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Story by Jack Baruth
Last week I promised to tell you how to bamboozle upscale auto dealers into letting you drive their precious cars for free, using nothing other than a few basic props and a strong dose of what the fellow who was my boss back when I was a young Ford salesman called “Playhouse 90”. We’re still going to do that – next week. This week, it’s Christmas evening and I’m feeling a bit sentimental. I’d like to borrow a few minutes of your time and talk about a subject very close to my heart: the Cadillac Motor Car Company, its long descent into darkness, and its thrilling climb back to respectability. You see, I’ve spent the past week or so behind the wheel of an all-wheel-drive Cadillac STS Northstar, and I’ve learned that I’m not the only person who still has deep emotional ties to Cadillac and its history. There are still plenty of dealerships out there which only handle these cars, such as this Kansas City Cadillac dealer, and for good reason.
Everywhere I’ve gone – from the drive-thru at a downtown Wendy’s, where a young black man at the cash register regaled me with the story of his ’91 de Ville and the long hours of effort he’d put into making it “just right”, to the gas station down the street from my house, where a rather tough-looking kid with tattoos on his eyelids begged me to open the hood so he could see the V8, to my own cul-de-sac, where my neighbor, who has managed to utterly ignore everything in my driveway from Viper to CL55 AMG, completely amazed me with his exacting knowledge of the differences between the STS-V and the “regular” STS – people seem to resonate with Cadillac. They resonate with Cadillac as an idea, as an aspiration, and with the car itself. There’s a passion in this country for the wreath and crest, and it’s beyond anything I suspected.
There’s fear, too. Fear that the forty-year decline of “The Standard Of The World” hasn’t been properly arrested, fear that it’s too late for Cadillac to mean anything, fear that the cars are still junk. Thankfully, that fear’s unfounded. As David E. Davis might have said, turn your hymnals to page 2007, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our Caddy”, and sing along with me.
I became a Cadillac driver quite by chance. A friend of mine who collects cars the way I collect cones at a ProSolo event – which is to say, copiously and with a dash of unnecessary violence – mentioned to me that he had a few thousand extra lease miles to burn on his 2006 STS Northstar AWD, and would I be interested in burning those miles?Of course I would. Not only is the STS a rather sharp-looking ride, even before its 2007 facelift, it would give me a chance to see what the car was like with more than two years and 30,000 miles of wear. After all, press cars are always fresh as a daisy, but a couple of Ohio winters tends to knock that flowery freshness off in a hurry. So before you could say, “What, it has a remote start feature?”, I’d paired the Caddy’s rather recalcitrant Bluetooth module with my phone and headed down the road.
Full disclosure: I’m not impartial when it comes to Cadillacs. About twenty-six years ago, I stepped down the wobbly ramp of an Eastern Airlines Boeing 727 at Tampa International Airport to find my grandfather waiting for me with his new baby blue, stainless-steel-roofed Eldorado Biarritz. In the week of vacation that followed, I learned everything about that car, from the way the “Twilight Sentinel” automatic headlamps worked (rather well, even by today’s standards) to the proper method for cleaning the aforementioned stainless roof (soap and water, not too hot, don’t let the soap dry, and wipe in the direction of the grain). In my considered opinion, as a “car guy” just short of his tenth birthday, the Eldorado was the coolest car ever made.
The ’67 Eldorado – a classic by any definition. My grandfather’s Eldorado was a little less timeless…
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I wasn’t alone in that opinion. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but Cadillac was in the midst of a terrifying free-fall from grace that had started around the time of the OPEC embargo of 1973 and would eventually lead to such monstrosities as the Cimarron, the “downsized” front-wheel-drive cars of the Eighties, and the Caddy that was supposed to zig but which actually just plodded along like the German taxicab it really was, the Catera. In 1981, though, driving a Cadillac was still one of the surest ways to communicate to the general public that one had firmly grasped life’s golden ring, and as a result my grandfather and I seemed to be surrounded, everywhere we went, by a velour-lined cloud of courtesy, decency, and respect.
Cadillac had earned that respect over long years of building cars that combined technical excellence and unapologetic luxury in equal measure. It’s hard to communicate this properly in this year of Our Lord 2007, but Cadillac wasn’t a mere brand. Unlike our modern Japanese luxury benchmarks, Cadillac wasn’t a deliberately inoffensive name and logo made up in some California consumer clinic and slapped, along with an extra helping of chrome, onto every third Camry or 350Z which rolled off a regular production line somewhere. Cadillac was a company with history, with its own career employees, with its own factory, and its products were driven by the very men who drove the world itself.
In the innocent years before 1973, Cadillac hardly had any competition worth mentioning. Lincoln and Chrysler’s Imperial nameplate were excellent cars in their own right, but they simply didn’t magnetize the man on the street the way a de Ville, Fleetwood, or even a rather entry-level Calais did. What names those cars had! El Dorado – the very land of gold! Fleetwood Sixty Special – a name reaching back to the days of the coachbuilders! Lincoln had their “Town Car”, but Cadillac had a Sedan de Ville, which meant the same thing but meant so much more, too! Who could conceive that anybody would ever want something named with some deliberately sterile and meaningless alpha-soup? Who would want an “LS400” when you could have El Dorado? What power could “S550” have against Fleetwood Brougham?
