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“The Standard of the World”

A History of the Cadillac

The first Cadillac to hit America roads was a far cry from your grandfather’s Cadillac. The manufacturing mission of the Leland and Faulconer Company that was to become the Cadillac Automobile Company was to create a reliable and functional, yet inexpensive, horseless carriage. The race was on at the turn of the century to replace the expensive, handmade cars that were inaccessible to most, and dozens of inventors got to work.

The humble genealogy of Cadillac bespeaks the success of its earliest manufacturers, talented individuals who set a high standard and wanted a logo that represented their noble car. Thus, the “Cadillac family crest was adopted (the design was prepared using the celebrated many-quartered shield surmounted by a seven-piked coronet and garlanded with a laurel wreath) and registered as a trademark” (Cadillacforums.com). Today, the crest has been stylized and updated to match the brand’s fresh, more youthful image, but the emblem still represents a time-honored heritage of unrivaled performance and sophistication.

Oldsmobile, Ford, and the Origin of the Cadillac

Cadillac’s origins are connected to two other of America’s early automakers, Oldsmobile and Ford. Inventor Ransom Eli Olds revolutionized the horseless carriage industry with his 1901 Oldsmobile Runabout. Olds recognized the power and potential of gasoline, and he exploited the inexpensive and abundant fuel to help develop the Runabout, “the first car manufactured in volume off a production line” (Coffey and Layden 1996). Production-line manufacturing boosted “the financially strapped Olds Motor Works” by contracting out mass-produced components that would help start the era of interchangeable parts in American manufacturing. Among those contracted by Olds Motor Works at the turn of the twentieth century was Henry Martyn Leland, a skilled precision machinist who produced engine parts, and who would later found both Lincoln and Cadillac (ibid).

His initial work was in precision gear manufacturing, but by 1896, Leland’s firm had entered into steam engines. Henry Leland went on to engineer an improved, more powerful engine, but Olds did not bite, concerned about the time it would take (and profits lost) to redesign his production-line cars to fit the engine. Under the auspices of the Detroit Automobile Company—the same company Henry Ford left to pursue his own interests—Leland founded the Cadillac Automobile Company (named for the eighteenth-century French explorer who founded Detroit, Le Sieur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac).

Leland used the engine design that Olds rejected to convince the financial backers of the Detroit Automobile Company to stay with him, and the first Cadillac was released in October of 1902. Orders were taken at an auto show in New York, and by the middle of the same week the company declared their car had sold out. That Cadillac (soon called the Model A) used a single-cylinder engine to generate 10 horsepower and reach a speed of 25 mph. The initial cost was $750 (Lenzke 2000). By comparison, Ford’s two-cylinder Model A was released the following year for $850—though innovations in the assembly line drove the later Model T’s price tag down to $275 by the 1920s while the Cadillac, meanwhile, was heading in the opposite direction from Ford’s universal car (Coffey and Layden 1996).

General Motors and the Rise of the Luxury Cadillac

Former traveling insurance salesman William Durant got his start in the vehicle business from the purchase of a horse-drawn cart patent, which he turned into a manufacturing network 14 factories strong. Durant used his promotional skills to help the struggling Flint, Michigan-based Buick Motor Company break out in the early automotive industry. Between his acquisition of the company in 1904 and 1908, Durant “exploited his contacts in the carriage business and soon established a distribution network” that made Buick the largest car manufacture by volume in the United States (Coffey and Layden 1996).

When Durant watched Ford’s Model T overtake Buick’s numbers, his response was to help form General Motors, the company that, in addition to Oldsmobile and Pontiac (and more than a dozen other manufactures within two years), would add an automaker that would become the mainstay of GM’s luxury division: Cadillac. Durant’s GM mission was, in his own words, “An empire of cars for every purse and purpose” (ibid).

Thanks to Charles Kettering’s invention of the self-starter and Walter Chrysler’s work to drive the transition from wood to all-metal frames, the automobile was evolving both technologically and into broader demographics. Companies such as Chrysler, however, continued to work in the shadow of General Motors, which was driven in the 1920s by the combined talents of Alfred Sloan and Harley J. Earl. MIT graduate Sloan led GM with the kind of progressive thinking that allowed the company to become an innovator in automobile styling, among the more strictly emotional aspects of car buying.

