A Love Affair with Cadillac

The story of Cadillac begins in New England where founder Henry Leland worked in the Springfield Armory during the Civil War as a mechanic and later with Browne & Sharpe as a precision machinist. After moving to Detroit, this entrepreneur started Leland and Faulconer, manufacturing castings, forgings, automotive engines and chassis components.

When the backers of the Detroit Automobile Company wanted to liquidate that company, Leland provided the estimate, but recommended that they not go out of business. Instead, he helped them create the Cadillac Motor Car Company, named after Le Sieur Antoine de la Nothe Cadillac, the founder of the city of Detroit. In just a few months, the very first Model A Cadillac was exhibited at the New York Automobile Show in January 1903.

While the Model A was a good first effort, it was the 1905 Model D that moved Cadillac into prominence. Powered by a four-cylinder engine, the five-passenger touring car had a wood body with an aluminum skin available as an option.

In 1908, three Cadillacs entered the competition for the Dewar Trophy, awarded annually for the most significant automotive advancement. Before this time, parts were hand-fitted by filing and sanding. Cadillacs featured the first interchangeable parts. Three cars were completely disassembled, the parts scrambled and 90 service parts exchanged and then put back together. This innovation helped Cadillac endure the 500-mile trial that followed, and to win the Dewar Trophy.

Another significant milestone happened in 1908 when General Motors made an offer to purchase Cadillac. On July 29, 1909, General Motors acquired Cadillac for $5,969,200. GM President William C. Durant asked the Lelands to continue as managers and to operate the company as if it were their own.

About the same time, the Fleetwood Metal Body Company was formed in Fleetwood, Pa. Even then, Cadillac products with sophisticated Fleetwood custom bodies were built for affluent customers, including movie stars, on chassis supplied by Pierce-Arrow, Packard and, of course, Cadillac. The automobiles they created were masterpieces.

The introduction of the first regular production closed-bodied cars by Cadillac in 1910 was also seen as a benefit to drivers. The self-starter was introduced on 1912 Cadillacs, making it easier for men and women to drive cars because they didn’t have to crank start them. Cadillac proudly won the Dewar Trophy a second time, this time for its electric starting-lighting-ignition system.

Cars with style and elegance

Cadillac production exceeded 20,000 in 1922. Part of that sales success came from the introduction of the Type 61 that came equipped with a standard windshield wiper and rear view mirror. A new era in automobile design was beginning in the Roaring Twenties with the influence of Harley Earl, who established the first styling department by an automobile manufacturer, the General Motors Art and Colour Section, in 1927.

Former General Motors Director of Styling David Holls said, “Before 1927, Cadillac was a good, solid, substantial car. After 1927, the cars had style and elegance.”

Earl began his work at Cadillac by designing the smaller, very stylish LaSalle in 1927. Created to fill the gap between Buick and Cadillac in the General Motors lineup, the LaSalle was advertised as a “Companion Car to Cadillac.” LaSalle was always considered to be a sportier, more maneuverable Cadillac, similar to the modern Cadillac Catera.

Cadillac LaSalle was the pace car at the 1927 Indianapolis 500. This was the first time a Caddy would pace the race, but certainly not the last. Cadillacs or LaSalles would be the pacesetters five more times, in 1931 (Cadillac Model 370 V12), 1934 (LaSalle), 1937 (LaSalle), 1973 (Eldorado), and 1992 (Allante).

In its initial year, LaSalle offered eleven body styles on two wheelbases, plus four Fleetwood designs on a 125-inch wheelbase. LaSalle coupes even had a door on the side that opened to provide a compartment for golf bags.

Another Cadillac innovation was the first clashless synchromesh transmission in 1929. Now drivers didn’t have to double clutch their cars to avoid grinding gears.

Focusing on the driver and passengers

The Cadillacs of the Thirties defined classic American sophistication and luxury. With the introduction of V12 and V16 engines, Cadillac led the industry in performance and engineering excellence. Designed by Owen Nacker, the V16 engine powered some of the most exciting Cadillac automobiles. This engine wasn’t the only innovative feature, because 1930 V16s also included the first vacuum-assisted “power” brakes. Cadillacs were truly becoming driver responsive.

Cadillac continued to pioneer and exert its leadership in other important engineering advances in this decade. Work began on the automatic transmission at Cadillac in 1932. In 1933, the first independent front suspension appeared on an experimental Cadillac and became a standard feature on the GM lineup for 1934.

