Who’s Really Getting Run Over By the Decline of Cadillac. Hint: It’s Not GM.
Once again last week, the warning surfaced in a major publication — in this case, the New York Times — that the Cadillac automobile has slid to the brink of oblivion.
General Motors wants to reassure the automobile-buying world that it has big plans for a reinvention and renaissance, the Times reports, which is what General Motors has said the last half-dozen times we read this same story.
Truth is, it’s no sweat for the company. General Motors will continue to be General Motors with or without the Cadillac.
So let’s pause and shift our sympathy to the real victims here: the writers and songwriters of America, for whom the downshift in the fortunes of Cadillac has already set in motion the gradual disappearance of a simile and a metaphor they very likely can never replace.
For decades, writers in need of a superlative have been able to reach for “the Cadillac of elderberry cobbler” or “the Cadillac of turkey vulture repellent” or “the Cadillac of eyelash extensions,” confident every reader everywhere will understand.
Similarly, songwriters seeking a universally recognized metaphor from popular culture always had Cadillac right there in the next parking space.
“As I was motivatin’ over the hill,” sang Chuck Berry in 1955, “I saw Maybellene in a Coupe De Ville.” And he had his first hit record.
Fifteen years later Johnny Cash sang about working in a GM factory for a quarter century and smuggling out enough parts to build his own Cadillac at home. “One Piece at a Time” reached №1 on the country charts.
Bruce Springsteen wrote “Pink Cadillac” (“crushed velvet seats”), and Natalie Cole’s version hit the top five not long after Aretha Franklin’s comeback hit “Freeway of Love” used a different pink Cadillac image.
When Franklin died, her funeral procession included a hundred pink Cadillacs — suggesting she loved that old car almost as much as Elvis Presley, whose first and second cars were both pink Cadillac Fleetwoods. Elvis not only sang about them, he drove them and he gave one to his mother Gladys. Gladys never learned to drive, but it was a sweet thought.
Songwriters have referenced other cars, it’s true — “Mustang Sally,” “Little Red Corvette” — but add them all together and Cadillac is four laps ahead.
This reflected, accurately, the stature of Cadillac — which is named, fun fact, for Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, Sieur De Cadillac, who founded Detroit in 1701. Sure, there were more expensive and prestigious cars out there, like the Rolls-Royce or the Maserati, but for regular people Cadillac represented a potentially attainable summit of automotive aspiration.
Owning and driving a Cadillac said you had made it. It was a luxury car in the best sense of the term. Whether you were sitting in a Cadillac or just admiring its lines, it exuded success.
Also quality. From the moment Cadillac’s founders left Henry Ford and started building their own cars in 1902, Cadillac bet on technology and engineering. It was the first enclosed car and the first car with a full electric system. It pioneered numerous comfort and safety advances, from shatterproof safety glass to collision detection sensors.
Cadillac charged patrons for those advances, and no one complained. A Cadillac was considered value for dollar, and that’s one more reason the neighbors all paused in admiration when you pulled up with that new Caddy.
Not that Cadillac has led a perfect life.
Until the 1930s, Cadillac dealers were discouraged from selling to African-Americans, for fear it would compromise the brand’s upscale image.
After the company reversed that unfortunately common policy, the Cadillac became a favored symbol in the African-American community. Skin color denied black folks many of the traditional markers of success, like houses that were sold only to white folks, but all it took to own a Cadillac was money.
Even then, of course, the ugly “welfare Cadillac” slur arose. And yup, that made its way into songs as well.
Still, decades passed and only a tiny handful of American brands — Coca-Cola, maybe — matched Cadillac for recognition and admiration.
The peak years followed World War II, when America exploded into a consumer economy and Cadillac rode the top of the wave. From the long silhouette and the high-kick tailfins of the late 1950s to the power and sleek luxury of the 1970s, it was a ride that seemed endless.
Then things happened.
First, American carmakers got lazy and American cars in general got an earned reputation for being shoddy and less reliable than foreign cars.
There was a push toward smaller cars, never Cadillac’s wheelhouse. Then, years later, the pendulum swung to SUVs. Cadillac got into the SUV market with its Escalade, which maintained the brand’s luxury image, but never stood apart to the same degree Cadillac always did in the sedan field.
Today, Cadillac told the Times, it’s betting again on electricity, envisioning its whole fleet as electric by the end of the 2020s.
That’s probably smart. But it doesn’t keep Cadillac separated from a pack where Tesla already has the lead.
Let’s stress here that the word Cadillac still means something. It just means more to people who remember its golden age.
Two generations ago, many young folks still assumed they would work their way up through basic cars until they summited with a Cadillac. Then that changed. A Benz or a Beamer would be enough. Or the prestige car became the cool car, like a Prius or now the Tesla.
There’s no conspiracy here. It’s all market-driven. Capitalism. Consumer tastes. Supply and demand.
It would not be wise to bet against Cadillac surviving. It would be even less wise to bet that Cadillac will ever return to the position it held a half-century ago.
Let’s just not forget a hail and farewell as one of America’s great similes disappears down the long highway of time.