GM’s innovations were designed to help drive new sales in an economy that was moving around in almost 20 million cars by the 1920s. Sloan’s vision was to link General Motors’ individual brands to status, a kind of upward vehicle mobility from, say, a Chevrolet, to Buick, to Cadillac. Ford’s Model T car for the masses continued to dominate for much of the decade until General Motors offered Harvey Earl a job as a consulting engineer to the Cadillac Division, which the imaginative designer for his father’s Earl Automobile Works eagerly accepted. Earl “considered automobile design to be an art form,” a belief clearly manifested in the some of Cadillac’s most famous models in the 1930s (Coffey and Layden 1996).

A League of Its Own

Cadillac’s unique and prestigious place in the American auto industry has been growing almost from the start. In 1908, Cadillac won the prestigious Dewar Trophy in demonstrating its precision manufacturing. The award was the first for an American automaker and led the company to establish the slogan “Standard of the World.” Cadillac has striven to live up to that reputation ever since. Kettering’s self-starter earned the 1912 Cadillac the nickname “The Car That Has No Crank,” while his electric lights developed the same year led to a second Dewar trophy. By 1914, Cadillac introduced a V-8 engine that, while by no means the first, would become through subsequent refinements a “hallmark of the Cadillac for generations” (Lenzke 2000).

Harley Earl’s first vehicle for General Motors was actually a mid-level vehicle called the La Salle. But Earl quickly translated the “soft, elegant lines” of his now-renowned La Salle to his first Cadillacs in 1928 (Coffeey and Layden 1996). Owen Nacker is credited with the design of Cadillac’s first V-12 and V-16 engines in 1930 which, by 1934, reached 185 hp in a car with a 154-inch wheelbase—America’s longest production vehicle at the time. Many of these “lavish and luxurious” cars hit the market during the Great Depression, but sold “surprisingly well…far more than anyone else,” firmly solidifying Cadillac’s luxury status.

During the years of the Great Depression, Cadillac’s world-renowned engineers “came up with ride control for ’32, no draft ventilation for ’33, and independent front suspension for ’34.” By 1941, Cadillac was selling nearly 60,000 cars a year. After the focus on war production during World War II, Cadillac quickly re-established itself as General Motor’s premier division and, after a brief battle with Packard “for the top rank in America’s luxury car market,” emerged victorious into a new era of trend-setting production that has largely defined the brand’s image to the present day (Lenzke 2000).

A Place in Automotive History

Time will tell whether the energetic new efforts by the manufacturer to drive the brand will land any contemporary models among the world’s greatest cars. While the brand downsized in the eighties, it also became associated with older generations—and older drivers. The company is currently designing and engineering with the hope of luring younger drivers. In the meantime, top 100 lists that include such all-time classics as the Packard Twelve, the Model J Dusenberg, and the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, also have invariably some of Cadillac’s most inspired and inspiring cars from two of the brand’s most popular eras.

Automobile historian Dennis Adler’s top 100, for example, lists four “Caddies”: the V-16 Sport Phaeton and the V-16 Aero-Dynamic Coupe from the 1930s and two Eldorados from the the 1950s. The body design of the 1933 Aero-Dynamic Coupe was swept-back “with pontoon-type fenders and a streamlined fastback roofline,” a design that influenced the entire automotive world well into the 1940s (Alder 2000). The 1953 Eldorado was limited to a production of 532 cars, the first of which was presented to newly inaugurated President Dwight D. Eisenhower to use in his parade. The Eldorado nameplate carried over in the decade as the high-end version of the Series 62 convertible until the postwar American enthusiasm for cars reached a stylistic pinnacle at GM with the Eldorado Biarritz.

The emblematic Cadillac tail fin reached “the limits of reason” en route to reaching “its height, literally and figuratively.” The 1959 Eldorado Biarritz was almost nineteen feet long, the era’s largest car “and the most powerful model Cadillac had ever built.” The power of the ’59 Eldorado was matched in its style, “the most opulent statements in chrome and fins ever to come from General Motors” (ibid).

