American Icon Cadillac Is Taking on Europe to Reclaim Its Place as ‘Standard Of The World’

Check out 115 years of legendary rides here.

Cadillac DPi-V.R 4.jpg
General Motors Co.

Cadillac DPi-V.R. race car

Thumb the remote start button on your car’s key and you’ve roused the Cadillac ghost in the machine. The electric starter that makes remote start possible is a Cadillac innovation dating from 1912.

Before that (and for other brands, for many years afterward), drivers had to hand-crank their car’s engine to life.

Cadillac Escala concept

Since its founding in 1902, Cadillac has continuously pioneered design and engineering, introducing countless new technologies and trends. “Cadillac’s history has been marked by technical innovations and the development of groundbreaking technology,” says Uwe Ellinghaus, the company’s chief marketing officer.

To avoid being trapped by that history, relegated to rehashing its greatest hits, Cadillac relocated from its Detroit home to the Big Apple in 2015 and is diving headfirst into city life. That has meant endeavors such as sponsoring New York Fashion Week and opening Cadillac House, a Soho venue the company describes as “a gallery, retail space, café, and exhibition area for our flagship vehicles.”

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Cadillac Elmiraj concept

Those flagships include new models like the CT6 prestige sedan and the XT5 midsize crossover, vehicles designed to convey Cadillac’s renewed commitment to equipping its cars with the same cutting-edge technological innovation that went into the original 1903 model.

Cadillac Sixteen concept

That car was the first to be made of identical parts that could be replaced easily with new ones. The production principle was standard practice in the firearms industry, where Cadillac founder Henry Leland got his profes-sional start before delving into the auto industry.

In 1905, Cadillac built the first concept car with a completely enclosed cabin and in 1910 made this feature standard, protecting drivers from the dust and grime of driving on those early roads. Within its first decade, Cadillac had steered the direction of the entire industry and established its reputation as “the standard of the world.”

Cadillac Hood Ornament
1930 Cadillac hood ornament

But for all Cadillac’s engineering renown, the company’s reputation is really built on the style of its cars. This seems appropriate, because Cadillac’s parent company, General Motors, was the world’s first to employ a dedicated stylist, when it named Harley Earl to run the new Art & Colour section in the late 1920s.

After World War II, when America was enamored with flight and the world was enamored of all things American, one of Earl’s students, Frank Hershey, took inspiration from the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane’s twin-boom tail section and echoed its dual tails with curved bumps on the trailing edges of the 1948 Cadillac.

1930 Cadillac V16
1930 Cadillac V16

Just like that, the tailfin was born, and competitors copied Cadillac as stylists quickly moved from those nascent piston-powered, fighter-inspired bumps to towering, razor-sharp fins borrowed straight from the U.S. Air Force’s latest supersonic fighter jets.

By 1959, the fad peaked, literally and figuratively: Fins began shrinking the next year and disappeared altogether by the mid-1960s. But not before even mighty Mercedes-Benz adopted them for its “fintail” generation of German luxury sedans, showing that even the company that invented the automobile took cues from Cadillac.

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1966 Cadillac DeVille

The U.S. company’s style leadership didn’t end with the pink Eldorado convertibles of the 1950s. With new government rollover regulations coming into effect, other American brands dropped their convertible models, leaving Cadillac as the sole domestic drop-top in 1976. The company promoted the Eldorado as the “last American convertible” and even brewed up a special white-with-red pin-striped Bicentennial edition for the nation’s 200th birthday. 

You might recognize these cars as Boss Hogg’s ride in The Dukes of Hazzard: While a 1970 DeVille appeared in the TV show, the 2005 film version employed one of those “last convertibles” from 1976.

1976 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible  - Beauty queens love it. Southern businessmen love it. Steak-house owners love it. It is the Cadillac Eldorado, it has an 8-liter V8, it is nineteen feet long. All hail. 
1976 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible

Though the enormous ’76 Eldorado cemented Cadillac’s reputation for building the cushy barges that became its specialty in the ’40s and ’50s, today Caddy wants to add a dash of sportiness to that familiar recipe. 

Its ATS-V and CTS-V models are rip-snorting hot rods capable of matching German competitors in the showroom and on the racetrack. 

To underscore the latter point, the brand is competing in IMSA’s Daytona Prototype class, and the Cadillac DPi-V.R racer won the Rolex 24-hour race in Daytona in January.

“Investing in racing has not only appealed to our enthusiastic customer base but has also helped showcase how the performance lessons we’ve learned on the racetrack have been applied to the Cadillac model lineup,” Ellinghaus notes.

Cadillac DPi-V.R. race car

The zoomy DPi-V.R wears Cadillac’s signature, crisp-edged styling that debuted as the ‘Art & Science’ design language in the original CTS. This was Cadillac’s successful bid to avoid the trend of trying to look like Mercedes or BMW.

Nowhere was this styling more popular than when writ large in the gigantic Escalade full-size SUV. High-profile entertainers and professional athletes flocked to the Escalade’s brash styling, cementing Art & Science as Caddy’s unmistakable look.

Over the past 15 years, Cadillac has produced a series of striking concept cars presaging future production styling, even if none of them reached production themselves. From the Sixteen (2003) and the Ciel (2011) to the Elmiraj (2013) and the Escala (2016), concept cars have simultaneously wowed auto-show crowds and pointed the way for upcoming showroom centerpieces.

Cadillac Escala concept

The Escala’s design is the template for current and upcoming Caddys, Ellinghaus says. “The Escala concept previews the design and technical ideas driving the next phase of Cadillac’s ongoing expansion, including several features—like lighting technology—that will begin appearing on Cadillac production models in the near future.”

The Detroit titan will back that style with dizzying new technology, including a hands-free highway driving system it calls Super Cruise. “Super Cruise utilizes two advanced technology systems—a driver attention system and precision LiDAR map data—to ensure safe and confident vehicle operation,” Ellinghaus notes. “The technology is being lauded as a game-changing technology that sets new standards for the industry.”

Cadillac CTS-V

Even with advanced sensors, cars still can’t see as well as human drivers can, which is why Cadillac is spearheading an effort to let them crowdsource information by sharing data car to car.

“This year, Cadillac introduced vehicle-to-vehicle communications, which shares information between equipped vehicles that can be used to alert drivers to upcoming potential hazards, laying the groundwork for a connected, safer future,” Ellinghaus says.

“Cadillac also introduced vehicle-to-infrastructure capability, which connects the Cadillac development vehicles to their surrounding infrastructure,” he adds, referring to the likes of traffic lights.

Omniscience about the surrounding world and 65-mph hands-free highway travel should make these new Cadillacs as noteworthy as those early wonders—interchangeable parts, enclosed cabin, electric starting— did a century ago. It sounds like the standard of the world once again.