For my grandfather’s generation, there was nothing more clearly a symbol of status than driving a Cadillac. Whether a deVille, Broughm, Fleetwood or Eldorado, owning a Cadillac told the world you were living the American Dream. When you were starting out into the world, you drove a Chevy. As you matured you might have had a Pontiac or a Buick—and then finally an Oldsmobile before you reached the pinnacle of your career, and you could afford a Cadillac. It was the vehicle of choice for presidents, movie moguls and corporate tycoons.
Unfortunately for Cadillac, that moniker of status did not transfer to my parent’s generation. GM’s cradle-to-grave strategy of having a car line for every generation began to die off—literally. The joke was that Cadillac's owners ranged in age from “65 to dead." The cars were called “mobile coffins.” By the 1990’s Cadillac was known for its octogenarian drivers following the Cadillac hearse to the cemetery.
The rise of the “imports” had begun and Mercedes, BMW, and eventually Lexus took over the luxury sedan market. As recently as fifteen years ago Cadillac was still the top-selling luxury brand in the U.S. but today, Cadillac sits behind Lexus, BMW and Mercedes (From January-July this year, Cadillac sold 76,229 vehicles in the U.S, Lexus 126,367; BMW 147,801 and Mercedes 159,412).
Over the last couple of decades, GM has tried to change Cadillac’s image—mostly for the worse. Remember the Cadillac Cimarron? They did gain some traction with the accidental success of the Cadillac Escalade at the turn of the last century. The SUV was first introduced as a re-badged GMC Yukon but rode the wave of the SUV craze and became de rigueur of Hollywood celebrities, sports stars and rappers. During the first few years after the Escalade launch, the average Cadillac buyer's age dropped from 64 to 57—still in the AARP set, but stepping a little away from the grave site.
Recently has Cadillac begun a very serious effort of revitalization. The company recently announced that it has set its sights to double U.S. sales to nearly 300,000 vehicles "within the next couple of years."
The first step was reinvigorating its product line. Replacing the deVille, Fleetwood and Eldorado are a raft of acronyms—the XTS, CTS, SRX and ATS. Additionally, there are ten all-new or significantly updated vehicles scheduled for the next three years.
"We are slugging it out in the right way for No. 1 in luxury," said Don Butler, Cadillac's vice president of marketing in The Wall Street Journal.
While Cadillac can’t expect to woo back former customers (they’re mostly dead, right?) they may be able to break ahead and grab entry-level luxury buyers looking for the luxury, technology and performance the new line-up offers. Gone are the days of Cadillac as a status symbol of the American Dream, but the future seems bright regardless.