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For several decades of the twentieth century, the Cadillac, a car made by General Motors' luxury automobile division, was the most enduring symbol of middle-class achievement for status-conscious Americans. Nowhere is the past and somewhat faded glory of the Cadillac sedan more visible than in the affluent suburbs of Detroit, where silver-haired retired automotive-industry executives and their elegantly-coiffed wives, each stylized living relics of another era, can still be seen tooling around in dark-hued Sevilles, while in other such enclaves of prosperity across America, luxury cars from Germany and Japan have long dominated this demographic.

The most popular luxury carmaker in the United States began its history in 1902 in Detroit as one of the many new, independent automobile companies in town. Founded by Henry Leland, who gave it the name of the seventeenth-century French explorer who had founded Detroit, Cadillac earned a devoted following with a reputable and technologically innovative engine. Absorbed into the General Motors family in 1909, the carmaker enhanced its reputation over the years by numerous engineering achievements. For instance, Cadillac was the first car company to successfully use interchangeable parts that fit into the same model and did not require costly hand-tooling. In 1912, a new Cadillac was introduced with the Delco electric ignition and lighting system. The powerful V-8 engine was also a Cadillac first, and its in-house advertising director (the man who later founded the D'Arcy MacManus agency), began using the advertising slogan "Standard of the World." Another print ad, titled "The Penalty of Leadership," made advertising history by never once mentioning Cadillac by name, a master stroke of subtlety.

Harley Earl, the legendary automotive designer, began giving Cadillacs their elegant, kinetic look in the 1920s. He is credited with introducing the first tailfin on the new designs in the late 1940s, inspired in part by the fighter planes of World War II. A decade later, nearly all American cars sported them, but Cadillac's fins were always the grandest. Purists despised them as style gimmicks, but the public adored them. In the postwar economic boom of the 1950s the Cadillac came to be viewed as the ultimate symbol of success in America. They were among some of the most costly and weightiest cars ever made for the consumer market: some models weighed in at over 5,000 pounds and boasted such deluxe accoutrements as imported leather seats, state-of-the-art climate and stereo systems, and consumer-pleasing gadgets like power windows. The brand also began to take hold in popular culture: Chuck Berry sang of besting one in a race in his 1955 hit "Maybellene," and Elvis Presley began driving a pink Caddy not long after his first few chart successes.

Cadillac's hold on the status-car market began to wane in the 1960s when both Lincoln and Chrysler began making inroads with their models. Mismanagement by GM engendered further decline. Cadillac production reached 266,000 cars in 1969, one of its peak years. That model year's popular Coupe DeVille (with a wheelbase of over ten feet) sold for $5,721; by contrast the best-selling Chevrolet, the Impala, had a sticker price of $3,465. There were media-generated rumors that people sometimes pooled their funds in order to buy a Cadillac to share. In the 1970s, the brand became indelibly linked with the urban American criminal element, the ride of choice for pimps and mob bosses alike. Furthermore, more affluent American car buyers began preferring Mercedes-Benz imports, and sales of such German sedans (BMW and Audi also grew in popularity) began to eclipse Cadillac. The car itself "became the costume of the nouveau-riche —or the arrivistes, rather than those who enjoyed established positions of wealth," wrote Peter Marsh and Peter Collett in Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car. "People who are busy clambering up the social ladder still imagine that those at the top share their reverence for Cadillacs."

Combined with the spiraling away of the brand's cachet, the periodic Middle East oil crises of the decade made "gas guzzlers" such as the heavy V-8 Cadillacs both expensive and unfashionable. Furthermore, mired in posh executive comfort and unable to respond to the market, Detroit auto executives failed to direct the company toward designing and making smaller, more fuel-efficient luxury cars. Engineering flaws often plagued the few such models that were introduced by Cadillac—the Seville, Cimarron, and Allante—and gradually the brand itself began to be perceived as a lemon. GM allowed Cadillac to reorganize in the early 1980s, and the company somewhat successfully returned to the big-car market by the mid-1980s, but by then had met with a new host of competition in the field—the new luxury nameplates from the Japanese automakers, Acura, Lexus, and Infinity.

Still, the Caddy remains a symbol of a particularly American style and era, now vanished. When U.S. President Richard Nixon visited the Soviet Union in May of 1972, he presented Premier Leonid Brezhnev with a Cadillac Eldorado, which the Communist leader reportedly very much enjoyed driving around Moscow by himself. The Cadillac Ranch, outside of Amarillo, Texas, is a peculiarly American art-installation testament to the make: it consists of vintage Caddies partially buried in the Texas earth, front-end down.

—Carol Brennan

Further Reading:

Editors of Automobile Quarterly Magazine. General Motors: The First 75 Years of Transportation Products. Princeton, New Jersey, Automobile Quarterly Magazine and Detroit, General Motors Corporation, 1983.

Esquire's American Autos and Their Makers. New York, Esquire, 1963.

Jorgensen, Janice, editor. Encyclopedia of Consumer Brands, Volume 3: Durable Goods. Detroit, St. James Press, 1994.

Langworth, Richard M., and the editors of Consumer Guide. Encyclopedia of American Cars, 1940-1970. Skokie, Illinois, Publications International, 1980.

Marsh, Peter, and Peter Collett. Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car. Boston, Faber, 1986.