How Cadillac's Chief Engineer Found Inspiration in Pontiac's Scrappy Fighting Spirit
"You can’t just say ‘Hey, we’re innovative!’ You have to show it.”
From the time General Motors Executive Chief Engineer Brandon Vivian was a kid growing up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he was a car guy. He was riveted to the cartoon Speed Racer in the ‘70s and subscribed to all of the major automotive magazines. And he knew that he wanted to work for GM someday.
Pontiac particularly captured Vivan’s attention, and he can still rattle off the innovations the brand brought to market as well as its honors. For instance, he tells me, the entire Pontiac lineup was honored as Motor Trend's Car of the Year for 1959 and 1965, and three years later its GTO took the trophy. Positioned as the scrappy little brother to the much-larger Chevrolet, Pontiac had to find ways to stand out, and it did with models like the Trans Am, Fiero (which reminds me of a very bad first date, but it's not the vehicle's fault), and the Grand Prix. Pontiac and the rest of the brands had a magnetic pull for Vivian, and he's channeling that spirit into Cadillac's roadmap.
“When I looked at what GM was producing, it was easily making the most desirable vehicles,” Vivian says. “I watched Pontiac be innovative and lead with things others didn’t want to try, like head-up displays, steering-wheel switches, and power seats.”
After graduating from Penn State with a BS in electrical engineering, Vivian started his career in electronics at Industrial Scientific. It didn’t take long for him to find his way to GM for his first job working on the electrical system on GM’s first purpose-built electric vehicle, the EV1. Tapping into that early excitement drives him now.
"Every day we walked in the door, we created something new," Vivian remembers. "The technologies that were used at that time had taken a lot from the locomotive industries, like hybrid systems and brake by wire, those types of things, but applied in vehicle. Every day was a new discovery and a problem that was solved. It was amazing."
Twenty-five years later, GM’s chief engineer is a driving force behind the superlative CT4-V and CT5-V Blackwing, which he recognizes as the last internal combustion vehicles Cadillac will make. He wanted the Blackwing cars to have a big personality, and after spending just a few days with it myself, I agree with the accolades it has collected so far. (Kristen Lee calls it a "guaranteed grin machine.") The CT4-V Blackwing is nimble and incredibly responsive, and the manual transmission so smooth and forgiving that a beginner could master it in minutes. That is, if the novice driver can manage the startlingly-quick acceleration.
Vivian says back in the days Pontiac was on the upswing, Cadillac was experiencing a lull. To avoid future downturns for the brand, Cadillac has redefined what is consistent with its heritage and every bi-weekly strategy meeting requires a hard look at every decision up against that heritage in mind. Cadillac has a clear vision and purpose for the brand, he says. After all, you can’t get where you’re going without a map.
"We've instituted a set of standards that define what a Cadillac is and is not, and those standards are now institutionalized," Vivian says. "It's very clear to this very large organization what we're doing and why."
If Cadillac is leaving ICE vehicles in the rear view mirror, Vivian and his team are sending them out blazing a glorious path. Maybe those who aren’t convinced of Cadillac’s future should hitch a ride on Vivian’s coattails and watch his vision unfurl ahead of him. Vivian goes to work every day excited about what is to come. Who knows? Even a CT5-V wagon is possible under his watch.
The brand is making big moves lately, including paying off dealerships that refuse to be ushered into the electrification age. GM is placing its bets on Cadillac with an uptick in resources and money, and the somewhat-strangely-named Lyriq and upcoming Celestiq are testing the waters. Cadillac hopes it can convince the market of its ability to come up with cool new cars that appeal to the younger market, and its chief engineer is confident.
“I think the biggest misconception is that Cadillacs are for people who may not be in tune with the times," Vivian says. "For those who haven’t looked at the brand recently, we see them going ‘oh, wow.’ Basically, it’s about getting out and demonstrating what we’re offering. You can’t just say ‘Hey, we’re innovative!’ You have to show it.”
His Pontiac predecessors would be proud.
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