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Cadillac – the company borne in 1902 of the ashes of Henry Ford’s first automobile venture and named for the French founder of Detroit – earned its reputation as a pioneering automobile brand with the very first model engineered by Henry Leland. It was a motorcar that blended technology with refinement at a time when most fledgling auto builders were turning out crude horseless carriages.
The Great Depression (1929-1939) hurt the auto industry (along with just about every other industry as well). The luxury car segment was hit even harder – between 1928 and 1933, Cadillac sales had declined by 84%. Further hindering sales for Cadillac was a policy (indicative of that era), that discouraged sales to African Americans. Nick Dreystadt, mechanic and national head of Cadillac service, urged a committee to revoke that policy. After the policy was eliminated, brand sales increased by 70% in 1934 – and Dreystadt was promoted to lead the entire Cadillac Division.
Over the next thirty years, the brand would become synonymous with style, luxury and quality, and by the time the post-war consumer boom hit its stride in the mid-1950s, Cadillac ownership represented the fulfilled aspirations of a new generation of increasingly sophisticated consumers. The company pioneered the basic overhead-valve V8 engine configuration that would inspire the Chevy small-block and similar designs from all other American manufacturers, while pushing the technology envelope with electronic features that were, in some cases, decades ahead of their time.
By the late 1950s, Cadillac’s styling, led by Harley Earl protégé Bill Mitchell, reflected the optimism and confidence of the era, with soaring tail fins and jet-age styling cues. The 1959 Cadillac epitomized that aesthetic, with the tallest fins to date, acres of chrome and a quartet of taillights mounted high on the fins that had the appearance of four jet-engine exhausts.
Under Mitchell’s direction, Cadillac’s styling quieted down in the 1960s, as the fins receded and the chrome abated, but the long, low and powerful proportions that characterized Cadillacs of the previous two decades got stronger. Its reputation as the undisputed luxury leader in America grew stronger, as well, with features such as the industry’s first automatic climate control system, which was introduced in 1964. The company also pushed boundaries with vehicles like the 1967 Eldorado, which featured hidden headlamps and a front-wheel-driven powertrain – radical attributes for a brand long known for formal luxury.
The unconventional Eldorado proved successful at luring new and younger customers, expanding the brand’s reach and pushing sales to record levels by the early-1970s, despite a tumultuous economy and fundamental shifts in the auto industry. Changes were on the horizon, but Cadillac’s core customers found comfort – figuratively and literally – in the brand’s unapologetically large and luxurious personal coupes, sedans and convertibles. Nearly 300,000 Cadillacs were sold in 1976, including 14,000 Eldorado convertibles, which were the last known convertibles to be offered by the company.
The close of the 1976 model brought an end to an era that started in the mid-1950s. Although the Eldorado would continue through the 1978 model year relatively unchanged, a new stage in Cadillac’s history began in 1977, with downsized sedans and coupes, but the legacy of those long, low and powerful Caddies would only grow stronger in decades since.
1977 experienced the same "downsizing" as the rest of GM's B and C body vehicles. DeVille models lost hundreds of pounds, received smaller exterior dimensions and engines, but gained taller windows. Fuel economy and handling improved.
The 1980s saw a further downsizing of many models, and the introduction of the brand's first front-wheel drive compact, the Cimarron. Detroit Assembly on Clark Street in Detroit, where Cadillacs had been made since 1921, closed in 1987. By the time 1989 rolled around, the DeVille received an extensive redesign that actually bumped up the wheelbase on the sedans.
The ’90s arrived without major exterior changes, and technology was improving performance all around. Multi-port fuel injection boosted power levels and GM’s PASS Key system advanced theft protection. 1990 through 1993 marked final production of the 2 door Coupe DeVilles – after that, the “big Caddys” moved onto an entirely new platform, which dictated 4 doors. The times were definitely changing for the Cadillac brand.