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The Penalty of Leadership

Cadillac and class consciousness

The 1959 Cadillac speaks so eloquently—in so many ways—of the man who sits at its wheel. . . . This magnificent 1959 Cadillac will tell this wonderful story about you.

—Advertisement, 1959 Cadillac

Escape is our national narrative, and automobiles are the twentieth century’s vehicle for this fantasy: a way to flee the farm, the city, adolescence, middle age, frustration, poverty, class, other people, yourself. Just drive. But cars are more than just a means of escape, they’re also projections of who we’ll be when we arrive. Automobiles are the dream life of America, the tools with which we write our autobiographies. If in the first decades of this century the working classes glimpsed freedom in a Ford, the middle classes, stuck with their Fords, saw their aspirations drive up in a Cadillac. To know the great middle, therefore, you must study the Caddy.

“The Penalty of Leadership,” announces the headline of an early Cadillac advertisement, one of the first to dispense entirely with any mention of utilitarian mechanics and rely instead upon the story it tells to sell the goods. Reading like a college sophomore’s coffee-addled crib notes for next morning’s exam on Kipling and Nietzsche, the 1915 ad describes, of all things, the “penalty” in store for the sober bourgeois who aspires to the level of the Cadillac:

In every field of human endeavor, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Whether the leadership be vested in man or manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work.

In 1915, of course, business was not yet recognized as the holy calling it is now understood to be. The Progressive Era public demonized the businessman’s greed, while intellectuals reviled him as a tasteless boob. Slings and arrows everywhere. But the ad boys were there to aid and comfort. No matter what others might think or say, you, the Cadillac-driving elect, are “geniuses” just like the inventor Fulton, the artist Whistler, and (surprise, surprise) the composer Wagner. The common cut of man, however, cannot hope to understand excellence:

Failing to equal or excel, the follower seeks to depreciate and to destroy, but only confirms once more the superiority of that which he strives to supplant.

Oh, suffer those who deserve to reign. Dipping again into the tidal pool of Social Darwinism, the admen conclude:

There is nothing new in this. It is as old as the world and as old as the human passions: envy, fear, greed, ambition and the desire to surpass. And it all avails to nothing. If the leader truly leads he remains—the leader…. That which deserves to live—Lives.

The writers cranking out copy for Cadillac had a good grasp of the pop philosophies of their day, but they also understood something far more enduring: the complexity of class and status in the United States. In this democratic land of Mammon, status is something you buy. No titles to defer to or impenetrable class hierarchies to hold you down, you can start a Ragged Dick and end up a John D. Rockefeller. But if you can get it you can always lose it. This is the double edge of class mobility. Like their Calvinist ancestors, the up-and-comers of the early twentieth century were continually looking for a sign that they were the chosen—that in the struggle for supremacy they deserved to live.

The image Cadillac projected was less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about transcending the simple Joneses and their world entirely.

But it wasn’t enough to assure yourself. In this war of all against all you had to convince others as well. You needed to show “the followers” (which at this moment, sans Cadillac, you were most assuredly in the ranks of) that you belonged at the top. The Cadillac was a visible sign of status, the updated market equivalent to the sumptuary laws of four centuries past that explicitly defined what clothes commoners could and could not wear. The European aristocrats who devised these laws did so while looking nervously over their shoulder at the rising bourgeoisie, passing silly edicts—no “Silke of purple color” for any but Earls and Knights of the Garter—as a last-ditch effort to hold on to their place in a world where divine rule and blood rite were being washed away by the tides of money and trade. They lost. Now the bourgeoisie, victors in that revolution, faced the same problem. In the great capitalist shakeup that allowed people to escape their lowly peasant origins, the new powers-that-be faced the constant dread that their place at the top was a temporary one.

And Cadillac felt their pain. The image the brand projected was less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about transcending the simple Joneses and their world entirely. “Envy, fear, greed, ambition, and the desire to surpass”; everything you now felt as a striving member of the middle class would be felt by someone else—by everyone else—but not by you, for behind the wheel of your Cad you would become an American aristocrat, outside of the class system altogether. It would be lonely at the top, yes, but this was the Penalty of Leadership.

