“Lots of points. None of reference. From every angle, the CTS-V Coupe breaks new ground / While the brake light doubles as a spoiler to make sure it never leaves it.”
—CTS-V ad in the New Yorker
“Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”
—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Is there anything left of the American car? This is not a question about government bailouts or Italian takeovers. It is a question of style and of soul. Can we still find the America at the heart of automobiles built by companies that have their roots here?
Until last week I would have said, sadly, that all that was good about American cars is gone. When Volvo is Chinese, Bayerische Motoren Werke builds cars in Tennessee, and Fiat’s chief is making noise about buying the part of Chrysler he doesn’t already own, how can we speak of a national character in automobiles? Thank goodness, then, for the new Cadillac V-Series, which restores some of the fun and frivolity that have been America’s main contribution to world car culture. But before we get to the test drive, a little history is in order.
Every decade or so Cadillac tries to remake its image, in an effort to beat back the competition from Europe and Japan. One can imagine the scene at Corporate when yet another young exec pipes up: “We need to find Cadillac buyers who are young and not mobsters!”
Those execs must not be schooled in the marque’s long history. Cadillac’s 1927 LaSalle was the first car designed with styling as a prime objective, intended to battle Packard (the Mercedes of the day) and the other luxury makes. Harley Earl, the most significant automobile stylist of the 20th century, put the LaSalle together, and its success led GM to give Earl his own styling department, which he commanded until 1958. Over three decades, he introduced not only styling and (along with Alfred Sloan) planned obsolescence, but also the very concept of concept cars. Earl designed the original Corvette; the first Firebird concept car; and, for Cadillac in 1948, the tail fin.
The ’59 Cadillac, which rolled out just as Earl retired, marked the apex of the tail-fin era, and of size and silliness in American cars. Foreign cars, mostly Volkswagens, had nibbled away at Detroit’s sales throughout the 1950s, and the two-car family had yet to become standard. Times were tough for US automakers, as evidenced by this Time magazine report:
“Detroit’s trouble in 1958 is only too evident on the sales graphs. Last week’s reports showed a slight upturn in the last ten days of April. But for the first four months of the year, the industry is down a crushing 33 percent—and there are few signs of the traditional spring upsurge.”1
GM’s Cadillac division responded to this adversity with nothing less than a two-and-half-ton car that stretched nineteen feet from end to end, was seven feet wide, and sported what are widely regarded as the most glorious tail fins ever produced. The ’59 Cadillac – ideally in pink – became an icon of the fabulous era and continued to define the brand into the late 1970s, long after GM’s other divisions had moved on.
So strong is Cadillac’s legacy as the pinnacle of the GM brand ladder (buyers should trade up from a Chevrolet to a Pontiac, an Olds, a Buick, and then, once they have a key to the executive washroom, a Caddy) that the company struggles to reinvent itself. A degree of schizophrenia has developed, evident even in Cadillac’s latest Superbowl commercial. As the announcer intones, “We don’t just make luxury cars; we make Cadillacs,” the screen shows the tagline, “The new standard of the world.” On the one hand, the company hopes to leverage its deep roots in an America where we debate the reasonableness of taxing “Cadillac health plans.” On the other, it wants us to stop thinking that everyone else builds better cars than GM and recognize Cadillac as a new standard.
This split personality first appeared in the early 1980s, after GM’s regime of “downsizing” began the decade of crummy square cars that looked and felt as exciting as the cardboard boxes they resembled. In 1980, Cadillac tried the Seville “slant back” featuring proportions much like those of the Roaring ’20s. With two-tone paint, vinyl roof, and the option of front fender-mounted spares, the car still enjoys a bit of hip-hop cache evidenced by such gems as, “Outkast bumping up and down the street / Slantback Cadillac, ’bout 5 niggas deep.”
