The end of the prestige automobile

Aug. 4, 2005
Like so many people today, I work a second job to make ends meet.
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Khol editorials

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I write a column for a quarterly magazine called the Turbo Diesel Register, a special-interest publication for the owners of Dodge Ram diesel pickup trucks, one of which I happen to own. I provide this background to explain why I happen to know so much about 1950s Cadillacs, and why dumb marketing at Cadillac is so emblematic of the deterioration of the entire General Motors Corp.

For a recent TDR column, I found myself researching the early development of the Chrysler Hemi engine and the competitive environment in the automotive industry when the Hemi was introduced in 1951. One of the interesting things I learned was that the first Chrysler Hemi was two Chrysler V8s joined end-to-end used to power the XP-47H Thunderbolt fighter plane. The plane did 490 mph in level flight, but the advent of the jet engine ended development of the Chrysler aircraft engine.

Getting back to Cadillac, Oldsmobile and Caddie turned the automotive world on its ear when they both introduced overhead-valve, short-stroke, high-compression V8s in 1949. Though developed independently (and quite competitively within GM), the Olds and Cadillac engines ended up virtually identical, but with the Cadillac having a slightly larger displacement. Interestingly, given clean sheets of paper, Olds and Cadillac came up with the same answer.

Oldsmobile got the most publicity with its engine when it won the 1950 Pan American Road Race and cleaned up on the stock-car tracks. With that, Olds became the car that every teenage boy wanted his dad to buy. But Cadillac was actually the hotter car, and those in the know considered it the performance car of the time for races at the drag strip as well as at oval tracks.

It was not altogether surprising that GM management refused to promote Cadillac's performance. They reasoned that Cadillac was supposed to be the car for dignified rich people, and a hot-rod image was undignified. Nevertheless, guys in suits and fedoras driving Cadillacs regularly humiliated teenagers in their hopped-up Fords at the stoplight Grand Prix. In addition, the public was supposed to believe that people who owned Cadillacs walked into dealer showrooms and bought their cars by writing a check drawn from their petty-cash accounts. In all, the snob appeal worked. In 1951, the waiting period for delivery of a Cadillac was six months.

Where Cadillac went wrong was in eventually succumbing to the siren song of incessant sales growth, something that became increasingly difficult when energy crunches kept coming and going. As GM promoted credit purchases and leasing, Cadillac not only became the car of choice for CEOs, but also for pimps and smalltime neighborhood criminals. Even worse, the car eventually was priced where middle-class people could buy it. You began to see Cadillacs at K-Marts in addition to the country club.

Enter Mercedes-Benz with cars priced at up to twice what Cadillac was charging. All of a sudden, Mercedes became the car of choice for people who wanted to make a statement. Cadillac fell back to being an also-ran within reach of almost anyone who wanted one bad enough. In short, Cadillac management lost sight of the fact that they were supposed to be selling an exclusive product, not one that was expected to increase its sales every year.

Then BMW and Lexus joined the assault on the prestige market. But today I see all of these vehicles parked in the lot of my local discount drug store, often driven there by people living in Section 8 housing. There are a lot of vehicles priced in six figures today, but Rolls Royce and Bentley are just about the only ones that the average person recognizes as having exclusivity. For the most part, in a day with zero down, cash back, and easy leasing terms, there no longer is any such thing as a prestige automobile.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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