And who would want a car from a former member of the Axis Powers, so thoroughly beaten and so charitably rebuilt by the mighty American war machine? BMW made bubblecars and tinny little sedans, Mercedes-Benz was a company that put sad little hundred-horsepower six-cylinder engines into cars which looked like little more than pathetic three-quarter-scale copies of old Cadillacs. Japanese cars were indistinguishable from Japanese toys – small, cheap, laughable. Nothing would ever change.
The Cimarron wasn’t as bad as everybody says it was, but it wasn’t much of a Cadillac…
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We all know the rest of the story: the “downsizing” that came a decade too late and arrived just as cheap gas and a resurgent economy made the FWD mini-Sedan deVilles laughable, the innovative but troubled V8-6-4 and the underpowered, unreliable aluminum “HT4100” V8, and an increasingly tyrannical General Motors “brand strategy” which imposed a succession of unwanted products on Cadillac’s dealers. As the century turned, industry pundits started to wonder aloud whether it wouldn’t be more humane to perform an Oldsmobile-style euthanasia on the Standard Of The World.
And just when it looked like all hope was lost, Cadillac seemed to turn a corner of sorts. The Escalade, originally another cynical piece of GM badge engineering, proved in its second generation to be a superb and wildly popular prestige vehicle. A racing program which first sputtered with a LeMans prototype caught fire with production-based sedans in Speed World Challenge and Grand-Am Cup racing. And a new generation of rather hardcore rear-wheel-drive sedans arrived, led by the rather outrageous CTS. A concerted and cohesive styling effort made Cadillacs instantly recognizable again. The redemption is continuing apace with the splendid new CTS and facelifted STS. Even the old DTS is finding more friends in the marketplace than was expected. Cadillac is once again making cars that people want to drive, cars that people want to own, cars to which one might aspire.
Why are we using press photos in this story, when there’s an STS right outside my door? Mainly, because I’m lazy.
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Judging by the response of my friends and neighbors to the pearl white STS in my driveway, Cadillac is well on the way back to the top tier of aspirational status. People like the way the STS looks. In a world of blobular, generic-looking luxury cars, it’s unmistakably a Cadillac, and it’s immediately recognized as such by pretty much everyone. For the first time in a long time, the man on the street knows a Cadillac when he sees one.
None of this would matter if the STS were a piece of uninspired junk, another phone-it-in American sedan, more chromed mediocrity from General Motors. Luckily, it’s very far from that. The interior isn’t perfectly luxurious – and it’s better in the new CTS and the facelifted STS – but it’s solid and clearly well-made. Space in that solid interior is at a premium. Four six-foot people won’t fit comfortably in the STS, and that needs to change. If the STS is to compete head-on with the E-class Mercedes and 5-Series Bimmer, it has to offer at least as much back-seat room as they do.
Thirty thousand miles, no rattles, and no iDrive, either.
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There’s enough room for me in the driver’s seat, however, and with a press of the start button the wonderfully named Northstar V8 snarls awake. I cannot disconnect the StabiliTrak electonic nanny, but the traction control can be shut off easily and it is thus that I find myself rather indecently sideways, on the improper side of eighty miles per hour, around the on-ramp to my local freeway. I thought this was an all-wheel-drive car, and a quick check afterwards confirms that there are, in fact, half-shafts connected to the front wheels, but the STS is willing to be steered on the throttle a bit before the on-board computers complain. There’s a distinct lack of body roll and the five-speed automatic snaps off shifts in proper German fashion as I join the main road with the throttle pinned to the carpet. This car is fast enough, but more than that, it feels almost – well, angry. It’s no Fleetwood Brougham. It isn’t even an Audi A6. The closest match which comes immediately to mind is the E39 540i, but the STS radiates a certain aggression in the way Bimmers no longer do, unless you pay for the M badge and the faux-racer attitude which comes with it. This is a solid car, and it’s still very solid after more than thirty thousand miles. Cadillac’s engineers are forever talking about resonant frequencies and whatnot, and perhaps as a result of all that attention, the STS still has a showroom feel despite having probably run over a thousand Ohio potholes.
The floating-caliper brakes are up to snuff for road use, and with a hard stab to the left pedal and a deliberately disruptive steering motion I’m off the freeway in fine touring-car fashion, sliding briefly before straightening out again. Now the STS relaxes a bit, and I’m grateful for the heated wheel in this chilly Christmas week. The center-console touchscreen flashes – it’s one of my worthless racing pals calling, no doubt fired-up over some addendum to a roll-cage welding rule somewhere or something like that. I tap the green “answer” button. “What’s up?”
“Nothin’. Thought I would call and bug you. What are you doing for Christmas?”
“The usual. How about you?”
“Same here. Hey, you sound weird. You on a speakerphone?”
“Kind of. Bluetooth. A Cadillac.”
“Cadillac? The new ones look good. What’s it like?”
“Hell of a car.”
“Really.” It really is a hell of a car. Tell your neighbors, too: Cadillac is back.