For years Cadillac offered up variations on this theme of a transcendent American aristocracy. Selling a dream only possible in the New World, Cadillac’s model names hearkened back to the Old World: Biarritz, Concours, Seville, La Salle, and de Ville brought to mind dukes and counts, castles and villas (the company itself was named for Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the minor Gascon noble who founded Detroit). Advertisements gave form to the car’s aristocratic pretensions. Art directors in the twenties frequently parked the Cadillac in front of those pseudo-Old World estates American robber barons were so fond of building. Or, failing that, they were placed in exotic and ultramodern locales like a Zeppelin aerodrome (unwittingly drawing associations between the Caddy and another species of transport that would soon fail the Darwinian test). Estate or aerodrome, Cadillacs were sold as the admission ticket to “Wherever the Admired and Notable Congregate.”

As ruling class power migrated in the years after World War II from titans of industry to corporate CEOs, the dreams of the middle class, and the ads for Cadillac, followed suit. The new aristocrat was no longer a lone genius but a team player. “It is not at all unusual,” an advertisement knowingly confides in 1955, “for a fine American corporation to have its entire board membership represented on the Cadillac owner list.”

The postwar Cadillac owner was also a family man: A picture of wife and four kids lined up on a couch present “The World’s Best Reason for Ordering a Cadillac.” And he was a full-on consumer: No Cadillac ad from the mid-fifties to the early sixties was complete with out some luxury product—a garish emerald necklace or gaudy diamond tiara—incongruously hovering above the automobile. Despite its domestication, the promise of privilege remained Cadillac’s selling point. Another 1955 advertisement depicts an obsequious manservant opening the door for a couple stepping out of a Coupe de Ville, while the aspiring owner is reassured that, when he shows up in a Caddy, he will “find that he is accorded an extra measure of courtesy and respect.” “Perhaps this will be the year,” still another ad from that year promises—presumably when the executive might haul himself up and out of the rat race where he gets no respect.

But America was changing. The bourgeois dream of aristocratic escape that Cadillac had reliably supplied for decades was challenged by new stories, and Americans were exploring other ways of stepping off the treadmill. After the war, the middle classes moved to the suburbs and took out mortgages, mowed their lawns and bred babies, bought pop-up toasters and hydramatic cars, and generally set about enjoying the Good Life denied them throughout the Depression and the war. Something, however, was missing in the peace and quiet of suburbia: the drama and meaning of the last two difficult decades. A restless few returned from bombing runs over Europe to form the Hell’s Angels, or never got past the disembarkment point from the Pacific Theater and made the scene in San Francisco. But the overwhelming masses of the postwar middle found their answer in the great consumer marketplace.

Cadillac did well for a time as a marketer of freedom and excitement. Cadillac, in fact, introduced nothing less than the tailfin, inspired by the Lockheed P-38 fighter plane, with its 1949 Fleetwood 60 Special. Elvis Presley did his part for the firm by ordering a 1955 model painted bright pink. The ’59 model year was both the high point of this trajectory and also the beginning of the end. Extraordinary fins, with chromed, razor-sharp edges, and rocket-styled tail lights erupted from the rear of that year’s Caddy (and, later, from untold numbers of Hard Rock Cafe entrances, MTV videos, and anything else requiring an instant whiff of the “fifties”). Ironically, though, the super-finned ’59—possibly the division’s most memorable car—was despised by Cadillac’s core market, to whom it was a jukebox, exactly the wrong vehicular accouterment for a respectable executive on the move. (I’ve even been told that this most recognizable of Caddies is not included in the leather-bound, official History of Cadillac.) Cadillac could never deliver the fantasy of freedom in the way it had consistently provided the dream of dominance.

The typical age of a Caddy owner today is sixty-five, rising, and thus, dying.

