Fort Pontchatrain, the Ducks and the Dutch Artists

What’s in an emblem?

Why should we let facts get in the way of a good story? History is written by the winners, some say. Henry Ford disregarded such matters, but stories have to begin somewhere, so let us head to America, 1701. The French had cornered parts of the new world, establishing settlements, later growing into towns. Fur trading was big business and its centrepiece was Fort Pontchatrain du-Détroit, the latter being the French word for strait. When the British showed up later, they immediately shortened the name to Detroit.

The town’s founding father was one Antone Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac, who according to history writers was either a soldier who had King Louis’ ear, along with his own heraldic majesty or had fabricated his own importance, to gain higher status. As town governor, he regularly popped over the border to Canada for skirmishes, before an eventual recall back to his homeland, obscurity and never to set foot on American soil again. But how his name lives on.

From furs to four wheels, Detroit has witnessed turmoil over its three hundred year existence. Monsieur Cadillac with his (possibly dubious) heraldic notions therefore suited the car company taking his name rather fittingly. 

Regardless of name crest and colour origins, Cadillac the car manufacturer enjoyed its own circuitous route to great heights. Born from the remnants of the Henry Ford Company (why have two bites of the cherry when there’s three to be had?), where disagreements between Ford and investors led to Henry leaving to set up another company, whose name escapes me. 

William Murphy and Lemuel Bowen (those investors) sought an engineer’s appraisal and advice regarding liquidating the HFC. That chap was Henry Leland who convinced Murphy and Bowen to turn matters around and begin making luxurious cars, as opposed to austere carts. Cadillac was born on 22nd August 1902, merging with Leland’s own business three years later to form the Cadillac Motor Company. Four years later saw them incorporated into General Motors, after Buick. Safely contained in GM’s umbrella, the brand’s strength grew and with it the badge which has undergone dozens of changes over time.

The original 1905 crest featured the Crown (or Courone) from France. The Laurel wreath denotes aristocracy and victory. The coloured stripes all have their derivations – Black for superiority, Gold, no surprises being riches. Red for boldness, virtue for silver and blue for valour. The bolder black stripe harks from the days of the crusades. That covers more or less the whole gamut of historical information.

Apart from the birds; commonly known as ducks, they are in fact Merlettes having neither bill nor feet and are a symbolic link to the Holy Trinity and the crusades once more. So far, so exemplary in forethought. Add the words, Standard of the World and Cadillac seem almost predestined to manufacturing some of world’s most luxurious cars, a mantle they managed to keep afloat for many years.

The new millennium witnessed quite the alteration; those merlettes had flown south for the winter, probably never to be seen again whilst the crown also abdicated. The wreath came in for a modernity service, ditching the perhaps rather flimsy looking original to one highly reflective platinum version, lasting a decade and a half. The striking 2013 Elmiraj concept car brought with it some gardening tools; secateurs, trimming the old fashioned wreath along with a heavy roller. The badge since 2014 gaining notable width. 

The current, Rubenesque version of today’s Cadillac emblem was inspired by art – not the Flemish chap but by fellow Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian. Beguiled by geometric elements and searching for utopian values along with universal aesthetics, Mondrian’s style lent itself nicely to the current Cadillac badge. He coined the phrase neoplasticism to define his work and one can easily see the similarities between his Victory Boogie Woogie from 1944 and Antoine’s device. Research could not ascertain Mondrian even driving but one suspects he at least knew Cadillac when stating “curves are so emotional.

Cadillac’s Executive Design Director, Andrew Smith opined elaborated further saying, “The crest is a consistent symbol of our core values; our goal was to evolve the emblem design to integrate with the new vehicle form while maintaining the core graphic elements that preserve its strong brand recognition.” Whenever did Caddy do less showy?

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Cadillac today pump out just two body styles, sedan and SUV. Where they maintain their naturally theatrical, art inspired flavours are the concepts such as Ciel (French for sky), Elmiraj and the new for ‘22, Lyric electrically powered bolide. All colours have drained away from the Lyric’s badge, replaced by ice blue hues, projected by silver and back light. Still Cadillac – almost Blade Runner style. Found on each wheel centre, high on the tailgate and of course taking centre stage out front, perhaps the most unusual place to find Mondrian’s influence is on the circular black objects, the tyres.

As a feature destined only for a concept, the Lyric’s tread is a stylistic version, sipes and all, of the ever widening badge. Even the tyre wall gets in on the act with another raised badge just to make sure. 

Concluding with yet more unexpected places to find Mondrian’s influence: the race track and vehicles other than Cadillacs. The DPi-V.R. will carry an artist inspired version as its race livery with slightly muted tones. Adding the colourful Michelin tyres tops things off in its attempt to win the IMSA Championship. And would sir be interested in a Gelandewagen in the Mondrian style? Vasily Klyukin had adorned this and other similar sized behemoths begetting an altogether mish-mash of styles, cultures, history and colours in one place. Just don’t expect to find a touch up pen. 

The Ducks may have flown but Antone’s razor sharp, back-lighted and widened badge remains: only Cadillac.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

8 thoughts on “Fort Pontchatrain, the Ducks and the Dutch Artists”

  1. A fascinating juxtaposition of seemingly disparate elements which manage to go a long way towards dispelling myths about American Automobiles in general and Cadillac in particular. I just can’t quite manage to erase from the corner of my eye the image of Boss Hogg……

    But yet more great stuff Andrew – keep it coming!

  2. What a great history! I had no idea about Cadillac’s connection with Henry Ford, and the Mondrian influence on the badge had never occurred to me. (Victory Boogie Woogie was the artist’s swansong and is, apparently, unfinished). As to the evolution of the logo, the 1971 iteration (a reinvention of the 1942 one) is weirdly reminiscent of Lincoln’s.

    1. I’ve been familiair with the Cadillac logo and the Victory Boogie Woogie, but never connected them. The Victory Boogie Woogie is indeed unfinished. It caused quite a stir when the Kunstmuseum Den Haag (previously known as Haags Gemeente Museum) bought it.

  3. Another great read Andrew. I too had no idea of the link to Henry Ford either. You learn summut everyday.

    1. Daniel and Tim: another interesting GM-Ford connection is that Henry Leland also founded Lincoln, which would become part of the Ford empire in due course.

  4. Thank you, Andrew. So much history on such a small part on the car made my day.

  5. Poor old Cadillac. At one point they really were astonishing cars unique to the US. The quality was once very good indeed. Even in the dark days of the early 80s a car like a Seville looked very much like the American interpretation of “well-made”. If we want to make an unfair comparison, Cadillac´s logo has changed down the years quite a lot but Mercedes has not so much. Ford´s has been very stable too, mostly an oval with the blue colour (I can´t help noting that I ´ve seen a lot of decoloured/de-enamelled Ford badges lately, which is a surprise).

  6. Amazing stuff Andrew. You are like Inspector Clouseau. Always searching for clues for the uninformed!

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