Bill Mitchell, then only 24 years old, designed the new 1938 Cadillac 60 Special. Bigger than a LaSalle, the 60 special deleted running boards, featured thin window pillars, chrome-plated door window frames, and was designed to be the transition from chauffeur-driven to owner-driven luxury cars. This car would set styling trends for more than a decade.

The war years and the good times that followed

Sophistication, performance and comfort set new standards for the 1941 cars from Cadillac. That year, Cadillac first offered the hydramatic automatic transmission, as well as air conditioning and a gas tank filler cleverly hidden under the left taillight.

Cadillac stopped all civilian automotive production in February 1942 to join the war effort on the homefront. In just 55 days, the first tank powered by two Cadillac V8 engines and two hydramatic transmissions rolled off the line at the Clark Avenue factory in Detroit. Other wartime products included M-8 howitzer carriages, the 1944 M-24 light tank and components for the V12 Allison Aircraft engine. Even General Douglas MacArthur’s staff car was a Cadillac, a Series 75.

After the war, cars from Cadillac were again ready to create a higher standard for the world. The 1948 Cadillacs had tailfins for the first time, modeled after the Lockheed P-38 fighter plane. Harley Earl had been inspired by that plane’s design and couldn’t wait to translate the profile to his cars. Because there was so much excitement about this design innovation, dealers would often park cars in their showrooms with the backs facing the window, leaving the taillights on overnight. The tailfins from these Cadillacs set design trends for decades.

In 1949, Cadillac introduced the high-compression, short-stroke, lightweight “modern” V8. This engine, which was smaller, lighter and more fuel efficient, made Cadillac the fastest, most powerful passenger vehicle in America. At the end of the decade, Briggs Cunningham finished tenth overall in a standard 1950 Cadillac at LeMans.

The Coupe DeVille hardtop was also introduced in 1949, earning Cadillac Motor Trend’s first “Car of the Year” award.

The height of opulence

Some of the most significant Cadillacs came off the assembly line during this amazing decade. General Motors held its “Mid Century Motorama” at New York City’s elegant Waldorf Astoria Hotel in January 1950. Among the featured cars was the Cadillac Debutante, which was inspired by the stage play “The Solid Gold Cadillac.” In June of that year, Fortune magazine held a survey among its readers, asking the question, “What car do you think you will buy next?” Cadillac led the survey and also ranked “best looking” and “best value” among luxury models. Cadillac celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1952 with a series of “golden anniversary” models. The introduction of power steering as standard equipment was an engineering enhancement that year.

In 1953, Cadillac introduced the Eldorado, which was the first postwar custom luxury car. This was a magnificent machine, with the industry’s first wraparound windshield and visors, or “frenched” headlights. Special equipment included a metal convertible boot, cutdown doors, leather upholstery, chrome wire wheels, enhanced styling and signal-seeking radio. The Eldorado sold for $7,750, which was considered a great deal of money at the time, but still an excellent investment.

Restyling efforts to the 1954 Eldorado featured the “Dagmar” front bumper guard design, named after the voluptuous television star of “Jerry Lester’s House Party.” Four-way power seats were also introduced that year.

The 1957 Eldorado Brougham was truly a custom Cadillac. This car featured new quad headlights and a pillarless four-door design. The center-opening doors offered unobstructed entry to the front or rear seats. Standard equipment included low-profile tires, a self-opening and closing trunk, air suspension, air conditioning, and personal vanities that included a small bottle of Arpege perfume. With a brushed stainless steel roof, the Eldorado Brougham had a look like no other car.

Harley Earl’s 1959 Cadillac was the ultimate translation of jet aircraft design. This car has achieved cult status and was the subject of a U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp in 1996. Fans of the Fifties look to the 1959 Cadillac as a true icon of that amazing decade.

Refinement and innovation

The flamboyant tailfins continued to be refined through 1964 when Cadillac built its three millionth car. However, design enhancements were complemented by several engineering innovations that were introduced in this decade.

In 1962, Cadillac models featured cornering lights and dual circuit braking, both key safety innovations. Also new for 1964 was automatic climate control, which provided “set it and forget it” control of both air conditioning and heating. A welcome cold-weather climate option was electrically heated seats, which first appeared on 1966 models.

In 1967, Cadillac introduced the totally redesigned front-wheel-drive Eldorado. This personal luxury car was built on a completely new chassis. Higher levels of performance were achieved in 1968 with the new 472-cubic-inch engine and again with the 1970 Eldorado, which featured a 500-cubic-inch V8 engine. Track Master anti-skid transistorized rear braking was also available. A magazine survey ranked the Cadillac “most comfortable and easiest to control” among ten German, British and American luxury cars.

