Peter DeLorenzo is one of my favorite automotive writers. After decades working in automotive advertising and writing about cars and the auto industry, along with deep family ties to General Motors upper echelon, Peter brings the right combination of knowledge and cynicism to the topic we love. Also, contrary to his gruff and curmudgeonly public persona, he’s been very gracious to this neophyte writer. I start looking for his regular Wednesday updates on his Autoextremist site on Monday nights, since he sometimes posts ahead of schedule. This week, Peter takes Cadillac and Interpublic Agency – Team Rogue, to task for how they are repositioning the Cadillac brand, moving away from what had been a return to “The Standard of the World” mentality to one more in tune, according to Ad Age, with “Work hard. Be lucky”, making the brand seem more-accessible. Peter sees that slogan and accessibility as at odds with making Cadillac a “desirable” brand. With all due respect, I think DeLorenzo is getting this half right.
While I agree that abandoning the return to The Standard of the World is a mistake, I think that Peter’s wrong about it being an error making Cadillac seem “more accessible” to people who have worked hard and want to enjoy the fruits of their efforts. While the “Work hard. Be lucky” tagline isn’t the most elegant, it’s an implicit reference to the old saying, “the harder that I work, the luckier that I get.” The tagline, whether or not it is actually used, that’s still being debated, just might work with genuinely successful people.
The Ad Age piece talks about moving away from “ads for wealthy white guys” that focus on features and instead relying more on emotion. While DeLorenzo sees “more accessible” as cheapening the brand, I see it as a return to the brand’s true consumer image during its glory days. For something to be truly desirable, I think it still has to be seen as somehow attainable. Our desires often conform to hard reality. For something to be truly aspirational, it must be at least theoretically accessible, the reward for hard work. One’s reach should exceed one’s grasp and all that, but we do like the brass rings that we can grasp to be wrapped in hand stitched leather.
Sure, the Rogues @ iNterpublic, or whatever the joint agency is called, may be screwing Cadillac’s pooch and cheapening the brand, but remember, Elvis Presley, the truck driver who made it big, was the company’s most famous customer when it was at the top of the heap, not some highfalutin’ opera singer.
In the brand’s heyday, the 1950s and early 1960s, Cadillac was *the* aspirational brand, the car for the man who made it. Inherited wealth might drive European cars, but successful Americans drove Caddys. The word “success” implies achievement, earning something. Cadillac was the car that people who dreamed of making it dreamed of driving. This occurred to me when I was putting together a piece for TTAC on the Nash Metropolitan and I decided to include a YouTube video of the “Beep Beep – Little Nash Rambler” song. There’s a lyric in there that I think sums up Cadillac’s brand image during its glory days, the 1950s, “I’ll show him that a Cadillac is not a car to scorn”. People who drove Cadillacs were proud of their success. If they wanted something less ostentatious, they’d be driving Buicks. It seems to me that Alfred Sloan’s hierarchy of brands was integrally linked to economic mobility, people becoming more successful and affluent over time. Cadillac was the top rung of the ladder of success.
I was just at a Pierce Arrow meet held at the Gilmore Car Museum. A number of Peerless owners also brought their cars. Those two brands were two of the “Three Ps”, Pierce Arrow, Peerless, and Packard, that dominated the American luxury car segment in the classic car era. While it’s always an easy way to go broke selling cars to rich folks, the Great Depression made it even easier and of the Three Ps only Packard survived the 1930s. It’s conventional wisdom to blame Packard’s ultimate demise two decades later on its Depression era move to more mass market cars. Selling the “junior” Packards and later the Clipper line is seen as tainting Packard as a high end luxury maker, allowing Cadillac to surpass it. That conventional wisdom ignores the reality that those moves kept Packard in business, surviving the other two Ps. It also ignores Packard’s financial weakness, delaying new models and a modern OHV V8, just as Cadillac introduced their own high compression V8 and had the resources to restyle every year. Packard failed for a lot of reasons but one of those reasons isn’t the fact that they sold a lot of cars to upper middle class Americans.
It seems to me that what Packard did was actually very similar to what Sloan and Harley Earl did to Cadillac in the immediate pre-war era. GM essentially turned Cadillac into what LaSalle had been, moving away from things like selling V16 chassis sold to very wealthy customers who would either order a custom body from the Fleetwood catalog or have the new car shopped to a coachbuilder. I don’t think that it’s coincidental that the first car that Earl styled for GM was a LaSalle and that his name graces many design patents issued for the brand. Earl knew that the classic era was over. Earl protege Bill Mitchell’s seminal 1938 Sixty Special car was based on Cadillac’s cheapest car line.
Sure, Cadillac continued to sell some very expensive cars, but the more-expensive-than-Rolls-Royce late ’50s Eldorado Brougham was an outlier, an attempt to show Ford that they could lose even more money per car on a hand assembled ultra-lux vehicle than Ford lost on the Continental Mark II. When the Cadillac division was really cranking ’em out, the DeVille was Cadillac’s biggest seller, and biggest moneymaker, not the more expensive cars.
Peter DeLorenzo does have a point. Going too far downmarket hasn’t been successful for the Cadillac brand. Of course there was the barely disguised Chevy Cavalier sold as the Cimarron, but also in the 1960s and early 1970s, Cadillac offered the Calais, an entry level Cadillac, much truer to the Cadillac brand than the Cimarron but still cheaper than the DeVille. Though it was less expensive, the Calais was widely outsold by the DeVille. Cadillac’s brand apparently finds its sweet spot somewhere between “entry level luxury” and ne plus ultra cars that cost more than most homes.
So there’s nothing wrong with making Cadillac an aspirational brand or even accessible, just so long as they don’t make it too accessible. American luxury has rarely been about rarefied exclusivity. There are more people who want to be rich than people who are rich. There’s probably room in the Cadillac lineup for a Ciel or Elmiraj at the high end (just as there was for the Eldorado Brougham, luxury marques do need flagships as well as big sellers) as long as people who can afford them know the ATS, CTS and SRX are within their means.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS