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Ancestral Cadillacs
by Roy A. Schneider
Photos by Bobbie’dine Rodda

1955 Cadillac Convertible

     IF YOUR GREAT, GRANDFATHER ACHIEVED SOME DEGREE of affluence during the Roaring Twenties, chances are he owned a Cadillac. And if his father was part of the horseless carriage set at the dawning of the twentieth-century, he may very well have had a Cadillac.

1904 Cadillac Touring Car
1904 Cadillac Touring Car

     Back in 1902, Cadillac moved from IPO mode to the nation's second largest purveyor of automobiles in just three years. Those introductory one-cylinder jobs were the first automobiles in the world to be manufactured using fully interchangeable parts - a major innovation in its time. Only a dozen years later, Cadillacs were powered by the world's first standard production V-8 engine, and equipped with self-starters, modern electrical systems, and optional closed-bodies. All were exclusive Cadillac innovations.

1912 Cadillac Speedster
1912 Cadillac Speedster outfitted for roadracing

     If your great, great, grandfather was living in California back in the nineteen-oughts, he probably watched four-cylinder Cadillac speedsters tearing through the countryside in those much ballyhooed city to city runs that often headlined the sports pages from 1905 into the WW1 era. Locally, team-Cadillac race drivers, running under the Don Lee banner (Don Lee was California's first and only Cadillac distributor), were as famous as Barney Oldfield - who they often competed against. Multiple Cadillacs regularly finished in the top five. Naturally, victory on the road racing and speedway circuit translated to enormous success in the showroom.

     Cadillac and California were made for each other. Year-around motoring weather coupled with scenic attractions radiating in all directions led to extensive road building early on. Don Lee was among those who played a leadership roll in promoting State highway construction. By 1916 the roads in Southern California were being touted as the most advanced in the nation. From the sportsminded millionaires who wintered here at the turn of the century, to the subsequent flow of wealthy tourists who came to see the sights and ended up staying, Cadillac was the Southland's foremost luxury car. From the very beginning, an estimated ten percent of Cadillac production was allocated to California. Don Lee provided sales and service through a statewide network of urban master dealerships, with sub-dealers handling the suburban and rural areas.

1931 Cadillac V-16 All-Weather Phaeton
1931 Cadillac V-16 All-Weather Phaeton

     When, in the 1920s, the good times really started to roll, Cadillac outsold all of its luxury class competitors combined. An all-new Detroit factory produced more luxury class eight-cylinder motorcars then Packard, Lincoln, Stutz, Pierce Arrow, Peerless, Cunningham, DuPont, and Marmon combined.

1938 Cadillac Sixty-Special
1938 Cadillac Sixty-Special

     If your forefathers lived in the East, especially in a big city, they saw plenty of Cadillacs. The moneyed elite in major metropolitan areas regularly purchased half the Cadillacs produced. Another 25 percent went to cities with populations over 250,000. Next time you're watching a TV documentary about the 1920's, and an archival New York or Chicago street scene pops up on the screen, you'll probably see an open-front Fleetwood towncar go by, with perhaps one or two less ostentatious Cadillac models in the background.

1941 Cadillac Convertible
1941 Cadillac Convertible

     Why was Cadillac so successful? Because its engineering, quality and craftsmanship were consistently superior, and it pioneered the V-8 engine. For the last 85 years, GM's luxury marque (Cadillac became part of GM in 1909) has affirmed and reaffirmed its position as the world's preeminent designer and builder of V-type motors. From that first V-8 in 1915, to the overhead of 1949, through the Northstar of today, Cadillac has continuously manufactured V-8 powerplants. No other luxury badge can match this record. (Packard never got aV-8 until the 50's-Rolls Royce and Mercedes waited until the 1960s.) And let's not forget the V-16s and V-12s that powered Cadillac's super-cars for the super-rich. Nearly 3,000 V-16s were built in calendar 1930. Duesenberg, by comparison, produced a little over 300 units during the l930s.

1947 Cadillac Sedanette
1947 Cadillac Sedanette

     If your grandfather didn't own a Cadillac during the economic boom that followed WW2, it's probably not because he didn't want one. In those days Cadillac dominated the luxury field as no marque had ever done before. Each new model year introduced irresistible styling and magical engineering advances. By 1952, when GM's premier division marked its golden anniversary, Cadillac motor cars were widely regarded as American cultural icons-steeped in tradition and mystique; and their appeal crossed all social and economic lines. An unprecedented manifestation of all this was the ubiquitous use of Cadillac brightwork and styling details (emblems, hubcaps, grilles, taillights, etc.) on everything from Chevys and Fords to professional custom show cars. Cadillac was America's postwar sweetheart.

1959 Cadillac Convertible
1959 Cadillac, the ultimate fins

     During those stylistically exciting mid-century years, the Cadillac look progressed from the Deco-Streamlining of the Forties, to the fabled fins of the Fifties, into the crisp space-age detailing of the Sixties. They were large luxurious, unmistakably American automobiles with plebeian interiors, powerful engines, and an amazing array of comfort and power features. The motoring public's obsession with GM'S finest never faltered; year after year, the Division sold every car it could make.

1961 Cadillac Coupe deVille
1961 Cadillac Coupe deVille

     Well into the 1960s, Cadillac, although a Division of General Motors, operated with a high level of autonomy. Not only were all cars assembled at a single plant, but most principal driveline components (including engines) were manufactured in-house. As a result, and as many collectors have discovered over the years, Cadillacs were very well-built.

1966 Cadillac Convertible
1966 Cadillac Convertible

     During the 1980s and 90s, the Division went through a period of adjustment as fuel shortages, government mandates, mounting imports, labor unrest, and corporate restructuring washed through the auto industry Currently, as Cadillac prepares to enter its second century, an aggressive effort to reformulate product and merchandising is underway. It seems unlikely, however, that any single marque will ever again dominate the upper echelons of the domestic car market the way Cadillac did for much of the twentieth-century.

1970 Cadillac Eldorado
1970 Cadillac Eldorado

     Collectable Cadillacs are rare. Typically the Division accounted for less than two percent of GM's total passenger car output. Moreover, survival rates for convertibles, coupes and limousines, the most collected body types, are generally around five percent - higher for Eldorados, Broughams, Allantes and other limited editions. Despite these limiting factors, Cadillac remains one of the most popular collector cars in the world. Even in faraway places, with exorbitantly priced gasoline, such as western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, aging Detroit-built Cadillacs are almost as popular as they are in the USA.

1978 Cadillac Eldorado
1978 Cadillac Eldorado

     Fostered by the pervasiveness of American pop culture, traditional Cadillac iconography can be found in every media, and in nearly every global market. It seems that vintage Cadillacs, especially the Fifties models, are always in vogue. American movies (80% of all movie revenues in Europe are generated by US films), music, and television have saturated foreign markets for so long, it seems that many Asians and Europeans, especially the younger generations, are mesmerized by anything that is quintessentially American. For the moment at least, the compelling imagery associated with veteran Cadillacs is as much a part of classical Americana as the Statue of Liberty.

Roy A. Schneider is the author of several books on vintage Cadillacs and is a regular contributor to hobby publication.

Cadillacs in the accompanying photos belong to the members of the Cadillac-LaSalle Club of Southern California.

 

 
 
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Date Last Updated: July 14, 2017
 
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