Vintage vehicles, Automotive history and stories from motoring's past. 

Cadillac: the cars, the company, the story

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Henry Ford had a few failures before he put together the elements of his massive success. He’d founded The Henry Ford Company early in the 20th Century, but developed a dispute with his investors and left his own company in 1902. Engineer Henry Leland was tapped by company’s backers to estimate the value of parts and equipment to be sold off from the expired company. Instead he suggested they start building cars using his engine. 

Renamed Cadillac after a French explorer who founded Detroit, the first cars allowed a driver and passenger to roar along with all the speed a mighty 10 horsepower motor could muster. Bringing things full circle, Leland later went on to found Lincoln, a car company that was eventually bought by Ford.

Cadillac wowed the crowd who were impressed by the car’s interchangeable parts at the 1903 New York Auto Show, garnering the firm 2,000 orders. That interchangeability was tested in Europe, gaining Cadillac the Royal Automobile Club of the U.K.’s Dewar trophy in 1908 when it demonstrated that interchangeability by taking apart eight cars, mixing up their parts and reassembling them. The prize win generated the brand’s well-known slogan, “The standard of the world.”

La Salle, a lower priced Cadillac line, was produced from 1927-1940.  Hired to style it, legendary designer Harley Earl went on to helm GM’s design department for the next thirty years.

Cadillac became known for innovation:

  • First electric starter

  • First mass produced fully enclosed car

  • First all metal top

  • First full electrical system: lighting, ignition, and starting

  • First synchromesh manual transmission

  • First mass produced v-8 engine

  • First modern, postwar OHV V-8 engine

  • First V-16

  • First shatter resistant glass

  • First brand to hire an in house body designer

  • Introduced counter balance crankshaft to smooth engine vibrations

  • First to use Phillips screws (they were developed for the assembly line)

  • Introduced the tail fin, a signature feature of 1950s autos

  • Introduced the “Autotronic Eye” automatic headlight dimmer

  • First fully automatic heater/air conditioner

  • Supplied the first bulletproof presidential limo when Al Capone’s confiscated Cadillac was used by FDR. 

  • First memory seats (1957 Eldorado Brougham)

  • First car with its own perfume atomizer (1957-58 Eldorado Brougham)

  • Last car with its own perfume atomizer

In the 1920s, Cadillac had a policy of discouraging sales to African Americans, thinking their ownership could tarnish the brand’s image. The depression cut the division’s sales severely; inspiring the company to end the policy in 1934. Sales soon increased by 70%. 

After WWII, Cadillac introduced tailfins on 1948 models, a styling device that slowly gathered popularity until no American car was complete without them. Still, with the sky-scraping fins on its 1959 models, Cadillac led the field for outrageous jet-age fashion. But the fad had peaked; even Cadillac’s fins were trimmed for 1960 and gone by 1965, but not before doubling up to a set of four on 1961-‘62 models. 

The 1957-58 Eldorado Brougham might have been the ultimate Cadillac. Slightly smaller than the standard models, it was special in every way, from its brushed stainless steel roof to an air suspension, center opening doors, aluminum wheels, polarized sun visors, separate front and rear heaters, memory seat, glove box with fold-out vanity and magnetized drinking glasses, and air conditioning (then a rarity).  Priced well above a Bentley, sales topped out at just 704 examples over two years. GM is said to have lost several thousand dollars on each one sold. 

Cadillac’s sleek front-wheel-drive Eldorado coupe was introduced in 1967 with dramatic styling that swapped gobbed-on chrome trim for clean lines and knife edge fenders.

Like all American car companies, Cadillac struggled to meet the requirements of a changing world in the 1970s. Some models were downsized and all were re-engineered to meet safety and emissions requirements. While the Seville broke new ground as a high-end compact luxury car, stunning the American public, reliability issues began to tarnish the brand’s name as GM struggled to meet conflicting emissions and fuel economy standards. 

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Furthermore, the company began offering the troublesome Oldsmobile diesel engine which caused more erosion of the brand. Then the groundbreaking V8-6-4 modular displacement engine added more nails to the coffin. While that engine theoretically offered much better fuel efficiency the Eaton valve systems were nothing but trouble. 

The replacement engine was the HT4100, a modern overhead cam engine that was supposed to bring the brand into modern times as competitors such as Mercedes and BMW gobbled up market share. Unfortunately, again, this engine had significant issues. Furthermore, Cadillac tried to recap the success of the Seville with a small car based on the Chevrolet Cavalier that became the poster child for GM’s complete misunderstanding of the luxury car market. 

Oh, and the Seville got the controversial “bustleback” styling treatment which some loved but many didn’t. 

At the same time the Japanese manufacturers were bringing in their own competitors that took the market by storm. Once the standard of the world, Cadillac had followed GM’s path into the cellar. 

The brand’s glory days of soaring fins and perfume atomizers have steadily receded until Cadillac’s recent announcement they are cancelling all but one or two car models in order to build SUVs. 

Classic car fans can rest assured they’ll enjoy seeing the sparkling chrome and soaring fins of mid-century Caddies for a long time to come. The “standard of the world” remains a popular perennial at car shows, with values steadily increasing. 

Story by Jim Cherry and Tony Barthel; some photos by Tony Barthel


The Curbside Podcast about Cadillac