Interview: Paul West and the Search for a Cadillac Flagship

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Paul West of Mahoning Automotive Design is a tenacious guy. While most merely rolled their eyes at Cadillac’s front-drive “XTS” flagship plans, West wasn’t going to take Cadillac’s flailing sitting down. With Mahoning, D&D Classics and some promising industrial design students, he mocked-up an SRX-based study for a potential Cadillac flagship. “We did our best with the prototype,” he says “but only Cadillac can do the idea full justice.” It takes balls for a few upstarts from Ohio to show a major luxury brand how it should be preparing a flagship, and West knows it. But Cadillac’s inability to develop a true flagship gives West’s study a significance that is more than just skin-deep. It’s a provocative, gutsy way to shake up the thinking at Cadillac. And if nothing else it’s provided plenty of food for thought. [West’s complete powerpoint proposal can be found in the gallery below]

TTAC: What attracted you to the idea of designing a Cadillac flagship sedan?

Paul West: While at Ford I pushed pretty hard for an update to the traditional sedan. The idea was for a car with more comfort, utility and value. And compelling road presence. The problem I ran into was that in this industry everyone has an opinion but few have data to back it up. The idea generated lots of interest but ultimately I couldn’t get the execs to bite. So I made the decision to do it independently and get real consumer feedback. Limited finances meant a vehicle mod rather than an all-new ground-up design but luckily the SRX was available. It had good proportions particularly from the B-pillar forward, and an added significance in that I felt it could help Cadillac leverage the precedent they set with the fabulous Gen 2 CTS. My vision was basically for a taller, larger version of the CTS with extra utility. It would sell alongside CTS and negate the need for the DTS (and XTS), the new SRX and possibly even the Escalade/EXT. And it would allow Cadillac to stick with the RWD commitment it made a number of years ago. Once I completed the prototype, exhibited it at this year’s Cleveland Auto Show and gathered ten days’ worth of mostly positive feedback, I realized that if designed properly the vehicle could legitimately carry the flag for Cadillac—especially in the absence of an ultra exclusive vehicle such as a production version of the Sixteen concept.

TTAC: What should a Cadillac flagship be? What’s at stake in the design of a new flagship for Cadillac?

Paul West: Cadillac’s history is in comfortable, luxurious travel for 4 to 6 passengers. Through the years the brand ran the gamut from sporting to spacious but at its best, Cadillac always showcased innovative, predictive engineering and classy, extroverted styling with elegant flowing proportion. A Cadillac flagship of today should possess all those elements too, and the good news is that they have the tools and talent to create it. Art & Science is one of the strongest design languages in the business and CTS is an example of its proper application. What’s missing is the big brother, the one you take cross-country. The one that makes everyone’s jaw drop when you pull up.

Today I think Cadillac is in a conundrum. The traditional multi-passenger American vehicle is caught in a four-way tug-of-war between roomy mundane FWD sedan, high tech Euro performance sedan, imposing thirsty SUV and humble practical crossover. If you lump Escalade and EXT together and exclude STS and SLS, both of which are probably on their way out, Cadillac fields one vehicle in each category. The problem is that because the customer base for each is so discrete, the distance between each so great, that owners wishing to upgrade have nowhere to go. For example, the CTS owner looking for more room, comfort and utility may look elsewhere if he wants to continue driving a high-performance styling statement. Escalade and EXT owners may leave to get the visually substantial vehicle they demand but with improved efficiency and handling. Competitive alternatives abound for the upcoming SRX, most of which are just as practical, some of which are more exciting. And DTS owners are nearing their last vehicle purchase and want the familiar sedan but would appreciate a taller package that they don’t have to fall into or hoist their bad back out of. If Cadillac doesn’t provide all these folks with a reason to stay, they’ll lose them.

