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ON THE BANKS Of the Gironde River in southwest France stand the ruins of a fourteenth-century fortress, which once dominated the people of the valley and controlled the river traffic. In its time the castle was a symbol of the prestige and power wielded by the medieval aristocracy. It was called Cadillac. The men of the family were military leaders through the centuries, but historical fame came chiefly to Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who led a French army into the Great Lakes region and founded the city of Detroit in 1701.
Although the name has since been used in many ways, it was a car that restored to it the prestige and status that the ancient lords enjoyed. Cadillac has become a byword in the English language, connoting the epitome of excellence, the best of anything.
The car that A. P. Brush and Henry M. Leland built in 1902 was a modest beginning for an automobile that became America's status symbol. It was a one-cylinder, low-priced machine with chain drive, not too different from many other makes of the period. But Leland, an experienced engineer, soon decided to produce an expensive, finelytooled car - a prestige machine. In 1905 his new model appeared, one of the first four-cylinder cars on the American market.
In 1908, Leland staged the most astounding demonstration that the automotive world had ever seen. He took three Cadillacs to England, and after putting them through their paces, stripped each car down to the last nut and bolt. The thousands of parts were then mixed up thoroughly and Leland's workmen proceeded to assemble three Cadillacs. When they were finished the amazed British officials saw the. cars complete a 500-mile speed test without a hitch. It was obvious that each car contained parts from the other two, but the precision standardization during manufacture made sure that any collection of components would work together. At that time no other car in the world could pass a test of this sort, but it was a routine operation for Leland who had worked in the Colt revolver factory where this type of standardization was inaugurated.
In 1909, Leland sold his company to General Motors, but the new corporation wisely retained him as head of the Cadillac Division. Leland guided the development of his creation with a sure hand. Cadillac became the pacemaker for the industry and pioneered many devices that we have today. By the time Leland left in 1917 to design the Lincoln, the Cadillac was firmly established as one of the foremost American prestige cars.
The innovations introduced by Cadillac are among the most important developments in the automombile. In 1911, Leland purchased a revolutionary device from the Dayton Engineering Laboratory Com pany - the initials spell the now familiar DELCO. It was Charles F. Kettering's self-starter. Among other things the self-starter meant that women could finally handle a car by themselves, for the arm-wrenching job of cranking a car was too much for their delicate bones. It also spelled the eventual death of the steam cars whose major selling point lay in the lack of a crank handle. In addition to the self-starter, Leland pioneered the use of the generator-battery system which made .headlights, ignition, and eventually heaters much more practical. By 1912 the first timing chain appeared on the Cadillac, in 1914 the first production V-8 engine, and in 1928 the first dependable synchromesh transmission.
The Cadillacs of the early 1930's were classics of automotive design. Big, lean, powerful, they slowly began to dominate the market. With their introduction of the V-16 engine, they outsold all the other luxury cars of the period. Year after year, as other makes were put out of business by the economic fluctuations, the Cadillac continued its rise. In reality, the Cadillac lost money in the thirties, but the advantage of being in a big organization lay in the fact that other divisions could support a financially embarrassed section. This was why the Cadillac survived a period that meant the eventual finish of almost every other American luxury car.
Just prior to World War II Cadillac discontinued the massive V-12 and V-16 engines in favor of the more efficient V-8 and they entered the postwar period as the leader of their price range. Unfor tunately Cadillac, because of its prestige, became a style leader as well. In 1948 the Cadillac division started the tail-fin trend which blossomed luxuriantly throughout the industry. Soon there was intense competition among manufacturers, not in performance or durability, but in the size and shape of the rear-end outrigging. Tail fins are required for aerodynamic stability on airplanes but no one has yet proved their value on a touring car, except as adornments. The tail-fin fad spread like a plague, erupting in huge proportions on even the smaller cars, and, like a world epidemic, finally crossed the Atlantic to appear on some European machines. It is a tribute to the prestige of Cadillac as a pace-setter in style, that the fin disease spread so widely, and one may only hope that the shark-shaped appendages will finally wither. When they do, it is quite probable that the next trend will be pioneered by Cadillac.
However, under the hood, the efficient and durable V-8 engine spells pure function. Cadillac engines last a long time with proper maintenance and produce an amazing amount of power. Before the development of the Corvette engine, these V-8's were used in many racing machines such as the British-made Allard.
Today the Cadillac is perhaps the most luxurious of American cars, and in the Eldorado-Biarritz model, can be the most expensive. Almost everything is power assisted or electrically operated. Air condi tioning makes hot weather touring an extremely pleasant experience,, and radio-telephones keep the occupants in touch with the outside world, for the interior of a Cadillac is a world in itself. Only the addition of television is required to make this car a traveling living room where owners can relax in utter comfort as the world speeds by the glare-proof windows.
Purists may decry the sybaritic luxury of the Cadillac, but one must remember that the American public whole-heartedly favors this type of automobile. The Cadillac Division of General Motors does not want for customers, and the car itself serves as an example to other manufacturers who follow in its sumptuous path. One can be sure that the ancient lords of Cadillac would have approved of the car that is made in their name.