The Impressive History Of The Cadillac

February 6, 2023

The Cadillac brand has become a symbol of luxury, performance, and craftsmanship. One of the oldest car brands still on the road today, Cadillac has been a pioneer of the industry since it rose to prominence over a hundred years ago. They introduced us to technologies we still use today and continue to push the envelope of what it means to drive a luxury car. Let’s go back in time and recount the history of this iconic brand.

From The Ashes

Before the Ford Motor Company we know, there was the Henry Ford Company. Ford ended up walking away from the company after a dispute with investors, and those investors used the defunct factory to start what would become one of the most iconic brands in automotive history. They recruited Henry M. Leland to appraise the factory for liquidation after Ford walked away, but Leland convinced them to keep it and continue producing vehicles with a single cylinder engine that he had helped develop. With the help of Leland, the investors officially launched the Cadillac Automobile Company on August 22, 1902. In 1905, Leland and Faulconer Manufacturing and the Cadillac Automobile Company merged to create the Cadillac Motor Company. Leland, along with his son, took over the company.

We'll learn more about the naming of the iconic brand in the next slide.

Mr. Cadillac Himself

Henry M. Leland came to Cadillac from Leland & Faulconer Machine Shop, where he had made engines for the Olds Motor Vehicle Company. Leland was a professional machinist and specialized in producing precision parts. It was this precision that gave Cadillac the edge in quality and performance. Leland and the former investors of the now-defunct Henry Ford Company chose to name their company for Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac, better known as Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who founded the town of Ville d’Etroit, which eventually became shortened to Detroit. Leland’s precision parts also allowed Cadillac to have truly interchangeable parts by 1908, instead of the roughed-out parts that other companies provided, which usually necessitated extra filing to fit, a task that not all repair shops were tooled for.

Carry on to learn about the earliest models from Cadillac.

The Horseless Carriage

Cadillac’s first entrants to the vehicle market were little more than fabled horseless carriages. Dubbed the Runabout and the Tonneau, the two models sported two and four seats respectively. The models were shown at the New York Auto Show in January 1903. The vehicles were so well received that the three show models were sold before the show ended, and firm orders for more than two thousand more were placed, complete with ten dollars down. These original models cost a base $750 at the time and had a list of optional features that included a bolt on tonneau with two more seats and rear entrance, leather or rubber top and side curtains, and headlamps. The pair sported a single cylinder engine, dubbed “Little Hercules,” that pumped out a road tearing six and a half ponies.

Next, we'll learn about what set Cadillac apart from the competition.

True Precision Manufacturing

As we noted before, Leland’s penchant for precision machining allowed Cadillac to have truly interchangeable parts. In 1908, the Royal Automobile Club sponsored a test of manufacturers claims of manufacturing precision. Many companies claimed they provided handcrafted quality but also would offer replacement parts that would fit. In actuality, the parts often needed additional machining to fit correctly. Every manufacturer was invited to the event, yet only Cadillac entered. As a display of their machining prowess, Cadillac brought three single-cylinder vehicles, all painted different colors. The cars were driven around the track to prove that they worked before the experiment. The cars were then dismantled and their parts piled in the center of the workspace so their original cars could not be identified. For a further challenge, 89 parts were taken at random and replacements sent from the warehouse in London. British mechanics spent the next two weeks reassembling the three vehicles using the pile of parts. The results were three Cadillacs with mismatched panels, doors, and internals, that ran as smoothly as if they’d just come off the line. The three cars were driven for five hundred miles around the track, amazing their British hosts and cementing the fledgling company’s reputation for high-quality autos.

Our next slide goes over how Cadillac ended up as a brand instead of a company all its own.

Salute The General

In 1908, after finding success in producing chassis and parts for the burgeoning auto market in Detroit, William Durant began the General Motors Corporation, a holding company for auto brands. This revolutionary act of accumulating brands under a single title was the beginning of the modern conglomerate. After acquiring the foundering Buick, of which Durant was a significant investor and general manager, he then bought Oldsmobile, bringing them under the GM banner. In 1909, Durant approached Leland and convinced him to sell Cadillac for $4.5 million in GM stock. Leland and his son maintained their management positions and were given responsibility for auto production. Cadillac was immediately positioned as GM’s premium brand and became the default marque for GM’s commercial chassis and institutional vehicles, including limousines, hearses, and ambulances.

Now that Cadillac has found a home, they can get to work as pioneers on our next slide.

Getting Started

Three years after being acquired by GM, Cadillac introduced the first electric starter for their engine. Because internal combustion engines are feedback systems that rely on the inertia of the previous cycle to continue, they require some power source to start the cycle. Before the invention and adoption of the electric starter, engines were started using hand crank or pull-cords on open-faced flywheels. Unfortunately, the response of the engine wasn’t always predictable and backfires, or kickbacks could result in severe injuries, including broken thumbs, arms and in some cases, severe head injuries causing death. The concept behind the electric starter hasn’t changed much over the last hundred years; the starter is mostly an electric motor that uses a much higher amperage and current than would be feasible to run continuously to kick-start the cycles of the gas engine. Once the engine has caught, the starter motor stops and the gas motor continues. This innovation allowed people of all physiques to start their vehicles and drive without worry. Cadillac installed these new starters on their production vehicles beginning in 1912, kicking off the crankless engine revolution and solidifying the brand as an industry leader.

Now that we've seen the foundation let's look at the improvements Cadillac brought to the market.