No, the Caddy was square. But therein lay its appeal. As social discontent spread to the sons and daughters of the great middle, Cadillac gave up its experiments with tailfins and became an island of calm. The kids might be smokin’ a lid and makin’ love-not-war in the back of a VW bus, but the men who ruled the country were barreling two-ton behemoths down the four-lane blacktop. Throughout the sixties Cadillac was the car of the backlash, arrogantly holding to the privileges of aristocracy against the rising clamor for equality and justice. Their response to the War on Poverty was the “mink test,” an experiment that proved that one’s fur would not be mussed by the auto’s upholstery. Well into the seventies and eighties, Cadillac continued to sell the story of a ruling class that acted, and wanted to act, like a ruling class.

It was in this glorious, corpulent tradition that Cadillac made one last heaving push in the nineties to restore their aristocratic “Standard of the World.” Enter the bloatillac, obviously intended to look streamlined and prosperous at the same time, but in reality resembling nothing so much as an early seventies Sedan de Ville with layers of blubber hung on the side. It is impossible to see one of these mid-nineties bloatillacs creak by and not think of the standard editorial-page caricature of a “plutocrat”: bulbous and waddling, a bag of money in one hand and a fat cigar in the other. Not coincidentally, the typical age of a Caddy owner today is sixty-five, rising, and thus, dying. And, as one of the weakest units of General Motors, so is Cadillac.

Cadillac has been dying for almost twenty years now. The division’s sales peaked in 1978; they have been falling ever since. In the eighties alone, sales of Sevilles and Eldorados fell by more than half. Even more damning are the immediate resale values of Cadillacs. (Cut loose from Detroit’s sticker price and determined within a competitive market, resale values are the best indication of the real price and quality of an automobile.) In 1972, a good year for the Caddy, a Sedan de Ville driven off the lot retained 92 percent of its value. In 1975, a new Caddy kept only 83 percent, and by 1989 it was dropping a quarter. By 1997, 27 percent of the value of a new Sedan de Ville bloatillac leaked through the floorboards on the way home from the dealership. Compared to other domestic and foreign cars, the tragedy of Cadillac’s resale value is even more sobering. The 1997 Sedan de Ville’s depreciation is nearly double that of its Japanese luxury competitor, the Lexus LS (14 percent), and triple its economy cousin, the Chevy Malibu (9 percent). Throughout the seventies and eighties these low resale values meant that poor blacks looking for their slice of the good life—and later, déclassé white hipsters digging the kitsch irony of driving a Caddy-in-quotes—could snap up used Cadillacs for a song. As one might imagine, these new Caddy-driving populations did little to polish Cadillac’s tarnished reputation as the car of the aristocracy.


For all the puffery, Cadillac quality was once a tangible thing. The company pioneered electric ignition and air conditioning, and came out with a wonderfully monstrous V-16 engine in 1929. They built good cars. But for the past twenty years Cadillac has produced gas-guzzling boats that consistently receive bad ratings for quality, handling, and styling. And lest you think that things are changing in the total-quality nineties: The sporty new 1998 Seville STS is reported by the New York Times to chatter at start-up, jerk at 30 mph, buzz at 45, and rattle at 65. Once you top 70, mysterious “out of sync movements” start thumping through the floor, doors, and steering column. Even standing still the Seville has engineering problems: It can’t be shifted into low gear when you’re using the cup holder. That’s right: a $55,000 piece of shit.

But that doesn’t really matter. Cadillac is a company built on dreams, and it is dying because it has so grossly misinterpreted the dreams of the post-sixties middle men and women. Over the course of the century, Cadillac invested millions in building a fantasy of American aristocracy, but up-and-comers today like to see themselves more in the vein of Beats and bikers than titans and CEOs. The new swells don’t care about the “Penalty of Leadership”—they imagine themselves breaking from the pack altogether; they dream that they’re “free agents” roaming the corporate landscape, rebels who, but for a small twist of fate, would be writing poetry or racing their hog instead of putting together reports on investment prospects in the skin-care industry. Pity poor Cadillac with their double-ton whales and their baggage of respectability and privilege—today’s strivers wouldn’t be caught dead in one. They’ve moved over to the sportier, sexier (and let’s be honest, better made) BMW and Lexus. For probably the first time in history, the bourgeoisie does not want to appear bourgeois—they want to party.

