June 14th, 2019 by

A yellow and black 1927 Cadillac LaSalle 303 Roadster on a gray background

Many car brands come and go, and some seem to be immortal, surviving all the odds that felled so many brands. Cadillac was born almost 120 years ago, in 1902. As one of the most prestigious cars made in America, whether it’s the latest model fresh from the local showroom, or a beloved used Cadillac your grandfather won in a poker game, a classic model pampered in its own garage, rarely driven but often admired, there are many who still see it as the ultimate mark of success.

Collaboration and Competition

Without Henry Ford’s second failure at launching his now iconic company, the Cadillac may have never been made – or at least manufactured as soon as it was. Ford’s first company went under, and he stoically tried again, to no avail. Desperate to sell it fast and perhaps break even at best, the shareholders of the Henry Ford Company turned to machinist Henry Martyn Leland to appraise their company holdings. But Leland had other plans in mind.

Instead of selling, Leland persuaded the investors to create a new and better vehicle using the Ford frame powered by a single-cylinder engine recently introduced by Oldsmobile, another new automaker who’d joined the fray for car production dominance.

In August 1902, the Cadillac Car Company was founded, so-named to honor Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, a French explorer who established the city of Detroit in 1701. Leland presented the first Cadillac at the 1903 New York Auto Show with a price tag of $850.

By this time, Ford’s third company was up and running strong, providing competition that greatly inspired Leland to up his game. Cadillac produced 2,500 in its first year in business, an astronomical number at that time. Shortly thereafter, Leland assumed total control of Cadillac and brought his son Wilfred into the fold to help him dominate not only Ford but outsell all the strong luxury carmakers in the country, including Pierce-Arrow, Lozier, Packard, and McFarland. His efforts paid off handsomely, with Cadillac making the top 10 in total car sales in America from 1904 to 1915.

In the interim, Cadillac’s winning streak fascinated William Crapo Durant, chairman of the newly launched General Motors Corporation, whose Buick and Oldsmobile sectors were almost instant successes. In 1909, Durant acquired Cadillac for $4.5 million in GM shares, with the stipulation that Leland and his son would run the Cadillac company, including overseeing production, until 1917. Shortly thereafter, Leland created Lincoln, which Henry Ford bought in 1922 and integrated into his growing Ford Motor Company.

Cadillac Sets Itself Apart

Despite being synonymous with luxury cars today and for much of its life, Cadillacs were once just another car, a nice, dependable car, but nothing special. They were driven by only 10 horsepower and ran on a one-cylinder engine, fairly standard specs for the day. Leland’s influence as a machinist and engineer – plus his need to outdo Ford – changed all that.

Leland was all about precision and innovation and the Cadillac brand benefited from his vision and determination. They were the first car built to use transposable parts, which seems like a given today, but back in the early 1900s, car parts were created on an as-needed basis, manually designed and forged. The electric starter was also first used in Cadillacs, invented in 1912 by Charles Kettering. The Cadillac company was also the first to make V-8 engines standard on their cars in 1915.

From Languidly Lavish to Status Symbol

Over the next decade, Cadillac established a firm position in the extravagant car market. But it hadn’t made its mark as a symbol of prestige and opulence. At this time, that car was the Packard, the American equivalent of the Rolls-Royce. Nothing oozed class and affluence like a Packard, while Cadillac remained in the shadows as merely expensive.

Then, in 1925, Lawrence P. Fisher, Jr. stepped in as Cadillac’s fresh president and new general manager. His credentials included being one of the major players in Fisher Brothers Body Company, a vastly triumphant Detroit bodywork company that GM had taken control of in 1919 and later bought out in 1926 when it became Fisher Body Division. Known for his bravado and colorful demeanor, Fisher’s goal for Cadillac was simple and straightforward: Give Packard a serious contender.

Game On

Fisher jumped in with a new Cadillac model, the smaller, somewhat sporty LaSalle, designed by upstart car stylist Harley Earl. He then endeavored to elevate the old Cadillac model with more power under the hood, a new engine superior to the V-8 that would figuratively blow the Packard off the road.

Enter Owen Nacker, formerly a senior engineer at the Marmon Motor Car Company headquartered in Indianapolis. When he was hired by Fisher as the latest head of engine development in 1926, he, Fisher and Howard Marmon toyed with the idea of a definitive “multicylinder” engine, namely a V-16. Fisher was wild about the idea, citing it was exactly what he envisioned for his upgraded Cadillac. Although the powerhouse engine was barely beyond conception at this point, Fisher was convinced it was just what the new model needed to make the Cadillac the superstar he knew it could be.

And the journey began. To protect the new engine development from prying eyes, and to add the flamboyance to the project that Fisher so enjoyed, the engine project was treated like a world-changing military coup. Every schematic and description listed the engine as a V-12 instead of a V-16, even inside the walls of Cadillac management and production, and it was always referred to simply as a bus or coach engine. Truth be told, Nacker was actually simultaneously fine-tuning a V-12 engine design that incorporated a good deal of the parts and tooling used in the V-16, but no one outside the small engineering team run by Nacker knew of the duplicity.

A Bump in the Road

Just as all of this was coming to fruition and the country was enjoying one of the most affluent eras on record, the Great Depression of 1929 stopped the party in its tracks. But Cadillac continued to be a pioneer in modernization, with besting Packard just one of its conquests. For instance, Cadillac was the first brand to include power steering and automatic windshield wipers on all its cars as standard equipment. When Mercedes-Benz took over as king of luxury cars in the 1980s, Cadillac barely blinked, kept on track with innovations, and still holds its place as a respected leader among the world’s automakers.

And Cadillac will always win in the category of best slogans. Their first, in 1905, was “You Can Kill a Horse but not a Cadillac” and a strong favorite in this century (2008) was “When you turn your car on, does it return the favor?” Corporate creativity never loses its appeal and Cadillac’s ingenuity seems unstoppable.

Frank Kent Cadillac

So when you are ready for a new or a used Cadillac, come down to Fort Worth and visit our Frank Kent Cadillac dealership. We have plenty of new and used options for you including the popular XT5, the stunning Escalade, and the CTS to name just a few. We have friendly and knowledgable staff who would love to discuss models both new and old, and who would love to get you into your dream Cadillac.

Posted in Cadillac, History