Here is a look back at an iconic brand that launched one hundred and eleven years ago this week.
Henry Ford had a bumpy road to success, but as he walked away from The Henry Ford Company in August of 1902, Henry Leland stepped in and made a masterpiece. Leland was the engine builder for Ford, and his one cylinder water cooled design made 10 reliable horsepower. Ford would go on to start the Ford Motor Company, but Leland decided to rename his brand “Cadillac” after the eponymous French explorer and founder of Detroit.
Leland set out to build each car to exacting tolerances, which allowed for interchangeable parts that could be replaced without much effort. This served to shake up the status quo, and the other auto manufacturers would soon follow his lead. Cars were built by hand in the early days.
Take, for example, the front bumper. Each set of holes wouldn’t line up in the same place from one car to the next, so final assembly required the bumper brackets to be bent by hand to line them up. Having to massage each part to make them fit was considered commonplace, but once auto manufacturing became profitable the few minutes wasted by each person making each part fit accrued into loads of time wasted on final assembly.
Cadillac launched with two models in October of 1902. The Runabout was a two seater, and the Tonneau was a 2 +2 with a removable rear seat “pod” that could be left at home when not needed. With a sticker price of $750, it was $100 more than an Oldsmobile and aimed at the affluent. Leland’s idea was that if you are able to afford it, the better built Cadillac will be more reliable and give the owner peace of mind.
Mounted under the driver’s seat was the horizontal single cylinder engine with a bore and stroke of five inches. It was completely water jacketed for long life and featured variable lift on the intake valve. This primitive VTEC system allowed for more efficiency at cruising speeds. Ten horsepower is less powerful than most landscaping equipment, but clever transmission and differential gearing provided steady and smooth acceleration. The top speed was a blistering 35 mph.
News of such a well built car reached England, and the Royal Automobile Club decided to put them to the test. Three cars were brought to the Brooklands racetrack and completely disassembled. Mechanics combined all their parts into a single pile and set out to rebuild them. Two cars cranked up on the first try, and all three cars were hammered at full speed for 500 miles around the historic track. Their fuel mileage averaged almost 30 mpg, and the only incident was a flat tire. Cadillac was the first American car to be awarded the Dewar trophy in 1912. Leland celebrated by making his brand the “Standard of the World”.
The cars were a hit and caught the eye of William Durant across town. He was busy building his dream of a vertically integrated auto manufacturer, a conglomerate made of separate brands which could build a car for every buyer. Durant needed a luxury car priced above his mainline Buick, so his company General Motors Corp. purchased Cadillac on July 29, 1909. Knowing that he had a winning horse, Durant kept Leland and his team at the helm for sixteen years.
It would take an encyclopedia to cover all the innovations that Cadillac has introduced, but one in particular has saved countless lives. Before 1911, cars were started by hand. If the ignition timing wasn’t set properly, a backfire could occur with enough force to cause major trauma. Leland had a personal friend whose car stalled on a bridge in Detroit. When he tried to crank it, the car backfired and the handle broke his lower jaw. The owner later died from this blow.
Leland pressed his engineering team to develop an electric starter and they became standard equipment in 1912. Other Cadillac firsts include the mass production V8 and V16 engines, enclosed car bodies, automatic climate control and magnetorheological shocks.
With the upcoming launch of the 3rd generation CTS-V and the electric ELR, Cadillac is still on top. We can hardly wait to see what they cook up in their next hundred years. If you are a gearhead like us, check out Cadillac’s history page for more historical highlights: Cadillac’s History