What Happened to Classic Cadillac? (Rise and Fall Story)

At one time, Cadillac set the standard for luxury, performance, and perfection, but today, the company is only a shell of its former self. What happened?

This article may contain affiliate links where we earn a commission from qualifying purchases.

At one time, Cadillac set the standard for luxury, performance, and perfection, but today, the company is only a shell of its former self. What happened?

The rise and fall of Cadillac is one of the greatest triumphs and tragedies in automotive history. Cadillac was the benchmark of luxury standards, driven by the rich and the powerful. But today, the quality of Cadillac has fallen so much that it is no longer considered an elite luxury brand.

How does a company rise to the rare air of excellence only to fall to mediocrity? If you drive a recent Cadillac model, you might be wondering the same thing because the Caddy you drive is not your grandfather's Cadillac. During his time, owning a Cadillac meant something. When people saw you behind the wheel of the Cadillac, there was a sense of awe and admiration. Today, there are only snickers at the sight of this so-called “luxury” brand. So, how did it all happen? What factors contributed to this iconic brand's success and subsequent failure? Let’s flip through the pages of automotive history to discover what happened to the classic Cadillac.

Table of Contents


Cadillac’s Beginnings

The early days of Cadillac are born in the ashes of Henry Ford’s unwillingness to work with others. When Ford walked out on his investors in 1902, they asked engineer Henry Leland to appraise the assets for liquidation. He convinced the financiers to back a new company, which he called the Cadillac Automobile Company, in honor of the French explorer who had established the city of Detroit.

From the beginning of the work, Leland instilled in his workers a passion for strict attention to detail. The first vehicles that the company promoted were marketed as better in quality through their use of uniform and interchangeable parts. Leland’s argument to potential buyers revolved around the precise specifications of each auto, and when customers saw his meticulous approach, they signed up, paid deposits, and eagerly awaited their new cars.

Cadillacs came to be known as cars that used higher-quality parts, with meticulous attention to excellence during the assembly process. His luxury cars were more reliable because they were built better.

“Precision” Manufacturing

Leland’s meticulous nature spread through every part of his company. His “precision manufacturing” idea developed into the company culture, leading Caddilac to earn a quality reputation. It didn’t matter that Ford was busy flooding the market with cheaply made Model Ts, Leland would continue to produce the best cars ever built, and for the most part, he felt that Ford Model Ts were crap.

Innovation Is Crucial To Success

During Cadillac’s early years (even after GM purchased the company), the automaker constantly looked for ways to improve its product. The first enclosed hardtop model was produced in 1906 by Cadillac (every other car had been an open-air carriage). The first electric starting ignition was developed in 1912, following a workplace accident where an employee died. (Leland was so distraught over the incident that he pushed his engineers to develop an electric starting mechanism which also formed the basis for electric lights).

In 1915, Cadillac introduced the first 90-degree flathead V8 engine, which produced 70 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque. A year later, the company introduced the tri-pedals and gear shift configuration that would become the standard for every other vehicle (clutch, brake, and throttle pedals). Three years later, a dual-plane V8 crankshaft was developed.

Even after Henry Leland left Cadillac in 1917 (in a dispute over wartime production), the automaker continued its culture of excellence and innovation. The company made the first Synchromesh transmission in 1928. Two years later, the V16 emerged. The powerful engine displaced 452 cubic inches, producing 165 hp and becoming one of the most powerful engines ever manufactured. Cadillac was the first company to introduce “safety glass” and the first company to fashion the “turret top,” which was an all-steel roof. (previously, car roofs were fashioned from wood).

The Great Depression

Even as the effects of the Great Depression affected their sales, Cadillac persevered through the difficult times, producing automobiles for the wealthy who could afford them. Sales figures dropped drastically, and part of the problem was compounded by the unwillingness of many dealers to sell to African Americans. It didn’t take long for the company to see the error of its ways, realize that doing so was illegal and immoral, and revoke the policy. Sales rose instantly, rising 70% in 1934 alone.

More Innovation And Excellence

Cadillac was the first automobile company to utilize the new screw and screwdriver in its production, and the effect was almost instant. Production of Cadillacs increased as the assembly line became faster, which meant increased sales and profits for the automaker. In a few short years, every car company used the Phillips head screws, following Cadillac’s lead.

As Cadillac’s reputation continued to grow, so did its sales. The phenomenal growth led Cadillac to widen vehicle offerings and become more creative in designs with tailfins, chrome bumpers, and trims. By 1949, Motor Trend magazine awarded the Cadillac Series 62 with its first “Car Of The Year” award. The company had grown so much that it produced nearly 100,000 units annually. Advertisements for the company introduced their cars as the “new standard for the world.”

The fifties and sixties saw more innovations, with the first use of a vinyl roof on a Cadillac Deville. Other notable innovations were the development of auto-dimming headlights, self-leveling suspension systems, memory seats, transistor radios, self-adjusting power brakes, power door locks, and power steering

The Standard Of The World Excels

The turbulent sixties saw Cadillac excel in producing the world’s standard in luxury and perfection. The Cadillac name became synonymous with affluence and luxury as celebrities were often seen driving their cars, which made the American public want them even more. Cadillac had its best years in the sixties, selling close to 200,000 models in 1966 alone.

The 70s saw Cadillac grow in size and stature. As their cars grew, so did their sales. The company saw record sales in 1973 (and again in the late seventies).

“The End Begins”

The demise of the Cadillac brand has its roots in both culture and economics. By the late 1970s, the young people involved in the counter-culture and anti-establishment protests of the sixties were now grown up. These consumers were making simpler, more economical decisions for their families, avoiding what they viewed as the pretentious and overindulgent automobiles that their parents had craved.

The late 70s and 80s saw Japanese imports rise as Americans turned away from large gas-guzzling V8s. A second oil embargo in 1979 made much of the public aware of how bloated and over-indulgent Cadillacs had become. With the advent of more sensible, sportier choices for luxury that were also fuel-efficient, Americans began to snub their noses at the brand, viewing Cadillacs and the Lincoln Town Car as symbols of oppression, greed, and power.

Despite their declining sales, Cadillacs continued to do well since many older Americans loved them. But to change with the times, Cadillac began to downsize its cars (every car manufacturer was doing so) to improve fuel economy and foster good emissions ratings.

The idea behind the new downsized image was twofold. Smaller cars meant fewer production costs, and the car company could compete more directly with luxury imports vying for American dollars. Cadillac dropped the “Standard of the World” slogan for more generic slogans like an “American Standard of the World,” implying that the automaker was one of many good quality luxury automobiles. When it adopted the “Best of all, it’s a Cadillac” to highlight its new, smaller, more fuel-conscious lineup, Americans realized that perhaps Cadillac wasn’t the excellent brand it had always been known to be.

The long, elegant relics of the past decades gave way to cheaper parts, smaller engines, and fewer innovations (although there were some, like the Northstar engine). As the new vehicles emerged, there was a sense that Cadillac had lost its way. Consumer complaints rose. Initial quality dropped. Review sites began to extol the virtues of other brands. The precision manufacturing that had defined decades of work gave way to cheaper, less luxurious, and in some ways, inferior products.

Cadillac Today

To Cadillac’s credit, it has regained momentum with its sale of the Escalade, and its new electric vehicle, the Lyriq, is an integral part of GMs move to complete the electrification of its fleet. However, transaction pricing for the brand continues to increase year or year (it increased by over 32.7% in 2021 alone). Will Cadillac ever blossom into the hallmark of excellence as a luxury car it once was? The truth is that only time will tell.