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Cadillac - making a marque

© Peter Atkinson
May, 2011

Cadillac has always sat at the top of the tree of American car brands. In American popular culture it is synonymous with status, prestige and luxury and it is the car that aspiring Americans want to own. Yet in Britain and the rest of Europe, Cadillac scores very low on the scale of brand awareness among prestige car buyers. Cadillac’s concept of a prestige motor car has never exactly corresponded to what Europeans expect.

For this reason, Cadillac does not score high on level of interest among European classic car enthusiasts either. Few Europeans have personal recollections of a Cadillac to be nostalgic about. In fact, their only associations are likely to be with movies like the Coupe de Ville in The Deer Hunter or the various limousines in The Godfather. So, it is easy for many classic car buffs outside America to overlook the important role that Cadillac has had in the development of the motor car as we know it today.

The company was founded in 1902 by William H Murphy out of the remains of a failed attempt to start a car manufacturing company involving Henry Ford. Murphy wisely chose not to use his own name for the company but instead chose the more romantic sounding name of one of his ancestors, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who was also the founder of the city of Detroit. The first Caddys used engines made by Leland and Faulconer and it wasn’t long before the two companies merged and Henry Leland who was a great engineer took the helm.

From the outset, Cadillac was all about quality craftsmanship applied to a luxury product. Leland’s moto was “craftsmanship a creed, accuracy a law”. This was a completely different approach to that of its rival Ford who famously fired their craftsmen in favour of cheaper, unskilled employees. This did not mean that Cadillac did not aim to be a large scale manufacturer, though. Cadillac never was a hand-made car manufacturer like Rolls-Royce or the other top European prestige marques and the company prided itself on the sheer volume of luxury cars it could produce. Cadillac’s production figures were comparable to the largest European manufacturers of any kind of car right up until the 1960s.

Also from the outset, Cadillac was an innovative motor manufacturer. In 1908 Cadillac demonstrated its reliability and commitment to accurately manufactured parts by winning the RAC’s Dewar Trophy. Three new Cadillacs were picked at random from eight at the London dealership. These cars were stripped down into their component parts and the pieces jumbled up. A few new spare parts were then thrown in and three new cars were assembled from the pile. These cars were then driven for 500 miles round Brooklands race track with no problems at all. This test showed that all the parts had been accurately made and in an age where parts were often altered and fitted by hand it showed that Cadillac was made to the highest standards.

In 1909 Cadillac became a division of General Motors. This group of car and parts manufacturers was conceived as a strategic alliance where resources could be shared and the divisions be mutually supporting. For example, Cadillac was the premium brand of the group and could be sold as a natural progression from the cheaper brands like Chevrolet for the customer who was rising in his career.

In the early years all motor cars had to be started by turning a crank handle which could be a risky business. In 1912 a young executive was hit in the face by a starting handle and he died from his injuries. This incident led Cadillac to develop an electric starter motor and an integrated electrical system which also included ignition and lighting. The Delco system was adopted by other GM divisions and became the standard followed by all other manufacturers.

The Cadillac Type 53 of 1916 is widely accepted to be the first car that had a modern layout of the controls with a steering wheel, dashboard and pedals for the throttle, clutch and brakes in the order which we are now accustomed to. This layout was far superior to the controls of the Ford Model-T which was notoriously difficult to drive and those of other manufacturers. It became adopted by the mainstream during the 1920s led by the British mass automaker Austin.

In 1929 Cadillac was the first to have Synchro-Mesh gearboxes. Before that changing gear was a tricky business requiring some expertise if the driver was not to ‘grind the gears’ and it was easy to do serious damage to the gearbox. This feature was rapidly copied by other American manufacturers but European manufacturers were slower to adopt it.

Cadillac benefited greatly from the alliance between the sister divisions of General Motors. One of the ways in which it benefited was from the design team. Harley Earl was recruited in 1927 to head the Art and Colour section which was responsible for the overall look of each GM product. Before this time, the design of mass-produced cars was considered to be relatively unimportant compared to their performance and reliability consequently cars were ‘engineer designed’ without aesthetic consideration. Earl was the first to use modelling clay to design the car’s bodywork and he is often credited with being the first professional car designer. GM quickly saw that this new facility to make pleasing car designs could be used as a powerful marketing tool and the notion of a ‘model year’ was invented. The underlying mechanical design was used for many years but details of the bodywork and interior were changed each year making the age of the car obvious to anyone and thus putting pressure on customers to buy the latest model.

