Cars

29 Things You Didn't Know About Cadillac

Fact: Cadillac is one of the most iconic American auto brand of the last 100 years.

It should be no surprise, then, that it has meticulous archives dedicated to preserving their century-long history of innovation and outlandishness (you'll see what we mean below). We recently spent a few days in Detroit—with carte blanche access to their corporate history—assembling a litany of images and facts. If time and space permitted, this list would have run on 'til our servers crashed, which is why our tech guys suggested we keep it under 30 things. Through great pain and deliberation, we arrived at our 29 favorite things that we, and likely you, didn't know about Cadillac.

Enjoy. 

1. Al Capone’s Cadillac was the first presidential bulletproof limo. 

The infamous gangster had a 1928 Cadillac sedan just like the one you see here—though it was fully armored to protect against rival gangs’ threats on his life. It was impounded by the treasury department when he went to Alcatraz prison. 

On the evening of December 7th, 1941 (Pearl Harbor), the Secret Service suddenly found itself in need of something bulletproof for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to deliver his “Day of Infamy” speech to Congress in DC. When asked where he got the car on such short notice, the president famously said, “I hope Mr. Capone doesn’t mind.”


2. Capone also owned one of the Cadillacs used in The Godfather and The Untouchables.

His 1929 model was a favorite getaway car—it had a pair of bullet holes to prove it. Paramount Pictures bought the car and used it for a multitude of films, including some of the all-time gangland classics.

3. After WWII, Caddy introduced the curved glass windshield to America.

It was one of the key defining features of 1950s automotive design.

4. Cadillac is named after a Frenchman.

Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, a French army officer, founded a town called Ville d’Etroit—known today as Detroit, Michigan. Apparently they thought, 'Why not him?'

5. Cadillac founder Henry M. Leland apprenticed under gunmaker Samuel Colt.

Leland worked in the legendary gunsmith’s revolver factory, learning the value of precision engineering—like using tools that could measure designs within a 1/100,000 of an inch—that he'd eventually take to Caddy.


6. Leland souped up Oldsmobiles when he was younger. Why? Well, because he could.

He reworked the single-cylinder engine from an Oldsmobile and nearly tripled its output—from 3.7 to 10.3 horsepower. Upon this, Ransom Olds (yup, that was his name) essentially told him to get lost, because the Oldsmobile chassis couldn’t handle such a powerful motor.

7. Cadillac’s slogan, "The Standard of the World," was a reference to its engineering.

Leland had such high standards when it came to precision that he brought in special tools from Sweden to ensure he had the most precise factory on Earth. To prove this, his engineers disassembled three cars in front of a group of judges, who then shuffled all the parts. Three days later, all three cars fired up perfectly, and went on a 500-mile trip. Cadillac was awarded the Dewar Trophy (yes, that Dewar)—essentially the Nobel Prize for cars—for proving the interchangeability of its cars.

8. By 1910, Cadillac was the first manufacturer to mass-produce cars with enclosed cabins.

Translation: ride in a Caddy and stay dry from the rain. 

9. The enclosed cabins eventually led to the counterbalanced crankshaft to keep the cars quiet.

Noise and vibrations are all magnified when the cabin is closed. By the early 1920s, most Cadillacs were this way. To assuage the harshness, the company balanced the V8 to give it a smoother and more luxurious ride.

10. In 1912 Cadillac made people less cranky by inventing the electric starter.

The term “cranky” originally referred to the bad mood drivers would be in after struggling to turn the crank while starting their car. Cadillac fixed this by introducing the first electric starter on the Model 30 in 1912.


11. ...And that electric starter saved lives.

Leland’s engineers began working on the starter after one of his buddies—Byron T. Carter, founder of the Cartercar—died while starting a stranded friend’s Caddy. After the car backfired, its crank spun violently and hit him on the head; he died a few weeks later. Leland reportedly said upon his death: “I won’t have Cadillacs hurting people that way.” 

12. Cadillac was the first car equipped with electric lights. 

This also included the debut of high-beams, or "brights," as we call them today. (We’re still trying to find the first person ticketed for signaling other motorists that there was a cop ahead.)

13. It made V8 engines a thing.

Cadillac’s 5.1L engine (70 hp) wasn’t the first V8 ever designed, but it was the first mass-produced, and the first to feature a coolant reservoir. It was so reliable, in fact, that the United States Government bought a couple thousand of them to shuttle officers around during World War I.


