Sixteen Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six

Cadillac’s latter-day Art and Science design theme saw many fine concepts, but this perhaps was its finest.

Image: motorauthority
Image: motorauthority

For a company that has experienced as many false dawns as Alfa Romeo and as many brilliant unrealised concepts as Renault, the fact that latter-day success continues to elude Cadillac remains one of automotive’s more absorbing melodramas. Recently, exterior design director, Bob Boniface told Automotive News, “There’s still this misperception in the public’s eye that Cadillacs are these big, heavy cars that your grandparents used to drive. We haven’t built those cars in generations. But you almost have to overachieve in the messaging.” One can understand his rationale.

For all the great marques, the heel of history weighs heavily upon every degree of deviation. Change has been necessary for Cadillac in order to break a decades-old inertia. But like the ocean-going liners its cars once resembled, Cadillac’s has been slower than perhaps it needed to be.

Most motor enthusiasts wish Cadillac well. I recall seeing the first ‘Art and Science’ concept and thinking this is what Cadillac should be – bracingly modern, confident and above all, unapologetically American. But while 1999’s Evoq began the process, the 2003 Sixteen was all of those things and more – after all, there’s just so much of it – 5.7 m in length, with a 3.5 m wheelbase and just over 2.0 m in width. The Sixteen was a leviathan and that is before we get to its power unit. Motive force was provided by a 32 valve 13.6 litre V16 which featured an active shut-down facility, allowing the driver to run on twelve, eight or four cylinders to aid economy and one assumes, emissions.

Image: sub5zero
Image: sub5zero

Clothing this was a body of supremely brash elegance. Yes, it was utter caricature, but perhaps the most successfully realised synthesis of showmanship and outright in your face conspicuous excess this side of a 1958 Eldorado Brougham – the last truly exceptional, cost no object Cadillac. Of course, it’s a lot easier to get it right when you’re working on a canvas as broad as this, but in terms of stance, proportions and detail, the Sixteen (to these eyes) absolutely nailed its brief. Only the Rolls Royce Phantom (launched the same year incidentally), rivalled it for disdainful insouciance. After all, a Cadillac should nudge the frontiers of taste, if not quite cross it.

Naturally it was never going see production, certainly not with that gargantuan engine up front, but even with a V12 or even a V8 under a slightly truncated nose, something along similar lines could have provided a much-needed centre of gravity around which the broader range could coalesce. Cadillac has long required a brand icon and after all, when one’s heritage revolves around big sedans, is that not what one builds? Not mid-engined supercars or repurposed Chevy Volts for that matter. (The less said about the Escalade the better).

2013 Cadillac Elmiraj. Image: jfs.24
2013 Cadillac Elmiraj. Image: jfs.24

Both the Sixteen and the sublime Elmaraj of 2013 eloquently suggest where Cadillac ought to be in terms of positioning and style. But as we know, General Motors has a long history of shooting itself in both feet, so on the evidence of these and other fine Cadillac concepts over the past decade (and counting), it is perhaps time to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that GM haven’t really been the best custodians of the one-time ‘Standard of the World’.

Now Art and Science is morphing once more into something less angular, slightly more voluptuous in order to further broaden its appeal. But was the angularity of the forms the polarising factor for customers, or was it the fact that Cadillac continuously failed to translate the impact of their concepts into the cars customers could actually go out and buy?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

46 thoughts on “Sixteen Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six”

  1. The angularity certainly put me off, I find it makes the cars look cheap and insubstantial. These striking concepts show that despite the dross GM turn out they have some real talent working there. It must be a very frustrating place to work!

  2. Talk about perceptions. Car reviewed the CT6 and still talked about mobsters and landyachts. Whenever UK writers discuss Cadillac they always reach for those references. It only took fifteen years to kill off Skoda jokes. Cadillac have been changing their image since the Allante first appeared.