Such opulent statements were part of an era of auto manufacturing governed by “dynamic (planned) obsolescence.” General Motors innovators Alfred Sloan and Harley Earl coined the phrase to describe the design concept that put “pressure on consumers to keep replacing their cars year after year…because they had gone out of style” (Mingo 1994). The tail fin, based on Earl’s glimpse of a secret Lockheed airplane project, was cautiously incorporated into the 1948 design. Earl used advertising and time to lock in the tail fin’s place as a symbol of luxury and class such that by the time of the era of jet airplanes in the 1950s, Earl was ready to push the limits of Cadillac design—though, it is said, at some cost of advancements in engineering (ibid).

The Popular Cadillac

The Cadillac enjoys a first-class reputation in popular rock culture, seemingly ubiquitous in song titles and lyrics, featured in cover art for albums, and even as a symbol of the 1950s. But the car itself has been long sought after by the musicians, from one of Elvis Presley’s mid-1950s white-and-pink models to Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker’s modern collection and his Cadillac-themed body art. In between, the car has its customizing adherents from ZZ Top’s Billy F Gibbons’s CadZZilla “carved from the body of a ’48 Cadillac Sedanette” to West Coast rapper Snoop Dogg’s Cadillac “Snoop” DeVille series. Cadillacs are popular in the movies as well, and there are Internet pages devoted to compiling the endless appearances of America’s iconic luxury vehicle throughout popular culture.

The Cadillac’s place in popular culture continues to be ruled by the automaker’s most legendary and emblematic vehicles, still sought after by collectors around the world. Long synonymous with general status and luxury of any kind (“People spoke of countless products as ‘The Cadillac of [whatever]”), Cadillac remained the leading luxury car manufacturer in the United States even through the industry-challenging decades of the Seventies and Eighties, capturing almost 29 percent of the market in 1987. The next year, General Manager John O. Grettenberger recommitted the brand to its historical roots, “guided by one vision—to design, build, and sell the world’s finest luxury automobiles” (Lenzke 2000).

The Future of Cadillac

A look at the brand’s dynamic history may help determine how future generations of Cadillac will be styled, and its reputation will certainly determine performance. General Motors remains among the world’s largest automakers, but over recent decades Cadillac has had to endure increasing competition the high-end Japanese divisions of Acura, Lexus, and Infinity—as well as popular imports from Germany, including Mercedes and BMW—to name only some of the luxury brands consumers have to choose from. The American auto industry has had the reputation of struggling in recent years, having to play catch-up in the areas of research and development. And in the next few years, it is expected that the American market will open to entries from the likes of China and India.

Like every automaker, General Motors has been compelled to innovate with the energy concerns of the present and the future in mind. Cadillac’s added challenge will certainly be to not sacrifice the vehicle specifications that have made the Cadillac exemplary of the American luxury auto industry. Cadillac’s SUV, the Escalade, is available in a hybrid model, but as the manufacturer remains focused on performance-based luxury vehicles, including the 556 hp 2009 CTS-V (called “the fastest V8 production sedan in the world), fuel efficiency may not be among Cadillac’s top priorities (Cadillac.com).

Instead, GM keeps the Cadillac line squarely in the realm it belongs: in a class of its own, renowned for unparalleled style and performance...qualities sought after even during the Great Depression. It is the reality for few, the dreams of many and, with hard work and further innovation, perhaps once again the standard of the world.

-- Posted January 21, 2009


Adler, Dennis. 2000. The Art of the Automobile: The 100 Greatest Cars. New York, NY: Harper Resource.

Coffey, Frank and Joseph Layden. 1996. America on Wheels: The First 100 Years. Los Angeles, CA: General Publishing Group, Inc.

”Cadillac 2009 CTS-V High Performance Luxury Sedan.” Cadillac.com. Accessed October 26, 2008.

Grushkin, Paul. 2006. Rockin? Down the Highway: The Cars and People that Made Rock Roll. St. Paul, MN: Voyageur Press.

How Cadillac Became Cadillac.” Cadillacforums.com. Accessed: October 25, 2008.

Lenzke, James T., ed. 2000. Standard Catalog of Cadillac: 1903-2000. Iola, WI: Krause Publications.

Mingo, Jack. 1994. How the Cadillac Got Its Fins and Other Tales from the Annals of Business and Marketing. New York, NY: Harper Business.