14. Leland and his son left Cadillac in 1917 and started the Lincoln Motor Company...and immediately bankrupted it. 

Though Lincoln has enjoyed a great deal of success in the past 97 years, most of it was without the Lelands. A serious tax error to the tune of $4 million ($50M today) forced Leland to auction Lincoln off. Henry Ford bought the company on the cheap ($8.5 million; $117M today) in 1922, and, after waiting a few months, unceremoniously escorted the Lelands out of the building, symbolically ushering in a new era.

15. The 1922 Type 59c could fill up its own tires.

You could adjust the car's suspension for comfort or performance and you could fill up your tires, too, because the car had a self-powered air compressor.

16. In 1927, Cadillac became the first American carmaker to hire an automotive stylist. 

Harley Earl designed the LaSalle, and he went on to become an outright legend. He built the first all-steel, one-piece roof that would later lead to what was known as the Turret Top.

17. It was the first to put a V16 Engine in a car.

When Cadillac dropped the first V16 ever made for vehicular use in 1930, it was A) gorgeous and B) a 7.4L beast, putting out 160 hp. 

18. The tail fin on the 1949 Coupe DeVille (above) was inspired by the P38 Lightning fighter plane.

Look at both, and you can definitely see the relationship.

19. ...But, um, they completely forgot to install a gas cap on it.

Caddy had totally spaced including it in the design, but saw it as an opportunity to try something new, so they hid the gas cap in the driver-side tail lamp. Nice save. 

20. 187 Somalian leopard furs were used to upholster the 1950 Debutante.

Plus a gold-plated instrument panel and ignition key, for good measure.

21. Those sexually-charged front bumpers from the ‘50s were called Dagmars, after a popular actress.

This is Dagmar. We're guessing this doesn't need further explaining. 

22. The 1955 Cadillac La Salle II Sports Coupe was the Corvette-esque concept car they should have made.

It had technical innovations, like the fiberglass body bonded to the frame for added stiffness. It’s a shame this one never made it to mass-market status. 

23. The 1957 Eldorado Brougham came equipped with whiskey glasses.

It had memory power seats, automatic locks, and low profile tires on aluminum wheels. It also came with a makeup kit and magnetic whiskey glasses. 

Caddy was all part of celebrating the “American Lifestyle.” Hey, the car cost about double most other cars of its day. Perks come at that price.

24. They invented climate control.

By 1964, everything on your Caddy could be controlled by thermostat, the first vehicle to ever offer such a cool ride. 

25. Those iconic fins on the 1959 Eldorado were a result of corporate trickery.

Harley Earl was overseeing the design of the car and he wanted the up-and-coming designer Bill Mitchell to lower the rear fins by four inches. When Earl went on vacation, Mitchell, who liked the fins as they were, simply raised one by four inches. The trick worked and Mitchell’s fins stuck, becoming a high-point of 1950s style.

Ironically, Mitchell was similarly duped a few years later when designers painted the fish on his wall to match the Mako Shark prototype (below). You can read about that here

26. It was the first automaker to roll out airbags. 

That’s not a Dagmar pun. It really was the first to start saving lives with the airbag. The airbag comes, as you well know, standard in every car in the world today. 

27. The Allanté was so complex that Cadillac had to have an Italian airport modified.

Its body was built in Italy by Pininfarina, so the Turin Caselle Airport in western Europe needed to expand its runway to be able to land all the loaded 747s, as 56 cars were on board each flight.

28. The DeVille was the first publicly available car to have “night vision.”

Infrared cameras are able to distinguish objects in very low light, below the spectrum visible to the human eye. These cams were still mostly military at the time, and Cadillac actually had to co-develop the system with defense industry giant Raytheon. 

29. It has been 3D printing prototype pieces since the 1980s. 

For nearly 30 years, all inside an incredibly awesome underground lab (above), Caddy labs have been printing everything from new A/C ducts to test noise properties, all the way to entire front bumpers.

To this day, it’s the second-largest 3D printing facility in the world, behind only General Electric. If you’re lucky enough to see the inside—you need several levels of clearance to be allowed in—they tape up your phone’s camera and you’re shadowed by a personal security guard.
 

BONUS:

To reiterate, there was so much good material that we'd be remiss if we left these images out. Which is why we snuck them in below.

This is the first self-starting automotive engine. 

In the 1920s, Cadillac produced some of the most reliable and powerful cars in the world. It's little wonder, then, that people like Al Capone favored them for getaway cars.

Eldorado Brougham featured a stainless steel top that became a motoring icon.

Aaron Miller is the Rides editor for Supercompressor. His grandfather always drove Cadillacs, and he inherited his grandfather's Fleetwood Brougham when he was 15...then he sold it to buy his first car. Follow him to automotive history on Twitter.