  3. I agree, they should’ve made the Sixteen. Even so if it was only a halo model sold a hundred cars per year, as per the last model ’59 and ’60 Eldorado Brougham. In those days, Cadillac was on the level of Rolls-Royce, Bentley, and Mercedes. The 70’s Seville was the smallest Cadillac, big as an S-Class, but marketed as the most expensive car in the Cadillac line-up. Today, Cadillac smallest car is benchmarked against BMW:s entry level model. Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus sells more cars per year than Cadillac on Cadillacs own home turf. Cadillac not only needs a car to go up against the S-Class, they should’ve needed something to go up against the Rolls-Royce Phantom and Maybach. They are not anywhere near where they should be in the marketplace, they have totally missed the boat.

    1. What’s perplexing is the length of time GM have said that Cadillac is going to change and the eratic and slow results. The formula involves excellence in quality and competitive performance. The old style cars lingered too long too. The DeVille hung about for too long into the 00s and GM can’t match German perceived quality.

  4. It is right to say that history hangs heavily over a brand like Cadillac, but IMO, incorrect to surmise that the lack of follow-through on one or another concept has been at all significant in failing to shift perceptions. Both industry executives and journalists talk about the process of regenerating a moribund brand as typically a decade-long process (and this is hailed as taking a ‘long-term’ view). In reality, the instructive parallel is Audi. Piech is reported to have said that if he knew how long it would take, and how expensive it would be, to turn Audi into a serious Merc/BMW rival, he would never have bothered. If you take this push upmarket to begin seriously with the second-generation 100 and 80 in the mid-1970s, it took around 15-20 years to launch the breakthrough model that really started to challenge buyer perceptions of Audi as either a slightly ambiguous brand, or a cut below BMW and Merc. That was, of course, the original A4. You can add another decade before you could say the remainder of its range was on terms with its nominal rivals. And all this on what was, at least outside Germany, basically a blank canvas of a brand, with no serious negative connotations to overcome.

    For plenty of buyers, the defining image of Caddy is still a pink ’59 Eldorado – and that might well be a positive view of the brand. If they’re less positively inclined, it might well be defined by a malaise-era Brougham. For better or worse, Cadillac isn’t just battling its own brand perceptions, it is battling against global perceptions of an entire era that it is pretty much synonymous with – that is, 1950s and 1960s American consumer excess. If you figure that it took Audi 30 years of benchmarking the global leaders in this segment to seriously get on terms, Cadillac has barely passed infancy in this process. Not only is it still fighting the definitive influence of the ’59 amongst the public consciousness (even people who aren’t remotely interested in cars associate pink tailfins with the brand), it’s also battling at least 30 years of, frankly, virtually unmitigated bilge in its product lineup. The first-generation CTS is considered by most to be the start of turning around perceptions and taking Caddy back to its ‘Standard of the World’ roots. This is the interior of a first-generation CTS, launched in 2002. According to its designers, the centre stack was influenced by contemporaneous desktop tower PCs:

    In a way, that single statement says everything you need to know about that era of GM. Forget the mismatched textures and general misery that is pervasive in this carefully-lit press photo. Ask yourself: why would any industrial designer take inspiration from an item that even within the PC industry was acknowledged to be utterly style-free and totally functional?

    Of course, the counterpoint to this argument is Lexus. But then, Lexus is a truly special case. The initial non-LS400 models were average to decent, but this simply didn’t matter because the LS400 absolutely defined the brand and was utterly unambiguous about what it connoted – build quality on terms with Mercedes, allied with fanatical attention to detail and a price that dramatically undercut its perceived rivals. Cadillac has failed to make serious headway because it is working to a budget and the strictures of GM management. Cadillac’s tagline for its new S-Class-sized sedan is (and I’m not making this up), “The first ever Cadillac CT6 sedan.” What on earth is that supposed to communicate to buyers? That another company hasn’t beat them to the punch with the CT6 nameplate? I’m interested in cars and from the ad photos I had not the faintest idea what size the CT6 really is, its pricing, or what its rivals are supposed to be – to a casual observer it looks like any other art-and-science design from the last decade. So while, yes, the formula to become a player in the premium market does indeed involve excellent quality and competitive performance, it also requires (at least in GM’s case) an ability to operate independently of traditional management, which has historically treated the premium market as not significantly different to the mass market. In the context of big-ticket items like an inability to read the market effectively, a toy like this (see also 8C) is basically just an irrelevance in the story of turning Cadillac around.

