Denied: Cadillac Elmiraj (2013)

Somewhat lost amid Cadillac’s varied (and ongoing) revival efforts, this superb concept car proved that there’s still mileage in some traditional concepts and values. 

Sheer look: Cadillac Elmiraj coupé, photo (c) Top Speed

There’s no better symbol for the American car industry’s post-oil crisis’ struggles to change and evolve than Cadillac.

For the past four decades at least, the former Standard Of The World has found it difficult to come to terms with changing demographics, markets and tastes. For too long, an increasingly outdated concept of luxury was upheld, before numerous attempts at bringing Cadillac up to date have largely failed for one reason or another. Only the ongoing success of the gargantuan Escalade SUV has prevented the marque from falling into utter oblivion.

Among the numerous stylistic reboots of the past – be they called Seville STS or ‘Art & Science’ – a rather low-key example deserves special attention. Not so much because it stands out, but because of its inherent rightness: The Elmiraj concept car, unveiled at the 2013 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

2013 Cadillac Elmiraj Concept
A lot of Bill Mitchell, with a bit of Paul Bracq thrown in, photo (c)

Harking back to GM’s last era of stylistic leadership, the Elmiraj is nothing other than a modern Personal Luxury Car. Furthermore, its style harks back (albeit only in spiritual fashion) to the ‘sheer look’ form language implemented under legendary GM chief designer, Bill Mitchell, in the 1960s.

A similar approach had obviously been tried and tested a decade prior to the Elmiraj by Lincoln, under then-chief designer, Gerry McGovern – but unlike those equally enchanting concept cars, GM design (then led by Ed Welburn) elected to go for a considerably less nostalgic, less retro style in 2013, capturing the flair, rather than outright design cues, of a beloved bygone era.

Flair the Elmiraj possessed in spades, as anyone who visited not just the exclusive Pebble Beach event, but also the more common Frankfurt Motor Show the same year could attest. Not just in contrast to the conceptually similar, but sensually purified Mercedes-Benz Concept Coupé, the Cadillac betrayed a stylistic confidence at odds with the general waywardness that has come to define the brand to an unfortunate extent.

Regrettably – and tellingly – the Cadillac remained a one-off, whereas the Mercedes was the teaser for a very similar production car that has since acted not just as an image building exercise, but added to the Swabian brand’s bottom line. 2013 Cadillac Elmiraj ConceptOf course, it would be foolish to suggest that a fringe model such as the Elmiraj would’ve been enough to finally turn Cadillac’s fortunes around. But its finesse, and how little of it found its way into production vehicles of the brand, suggests there’s a gulf of some significance between what people such as the Elmiraj’s Brit designer, Niki Smart, could achieve and what management allowed them to instil into cars the public could eventually buy.

Furthermore, Elmiraj betrays that there is, after all and against all prevailing prejudices, a way to come up with an elegant, contemporary, yet wholeheartedly and unashamedly American automotive style. Neither the grey plastic coarseness of a great many American mass market models, nor the infinite loop of retro pony & muscle cars of the past two decades have provided as convincing a concept of contemporary US design as this delicious slice of American luxury.

This is not a German car, photo (c)

Brazillian rosewood, caramel coloured hide, quite a bit of metal and graphics that are considerably more flamboyant than the teutonic norm (Wagenerised Mercedes excepted) ensured that the Elmiraj’s cabin was just as convincing in its pursuit of modern American luxury as the exterior.

All things considered, one must wonder why so much obvious effort went into a concept car that proved to have so little effect on Cadillac’s immediate future. One explanation might be that Elmiraj was created before the arrival of touted Cadillac CEO, Johan De Nysschen, who might possibly have found the concept of a modern personal luxury car a bit ‘too Detroit’. Another explanation might be that GM’s designers seized the opportunity to deliberately create something for the heart and soul rather than the market.


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Returning to the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show and the Mercedes Vision Coupé for a moment, the Elmiraj and its fate illustrate what a peculiar place the automotive industry has become. If shown photos of either of these luxurious coupés, a car enthusiast from any era up to the 1980s would’ve been likely to easily identify the Elmiraj as an offspring of the Detroit’s finest marque. Some might even have mistaken the Cadillac for a Mercedes, for it shares some of the stately elegance of the Swabian cars designed by Paul Bracq. The actual grand Mercedes coupé of the 2010s possesses none of this aura. Which renders it either exceedingly progressive – or utterly astray.