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

Up until 1915, no one could drive fifty-five. Then Cadillac introduced a massive (for the time) flathead V8 pumping out seventy horsepower that could push their cars to sixty-five miles per hour, even though most roads couldn’t accommodate those high speeds. In 1918, the luxury brand pioneered the dual plane crankshaft now seen in most V8 engines, allowing for a quieter ride. From there, Cadillac introduced the first clashless manual transmission, a technology that will enable the gears to mesh at speed, and is still in use in manual transmissions today, nearly a century later. The notable improvements didn’t end there. Cadillac also introduced the world to shatter-resistant glass in 1927 and steel roofs in place of the leather and wood-framed cabins that were the norm at the time. In 1930, Cadillac introduced the first V16 engine. This massive 7.41 Liter could pump out 165 horsepower but was one of the quietest engines on the market. These developments all helped to cement Cadillac as the “Standard of the World.”

Cadillac wasn't just technologically ahead of the game, as our next slide will show.

Socially And Technologically Progressive

Through the Great Depression, the auto industry was hit hard. Cadillac saw an 84% reduction in sales between 1928 and 1933. To offset the falling sales numbers, Nick Dreystadt, mechanic and national head of Cadillac service, pushed for a change in the national sales policy to a committee that was set up to decide the fate of the underperforming brand. Up until then, Cadillac had discouraged sales of their vehicles to African Americans - a policy that was reflective of the times. The policy change saw a 70% increase in sales in 1934, and by 1940 Cadillac’s annual sales had increased tenfold. This socially progressive shift in company strategy came thirty years before the Civil Rights Act and the end of segregation.

Even as a social force, Cadillac manages always to look good. Let's take a look at how they do that.

Doing It In Style

On June 23, 1927, GM made auto history by introducing designer-styled bodywork and implementing the first dedicated design department. Up until then, cars were designed by the engineers who built them, and their design was naturally utilitarian. Harley J Earl, GM’s new head of Art and Color, would go on to have a wildly successful three-decade career with the conglomerate, designing some of the most beloved models to come out of the many GM brand between 1927 and his retirement in 1958. His creations include the Le Sabre and the Buick Y-Job.

Unfortunately, during the most significant conflicts in world history, everyone had to do their part, and Cadillac was no exception.

Supporting The War Effort

Cadillac, having spanned both world wars, had an influential role in both. Nearing the end of the Great War in 1917, the US Army needed a dependable car for staff and officers. They chose the Cadillac Type 57 Touring Model after running exhaustive testing along the southern border near Mexico. More than 2300 cars were shipped to France to mobilize the officers of the American Expeditionary Force through to the end of the war in the following year.

A decade before World War 2 broke out, Cadillac had hired two camouflage artists from the first world war as designers. In 1942, well into WW2, Harley Earl established a division that focused on research and training for better camouflage. One of Earl’s apprentices in this division was an English designer who served in the camouflage section of the Royal Engineers.

This division would be responsible for much of the development of more effective camouflages seen nearing the end of the war and into future conflicts.

Growing Wings After the War

After the war ended, Cadillac went back to doing what they do best, building luxury cars and pushing the envelope of what was possible in the auto industry. Over the next two decades, Cadillac would mold the design elements that came to dominate. One of the most influential innovations to come from GM’s luxury division was the tail fin. First added in 1948, these elements are synonymous with 1950s auto styling. Taken from the aerodynamics of rockets and jets, these flitting juts on the rear corners came into vogue and grew over the next decade. They were staples of Cadillac car models and available on almost every model of the time, from the subtle ridges flowing off the top of the rear fenders of a ‘48 Cadillac to the absurd blades that tailed the ‘59 Eldorado, when tailfins peaked and began to shrink again after.

But these fins wouldn’t be the only styling choices Cadillac would lift from the aerospace industry.

From Cabin To Cockpit

While fins were making their debut on the automotive scene, Cadillac was busy adopting other style elements from the aerospace industry. One of these elements was the curved glass; cockpit styled windshield. These windscreens wrapped around and met the A-pillars on the side of the vehicle, instead of at the cabin corners. In 1956, Cadillac introduced the Sedan Deville, a pillarless hardtop that featured a nearly unbroken view from inside the cabin. This style was adopted by many competitors, including later models produced by GM including Pontiac and Chevrolet. Also taken from the aerospace and arms style guide of the time was the artillery shell-shaped bumper guards, known as Dagmar bumpers for their resemblance to the buxom blonde’s bust.

Space aged styling was just the beginning. Read on to see what technologies this luxury brand managed to bring to market.

A History Of Future Tech

Cadillac has a history of incorporating technology that is years or even decades ahead of its time. In 1957, the Eldorado Brougham featured self-leveling suspension and a signal-seeking radio. The Brougham also featured a “memory-seat” function, something still only rarely seen outside the luxury market sixty years later, and wouldn’t make a return until the 1980s. In 1962, they beat the Federal Government to the punch by including a dual-reservoir master cylinder six years ahead of the mandate. They also introduced the first automatic heating and air conditioning systems to their vehicles, though heating and A/C controls wouldn’t become standard until 1981. Cadillac also gave us the first automatic transmission of production vehicles. Another technology that they pioneered that would be a welcome return is their self-dimming headlamps that would automatically dim the high beams to avoid blinding oncoming drivers.

Now that we've covered most of the past, let's get back up to date.

Into The Modern Era

In 1999, Cadillac introduced their first SUV, the Escalade. It was presented to compete with the domestic Lincoln Navigator as well as import luxury SUVs. Coming into the 21st Century, Cadillac adopted a new design philosophy: “Arts and Science,” which focuses on sharp forms and crisp edges in a bold, high-technology design. With the advent of self-driving vehicles, navigation displays and infotainment systems becoming standard features, and overall driving experience becoming more robust, we all should be curious to see what technologies will be pioneered under the Cadillac brand in the coming years.