You are witnessing the redemption arc of Cadillac

“Cadillac was an aging brand that was irrelevant in the decade or even century we were entering,” Tony Roma, the chief engineer of the company’s new Celestiq, told me of Cadillac’s position in 2000. He was there rolled around the new millennium. Things had been going downhill for years. One of the most storied automakers in the world – though certainly not on the brink of death – was destined for a fate of staunch, inevitable mediocrity.

Today, the automaker still makes a few, let’s name them uninspired offers, but the onslaught of diverse and impressive new models over the past five years feels like an undeniable change in the wind. Now, as it readies its first true flagship sedan in Lord knows how long, it’s clear: We’re looking at the beginning of Cadillac’s redemption arc.

It could very easily have turned out differently. Cadillac continuing with a mediocre lineup wouldn’t have come as a surprise; the brand was in decline for nearly half a century. The slogan, “The Standard of the World”, has become a punchline. But just as Roma’s career was taking shape around the end of the 1990s, the seeds for today’s turnaround were planted. The iconic second-generation Escalade has arrived, the brand’s ‘V’ performance cars have launched and inspiring concept cars have wowed audiences at auto shows. However, none of these concepts ever made it to production. Cadillac showed promise, but neither a world-class flagship nor a truly attractive and cohesive line-up ever materialized.

Cadillac CTS-V Wagon. Cadillac

Much of the 2010s and even the early 2020s was spent in a similar way. Cadillac had some great offerings: think CTS-V wagon, Escalade and ATS-V, but it still lacked strong direction. It made a big sedan, the CT6, but killed it in the US after a single generation, a custom twin-turbocharged V8 died with it. It then diluted its “V” brand with competent but ultimately unimpressive cars like the CT4-V and CT5-V. It seemed the same old story.

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

Cadillac

A crucial decision

Roma, for his part, has been there every step of the way. He joined GM in 1993 as a transmission calibration engineer. At that point, Cadillac was building the last of its bread and butter big cars. They were capable cruisers, but at the same time hardly worthy of the brand’s status as a cultural megalith – a status it undoubtedly once had.

Cadillacs were the first production vehicles ever with V8 engines in 1914. Cadillacs were the first cars with electric starters, putting the nail in the coffin of all-non-internal combustion. It then forged its name in history with the V16, taking a hiatus during the inter-war years and continuing to win when it came out on the other side. In 1949, a Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn had a six-cylinder engine with 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, power 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 the passengers are still sweating.

A 1959 Cadillac Eldorado convertible. Cadillac

The title of the world’s best was virtually unquestionable for many 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) fell almost every year after its 1970 introduction. The dark days came hard and fast for Cadillac. By the late 1970s, the Europeans returned with vengeance, and in 1981 Cadillac retooled the Chevy Cavalier—a bottom-of-the-barrel low-cost car—and renamed it the Cimarron. It was reduced to casement windows. The golden years were definitely over.

The worst was over when Roma joined GM, but soon the brand was at a crossroads. It knew its appeal was limited. It knew it had to change. This meant making cars that were at odds with much of what it stood for. In hindsight it was the only option. “It was critical for Cadillac to make a believable luxury vehicle,” Roma told me. “When we started this journey 20 years ago, it was long after our competitors had started building [performance cars.]To dismiss them as a way back to greatness was something GM as a whole—and Cadillac in particular—couldn’t do. It was time for the company to go to the track and build cars from what it learned there. “[1999] I think that’s 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 Cadillac’s story.”

A 2004 CTS-V race car. Cadillac

The seeds of real change

The first generation CTS-V set the brand on a successful path from which it has not deviated since. It has been succeeded by generations of track-oriented sports sedans. However, this is not what made Cadillac a household name. It built its reputation on the best luxury surplus in the world. Cars that inspire awe. Shortly after unveiling the first CTS-V, the company capitalized on that reputation for the first time in decades.

“I worked at a local company called Katech building our race bikes,” said Roma. “Katech was where they were building the Sixteen.”

Cadillac

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

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

Despite Cadillac’s growing progress with its V-brand, Roma felt that way about the company’s other concepts that came and went over the next 20 years. Any of them could theoretically have been built and they would have instantly defined the brand. However, it wasn’t that easy. Roma commented that it didn’t really make sense to build just one car to enter the “crazy, expensive, neat world” of ultra-luxury flagships as the rest of the lineup was so far below it. He knew that the Cadillac brand, while 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 have been related to anything in production with the brand’s emblem on it.

Restrictions due to the nature of GM itself would also have made it difficult. Parts sharing would have to happen for a flagship to work, but a luxury megacar wouldn’t necessarily be able to share many key parts with the brand’s other vehicles. Those who did share would undoubtedly also be noticeable. Even modern Rolls-Royces are occasionally accused of sharing too much with the BMWs they are based on. In Cadillac’s case, it would have been much worse.

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

The dream meets the plate

The problem with 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 largest ever fitted to a production sedan. The Celestiq had to be given the go-ahead by GM’s board of directors, and there were plenty of detractors. “There were still people saying ‘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 that point, “months of work had gone into marketing, styling, engineering, everyone came up with this proposal.” The GM board had to agree unanimously. “Everybody [had] to purchase. God, country, everyone.

It was necessarily an intense debate. The Celestiq could have easily gone the way of the Sixteen. Then GM CEO Mary Barra spoke up. Turning her attention to the risk-averse segment of the audience, Mary rightly said, “I hear you. This is risky. I agree.” Then she asked a question that Roma still remembers fondly.

“‘Have a better idea?'”

‘Then the room fell silent,’ Roma said. Barra, GM President Mark Reuss and a host of other senior design and engineering leaders wanted the Celestiq. The dream would come true – it was time to build Cadillac’s flagship. Then the doors of the car began to open. Critics became problem solvers and everyone was in the same boat. The actions of the CEO 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 from GM of all companies — but Cadillac’s future is far from certain. It still makes a handful of mediocre crossovers that fill a segment and little else. Production Celestiq is also many months away. Over time, if the new products are poorly received, it would be a redemption arc that goes right back to where Roma started in the 1990s.

However, the omens are good so far. Lyriq reservations filled quickly, an all-wheel drive model is on its way and Roma says potential Celestiq buyers are very excited about the car. GM’s leadership, its designers and its engineers are excited about it; enthusiastic 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 worldit’s safe to say we’ll know when we see it.

Email the author at peter@thedrive.com

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