While brand retention is an important factor, even more important is Cadillac’s credibility in offering the market a consistent and compelling set of ideals and in making good on their claim to be an innovative leader. Their recent abandonment of RWD in two of their vehicles is an example of the wavering they need to avoid. I think they wavered because the STS and original SRX failed in their missions, which was unfortunate because the problem with those cars wasn’t the platform, it was the unwanted top hats they carried. The market didn’t need and couldn’t support another expensive performance sedan nor did it want a 7-passenger CUV with almost nonexistent 3rd row seating. What my prototype and photo-altered images try to demonstrate is a top hat that lots of people will want. Really, passionately, emotionally want. Something that leverages the design and performance ideals laid down by the award-winning Gen 2 CTS, reduces the vehicles in the showroom to a number that is financially supportable, generates higher net volumes and profits, gives each of Cadillac’s four customer groups a place to go and a place to stay, and speaks to the industry’s future rather than its past. For those automotive planners who espouse market fragmentation, this proposal shouts the opposite by collapsing the industry’s decades-long entropy build-up into a single product that delivers a higher level of customer value. This wouldn’t be the first time the industry has experienced such an event and likely won’t be the last. In a later question I discuss a similar paring down event that began in the late 1930s and from which came the modern sedan. Who initiated it? Cadillac.

TTAC: Why did you base your prototype on the SRX? Interior packaging? Performance? Styling?

Paul West: The SRX had classic long hood and short deck proportions and was the most car-like CUV out there, aligning with my vision for a sophisticated super sedan rather than a 3-box truck. It also had a good interior package and offered a pretty cool ride from the vantage point of the driver’s seat. Critically, it had a C-pillar and rear door window frame of sufficiently fast rake that I thought I could avoid a costly redesign of the rear door’s frames, glass, seals and rain channels, and the roof and side air bags. It also permitted Vistaroof, which looks impressive from inside the car.

TTAC: What do you think of GM’s decision to go with a stretched FWD platform for the planned XTS flagship?

Paul West: I assume they chose the platform for fairly straightforward reasons: DTS owners, who are larger in number than STS owners, wanted the traction and security of front wheel drive, the platform was less expensive than GM’s global RWD platform and came with a comprehensive set of low-cost commodities, the Two-Mode HEV fit, the interior room promised best-in-class dimensions, Cadillac had available plant capacity and… GM ran out of time debating and had to make a decision! Assuming Cadillac opted out of a taller package to avoid the fuel economy hit, the only unknown is whether they widened the track and flared the fenders. Cadillac dealers told me this was very appealing to Gen 2 CTS customers. That car appears to have borrowed the STS suspension. The XTS likely required a costly redesign.

I mentioned FWD in Question 2 but think it’s important to get into the details a little more. There are many designers in Detroit who are frustrated that they haven’t been given the best platform upon which to design a winning product. In this regard, Cadillac may end up being a victim of its own success because GM did give their designers the correct platform, and the designers made the Gen 2 CTS so damn good that even Cadillac has been challenged to live up to it. But such a stroke of brilliance should be harnessed, not run away from. I think Cadillac needs to recognize that there is a difference between design language and styling. The Art & Science design language as manifested in the Gen 2 CTS is much more than diamond-faceted surfaces, jeweled lighting and a signature grill. It embodies the CTS’s RWD proportions and promise of performance. I haven’t seen the XTS but must assume they nailed it with styling, but spectacular styling alone does not make a spectacular car. Look at the new SRX. When Cadillac applied Art & Science to that FWD platform, with its cab-forward greenhouse and long front overhang, and made it a crossover wagon of all things, they reduced their award winning design language to mere styling. Shallow, almost gimmicky styling. I heard this consistently, if articulated in varying words, from hundreds of Cleveland show-goers who had just seen the 2010 SRX exhibit. I have no doubt that Engineering met the program’s attribute targets but the car’s shape simply does not telegraph anything inspirational. Cadillac might be able to get away with a wagon body on a RWD platform as with the new CTS, because the long hood still communicates performance. They also might be able to get away with a crossover sedan on a FWD platform as with the MKT image that I provided for this article, because the height still communicates presence.

But a tall wagon on a FWD platform is pushing their luck too far. Will the XTS be any better? I have my doubts and believe my proposal would attract most of the XTS and SRX buyers Cadillac is looking for, some Escalade/EXT buyers not in need of a tow vehicle, and a whole lot of new buyers.

