Cadillac: The Heartbeat of America

Of all the sagas of deterioration in consumer products that have opened the door to the success of importers in our country, none is more inexcusable than the decline of the Cadillac. During the past fifteen years, this premier model has been plagued with a variety of serious defects only exceeded by the technological stagnation that has afflicted a once proud tradition of engineering advances.

In past years General Motors rarely missed an opportunity to tout its Cadillac models as The Standard for the entire industry. The name itself — Cadillac — became a metaphor for describing in shorthand the superior quality of other products and services far removed from autoland. Once I was in England and tried on a trenchcoat in a department store. The salesman countered my criticism by exclaiming: “Why, this is the Cadillac of coats!”

The metaphor is fading fast. The wreckage of any pretense of quality and design supremacy is laced with the lemon groves of the past decade and a half. The GM diesel, V­8-6-4 engine and transmission fiascos brought forth tens of thousands of detailed complaints, law suits, class actions and some of the angriest rich people you’ve ever observed.

It is one thing to plaster lemons on the cars of ordinary consumers, but Cadillac Division did it to the bosses of oil companies, banks, insurance companies and others who have bigger voices and connections. Nonetheless, Cadillac managed to hurl stonewalls against these complainers and stiffed most of them with stubborn assertions of “not guilty.”

Jack Schwartz, president of Gaines Service Leasing, one of the largest New York companies that sells limousines, declared: “I have had nothing but headaches with the car, this whole V-8-6-4 fiasco is just a mess and a disgrace to the Cadillac name which I cannot trust anymore.”

A Cadillac owner from Northbrook, Illinois described his 1981 Seville as “hazardous and dangerous.” He was referring to the numerous times his Cadillac stalled with no prior warning.

Another owner from Duluth, Minnesota writes GM that “My car has traveled only 2,000 miles but it already has $1,200 in tire expenditures and over eight flat tires. Can you not accept the fact that the wheels are defective?’

A broader context is reflected in this owner’s complaint:

“I can see why Cadillac sales managed to slip and their prices have gone up. Roger Smith and his crew just want their horrendous bonuses. They do not care about the quality of the car. That is the difference between the Japanese philosophy and the American philosophy. I have had enough with Cadillac and their shoddy workmanship.”

What a difference from the earlier history of Cadillac. In 1912 it was the first automobile to introduce the coil ignition and the self starter. Two years later, Cadillac introduced the first V-8 engine. Cadillac was the first car with an electric light and a synchromesh transmission.

By the sixties, Cadillac started to get sloppy as it got richer. GM’s rate of profit return on Cadillac is much greater than on any of its other models. Less of these profits were invested in innovation and quality control. This profit glut was due to what former GM vice-president John DeLorean called “an overstuffed Big Chevy.” He was referring to the lack of much difference, apart from stylistic touches, between a large Chevrolet and a Cadillac as compared to the very large difference in price.

Cadillac dealers have been beside themselves with the car’s decline in workmanship. Twenty of the top Cadillac dealers presented a devastating secret report to GM management about two years ago. Earlier in 1981, the Cadillac Dealers Council told GM’s top brass: “General Motors Cadillac Division has greatly tarnished the image of its cars in recent years because of poor quality, poor fits and finishes and introducing new products before they are reliable.” The Council concluded that poor Cadillac quality could not be put “on UAW workers and the labor movement.”

Cadillac is slipping behind Mercedes and Ford’s Lincoln Continental not just in sales, but in critical safety areas such as the air bag and anti-lock braking systems. The car has had more than its share of defects and recalls. Limousine companies are looking at other manufacturers when formerly they would think only of Cadillac.

It is very clear from the historical and contemporary evidence that the seeds of GM’s sprawling Cadillac lemon grove are coming from the poor management of GM’s top executives luxuriating in their executive suites high above the streets of Detroit.

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