A world of new challenges

Passenger security and environmental protection were the focus of Cadillac innovation in the Seventies. Fuel economy had always been a Cadillac trademark, despite the cars’ size and luxury. In this decade, engines were designed for better fuel efficiency and reduced emissions.

In 1971, in order to reduce lead emissions that resulted from the use of premium or high octane gasoline, engines were designed to run on regular fuel. By 1975, the cars were engineered to operate using both regular unleaded fuel and pollution-reducing catalytic converters.

For Cadillac’s 70th anniversary year in 1972, many styling refinements were introduced. An improved bumper-crash absorption system was introduced on 1973 Cadillacs. Driver and front seat occupant safety air bags were offered in 1974, 1975 and 1976 models.

The five millionth Cadillac rolled off the assembly line in June 1973, and yearly production was running at 300,000 or more.

Cadillac introduced the new internationally sized Seville in May 1975. This car was a more compact and maneuverable Cadillac with generous interior dimensions and enhanced fuel economy. Seville featured electronic fuel injection as standard equipment.

As America celebrated it 200th birthday, Cadillac introduced a bicentennial edition of the Eldorado convertible. This patriotic 1976 model was white with red and blue pinstriping, white leather seating with red piping, and wheel discs with white inserts.

The Eldorado for 1979 offered a combination of engineering features not found in any other car, including front-wheel drive, four-wheel independent suspension, and an electronic fuel-injected V8 engine. While shorter in length, head and leg room were greater in the front and rear seats, and there was more usable trunk space.

Northstar rising

The all-new 1980 Seville featured sheer edges and dramatic styling, unlike any other American-built car on the road. For the first time, Seville shared a front-wheel-drive chassis with Eldorado.

John O. Grettenberger, who was named general manager on January 10, 1984, would lead Cadillac for more than 13 years -- the longest tenure of any Cadillac general manager.

As the nation began to enjoy a healthier economic climate, sales of luxury cars increased. Cadillac enjoyed excellent results in 1984, with calendar year sales of 320,017. The convertible returned to Cadillac that year. Production was limited to 2,000 Eldorado Biarritz convertibles.

The 1987 Allante luxury two-door convertible was unique in many ways. The body was designed and manufactured by the Italian firm Pininfarina in Turin, Italy. Bodies were flown to Detroit on 747s for assembly of the powertrain and chassis, creating the world’s longest assembly line -- a distance of 3,300 miles. This front-wheel-drive sports car pioneered many Cadillac innovations, including traction control and the Northstar engine.

In the late Eighties, Cadillac engineering, manufacturing and design staffs teamed up to introduce such innovations as the elegant 1989 DeVille and Fleetwood.

At the end of the decade, the 1989 Fleetwood featured a full range of Cadillac styling cues: a subtle suggestion of fins along with rear fender skirts, long, low protective side molding treatment, a stylish chrome radiator grille, and wreath and crest.

The continuing rewards of quality

Cadillac was once again recognized as a world leader in quality when the company was awarded the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 1990. Cadillac was the first automobile manufacturer to win the Baldrige and, as of 1997, was the only automobile manufacturer to ever receive this honor.

In 1992, the introduction of the totally redesigned Eldorado and Seville received additional worldwide acclaim. Seville was the recipient of Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year” honors as well as numerous other awards. A year later, Cadillac again created a higher standard in the area of automotive engineering with the Northstar System. The highly acclaimed Northstar System of power and state-of-the-art technology now provides Cadillac drivers an unparalleled balance of efficiency, power, control and safety.

In 1993, the Fleetwood Brougham was completely redesigned and continued the long-standing Cadillac tradition as the choice for professional car conversions, including the presidential limousine.

In 1996, power output for the Northstar engine was increased to 300 hp in the DeVille Concours, Eldorado Touring Coupe and Seville STS.

For the 1997 model year, Cadillac added StabiliTrak, an exclusive safety technology to the Seville STS, Eldorado Touring Coupe and DeVille Concours. In addition, Cadillac redesigned the DeVille, adding a new model, the d’Elegance, which offers a distinctive expression of classic American luxury and the highest level of comfort and classic luxury amenities. Side airbags were also added to all DeVille models. The Catera, Cadillac’s entry luxury sedan, was also introduced for 1997. As Cadillac moves toward its second century, this innovative car company proudly continues a rich tradition of bringing sophistication, performance, safety and innovative technology to the market.