Six years after its unveiling, the Cadillac Elmiraj has not just barely aged, but proves that there’s still plenty of life in marques and categories of automobile that are deemed obsolete.

Here’s to hoping the next stab at reanimation is about more than mere teasing.


The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

11 thoughts on “Denied: Cadillac Elmiraj (2013)”

  1. Thirty-five years too late !

    Cadillac was, by far, the largest luxury vehicle brand in North America until the mid 1980s.

    Cadillac dramatically damaged its reputation for quality and durability as a result of being subject to a 1980s GM corporate policy of not selling any models which paid a “gas guzzler” tax. (Cadillac competitors like Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar etc. did not follow this foolish policy). To comply with GM fuel economy policies, Cadillac launched its disastrous V4-6-8 engines before they were developed, followed up by the even more underdeveloped and failure-prone HT 4100 iron head/aluminum block V8, interspersed with economy car buick V6s (which actually had more hp than the futile HT 4100!).

    Then Cadillac compounded this folly later in the 1980s by insisting on launching new downsized fwd models that their customers and dealers told them they did not want !

    Ever since then, Cadillac has attempted to get those customers back and find new customers, first by trying to build 300hp fwd luxury cars, and then by “benchmarking” to the competitors previous generation models. Predictably, it hasn’t worked.

    Except for China, Cadillac has negative brand equity and should have been killed in the 2008 restructuring.

    One interesting design study like the Elmiraj can’t make up for 35+ years of brand failure and devaluation.

    If something like the Elmiraj has a future, it should be as part of a new brand, rather than tainted by the association with Cadillac.

    1. For me Cadillac´s failure has been to do with ignoring the importance of quality. They also never internalised the kind of design (formal) discipline demonstrated by most European brands. That is not to say they ought have been serving up cars like BMW and Audi or Volvo but needed to apply formal rigour within the framework of an American aesthetic. For reasons unclear to me Cadillic and other American brands spent decades using a strange kind of Victorian or Georgian-inspired form language which was accompanied by numerous quality failures. These where where the thing worked but was crude or was coarsely assembled. It is as if they figured their customers were too stupid too notice or to care much if they did. Quite probably the core group didn´t mind too much about the graunchy ashtrays and low-grade joint concepts but their non-customers did and they stayed away.

    2. Richard, I agree that Cadillac had quality issues, which started in the 1960s with decontenting and cost cutting.

      But it didn’t affect their sales. On the contrary, Cadillac sales peaked in the late 1970s when the tacky, shoddy interiors and cheap exterior trim and finish was arguably at its worst.

      Their sales started dropping in the 1980s when they had powertrain issues, and got worse with the change to fwd (and those cars also had powertrain issues).

  2. Production engineers steeped in Mid-Western practicality stymied the intentions of the Elmiraj. While a car has to stop and go and be made somewhat efficiently, it´s the art aspect of the car that lifts it above an appliance. The production engineers did not get that point. The designer offered a carefully rendered figure and the engineers translated that into a stick man, stripped of aesthetic quality.

    1. Not that I believe GM ever seriously considered making the Elmiraj a production vehicle, but I think your reasoning in a general way captures the US production ethic that has held sway for decades and is spot on.

      There was only one standout US car for me, and it lasted only one model year before the dread hand of annual updates began its relentless chipping away at the aesthetic until it eventually turned into a chubby caricature of itself. That original car was the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. It was a dramatic car to see for the first time, yes indeed. Amazing roofline through trunk lid in a curve I’ve never seen before or since. Flash interior to make sure the driver knew it was special, and it was – front wheel drive with a 7 litre V8. Delicious mechanical layout, no expense spared, proper CV joints when European cars had lashups. I bet if one in good nick turned up in your street in Denmark today, you’d have your breath taken away. Dark metallic blue it would have to be.