If Cadillac were to conclude this pared down strategy insufficient for dealer volume or in attracting younger buyers, I would caution against a smaller RWD platform because it might prove expensive to build and overly cramped inside. Nor would I put a new top hot on an existing FWD platform for reasons already stated. There might be an opening for a transverse mid-front engine, a transverse rear engine or a pure electric powertrain, with 3-passenger seating described in my comments about the Chevrolet Spark later in this article. Beyond that, there is potential for a premium personal mobility vehicle, probably electric, of similar scope to BMW’s Project i. Think of it as a companion accessory to Cadillac’s main line-up, like the Viking microwave that matches the company’s big ovens in color and badging but deviates completely in size, shape, technology and intended use. The bottom line is that if Cadillac wants the gold they need to roll up their sleeves and dig for it, and the flagship that I am suggesting is just the first in a series of bold steps needed to get out in front of the competition.

TTAC: Talk about the challenges and limitations of mocking up a Cadillac flagship concept independently, without GM’s support.

Paul West: We did our best with the prototype and in the presentation I tried to clean it up with photo alterations, but only Cadillac can do the idea full justice. GM’s resources would have allowed it to be vetted in terms of design, engineering, dimensions, interior package and manufacturability. Interestingly, one of the people who saw my car said he saw something similar at a Cadillac design clinic a few years ago. I can’t speak to what Cadillac presented or the feedback they received, but I can say that the feedback on my prototype from people who saw it up close was extremely positive, at times even ecstatic. That’s pretty good testimony to the underlying idea particularly since, although the prototype’s craftsmanship was fabulous and the dual trunk/hatch worked as planned, none of us involved in the project were happy with the car’s formal roofline, upright C-pillar, high decklid, raised suspension and small wheels.

Although there were challenges creating an LLC and driving the project forward, there was also a positive side. Doing the build independently allowed us to set up a lean, fast moving skunk works operation. We leveraged the industry’s parts bin and invented only the must-haves that didn’t exist. The people at D & D Classic were amazing. There did it all – fabrication, design, CAD, clay modeling, engineering, paint – and were professional, knowledgeable and excellent problem solvers. It’s easy to see why people trust them to restore vintage Duesenbergs, Ferraris and the like. An added benefit was that they regularly hire co-op students from U. of Cincinnati’s Industrial Design School. The students were well-schooled in automotive design and exceptionally talented, and I’d hire them instantly if I were an OEM.

One added note about the build experience. The shop was 3 hours south of Detroit, my place of residence. I’d come down every 3-4 weeks for a day or two, we’d move the project along and D & D would continue in my absence. I gotta tell you, what with the beautiful classic cars everywhere, the smell of clay in the air, the hammers banging and Zeppelin cranking, it was pure heaven. OEMs of late have been denying too many employees the true car design experience. That’s a shame. Car nuts come to this industry to make cars, not data charts, org charts, bar charts, process charts and cover-your-ass charts, and certainly not to be treated like nameless, faceless numbers that eventually get deleted with a keystroke. There has to be a better way.

TTAC: Talk about the low-cost electric AWD proposal mentioned in your presentation.

Paul West: Mechanical AWD systems add cost, weight and internal friction that reduce fuel economy and most of the time are just there for the ride. Some AWD sedan and crossover buyers see the feature as an added level of performance or a necessity for the occasional off-road jaunt, but most just want to get up their snowy driveway or out of a wet intersection. For roughly the cost of a mechanical AWD system, electric AWD gives a RWD platform all-wheel traction when customers need it most, and captures energy at every braking event. It’s a win-win that OEMs can get real revenue for. The key is to keep the cost down by downsizing the electric motors (one per wheel, mounted inboard), the battery or ultracaps and the voltage level. The last spec permits less expensive inverter technology. One of the reasons you don’t see the system is, I suspect, that it flies against an HEV engineer’s inclination to maximize fuel economy. With this system an engineer has to find happiness in a 2 mpg improvement over a standard RWD system and be content in helping the customer avoid a 2 mpg hit. What OEM wouldn’t take a 4 mpg net improvement with profit margins maintained?

