Timing, they say, is everything. And Cadillac's could certainly be better. Three months after the 1929 stock-market crash, Cadillac premiered at the New York auto show its Series 452 with a 185-horsepower V-16 engine designed to trump chief rival Packard's V-12.
Fast-forward almost 80 years: Cadillac is ready for another flagship, perhaps something along the lines of the gorgeous Sixteen concept that was first shown in 2003. Except, once again, the economy isn't ready. Worse, once-mighty GM doesn't even have the money to spend on such a project -- it's got Chevy Volts and Cruzes that badly need building.
It's been four or five decades since Cadillac built a car that came close to being "The Standard of the World" -- the brand's tagline until the 1970s -- but with the new CTS, and especially the world-beating CTS-v sport sedan, its rehabilitation is well underway. The first step was, believe it or don't, the King of Bling 1999 Escalade, which made Caddy a must-have for sports, music, and Hollywood stars. More important, it dramatically improved Cadillac's chance of being considered for purchase by buyers under 50 years of age.
The original Escalade made so much profit and gave GM management so much confidence in the brand's appeal that the decision was made to invest in the Sigma premium platform, which returned most of Cadillac's passenger-car lineup to rear-drive and forms the basis for the COTY-winning 2008 CTS. It was a turning point in Cadillac's fortunes no one expected, and few --especially at GM -- initially understood.
Nearly a decade on, Cadillac is still only a bit player in the premium segment -- selling fewer cars than Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Lexus here in the U.S. -- and virtually invisible in Europe and Asia. And now, it's at a crossroads; arguably the most crucial in the brand's history: Cadillac is off life support, but to prosper it must go global. GM will not measure Cadillac's success only by the number of German and Japanese luxury-car buyers it conquests. More important is to grab a share of new luxury-car buyers, many of them coming from emerging markets like China and Russia.
With the U.S. appeal of the Escalade diminishing in proportion to the rise in gas prices -- 2008 sales to the end of July were down 30 percent year on year -- and the current STS, DTS, SRX, and XLR aging fast, Cadillac is effectively a one-car company, almost totally reliant on the CTS. That means it needs at least 10 more years of solid investment in a new range of vehicles. Problem is, cash-strapped GM faces a ravaged economy and the spectre of the 2011-2015 Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, right at the very time its luxury brand needs money to take on Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, and Lexus.
All this explains why GM is taking a bigger gamble now than it did in 1929 and launching up to 10 new Cadillacs in the next five years. But it has no choice. The future of American luxury is at stake.