      GM knew a moneymaker when it saw one. 1967 brought the same guts clothed in ridiculousness known as the Cadillac Eldorado. The years went by and the guts underpinned the final gargantuan, completely tasteless and incredibly badly assembled 1976 Eldorado convertible. It was the same path as with Hollwood movies – get a hit like say Rocky and next year it’s Rocky 2 and you know the rest until the last one they couldn’t even sell it to cable TV because so trite and predictable it had become. It’s an American trait that ruins things completely in my view. Quick money, milk the theme till it dies.

      As for the Elmiraj: in 2013, GM was still run by a clod appointed by government following the bankruptcy “revival” – he wasn’t going to take a big risk. Show car? Fine, to wave the flag and show that the talent was still there. Production? Not a hope. It would have been ruined anyway, just the way you say. Oldsmobile made Fisher body do its bidding for the 1966 Eldorado. I have the development story in two issues of the quarterly GM Engineering Journal to prove it, over a dozen articles.

    2. Thanks for reminding me of the Toronado. As a form, it lands on the American road from straight out of nowhere. The wheel-arch to body transitions are very lovely and all done by eye too – no CAD curvature analysis involved at all. They also did a good job of the bumpers which sit neatly in relation to the body. This is a car that I am quite sure I have never seen in the metail. I have seen one or two 1963 Buick Rivieras and a few Boat Tail Rivieras and even a second-last generation Riviera but not this Olds or any of it successors.
      I took a look at the 1967 Cadilllac Eldorado again and I am not sure why I am supposed to dislike it

    3. Thanks for reminding me of the Toronado. As a form, it lands on the American road from straight out of nowhere. The wheel-arch to body transitions are very lovely and all done by eye too – no CAD curvature analysis involved at all. They also did a good job of the bumpers which sit neatly in relation to the body. This is a car that I am quite sure I have never seen in the metail. I have seen one or two 1963 Buick Rivieras and a few Boat Tail Rivieras and even a second-last generation Riviera but not this Olds or any of it successors.
      I took a look at the 1967 Cadilllac Eldorado again and I am not sure why I am supposed to dislike it. There is the obvious reason that it´s incredibly ornate and bombastic yet I think that that is the whole point of the car. It´s not supposed to be a modest little pearl like a mid-60s Lancia or sober (relatively) Mercedes. I might have to go so far as to say Cadillac´s exteriors were around their peak at this time. Overblown as it it was, the styling seemed to be pretty well done, on it own terms.
      Which brings me to Cadillac´s years of peak sales: can we say that at that point they were trading on the name? I seem to recall that by and large mid 60s Buick and Cadillacs were pretty well made (I am thinking of the Centurion I saw a couple of years ago) but the rot set in beginning in the 70s and worsening as you say.

    4. “Which brings me to Cadillac´s years of peak sales: can we say that at that point they were trading on the name? ”

      No, I don’t think that is entirely right. The 1977 Caprice was a huge success for GM. It was downsized 800 pounds while retaining the same interior size and had much better handling and braking.

      The full size Cadillacs were similarly downsized, being based on an extended Caprice chassis. They also dropped 800 pounds, and drove a lot better.

      (Ford attempted to compete by emphasizing that their cars still had “road hugging weight” !)

      The problem for Cadillac was that there was additional decontenting with interiors and exterior trim. So mechanically, the 1977+ Cadillacs were a significant improvement but the interiors and exterior trim etc. was worse than ever. It was like peak kitsch for Cadillac design.

  3. Thanks for introducing a very interesting concept κύριε Butt. This very morning I saw a jaguar XJ, with the vertical Lights in the back. I had to check the license plate to remember that it was a 2011 model. It had such a contemporary or even classic effect on the car. But then I considered all the write-ups of Mr. Doyle and failed to see the heritage connection of the Lights to the brand. Here, oh here, we have a different story. These back Lights are perfect Cadillac. Maybe a little understated. But American yes they are!

  4. The Toronado is a really lovely design, one of my US favourites. As Richard says, the wheel arch to body transition is masterful. With integrated body-coloured bumpers and modern lighting units, it would look almost contempory today as a large GT coupé in the 8-Series, S-Class mould.

    I do have one reservation about its proportions. Bill’s photo shows the Toronado from its best angle. In profile, the front end looks very long and the front wheel placement rather odd, being equidistant from the bumper and door leading edge:

    I guess this is a function of the FWD packaging, so cannot be blamed on the designer(s).

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