    1. It is hard to believe that the tagline wasn’t just scribbled down by a copywriter at midnight looking at a waste paper bin full of cast offs more or less as on ironic career suicide note. The next day he was joined by a boardroom full of people who thought a bit, and then realised they couldn’t think of anything more appropriate. Both the US and the French industries have this awful stumbling block that they, and though I’m not a great one for blaming the shop floor, their working culture, finds it hard to accommodate the fact that quality has become all important.

  5. That’s very much the post of the day and there’s lots there to discuss. The part about the tagline is fascinating: I think to Americans that kind massively empty phrasing is supposed to mean the car is unique, first of a kind. To our ears it’s as dumb as a box of rocks.
    I’d like argue that the late 80s to late 90s Cadillacs were quite good at their job, pricing accounted for. A lot of people prefer them to the current crop because they had a USP.

  6. Is it a shopfloor problem? The Italians have it too. Really, it is more fairer to say most firms don’t get it 100%. Even the German firms can drop the ball. I feel it’s as much a design and management problem. I suspect the bookshelves groan with theories on quality and how to eldiver it constistenly. To err is humna, atfer all. The quality lapses I see on Cadillacs were there on the drawing board though.

    1. Indeed it is far too easy to blame the shopfloor for any production problem and quality issues. It is only ever going to do as well as management (at all levels) will allow it to do.

  7. One thing I forgot to mention is that the entrenched sociological perceptions of Caddy as a brand have important knock-on implications. With all of its various global forays and its implied benchmarking (via size and price) of the Germans, it follows that The General is using Cadillac to target their buyers as well. For a professional in their early 30s who lives in New York and is keen to make a statement, then sure, I can see why an ATS might appeal. But I am not at all persuaded that substantial numbers of ‘traditional’ E-Class buyers can be persuaded to consider Cadillac under any circumstances. This is actually only partially to do with the cars, or the design, or the fact their second cousin three times removed once had a bad experience buying a Vectra. The further up the money scale you go, in general, the more conservative that money becomes. In fact, Cadillac has an image problem beyond ’59 Elhams and 1970s Broughdorados. In my experience, Cadillac’s image, at least in the US, is negatively impacted by the somewhat ghetto perception of the Escalade. (Chrysler has a similar problem.) I’m not saying that the money will never move away from the Germans – in fact, to a certain extent, the success of Tesla shows it is quite capable of doing so. I just think that for a plethora of reasons that revolve around perception in various forms, Cadillac’s task is even more difficult than for other tarnished premium brands.

    1. The Escalade: it is a dreadful bit of badge engineering. Cadillac have not been determined and consistent with their image transformation. It takes two model cycles of ever-improving attributes to turn the perception around. Cadillac can’t do this across one range of models or from generation to generation.

    2. The Escalade is also not only the most traditionally Cadillacian of their lineup, it’s also one of their best selling and certainly most profitable car. And for marketing reasons, they really don’t want all the bagage that comes with it. But for the sake of profit, they can’t really get rid of it either. They are their own biggest enemy in a sense….

      PS, would it be possible for me to post pictures? I log in via facebook, and I don’t see an option for posting pictures. I’d like to that in discussions, for easier explanations and clarifications….

    3. Stradale, excellent points in a reply that would have made for an excellent article in its own right. You are probably right – GM management are not sufficiently serious about Cadillac to do something truly high-end justice. And half-baked simply wouldn’t cut it.

