually found their market in a brave new world. Decades ago, they aimed only to beat Lincoln or Chrysler; in 2009 a CTS-V set the Nurburgring lap record for production sedans, a direct challenge to the BMW M5.
However, for traditional Cadillac fans – and some of us do have long memories – the new
CT6 of 2016 was a much more significant model. This was the first full-size RWD sedan since the old Fleetwood died off in 1996, and it encouraged Cadillac to bring in the similar mid-size CT5 for 2020. Inevitably, these were joined by three crossover SUVs called the XT4, XT5 and XT6, filling the slots below the wellestablished Escalade.
Now, the next generation is already in place, with 2023 seeing the arrival of the Cadillac Lyriq, an all-electric SUV. This takes advantage of GM’s scaleable battery architecture, which allows all divisions to develop EVs of various sizes without starting from scratch. Like other Cadillac models of the 21st century, it’s playing catch-up with rivals from Mercedes, BMW, Audi and even Volvo, but given the fate of some well-known marques at GM, it’s been heartening to see the investment that keeps the grand old name alive.