The inspiration for car design from its inception until well into the 1930s was the horse-drawn carriage. However, beginning in the 1920s and with growing influence in the 1930s industrial design took over with its Art Deco influences. Up to the 1920s you could remove the engine compartment of a car and it would look like something that could be pulled by a horse but in the 1930s all steel enclosed bodies became the norm which sheltered the car’s occupants from the weather and they were increasingly streamlined as the speed cars travelled at increased. Cadillac produced many elegant cars in this period such as the Sixty Special of 1939.

In the early 1940s while the rest of the world was at war American car design continued to evolve with the front wings being gradually incorporated into the bodywork. The 1941 Sixty Special was elegant and modern and a world away from the boxy appearance of the 1920s. The 1940s also saw the introduction of Cadillac’s signature ‘egg-crate’ radiator grille.

Car design of the late 1940s and 1950s was hugely influenced by the great leaps forward in aircraft design brought about by the Second World War. Under Harley Earl’s supervision Cadillac designs began to show explicit aircraft influences beginning with small tailfins for the Cadillac model year 1948 which were inspired by the Lockheed P-38 Lightening aircraft. Through the 1950s the fins got bigger every year and the influences began to include space rockets as well as aircraft. The tail fin reached its apotheosis in the 1959 Cadillacs not just for Cadillac but for the whole industry. The 1959 Cadillac is the most outrageously befinned design ever produced yet it has its own elegance and it has become one of the top automobile icons of all time. This was the last model of Earl’s career. After 1959 the fins gradually became smaller again until they disappeared altogether in the squarer and more classical lines of the 1960s.

The 1970s was a relatively barren period for design for the whole of the American car industry. In 1965 Ralph Nader published his book “Unsafe at any Speed” which revealed the truth about car safety which the industry, its customers and government had been in denial about. Legislation was introduced requiring cars to be built with much greater regard to the safety of their occupants. The American motor industry reacted badly in the belief that their had to be a trade-off between safety and style. Some of the ugliest cars ever made come from this period with huge bumpers and chunky lines. Cadillac were able to respond to the challenge better than many other manufacturers because it was easier to incorporate safety features into larger cars.

From the mid-1970s onwards American luxury car manufacturers increasingly found themselves challenged by European imports, chiefly BMW and Mercedes-Benz. A core belief of American manufacturers was that the most important component of the luxury of a car was its size. Europeans had a more sophisticated view and saw quality engineering as more significant and many customers found the European cars more satisfying to drive. Cadillac responded to this challenge with the introduction of the Seville in 1975. The Seville marked a different approach being the smallest yet the most expensive in the Cadillac range. Although the Seville sold well in the US it was perceived as still too large and cumbersome in other parts of the world. Its lack of market penetration in Europe shows that Cadillac had not been able to change its long cherished ways of thinking entirely.

At the beginning of the 21st century the car industry found itself under pressure from an increasing concern among consumers about environmental issues. The motor industry was seen as one of the chief culprits responsible for environmental damage. Many manufacturers sought to curry favour with their customers by appealing to nostalgia with retro designs for example with the Ford Thunderbird. Cadillac adopted the reverse strategy with a design philosophy they called ‘Art and Science’ which emphasises the cutting-edge nature of their products. This approach began with the CTS, the replacement for the Seville, and spread through the range.

Highly accurate scale models of Cadillac cars of all periods are available. All the top quality model manufacturers have produced models of Cadillacs. The British model maker, Brooklin, for example specialises in 1/43 scale white metal models of classic American cars. Sun Star make a wonderful range of models of American cars to the larger 1/18 scale which have a fantastic level of detail down to the correct pattern of tread on the tyres and the correct pattern on the mat in the boot. A model manufacturer which has come on the scene recently is Neo and they have produced some wonderful models of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s American cars, including Cadillacs, to the 1/43 scale. A range of these models is currently available from good model shops, for example, the Golden Age of Motoring model shop. Kyosho and Norev are other well-regarded model manufacturers who currently have superb models of classic Cadillacs on release.