But during the recession of the early ’80s Cadillac reversed course with the Cimarron, which was tossed together from the GM parts bin to give Cadillac dealers a “small car” to sell. Younger buyers supposedly wanted smaller cars; as it turned out, though, they didn’t want a Cadillac. The Cimarron was nothing more than a poorly built, overpriced Chevrolet Cavalier—totally unfit for a classy mafioso. (Though it did, like any good mobster, have several aliases—Pontiac J2000, Oldsmobile Firenza, and Buick Skyhawk.)
In 1987 came the Allanté, a two-seater with a body designed and built by Italy’s legendary coachbuilder Pininfarina and flown by jumbo jet to Detroit for assembly. The Allanté wasn’t a bad car, really, for its day. But it was a half measure. Sergio Pininfarina, the car’s designer, complained to the New York Times, “We had a certain embarrassment in seeing our lines translated into panels as large as these.” The plan was to create an American Mercedes fighter that would lower the average age of Cadillac buyers. The initial reviews weren’t stellar, though—the lines were described as bland and the engine as underpowered. Some called the Allanté adequate but inferior to the European competition; others liked the car but not the $54,000 sticker price. In the end, Cadillac managed only about half of its annual sales target of 6,000 to 8,000 units.
A decade later Cadillac turned its attention to the “entry-level luxury” market by then occupied not only by BMW and Mercedes but the Japanese as well. Again it looked to Europe, this time importing a rebadged German-built Opel as the “Caddy that zigs.” Unfortunately, sales went south after a debut of about 25,000 units in 1997. Equally important, the median age of Catera buyers was 50, not the 35 to 49 Cadillac wanted. (Conventional wisdom holds that a cartoon spokes-duck undermined sales, but that’s unfair to Donald. The advertising got people to look at the car, but most decided they preferred the Lexus ES 300. Another effort by GM to create a new brand faltered.)
Now the V-Series, including a sedan, wagon, and now a coupe, arrives about on the decade cycle as Cadillac again tries to broaden its appeal. While other automakers favor supple curves, the new Caddy wears hard corners everywhere. It doesn’t look good from every angle–there is so much sheet metal at the rear quarter panels that the hood, even with its subtle bulge, seems absent. But the sharp facets do simply what others struggle to achieve with curves: they give the car a powerful stance without making it seem angry or aggressive. The designers claim stealth fighters as their inspiration and proudly liken the small windows to gun-ports, but somehow the actual effect is more sophisticated than the violent styling of rivals.
The auto press has set the Cadillacs against the BMW M3, Mercedes E63 AMG, Audi R5, and Jaguar XFR. The sedan and wagon have done well by the numbers, beating all rivals in some categories and some rivals in overall scores. But in the testosterone-sodden circles of the auto press, only the Coupe really counts. Beating the other “sport wagons” is a bit like winning the Oscar for makeup.
The Coupe has all the things serious critics of American car culture love to hate. It features a supercharged 556-horsepower, 6.2-liter pushrod V-8 engine that gets 12 miles per city gallon (18 highway). It weighs about two tons, reaches 60 mph in under four seconds and tops out near 200 with a standard transmission. It has a bulging hood, a big fat rear end, limited passenger headroom, and poor rearward visibility. It’s probably misogynist and vaguely racist too.
Of course, the Coupe’s target buyers are unreconstructed middle-aged men who want to thumb their noses at all of that ecofeminist malarkey about climate change. Few serious critics of American car culture can afford a car whose price moves north of $70,000. The “cockpit” is “as much about control as it is about driver engagement,” says the sales literature. It’s a “driving enthusiast’s dream car.” But here too Cadillac is in trouble. The European journalists call it a “nice try” at catching up. The US press, though much kinder to the hometown favorite, comes to essentially the same conclusion: as an Autobahn cruiser or twisty English-country-lane sports car, the Coupe falls short.
So the new Caddy would seem inexcusable, both to those who want to see GM do something worthy of the people’s generosity and to those who want America to beat back the overseas invaders. And yet there’s also something quintessentially American about the car that is well worth preserving: the tail fins. It’s a 21st-century take on the tail fin, but still it calls to mind that finned zenith, the 1959 Cadillac.
