General Motors' Branding Fiasco Part Six – Cadillac Falls Down

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
general motors branding fiasco part six cadillac falls down

There is no greater symbol of GM’s branding woes than Cadillac. During its formative years, the marque’s products stood at the pinnacle of automotive excellence. As The Grateful Dead would say, what a long strange trip it’s been: from coachbuilder to maharajahs to supplier of Chevrolet clones to America’s mid-market motorists. In a world of $30k Rolex watches and $500 wine, Cadillac no longer deserves to be called a luxury brand. Its failure epitomizes all that went wrong with GM’s branding.

Cadillac was formed from the ashes of the first Ford Motor Company. When Henry’s early backers asked Engineer Henry Leyland to appraise the failed business’ assets, the Vermont native convinced them to resume operations using his 10hp one-cylinder engine. In 1902, Cadillac was born.

Leyland applied his experience as a gun maker to spectacular effect. The company’s fanatical attention to parts quality and interchangeability created an extraordinarily reliable vehicle. When three model K Cadillacs aced a series of English reliability tests (including scrambling key components from three cars and then rebuilding them), Cadillac earned its reputation as the “Standard of the World.”

GM bought the innovative automaker in 1909. From the start of the century into the roaring twenties, Cadillac pushed the engineering envelope. The automaker introduced the first electric starter, safety glass, V8 power, synchronized transmission and more.

When Alfred Sloan reorganized GM according to his principle “a car for every pocketbook,” Cadillac occupied the top berth, above Buick. Sloan then pushed the brand into the auto-stratosphere.

Caddy’s 1930 portfolio included the LaSalle, V8, V12 and the V16 (fully the equal of the Rolls Royce, Duesenberg, Packard and other coach-built cars of the Classic era). Prices ranged from $3295 to $9700– roughly $80k to $300k in today’s money.

The Depression killed the V16, and almost took the brand with it. In 1932, GM contemplated shuttering the division. Cadillac’s president Nicholas Dreystadt presented an alternative: sell the brand’s less stratospherically-priced products to America’s nascent African American upper class.

Opening its doors to this neglected market saved Cadillac from oblivion, but subjected the brand to a new threat. As Sloan’s once-sacred pricing structure eroded, Cadillac’s top-of-the-pile price premium shrank. In 1940, the cheapest Cadillac was 150 percent more expensive than the most expensive Chevy. By 1950, it was 65 percent. By 1960, it was just 30 percent.

The fifties and early sixties were Cadillac’s second golden era. America’s income distribution was the most compressed it had ever been; a brashly styled Caddy was a commonly-shared icon representing the American dream.

While Caddy’s prices continued to fall in this era, their models were still a fantasy for the typical working-class family. Factory workers were known to pool resources to buy a Cadillac on a time-share basis.

During the ‘60’s, America experienced an explosive growth of Median Household Income (MHI). Cadillac chased the booming mid-market, losing touch with its rapidly fading luxury remit. In 1960, a basic Cadillac cost 87 percent of MHI; by 1970, it was down to 64 percent. In 1971, the Calais cost only 25 percent more than a Caprice.

GM singularly failed to do the right thing: take Cadillac back up-market to cater to the rapidly growing ranks of wealthy and near-wealthy, and enhance Buick and Oldsmobile to take Cadillac’s place in the lower-premium market.

Product wasn’t the problem. In a 1965 Car & Driver luxury car comparo, Cadillac finished a close second (just behind the three-times more expensive Mercedes 600) and handily beat Roll-Royce, Lincoln, Imperial and Jaguar.

C&D hit the nail on the head: “Among enthusiasts, the Cadillac is probably the most underrated car in the world, although in some ways, it equals or excels the Mercedes 600. In our estimation, Cadillac’s great sales success is all that hurts its ‘image’ as a prestige luxury car.”

Cadillac’s fit, finish and build quality went downhill from there, as the high-volume, low price strategy meant cheaper materials and rushed assembly. In 1964, nobody would have confused an Impala for a DeVille. By 1971, the Caprice and DeVille were precariously similar in both style and build quality.

GM’s destruction transformation of a globally-respected, technologically-superior luxury brand into a tarted-up Chevrolet for middle class buyers was complete.

America’s upper-income classes abandoned Cadillac for Mercedes, whose sales began a long expansive period around 1970. In 1973, Cadillac sales enjoyed a brief explosion (stealing from Chevrolet?). Sales exceeded 300k in 1973, peaking at 350k in 1978. And then Cadillac began its near-terminal decline.

Today’s Cadillacs have established a precarious foothold where Buick once lived: at the top end of the ‘near luxury’ automotive market. Talk of a new V16 to reposition Cadillac higher up in the food chain has faded, leaving the brand with the prospect of more mediocrity. Badge-engineered SUV’s, price-conscious sedans and an uncompetitive roadster portend a bleak future for Cadillac, and GM.

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  • Scottahlquist Scottahlquist on Jan 08, 2011

    At Tokyo and Shanghai when they wheel out a new car they surround it with a lot of hot chicks. Who the hell wants to see Lutz in suit? One of the reasons for GMs demise?

  • Long Long on Jan 11, 2011

    Cadillac's best sales year was 1978...just like all GM products and then they went on a 30 year slide to bankruptcy.However,Cadillac is getting their mojo back and will earn back their status as a premium brand.I have 2009 CTS with the 3.6l DI and awd. A great car.As for the STS it was a pre Lutz car and he said it was the basis for the Cadillac group on how not to do a car.Cadillac and GM is still bankruptcy recovery mode and is not fully up to speed...just like the Mrs or girl friend after giving birth, takes a while to get going again.But by 2013 model year Cadillac will have a new model larger than the CTS and don't be surprised if just might be RWD...isn't the Camaro rear wheel drive.

  • Jeffrey An all electric entry level vehicle is needed and as a second car I'm interested. Though I will wait for it to be manufactured in the states with US components eligible for the EV credit.
  • Bob65688581 Small by American standards, this car is just right for Europe, and probably China, although I don't really know, there. Upscale small cars don't exist in the US because Americans associate size and luxury, so it will have a tough time in the States... but again Europe is used to such cars. Audi has been making "small, upscale" since forever. As usual, Americans will miss an opportunity. I'll buy one, though!Contrary to your text, the EX30 has nothing whatsoever to do with the XC40 or C40, being built on a dedicated chassis.
  • Tassos Chinese owned Vollvo-Geely must have the best PR department of all automakers. A TINY maker with only 0.5-0.8% market share in the US, it is in the news every day.I have lost count how many different models Volvo has, and it is shocking how FEW of each miserable one it sells in the US market.Approximately, it sells as many units (TOTAL) as is the total number of loser models it offers.
  • ToolGuy Seems pretty reasonable to me. (Sorry)
  • Luke42 When I moved from Virginia to Illinois, the lack of vehicle safety inspections was a big deal to me. I thought it would be a big change.However, nobody drives around in an unsafe car when they have the money to get their car fixed and driving safely.Also, Virginia's inspection regimine only meant that a car was safe to drive one day a year.Having lived with and without automotive safety inspections, my confusion is that they don't really matter that much.What does matter is preventing poverty in your state, and Illinois' generally pro-union political climate does more for automotive safety (by ensuring fair wages for tradespeople) than ticketing poor people for not having enough money to maintain their cars.