This Day In History: Cadillac, The Standard Of The World, Emerges

By Blake Z. Rong | August 22, 2012
On August 22, exactly 110 years ago, Henry M. Leland and his fellow directors divorced themselves from a pathetically bankrupt, recently liquidated manufacturing concern known as the Henry Ford Company, signed their respective paperwork, and officially launched the car company named after Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac. Naming the car company after the modestly named man who had founded modern Detroit would be telling, as Leland and his cohorts declared Cadillac to be--optimistically, and based on their previous adventures--Detroit's first successful automobile company. And equally telling was an early Cadillac ad that declared, "it's just good all over," presaging the feel-good hippie movement of the 1960s by, oh, 60 or so years. Having purloined the name of Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, the next thing to do was to lift the Cadillac wreath and crest, a shield emblazoned by a seven-piked cornet, surrounded with a laurel wreath, and dotted with legless swallows known as martlets. It would later grow, on the front grille of the Cadillac Escalade, to approximately the size of the flywheel in Cadillac’s "one-lunger" engine, or the size of Flava Flav’s clock, predicting its adoption in rap videos. History wonders what de La Mothe would make of the car company that sprung from his figurative loins, or the small French commune from which he took his regal-sounding name. "Ne sort pas de son sac," he said, forging a new heraldic identity that distanced him from common, financially-troubled roots, which would have earned him a place on the marketing committee of the Cadillac Cimarron.
Cadillac forged ahead. In its early years, it pioneered the idea that mass-produced parts should, you know, kinda fit with each other, something Leland knew from building rifles. Somehow, its engineers, undoubtedly imbibing tincture of opium after another night in houses of ill repute, stumbled across an early version of cruise control as early as 1905. It topped out at 25 miles per hour, at least 24 mph faster than the horses their drivers would hit if they could text on the cell phones that wouldn’t be invented until 23 years later. This was the first of many innovations for Cadillac, which included the electric self-starter, the independent front suspension, pedestrian-skewering tail fins, the “Autronic Eye,” the elevation of velour to an art form, fuel injection on an American car, psychosteer, opera windows, a reinvented Elvis, eighteen-foot coupes, the concept of putting animal horns on the hood, building a car on two continents, popularity of the phrase "the Cadillac of…," and a new engine configuration known as the “vee-eight,” which in its current guise—in the CTS-V—produces more power than any of those previously-mentioned cars put together. A century of innovation is a grand thing. Cadillac’s fortunes and image in the American public can be traced in oscillation-like patterns. Certainly the 1970s were bad to Cadillac, when a 17-foot car was a "compact," and anything smaller than an 8.3-liter V-8 would land you on Richard Nixon’s blacklist for being un-American. Certainly the 90s were bad to Cadillac as well, when the Catera came out and promptly fizzled away. But the 2000s have been pretty good: sales figures are climbing, younger people are paying attention, and staffers around our office are slobbering over a wagon with fervor normally reserved for free Laphroaig and an invigorating massage experience with the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. To wit, our first drive of the Cadillac XTS, which attempts to recapture some of the magic that made the 1973 Fleetwood Sixty Special Brougham d'Elegance so special. And the Cadillac ATS, which finally, irrevocably, reconciles the idea of smallness to a Cadillac and threatens to do away with any mention of the cursed Cimarron.  A century and a tenth’s worth of carbuilding will do that to you. Here’s to the next one, Cadillac.