The frivolity of the Coupe’s rear end harken back to its famous predecessor, and get to the essence of what it means to be a truly American car. That rear end, not accidentally, features prominently in Cadillac’s promotional pictures and copy. Closeups show the stainless-tipped exhaust pipes exiting at the bumper’s centerline. Best of all is the third-eye brake light, a folly that outsiders love to mock. The BBC’s reviewer called it a “red boomerang” and said the car had an “underbite you could lose a dentist’s arm in”—perhaps the first example of a Brit telling an American that they have bad teeth.
In 1959 too, Cadillac focused much of its advertising on the rear quarter panel, and especially on those fins. The taillights were the red flames shooting out of the fins’ integrated rocket motors. In imagination, if not operation, the taillights rocketed the car across the landscape. We are wrong to presume that people back then took such over-the-top styling seriously; those fins were as absurd then as the “brake light that doubles as a spoiler” is now. But then Mt. Rushmore is absurd, as were the Twin Towers, to say nothing of playing golf on the moon. The childishness that lets us do something big and silly and pointless that the rest of the world finds ugly is also the childlike quality that should imbue us with hope.
And how does the new Coupe handle the road? Based on my test drive, the V is the unlikely spawn of a BMW M3 and a 1958 Caddy (I’ve never had the pleasure of driving the ’59.) The car was reasonably taut and certainly overpowered, to the point that I was able to have some fun by switching off the traction control. The suede-wrapped steering wheel turned almost too easily, but it did let you know where the wheels were pointing. In this it shared something with the latest BMWs, serious drivers’ cars in an age when serious drivers don’t want to work so hard anymore.
And yet a quality road performance seemed immaterial to the salesman who emphasized its backup camera, bluetooth capability, ipod hookup, and the dealership’s ability to meet any price. The car was so laden with cool gadgets that actually driving seemed unimportant, much as it did when I piloted the 1958. You don’t drive a car like that, you pilot it—radio a vector down to the engine room and await a response. Where the old caddy had an “Autronic Eye” automatic headlight dimmer mounted on the dashboard, the CTS-V Coupe had a television set. The set could be told to bury itself in the dash, but shifting into reverse levitated it again. There were similar electric gizmos to telescope the wheel or set the parking brake, and two separate sets of controls for the power Recaro seats. In fact, the more I looked the more buttons I found, including eleven on the steering wheel spokes. The icons on other buttons were no more intuitive: one featured a roadway vanishing into a mountain range (must be for the jump to light speed), another had some sort of checklist, partially completed (perhaps the car does its own preflight check). To open the door you push the tiny button marked with a simple white dot.
The keyless transmitter actually has a secret key inside it that opens the glovebox and rear seat passthrough, as well as five buttons of its own (one to remove the secret key). Most impressive of all is the fake ignition key located just where the old GM keys used to go. It is wrapped in chromed plastic and I felt the urge to turn and hold against the ghost of a spring that used to let you crank the engine. In fact, it is equivalent to the BMW “on” button, so there is no spring or mechanical ignition switches of any kind. The fake key is just there to help you feel comfortable with the future.
Cadillac’s cheery rediscovery of its rear end comes at a welcome moment, a time when our consciences rightly force us to take cars—those notorious planet-killers and people-killers, not to mention highway-cloggers—too damn seriously. The brakelight spoiler, the floating TV set, and the phony ignition key are pure folly. But it is precisely that silliness that one hopes the car can recapture. Plenty of nations have built great cars, but only America has built truly silly ones like the ’59 Cadillac, to say nothing of the Pontiac Aztec or AMC Pacer. Leave it to Ford to build world cars. GM will use our money to keep building American cars.
Fifty years later the headlines were about the same, with sales in December 2008 off 35.5 percent for the quarter and 18 percent for the year. ↩