You Are Witnessing Cadillac’s Redemption Arc

After decades in decline, one of the world’s oldest automakers is finally finding its footing again.

byPeter Holderith| PUBLISHED Sep 13, 2022 11:30 AM
You Are Witnessing Cadillac’s Redemption Arc
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“Cadillac was an aging brand that was not relevant in the decade or even the century we were entering,” Tony Roma, the chief engineer of the company’s new Celestiq, told me about Cadillac’s position back in 2000. He was there as the new millennium rolled around. Things had been declining for years. One of the most storied automakers in the world was—while decidedly not on death’s doorstep—destined to a fate of unshakeable, inevitable mediocrity.

Today, the automaker still makes a few, let’s call them uninspired offerings, but its onslaught of diverse and impressive new models over the last five years feels like an undeniable change in the wind. Now, as it readies its first proper flagship sedan in lord knows how long, it’s clear: We’re watching the beginning Cadillac’s redemption arc.

It very easily could’ve gone differently. Cadillac carrying on with a mediocre lineup wouldn’t have been a surprise; the brand was decaying for nearly half of a century. Its tagline, “The Standard of the World,” has become a punchline. But just as Roma’s career was taking shape around the late 1990s, the seeds for today’s turnaround were being planted. The Escalade’s iconic second generation arrived, the brand’s “V” performance cars launched, and inspiring concepts dazzled crowds at auto shows. None of these concepts ever made it to production though. Cadillac was showing promise, but a world-beating flagship nor a truly appealing and cohesive lineup ever happened.

Cadillac CTS-V Wagon. Cadillac

Much of the 2010s and even the early 2020s were spent in a similar fashion. Cadillac had some great offerings: think CTS-V wagon, Escalade, and ATS-V, but it still lacked a strong direction. It made a big sedan, the CT6, but killed it in the U.S. after a single generation, a bespoke twin-turbocharged V8 dying with it. It then watered down its “V” brand with competent but ultimately unimpressive cars like the CT4-V and CT5-V. It looked like the same old story.

Today, the CT4-V and CT5-V Blackwing twins are arguably the best driver-focused sports sedans on the market. The new Escalade is at the top of its class, and the Escalade V is the most absurd vehicle GM’s made in a long time. The Lyriq EV is a compelling vehicle whose price undercuts the segment-leading Tesla Model Y dramatically. And vitally, a true land yacht is back: The Celestiq, a six-figure flagship EV built to take on Rolls-Royce. What it represents in terms of a cultural shift at Cadillac and its parent General Motors is eye-opening. After decades in prestigious purgatory, Cadillac finally seems like it’s emerging from its slumber. 

Cadillac

A Critical Decision

Roma, for his part, has been there every step of the way. He joined GM in 1993 as a transmission calibration engineer. At the time, Cadillac was building the last gasp of its bread and butter big cars. They were competent cruisers but at the same time barely worthy of the brand's status as a cultural megalith—a status it once held unquestionably.

Cadillacs were the first production vehicles ever to feature V8 engines in 1914. Cadillacs were the first cars to offer electric starters, which put the nail in the coffin of all-things-not internal combustion. It then forged its name into history with the V16, took a break through the interwar years, and kept winning when it came out the other side. In 1949, a Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn featured a six-cylinder engine with a manual transmission and roll-up windows. A 1949 Cadillac Series 62 was offered with a larger and more powerful V8, a four-speed automatic transmission, electric windows, and air conditioning. When Rolls finally got an automatic for the Silver Dawn in 1952, it bought it from GM’s parts bin. And its passengers were still sweating.

A 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible. Cadillac

Its title of world’s best was all but indisputable for years, but it’s easy to track the downturn. The brand’s legendary tail fins shrank after 1959 and the output of its venerable 500 cubic-inch V8 (8.2-liters) declined nearly every year following its introduction in 1970. The dark days came hard and fast for Cadillac. The Europeans returned with a vengeance by the late 1970s, and then, in 1981, Cadillac rebodied the Chevy Cavalier—a bottom-of-the-barrel economy car—and called it the Cimarron. It had been reduced to crank windows. The golden years were absolutely over.

The worst had passed by the time Roma joined GM, but soon the brand was at a crossroads. It knew its appeal was limited. It knew it had to change. Doing so meant creating cars that were antithetical to much of what it stood for. In hindsight, it was the only option. “It was critical for Cadillac to do a credible performance luxury vehicle,” Roma told me. “20 years ago when we embarked on this journey it was long after our competitors had started building [performance cars.]” To dismiss them as a route back to greatness was something GM as a whole—and Cadillac especially—could not do. It was time for the company to go to the racetrack and build cars from what it learned there. “[1999] I think is when we really started looking at what we could do with the CTS when it came out,” Roma said. “I think it was absolutely critical to the story of Cadillac.”

