TCS Daily

'Standard of the World'

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - January 9, 2003 12:00 AM

If you hear that some poor Sierra Club member choked on his trail mix and ran his Prius into a tree, blame it on Cadillac. The General Motors luxury automaker introduced a show-stealing 1000-horsepower (yeah, that's right, three zeros) V-16 concept car, at the North American International Auto show in Detroit, this week.

The gleaming dark blue four-door, with its hand-woven silk carpets and Bulgari clock, has visitors to Cobo Center gaping. It's stealing some of the thunder from other super-lux offerings at the show, such as the new Rolls-Royce Phantom and the $300,000-per copy Maybach sedan from DaimlerChrysler.

The super Caddy's retro split hood opens up left and right to reveal a triumph of high-tech aesthetics - the engine is almost as pleasing to look at as the car. The all aluminum engine with its titanium alloy valves can rev up to 7000 rpm to unleash its thousand horses and thousand foot-pounds of torque. But the 13.6 -liter power plant is not all brute. It employs what Cadillac calls "Displacement on Demand" - advanced electronics that allow the engine to run on four, eight or all sixteen cylinders depending on driving conditions. That could mean unprecedented fuel efficiency for such a large engine and such a big car (just 7 inches shorter than a Chevy Suburban.) That's in a relative sense, of course. This should definitely make Arianna Huffington's terrorist black list.

The car has been enthusiastically nurtured by GM's new product czar, Robert Lutz, who has been concerned about Cadillac's sorry fall from luxury car grace over the past quarter century. His fervor for the V-16 came through when he told the New York Times it was "almost a religious symbol of our belief in Cadillac and what we want it to be."

What Lutz wants Cadillac to be is what it once was - the "Standard of the World," as a huge neon sign used to boast to every motorist or taxi passenger coming into New York City from La Guardia. That standard was established not with garish tailfins or padded vinyl tops, but with solid engineering and technical innovation.

Nobody under 30 can fully appreciate how far Cadillac has fallen because they simply don't remember how completely the marque had dominated the luxury field made up of Lincolns, Packards and Chrysler Imperials - the only American luxury cars to have survived the World War II auto production hiatus.

Cadillac married style to quality to deliver extraordinary cachet for a mass-produced car. Arab sheiks, captains of industry and Mafia dons rode in them. Prizefighters' first purses and rock singers' first record royalties were quickly converted into Eldorados and Coupe de Villes. Hank Williams died in the back seat of his baby blue convertible. Elvis reveled in his Caddys by the dozen.

Cadillac even survived its own periods of wretched excess, culminating in the whale-tailed models of 1959-60. No luxury car name, not even Rolls-Royce, ever achieved such iconic status. It became a by-word for the best. Any pop music aficionado worth his salt can easily come up with a dozen songs that mention Cadillacs - from Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" to the more obscure ones like Ronnie Dee's "Action Packed," or Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac."

The advent of this new show car has caused the predictable heartburn among those who spend their time staring into the famous "gap" between the rich and the poor ("times are lean and the economy shaky," laments the New York Times in its story on the V-16). But the critics miss the point. Such cars are pioneers and precursors of designs and technologies that eventually benefit all motorists. Only a handful of people could afford the air conditioning introduced in the luxurious Packards of 1940. Now you expect it on your Neon or Geo.

The sad thing is that Cadillac is trying to play catch-up with this car. Go back 73 years, to that January day when Cadillac introduced its first V-16. In 1930 there were many more luxury brands (Marmon, Pierce-Arrow and the legendary Duesenberg, to name a few) on the American market when Cadillac put the car into full production. The massive yet elegant-looking engine was in fact the mating of two eight-cylinder motors in a 45-degree angle V with a single crankshaft. Each bank of cylinders had its own carburetor and water pump. In the teeth of the Depression, V-16 prices started at $6000. Buyers received scale designer drawings of the models so they could pencil in their own custom modifications of paint, trim and upholstery.

Gas mileage? Forget it. The immense and truly magnificent long-hooded cars into which the V-16s were fitted got from 5 to 10 miles per gallon. They had 30-gallon gas tanks. Mileage was not the point. These cars delivered to their wealthy drivers incomparable smoothness and quietness of operation. As one early magazine ad boasted, "It is impossible to arrive at an adequate conception of the Cadillac V-16 until you have experienced a demonstration - for there is no mode of transportation, whether on land or sea or in the air, more completely luxurious..."

The V-16s, including an improved version introduced in 1937, sold just a few hundred a year, but these truly classic cars survived until 1939, adding luster to the Cadillac name. At antique car shows today these cars still inspire awe when they purr on to the field.

Now, Cadillac has reintroduced the V-16 not as a production car but a dream - a sort of "Hail Mary" pass into the future. It is also bringing out a brace of new production models in an effort to reclaim its "heritage" - a word being thrown around a lot at Cadillac these days. It faces a daunting task.

I was once a Cadillac loyalist. Now I drive a Lexus. I watched with bewilderment and sometimes anger as Cadillac squandered its heritage over the past 30 years. General Motors traded its crown jewel for a mess of pottage and littered the highways with Cimarrons and sagging Bulge de Villes. I still own a 1949 Fleetwood 60 Special, one of the truly great postwar Cadillacs, and a 1966 Eldorado convertible. When I drive them I savor the glory that was Cadillac.

But now, I have a little hope. This new V-16; this is not a car Ed Begley, Jr. is going to like. It points with however shaky and uncertain a finger to what Cadillac once was. It's a brash, very American car. Brash is not a word one associates with Cadillac, but that may be what it takes to try and restore some of the lost luster to a great American name.

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