      I see merit in halo models, but by right, they need to be produced hand in hand with a coherent plan for the models that sit beneath – the one’s people actually go out and buy. There would have been no point in Cadillac producing something like this while offering the BLS or the original CTS. The disconnect would have been too obvious. As you point out, the 8C is a good example of this.

      If GM is not serving Cadillac well – (and I think we can agree they are not) – who would be a good custodian of the brand? Hyundai? One of the Chinese motor companies? Certainly none of the domestic American marques are in any position, nor have the will, or it seems, the money.

      It may be that Cadillac has missed the boat entirely, but if we are to accept that everyone apart from the German (and German-owned) marques (and Lexus) should pack up and go home, we’re faced with a very thin field; one I might add, somewhat devoid of dreams.

    4. This idea of ‘dreams’ is interesting and appealing to me, but obviously at odds with how decision-making in multi-billion-dollar enterprises works. As noted above, Cadillac’s reinvention has been slow because the messaging has not been consistent – the first-generation CTS had severe flaws, the Deville and STS up until very recently reinforced memories of ‘bad old’ Cadillacs, and the Escalade attracted demographics that European prestige buyers and traditional Cadillac customers alike were less than thrilled about being associated with. And, let’s face it, until at least 2000, if people associated anything with Cadillac after ’59, it was likely something along the lines of ‘old, stodgy, uncool’.

      Ironically, they are now at a point where a concept like the Elmiraj or Sixteen makes far more sense than it has done at any point since the 1960s. Cadillacs in general are not my kind of car at all, but I do not dispute they hold a certain appeal for some. After at least three decades of fairly typical corporate GM decision-making, the current lineup broadly seems to be on the right track to me (although the existence of the ghastly XTS seems pretty pointless). It’s no longer being cannibalised from below by other GM brands, and the cars seem sufficiently different from Chevys or Buicks to dispel memories of the 1980s nadir. The rub is that with this level of investment in new platforms and technology, I doubt they are even close to breakeven on the passenger cars – if the brand is profitable, most/all of it is likely down to the Escalade, which currently starts (!) at $73k. So really, the question is – is the board prepared to continue ploughing money into re-establishing Cadillac as a serious presence, or will they lapse back into bad habits? For anyone who is a habitual GM watcher, the answer is not if management will start to undermine Cadillac’s current relative freedom, but when. Audi needed someone with the iron will (and iron fist) of Piech to see its rise through to completion. I’m afraid I just don’t give The General that much credit.

      All that said, I wouldn’t worry too much about diversity. This sector of the car market has historically (at least in the postwar era) been one that every major player has desperately wanted to succeed in – the potential payoff is indeed lucrative, at least compared to making disposable $10k shoeboxes. Some very fine attempts have gone by the wayside in the process, accountants be damned. Frankly, if you add up total investment in competing in this sector and deduct revenues, I doubt that anyone that isn’t the Germans or Lexus has made any money in this sector after around 1970. Stuff like the Type Four platform probably did okay, but was almost certainly cancelled out (and then some) by the Kappa/166/Thesis/159. We know about the French; we know about Saab and Rover; we know about PAG; we know, all too well, about GM. The diversity in this sector now is coming from the likes of Tesla. Perhaps I’m slightly less bothered about a lack of diversity in the current market because my interests lie in slightly older stuff anyway – to me, anything beyond 2000 is a “new car.” But I also think that if there is a lack of diversity, it perhaps just reflects management dreams colliding firmly with the reality of the sector – that, apart from the aforementioned exceptions, competing in this segment of the market has been a licence to burn cash since Keynes was last in fashion.

    5. It is said that Cadillac execs were horrified when the Escalade first started appearing on rap videos.

      Its ghetto popularity isn’t the issue. It’s Cadillac’s inability to manage their reputation that’s the issue. Rappers love Phantoms too but Rolls Royce has a much more sophisticated approach to managing their brand.