TTAC: Your proposal mentions avoiding mainstream “traditional sedan” segments for the Cadillac flagship, but also for potential Chevy variants. Why?

Paul West: Wow, that’s a completely different ball game. Talking about Chevy requires a different language. Permit me to switch gears and have a little fun by laying it out the way a coach would if his team were down 3 touchdowns with a quarter to play…

“Malibu! Comeeer!!!” “Yes, Coach.” “You’re get’n manhandled up and down the field, boy. What’s with that namby pamby FWD stuff? “I was just trying to be like Camry, sir.” “Camry! If you want to be like him, go to the other side of the field and join THEIR team. On this side if you’re gonna carry 5 people, FWD is for sissies, and most of the sissies already love Camry, got it? “Yes, sir.” Now look kid, I know you tried hard and it ain’t entirely your fault. I need to have a word with the boys in the front office. In the meantime, take your pads off and have a seat.” “Yes, sir.”

“Camaro! Comeeer!!!” “Yes, Coach.” “You’re a real hot shot out there, flying off the lots like you’ve been. Nice job. Take a look at this kid, team. He knows what revs up Americans! Good pep, a long hood, big wheels, coke bottle shape and ROAD PRESENCE.” “Thank you, Coach.” “Shut up.”

“Global RWD Platform! Comeeer!!!” “Yes, Coach.” “I need you to play a different position. You need to carry 5 people and swallow all their gear, look like a car but stand tall and tough, and you need cleats that will get you through the mud, got it? Caddy’s flagship will show you the new plays, Camaro will help you bulk up and work on your smile.” “Yes, sir.”

“Spark! Spark!!! Where is that little pip squeak?” “I’m over here, Coach.” “Sorry, kid, didn’t see you. Well comeeer boy!!!” “Yes, sir.” Look kid, you’re the linchpin to this whole plan. Since Global RWD is going to be sucking down a bit more gas than Malibu – ‘HEY GLOBAL, NOT TOO MUCH MORE, RIGHT?!!! ‘Right, Coach’ – right, well the thing is, I need an offset on fuel, the customer needs to travel for pennies and the country needs to wean itself off the bottle. Now I know the boys in the front office pegged you as the one to pull in the stingies, the greenies and the emaciated college kids with no money, but I need you to carry the ball five times more often than the volume call they gave you, OK? “Yes, sir.” Good. Now what I need you to do is take Jane and Joe Commuter to work every day, drop off the little one at day care and hit the grocery store on the way home, got it?” “Got it, sir.” “Now stand back, let’s take a look at you. Mmm . . . you’re too tall, your cowl’s too high and your tires are too small. Go see Camaro when we get done.” “Yes, sir.” Now open up the door, let’s take a look inside. Aaaaaahhhh!!! No wonder you get the emaciated ones! Look, kid, you can’t carry four people like the linebackers over there, it’s gonna make your driver cramped and miserable, and if he’s miserable you’ll sit on the dealer’s lot. You wanna be a bench warmer? “No, sir.” Neither do I and neither does your country. Here’s what I want you to do: get rid of that front passenger seat, nobody ever sits there anyway. Scoot your driver’s seat inboard and make it wider. Put the child’s seat in the right rear where nothing’s in front of it. Now, where’s your storage? “I don’t execute that play too well, sir.” “Well you’re gonna have to if you want the Commuters to love you every day! Get a big wide console in there, make it go all the way to the right, and run the exhaust under it. Your gonna need to carry breakfast, lunch and dinner up top and the lady’s purse in a pull-out drawer below, got it? “I think so, sir.” “Go See Corsa, I worked with him on this play in training camp. And don’t worry, kid, you’re gonna be alright.”

TTAC: Your proposal has many similarities to the upcoming BMW GT and Acura ZDX. What do you think of those products and the prospects for this new type of vehicle?

