Sixteen years ago, Cadillac was the top-selling U.S. luxury car brand. It seems impossible in retrospect, as its line of cars featured the soulless geometries of a geriatric suppository. Evidently, Toyota, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz agreed, and they all moved in to carve out their share of Cadillac’s market. Detroit soon found itself buried underneath the force of German and Japanese design, engineering, and marketing—and sales tanked.
You’d think things could only get better, but they actually got worse. There was the bankruptcy of GM, Cadillac’s parent company, followed by the infamous bailout. Cadillac was neutered, left without the ability to lease out its cars at enticingly affordable rates, which is a hugely damning point in the luxury car market.
But the brand had been thinking ahead. The organization had already retooled, centralizing the design line under one roof. It had adopted a new mantra of "art and science" to blend a new, bold aesthetic with high-octane engineering. And they’d presented a Hail Mary concept car that inspired its own designers and engineers to invent the decade of turnaround to come.
You could call it all corporate lip service, if not for one key fact: It worked. Today, Cadillac’s sales are the highest they’ve been since 1976. The automaker’s cars rival BMWs on the track. And maybe more importantly, for the first time in 40 years, Cadillac has discovered what a Cadillac should be.
Historically, Cadillac design is responsible for some of the most beloved tropes in American automobiles. In the late '40s and '50s, Cadillac introduced the first tailfin, wraparound windshields, hefty Dagmar bumpers, and heavily polished chrome inside and out. Then into the '60s, it did what you’d expect of any good designer who’d pushed the envelope to its limits—it simplified, inspired by the clean lines of modernism, and produced a sort of overstated understatement, a big car that was confident enough not to overdo the filigree.
Into the 1970s, Cadillacs supersized in the name of luxury, but at the worst possible time. The decade’s oil flow was disrupted by OAPEC trade embargoes and Iranian revolution, quadrupling crude oil prices while creating a hysteria of mass fuel shortages. Things got even worse into the early '80s. GM was taken over by its most notorious CEO, Roger Smith (the same Roger in Michael Moore’s Roger and Me). In the interest of ruthless cost cutting, he combined GM’s six distinctive car brands under two generic umbrellas. Ironically, this quest for efficient production killed demand, and Cadillac, alongside GM’s entire portfolio of design heritage, became a bland, homogenous mix. Without an identity in place, Cadillac didn’t produce a lustable car for a few decades.
"They were wandering in the desert for a long time," says Jalopnik Editor-in-Chief Matt Hardigree. "The design language of Cadillac for 20 years was 'How do we not make this car look like a blank?' How do we not make the Cimarron look like a base model Chevy? How do we not make the Catera look like an Opel?"
"[Around 2000], Cadillac took a good look at themselves, and they said, ‘What do we need to do to be successful?’"
Legend has it, GM execs met in an informal meeting sometime around 2000 or 2001 to discuss Cadillac’s future, and from this, they planned a reboot fueled by $4.3 billion in investments to save the brand. Maybe it really was one meeting. Maybe it was a series of meetings. The people I speak to at Cadillac don’t seem to know, and they honestly don’t seem to care.
For the collectiv inside Cadillac, the turnaround really began with a 1999 car concept called the Evoq, created by Kip Wasenko and Simon Cox.
"That was a revolution, and a change of internal culture in the company to think about Cadillac in a different way," says Cadillac’s current design chief Mark Adams. "If you think about the boldness and the very edgy concept that came about with the Evoq, it was deliberately shocking in a way because the only way we could re-establish Cadillac in people’s memory was to do something bold and evocative."
It might not seem like it now, but the Evoq was radical for 1999. If you take a look at its Cadillac contemporaries—the Catera, DeVille, or the El Dorado—the Evoq looks like it’s been set on earth to consume them as prey. And while the entire sharp design feels a bit like double-breasted Corvette, you can see many of Cadillac’s contemporary signatures in full swing—a design language spawned a guiding philosophy at Cadillac called "art and science." The "art" is driven by the impression of the Evoq—the brash machined lines, the towering headlights, and a more aggressive posture that’s itching to pick a fight with the nearest open stretch of asphalt. The "science" is the engineering to make that possible, be it repurposed GM technologies or new platforms that Cadillac would pioneer for themselves.
Around the same time, Cadillac united its design teams, which used to create each Cadillac model in relative autonomy, under one roof. "Under previous regimes, one designer might make a great Cadillac," explains Don Butler, VP of Cadillac Global Strategic Development. "Now, we design and plan based upon how our showroom will look like in 2016, in 2017. You have the ability to create continuity into the future. It gives you a sense of reach. How far can we stretch this? How far can we push?"
Because even if you determine a new direction, and even if you have all the talent in place, it still takes about 10 years to turn a car brand around. I’ve heard that before from Ford’s Chief Creative Officer J Mays. And what I hear now from Butler echoes the sentiment.
