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
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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.