A 2004 CTS-V race car. Cadillac

The Seeds of Real Change

The first-generation CTS-V set the brand on a successful path it has not strayed from since. It has been followed up by generations of track-focused sports sedans. These are not what made Cadillac a household name, though. It built its reputation on best-in-the-world luxury excess. Cars that inspired awe. Soon after the first CTS-V’s unveiling, the company addressed that reputation for the first time in decades.

“I was working at a local company called Katech to build our race engines,” Roma said. “Katech was the place where they were building the Sixteen.”

Cadillac

The Sixteen was the first in a series of flagship concepts that helped mark the start of the brand’s revitalization. Although it never entered production, it could’ve been built. It was, after all, functional: Powered by a 1,000-horsepower engine with, you guessed it, sixteen cylinders. It reminded the world of what the brand meant.

“I was around that [car],” Roma told me. “I was in the space where the team was designing, building, and running it.” It could’ve been tooled up for production, he says, but the stars just didn’t align. “We really wanted to do that car,” he recalled. “It just wasn’t the right car at the right time.”

Despite Cadillac’s growing progress with its V brand, that’s how Roma felt about the company’s other concepts that came and went over the next 20 years. Any of them could’ve theoretically been built and they would’ve instantly defined the brand. It wasn’t that simple, though. Roma noted that building only one car to enter the “crazy expensive neat world” of ultra-luxury flagships didn’t really make sense when the rest of the lineup was so far below it. He knew that the Cadillac brand, although it was improving, just didn’t mean what it used to, and it showed. “The Sixteen, or the Ciel, or the Cien,” none of those concepts—had they been produced—would’ve connected to anything in production with the brand’s crest on it.

Limitations due to the nature of GM itself would’ve also made things difficult. Parts sharing would have to happen in order to make a flagship work, but a luxury megacar necessarily couldn’t share many important parts with the brand's other vehicles. The ones that it did share would doubtlessly be noticeable, too. Even modern Rolls-Royces occasionally get accused of sharing too much with the BMWs they’re based on. In Cadillac’s case, it would’ve been far worse.

Things have changed now. The brand has six-figure step-downs and more are in the pipeline. GM has also put Cadillac at the front of its electrification efforts. This shift gives the company an opportunity to reset itself and opens up the space for a mission-defining flagship. A fate of unshakeable, inevitable mediocrity is no longer sealed, and now the brand has to run, not walk. The qualities of a BEV powertrain line up with how Cadillac wants to define the new standard of the world. Just like its past six-figure concepts, though, the Celestiq was far from easy to sell to company leadership.

The Dream Meets the Board

The thing about resets is that they cost incredible sums of money, especially when they look like nothing else on the road and ride on 23-inch wheels—the biggest ever fitted to a production sedan. The Celestiq had to be greenlit by GM’s board of directors, and there were plenty of detractors. “There were still people who said ‘boy this is expensive, this is risky, are you sure this is the right thing?’’’

It all came to a head at a regular board meeting a few years ago. At this point, “Months' worth of work had gone into marketing, styling, engineering, everyone coming up with this proposal.” GM’s board had to consent unanimously. “Everyone [had] to buy in. God, country, everybody.”

It was a necessarily intense debate. The Celestiq could’ve gone the way of the Sixteen, easily. Then GM CEO Mary Barra spoke up. Directing her attention to the risk-averse portion of the attendees, “Mary rightfully said ‘I hear you. This is risky. I agree.” She then asked a question Roma still remembers fondly today.

 “‘Do you have a better idea?’”

“That’s when the room kind of went quiet,” Roma said. Barra, the GM president Mark Reuss, and a slew of other senior design and engineering leaders wanted the Celestiq. The dream would be realized—it was time to build Cadillac’s flagship. Doors started to open for the car after that. Detractors became problem solvers and everybody was on the same boat. The CEO’s actions during that meeting “really [were] transformative. That’s what a leader does,” Roma said, referring to Barra’s actions.

It’s an inspiring story—one you probably wouldn’t expect to hear out of GM of all companies—but Cadillac’s future is still far from assured. It still makes a handful of middling crossovers that fill a segment and little else. The production Celestiq is also many months away. As time goes on, if its new products are ill-received, it would be a redemption arc that comes right back around to where Roma started in the 1990s. 

The signs so far are good, though. Lyriq reservations filled quickly, an all-wheel-drive model is on the way, and Roma says prospective Celestiq buyers have been very enthusiastic about the car. GM’s leadership, its designers, and its engineers are excited about it; thrilled, even. But a return to former glory for a company called Cadillac won’t be something measured in sales volumes or profitability. When it comes to The Standard of the World, it’s safe to say we’ll know it when we see it. 

Email the author at peter@thedrive.com