"Cars aren’t like mobile phones. We can’t change them overnight," Butler tells me. "Mobile phones turn over every six to 18 months. They literally turn over; you don’t see a phone from 2001 still around. Guess what, you still see 2001 Cadillacs on the road. The image in the mind of consumers takes much longer to change."
The used Cadillacs I imagine are either the waxed white boats of the road in Boca Raton, or the rusty tanks lodged permanently on the non-ticketing streets of Chicago. And if you think that pair of images is only ingrained in the heads of consumers, you’d be wrong. Even car designers aren’t immune to the precedents set by their own vehicles out there in the world. It’s why concept cars like the Evoq are remarkably important.
Building out Cadillac’s new showroom in the shadow of the Evoq is a challenge that’s spanned a solid decade. In 2002, Cadillac released the CTS, its first car with some of the Evoq’s DNA. Jalopnik’s Hardigree calls the moment "a rebirth" but is quick to point out that this was but one car in a whole line of previous-generation Cadillacs. It wasn’t for another eight or so years that Cadillac’s showroom felt like it had adopted the "art and science" philosophy from car to car. And Cadillac was still missing the most critical piece to complete the statement—not a luxury flagship but a featherweight fighter—to prove it could appeal to a younger buyer and stand toe-to-toe with Germany and Japan in style and substance.
You see, while the CTS was a decent midsize luxury car, Cadillac’s line still lacked the most important vehicle in high-end vehicles today: a performance-focused compact capable of wooing new buyers considering a luxury car for the first time. What they created was the ATS, a smaller, more nimble Cadillac to compete with the venerable BMW 3 series.
"We usually start with a platform or architecture, a set of components, then we say, ‘Can we make a Cadillac out of this?'" Butler explains, referring to GM’s post–Roger Smith philosophy of efficiency. "The matter of fact is, when we looked at our shelf at the components we used, there was nothing we had to compete with the luxury compact market."
So rather than rebranding GM parts—the approach that got Cadillac in so much trouble in the past—Cadillac built the ATS largely from scratch. It debuted, rather than repurposed, GM’s new performance-focused Alpha Platform. The platform’s goal is to make a compact to medium-sized car as light as possible, right down to the smallest detail. As Car & Driver put it so eloquently in its review:
When you compare a CTS with an ATS, you see that every part—aluminum or steel—is carefully sculpted to be no thicker than necessary. Aluminum webs are slim, steel stampings have large lightening holes and rolled edges to add stiffness, and most fasteners have been downsized. The manual-transmission housing, the strut towers, the brake booster, and the hood are aluminum…Cadillac is sweating the details. It needs to, considering how much ground the ATS has to make up.
Via its newly unified design studio, Cadillac crafted the ATS to feel like a little brother of the CTS—a Caddy through and through, though maybe most distinctively, with a wider, lower grill to accentuate agility. But none of this would have mattered much if the car didn’t drive well. As it turns out, it drove extremely well.
"The original Cadillac CTS wasn’t as good as a [BMW] 3 series or 5 series," Hardigree assesses. "But fast forward 10 years in the future, and the new ATS is benchmarked to, not the newest 3 series, but an older BMW 3 series that actually benchmarks better."
Hardigree continues: "If you can swallow buying an ATS, it is the best car in compact luxury. It’s a great car, you just have to suck up the fact that it’s a Cadillac. Some people will hear you have a Cadillac and think you have gold chains, chest hair, and three buttons unbuttoned. But they’re great cars. At some point, people will get over that stigma."
Adams, a Cadillac designer, confirms that the next battle is to change consumer perception. "We know we have work to do. We have a lot more people to convert and bring them over to looking at us with a new level of respect. That takes time, consistency, and integrity. We’re doing the right things at the right time now, and we’re going to keep growing, building the brand, and being laser focused on what’s next."
Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, Cadillac’s new design finally has a perspective to buck the stigmas of Florida drivers and gold chains. And with the critically acclaimed ATS in its pocket, Cadillac has a new level of clout. The future for Cadillac hinges on expanding its line with character and variety but with enough consistency to feel like a steady, timeless luxury brand.
The next statement in their lineup is what Butler calls the "epitome of art and science." Called the ELR, it’s Cadillac’s take on the Chevy Volt platform. Deconstructing the entire concept will only lead you to a series of borderline silly paradoxes: An electric coupe? An eco-friendly Cadillac? But the company hopes it will be a showpiece, almost like a concept car that’s actually brought to market. It’s perhaps Cadillac design’s least apologetic, yet maybe most refined form yet—a balance between the hard lines of "art and science" with the sculptured curves that historically define luxurious goods.
"Cadillac has turned everything on the car into a design feature," Hardigree tells me, as I pore over the Tron-esque concept art GM had sent me earlier. "The CHMSL on the ELR coupe looks like He-Man’s sword. It’s not like a BMW where you have chutes and lines going in all sorts of directions."
Indeed, right down to the distinct curves of their cars, Cadillac has found direction after decades of being lost on the map. Only time will tell how many of us they can bring along on the ride.