  8. Ingvar: I hear your plaintive request to upload photos.
    I could never get it to work.
    Other blogs have a simple “upload file” button (CC, for example). I don’t know why this one doesn’t. It’s not something we chose. It’s a built in feature of this WP format. Other bugs exist: I used to be able to log on on the DTW page and go straight to the admininstration. Now I need to open a WP log-in page and blah blah blah. So, you’re not alone in the inconvenience.

    To load an image try logging in via email instead. Perhaps Eoin can help as he has mastered the technique.

    1. Ah, ok, thanks. I think I see now what the problem is. I don’t have an e-mail verified account here, I’ve *only* logged in via my fb account. I’ll start an account and log in and see if that helps. Thank you so much!

  9. Ingvar: don’t thank me yet. It still could be a cumbersome process. As I say, I haven’t managed but others have. It
    is possible but not as easy as it should be.

    1. All you need to do is paste the address/image location of the picture you want to add to illustrate a comment. It really is that simple.

    2. What do you do then? Can everyone and anyone load it in the gallery first?

    3. I think all you can do is to mail the image to one of us and we can add it to the library. It’s a bit clunky, I know, but the question hasn’t arisen before. Maybe another WordPress user out there knows better. Chris?

  10. Another excellent conversation here. Cadillac is indeed hamstrung by its past, constricted by its parent company, and frustrating in its inability to execute a really compelling product which would redefine the brand for the 21st century. The Sixteen could (and should) have been it… but if you name your concept after its unfeasible engine, you have not got off to a good start…

    There is a fascinating article waiting to be written about how these old luxury nameplates (Cadillac, Alfa Romeo, Jaguar) are adapting to their current status as challenger brands in the ‘premium’ (urghh!) market. Perhaps I should just get on and do that.

    The Rolls Royce Phantom is also a fascinating comparison. There were many (myself included) that thought VW had got much the better of the deal when Bentley and Rolls Royce divorced. BMW had surely bought a baroque and old fashioned name plate that would die out with its elderly customers. The Phantom changed all that, by being so essentially ‘right’ that it helped reinvent Rolls Royce for a new generation.

  11. “There were many (myself included) that thought VW had got much the better of the deal when Bentley and Rolls Royce divorced.”

    I don’t have the figures but I suspect VW sells a lot more Bentleys than BMW sells RRs. One could argue that they both made a success of their marquee acquisition.

    1. I agree with both of you here. In terms of the numbers seen on the streets, VW has certainly done incredibly well with Bentley but, whereas to say ‘cheapened the brand’ would be going too far, it has seen a shift in perceptions. However BMW has managed to re-create RR as the ‘Best Car In The World’ for the 21st Century.

    2. I guess it depends what your perception was in the first place, or what trait the owner of the brand was willing to emphasize – I think VW decided early on to pay tribute to the pre-RR days, and whoever referred to the Blower Bentleys as ‘trucks’…

    3. That would be one of those abrasive Frenchmen (by nationality anyway). But you’re correct of course, their image is much more in line with pre-Rolls Bentleys. Basically, both VW and BMW produced masterclasses in reviving brands that had lost their way. Ford take note.

    4. … and yet, when I see a Continental GT, I’m wondering how its owners could accept the front overhang and bonnet length, not to mention that daft, aurally unpleasant W12 engine. When I see a Rolls-Royce Wraith, I think to myself: good Lord, this is lovely. Unless it’s that matte black one with lime green Spirit of Ecstasy I once came across and wish I hadn’t.

    5. It amuses no end the VW Continental really is a Phaeton/A8 in drag. And in such carries a a lot of Audi brand-dna, a dna that’s gone uniterrupted from the pre-WWII DKW up until today, with mainly front-wheel drive cars with their engine longitudinally mounted ahead of the front axle. There’s a clear and uniterrupted lineage from the DKW 3=6 to the Bentley Continental GT. Now, is that hilarious or what?