Paul West: I applaud BMW and Honda for reading between the lines and discerning what’s really going on in the consumer’s head. What they are attempting is historic. I do wonder if BMW’s dual-action liftback has a large enough throat opening when the smaller decklid is used, and am concerned that the awkward 2-box fastback styling and poor rear visibility of both vehicles might stunt the growth of the new segment. On this last point there’s a relevant historic automotive milestone that I believe offers an important lesson. Prior to the early 1930s, with the exception of a few expensive customs all 4-door passenger cars were of the “2-box” variety with no defined, integrated trunk. Throughout the 1930s manufacturers began increasing the rear overhang and integrating a trunk in the form of rear “bustle” that gave a “2-1/2 box” appearance. Then all of a sudden, the mold was cracked and the modern 3-box sedan was born. The sledgehammer was the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special. It was lower and wider than most cars of the time, had close-coupled front/rear seating and, at last, a big trunk. Although it was priced higher than Cadillac’s traditional touring sedan, which the company continued to produce, it sold extremely well. GM, confident in its success, followed up with C-body torpedo sedans in 1940 and the rest is history. A key lesson from that history, apart from Cadillac’s proving that innovation and styling leadership tend to make a brand embarrassingly rich, is that it confirmed the aesthetic appeal in the eyes of the consumer of the 3-box’s visually balanced profile. When I look at the new 2-box BMW and Acura vehicles I see an opportunity not fully realized.

One additional factor worth mentioning is vehicle height. In this, both new products succeed. I spend a lot of time at classic car shows and have a special passion for the heavy iron of the 1930s. Standing next to a 70-inch high Packard with a hood almost as long as a B-car tends to leave a person awestruck. Although my prototype looks awkward in pictures and from 20 feet away, when people stand next to it they feel its presence. That’s what a tall 3-box sedan with a long hood can do, and it’s a truism almost as old as the industry itself. Cadillac has a big opportunity here. I hope they give the voices outside GM a chance to be heard.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Johnster Johnster on Sep 05, 2009

    I read the article all the way through before looking at the pictures of Mahoning prototype. Paul West says all the right things and has a good grasp of the situation Cadillac is in. I was expecting that the Cadillac prototype would look something sort of like the Chrysler Imperial prototype shown a couple of years ago (based on the Chrysler 300 chassis, but taller and with more room, and obviously inspired by the Rolls Royce Phantom). However, the resulting Cadillac prototype just doesn't quite live up to its hype. It reminds me of the tallboy version of the Volkswagen Golf sold in Europe, or maybe of a Toyota Echo. All things considered, the Mahoning Cadillac prototype was a noble, but failed experiment.

  • Anonymous Anonymous on Nov 23, 2009

    [...] Cadillac SRX Crossover Sedan (custom) Recently completed a project for a new type of Cadillac based on the first gen SRX. If any interest in purchasing the prototype, building an improved version with better styling or doing some other type of new Cadillac concept, please let me know. Could be fun and might help give Detroit a friendly (and timely) innovation nudge. Thanks, Paul ( Background and description of the car: [...]

  • Wolfwagen What I never see when they talk about electric trucks is how much do these things weigh and how much does that detract from the cargo-carrying capacity?
  • Wolfwagen I dont know how good the Triton is but if they could get it over here around the $25K - $30K They would probably sell like hotcakes. Make a stripped down version for fleet sales would also help
  • 3SpeedAutomatic You mentioned that Mitsubishi cars had lost their character. Many brands are losing that that element as well. GM is giving up on the ICE Camaro and Dodge on the ICE Challenger. There goes the Bad Boy image. Might as well get your teeth pulled and dentures put in place. Would like to see a few EVOs with cherry bomb exhaust and true 4 cylinder BIG blower turbos; 4 wheel drift capacity is mandatory!!🚗🚗🚗
  • Tassos Here in my overseas summer palace, I filled up my tank twice in May, at 68 and 52 euros (a full 90+ liter tank fillup has taken 130-135 Euros in the past, and I am 23 miles from downtown here, while only 1-2 miles in the US)Still, diesel here is MUCH cheaper than gas. Yesterday, I paid 1,488 a liter while gas was at least 1,899 (regular).Multiply by almost 4 for gallons AND by an additional 1.1 for $.
  • 3SpeedAutomatic IIRC, both China and the EU use a standardized charger connection. About time the US & Canada to follow.Would take some of the anxiety out of an EU purchase and accelerate adoption. 🚗🚗🚗