1938 . . . Cadillac Sixty Special.

No big night out for classy Cadillac

Here’s an anniversary that did not get much attention. Cadillac has just passed its 120th year. 

Apart from some mumblings about electric cars, GM has done very little to celebrate the milestone for what was once proclaimed as the Standard of the World.

The Cadillac Automobile Company was created from the ashes of the Henry Ford Company in Detroit.

Old Henry and his investors had been in dispute and Henry exited in early 1902.

Hi surviving investors asked renowned engineer Henry Leland to step in and save the company.

Leland suggested they build a car using his single cylinder engine. 

On August 22, 1902, production began on the first Cadillac — the Model A.

Leland’s forte — his passion — was precision engineering as the basis for the interchangeability and standardisation of components.

This was a significant marketing advantage in an era when so many parts varied slightly in dimensions from car to car because of hand built methods of construction.

Leland’s focus on uniformity was the basis of Cadillac’s motto: Standard of the World.

Billy Durant’s General Motors bought Cadillac in 1909 and made it the company’s prestige division. 

After years of being frustrated by Durant’s “entrepreneurial” management style, Leland left GM in 1917 and started Lincoln — to manufacture Liberty aero engines for the American effort in Word War I.

When peace came in November, 1918, Leland lost the contract to build the engine.

He started making cars but was close to bankruptcy by 1922.

That’s when Henry Ford bought Lincoln.

How ironic that Leland established two of America’s prestige brands, both with milestone anniversaries in 2022.

Up until the 1970s, Cadillac boasted a long list of automotive technology, engineering and styling “firsts”.

Since then, not so much.

Here’s what I think are its most memorable.

  • 1912: the electric starter, a significant technological breakthrough. You can read more about the 1912 Cadillac
  • 1915: first production car with a V8 engine
  • 1929: first synchro-mesh transmission
  • 1938: Sixty Special sets the standard for the modern car styling, with no running boards, thin frame doors and an integrated boot
  • 1948: Tail fins, starting a styling theme that defined American cars of the 1950s
  • 1949: Shares credit with Oldsmobile for the first OHV V8 in mass production
  • 1953: Eldorado convertible boasts a wraparound windscreen, starting a worldwide trend that would endure for a decade
  • 1954: World first with power steering standard on all models
  • 1957: Most expensive car in the USA, the Eldorado Brougham, with a power driver’s seat with memory, air suspension, aluminium wheels and heated seats
  • 1959: Highest tail fins of any car, ever
  • 1964: First with a thermostatically regulated heating, ventilation and air conditioning system
  • 1967: Sensationally svelte Eldorado, Cadillac’s first front wheel driver.
  • 1970: Largest mass-produced V8 engine in automotive history at 500 cubic inches (8.2 litres)

I’ve always liked Cadillacs, even the most chrome laden and gaudy examples have a charm. 

But my admiration drops off with the 1982 Cimmaron and 1996 Catera.

The Cimmaron was a GM J-car with a Cadillac badge.

They even built it on the same production line as the el-cheapo Chevrolet version.

The Catera was a thinly disguised Opel/Vauxhall Omega.

Cadillac’s rusted on buyers were no fools.

They stayed away in droves.

Both cars were cynical badge engineering failures.

For me, these are lowest points for the brand and I reckon Cadillac has yet to fully recover from these errors of judgement.

David Burrell is the editor of retroautos


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