    6. That’s beside the point. The question wasn’t which is better or prettier, but whether their custodians made a convincing case for a modern interpretation of their respective brand.

  12. I for one preferred the pre-VW Bentley. The Continental was unique and though mere badges made up much of the difference the Arnage had much more charisma than the Seraph. I think they could still make and sell those. They were above fashion and mere performance.

    1. Yes, the Ken Greenley Continental is incomprehensibly charming, at least in ‘base’ guise. And both the Spur/Spirit and Seraph were much more convincing when seen as Bentleys. The Royces interiors were still lovely, but the exteriors were dangerously close to contemporary body-on-frame Cadillacs’. Nothing gets close to a Phantom or even Ghost, which is how it should be.

    2. And that’s something for an article in its own right, couldn’t someone here make Ken Greenley justice? From the 90’s Bentley Continental to the Ssangyong Rodius. He penned Ssangyongs entire 90’s lineup, and he’s got a lot of flack for doing so. The rodius isn’t a mistake, it is very clearly designed to be what it is. The Continental shows he can do beautiful when he wants to, but he chose a different path for Ssangyong. And that has yet to be discovered by the general audience, that what he did for Ssangyong was very deliberate and with a lot of thought. It was just that those thought ran counteruntuitive to the taste of the general public. In my view, he definitely needs his reputation resurrected. In my view, he was as daring as Chris Bangle, but got a lot more flack for doing so….

    3. The problem with pre-VW Bentleys is that, for all their charm, they were increasingly tacky and irrelevant, à la Bristol (and heading for the same fate – which may or may not have been a good thing…).

    4. Ingvar. I think I’ve probably been too rude about the Rodius on this site to backtrack that much, but it is unfair that it seems to be singled out to appear near the top of every lazy top 10/20/50/100 ugly cars list. There are a lot of arguably ugly cars around and, a far bigger crime in my book, even more very boring ones. At least the Greenley Rodius made the effort, unlike the current one. As you suggest, it was a massive car to style, so attempting to turn it into a land yacht made some sense. I just don’t feel they did it well enough.

      But you are right that criticism of that vehicle should be balanced with praise for some of Ken Greenleys other work. His (with John Heffernan) Project 90 and Continental are certainly good, and their Aston Martin Virage might be due for re-appraisal. Actually, I thought that he also worked on the TX1 London Taxi, but I find that was Kenneth Grange.

      He does seem underappreciated. Doing a search for him on Google, I came at number 8 to a non-specific mention in some obscure, oddball site called Driven To Write. He probably deserves better, but all I can offer is to try to write something more substantial about him later next month or, better still, invite you to do so Ingvar!

    5. Yeah, I can do that. I’ve tried to dig up info on him before, but there doesn’t seem to be much hard facts out there. If I write something on Greenley, it will be much hyperbole and conjecture, I like my pieces somewhat provocative. What I’m saying is, perhaps there are people that are more in the know of his whereabouts, but at least the piece will open up for a lot of discussion. If you want it, I can do that. When is a whole another matter, I do my deadlines like Douglas Adams….

  13. Laurent: do you think they were tacky? It’s true they were more country club than clinic yet they did it with elan. People bought them too which is more than we can say for Bristol.

    1. Ok maybe not all of them – mostly those that were carried over from the 80’s but I guess the same could be said after a while of any car with a long life-span. Also there’s something about the finish, and the choice of colours in most instances.

    2. The very last Spirit-based Bentleys were quite tacky indeed. The wheels were too large, they had to sport daft air outlets (fake, in all likelihood) and their wing mirrors were very ugly.

    3. Yes that’s what I was thinking about. Meanwhile I went to have a look at Greenley’s Continental R and I have to agree that it is rather pleasant to look at, in the right colour:

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