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How Cadillac shaped the car that you drive today

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On: Thu, Sep 12, 2013 at 12:43PM | By: Teddy Field


How Cadillac shaped the car that you drive today

Although GM's flagship luxury brand is still rebuilding its image, the Cadillac name was once a byword for 'quality'. Their cars were cutting-edge, luxurious, and powerful. Everybody from kings to rock stars had a Cadillac in their garage. Then, years of corporate cost-cutting reduced the storied brand to mere 'Premium' status. Now on the upswing, Cadillac is out to show the world that it still knows a thing or two about making luxury cars. Their new Cadillac ATS is often mentioned in the same breath as the BMW 3-Series, and their recent Elmiraj Concept has actually caused people to lust after a Cadillac (that hasn't happened since... Elvis was alive). Cadillac is still very relevant in today's China-crazy car market, and their future is starting to look pretty bright. But let's take a quick look at the company's past, and see just how much they've shaped the cars that we drive today.

Cadillac was started in 1902 by a bunch of bankers, and a guy named Henry Leland. As a former employee of Colt Firearms, Leland had learned the importance of precision and quality early on. He got started in the car industry when his machine shop was contracted to build transmissions for Oldsmobile. Leland's company, L&F, had become known for its quality machine work, and he would eventually use his experience to develop his very own 10hp engine. Even though Leland's engine was superior to the 3hp unit that Oldsmobile was using, Eli Olds turned down the idea saying that it was too expensive to produce. A short time later, Mr. Leland was hired by some bankers to appraise the bankrupt Henry Ford Company. After convincing the bank that Ford's car company was still viable, he was put in charge and quickly changed the name to Cadillac, after the explorer who founded Detroit.

Leland's powerful engine made Cadillac a hit, and he suddenly had the money to start developing new ideas. Drawing on his experience at Colt, Leland had Cadillac parts machined to the strictest tolerances; this allowed them to be interchangeable, and mass-production saved the company time and money. In 1908, everybody was building cars one-at-a-time. So Leland's ground-breaking interchangeable part idea netted Cadillac the coveted Dewar Trophy, given by the Royal Automobile Club for innovation.

Cadillac's reputation for quality was becoming well-known, and Leland's R&D Department garnered the company a second Dewar Trophy in 1912. This time, the innovation was an in-board electrical system, which enabled electric lighting, ignition, and starting. Prior to this, all cars had to be started with a dangerous hand-crank, and headlights were nothing more than oil lamps. To the delight of women everywhere, the 1912 Cadillac could be started with the press of a button, and the headlights could be turned on without using a match! Naturally, sales soared.

Cadillac introduced the first V8 engine in 1915, allowing its cars to travel at the insane speed of 65 mph. A year later, Cadillac adopted standardized controls for all of its cars, placing the throttle pedal to right, brake in the middle, and clutch to the left. If it weren't for this innovation, there's no telling where the brake pedal would be located today.

Leland left the company in 1917 to form Lincoln (yep), but the company he helped found continued to innovate long after his departure. Cadillac introduced the first syncro-mesh transmission in 1928, followed by the V16 engine in 1930, and the independent front suspension in 1934. In 1938, Cadillac was the first American car to offer a sunroof, and they topped that with a fully automatic transmission two years later. Cadillac has been responsible for many other automotive innovations, and they're starting to lead the way again, with new ideas like the electric-powered Cadillac ELR. It's taken some time, but Henry Leland's company is finally starting to innovate again.


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