Perhaps if Cadillac had stuck it out with the tailfins back in ’59; if they had weathered the contempt of their traditional customers and sloughed the corporate vice-presidential buyer off on Buick, they wouldn’t be in such terrible shape today. But that’s just not Cadillac’s nature, and as things stand they’re faced with a long, long game of catch-up. Unfortunately, though, the company’s repeated bids for the with-it dollar have generated nothing but a pitiful parade of failure:

•1975. Cadillac introduces the downsized Seville (built up from a Nova) in response to the oil crisis and the first wave of imports. It bombs, its value depreciating 21 percent its first year (compared to Nova’s 4 percent).

•1980. Cadillac attempts to resuscitate the Seville with the “Elegante” line. While its advertising speaks of it as “quite possibly the most distinctive car in the world today,” GM designers—evidently bereft of any other ideas—appear simply to have sawed off the trunk at a forty-five degree angle. Two-tone paint jobs introduced later in schemes like “Desert Dusk Firemist over Brownstone” don’t help any, and the new butt-less Sevilles continue to lose nearly a quarter of their value.

•1982. Enter the Cimarron, four cylinders and four feet shorter than the previous models. Unfortunately, Cadillac can’t convince buyers to pay luxury car prices for a gussied-up Chevy Cavalier, the ass-end workhorse of car rental fleets. Openly discussed in the industry as a “disaster,” the Cimarron is discontinued by the end of the decade.

•1997. The Caddy That Zigs: the Catera. An Americanized Opel manufactured in Europe, the Catera is designed to win over the newest generation of young bucks rollerblading over the carcass of bourgeois sobriety. But as with their previous forays into the class consciousness of the new breed of rebel accountants, Cadillac’s aim has been less than spot-on. They walked into a shitstorm when they unveiled the Catera during the 1997 Super Bowl with an ad featuring Cindy Crawford as a leather-clad dominatrix. Cadillac’s own female executives publicly castigated the campaign. So Cadillac immediately fishtailed from a pitiable idea of sexiness to an equally pathetic notion of cuteness: a bicycle-riding cartoon spokesduck (an “irreverent” takeoff on the regal birds of the Cadillac crest, says David Nitolli, Catera’s brand manager). No opera houses or subservient minions, furs or suits, sell these Cadillacs: Instead, the car is described as a “whole new omelet” and introduced with cutesy homilies about Catera-owning iconoclasts, like the big sister who “always did things a little differently.” But The Caddy That Zigs is still a Caddy, and next to a Lexus or BMW it looks like the sorry son of blubber it is.

Ironically, the Catera is reported to be a pretty good car, garnering positive reviews from consumer groups. But Cadillac, of all companies, should know that the physical product is secondary to the phantasmagoric identity it projects. And the tale the Catera tells is one of neither master aristocrat nor irreverent entrepreneur. It’s the autobiography of a portly middle-aged man with hair plugs, sweating on the dance floor and cheating on his wife. The Catera is politely referred to in the press as a “disappointment in the show room” (read: not selling), and the average age of its buyers is fifty-eight.


In 1998 John Smith, Cadillac’s general manager, announced that Cadillac would soon be introducing a “lifestyle vehicle.” In other words, a sport utility vehicle, nay, the Cadillac of sport utility vehicles, the largest SUV on the road. Built up from the GMC Yukon, Caddy’s road tank weighs in at about three tons, outsizing even their prime steroidic competitor, the Lincoln Navigator. After considering names like “Commander,” “Conquistador,” and, I kid you not, “Revolution,” Cadillac settled on the rather understated “Escalade” (the word means to rise or climb, as in “we desperately need escalating sales”). They should have stuck with “Revolution.”

The SUV is another chance for Caddy to speak to the dreams—and nightmares—of the wannabe American aristocracy. This new Caddy, like all other SUVs, will no doubt be sold with images of mountains being climbed, rivers forded, deserts crossed, and jungles conquered—the fantasies of freedom that fill the daydreams of the desk jockey. Maybe it will appeal to the rebellious BMW-buying hearts of those who would be the new ruling class.

For the most part, the new master class can stay safe inside the walls of their gated communities, order out for food, and telecommute to work, living in exile from the brutal world they created and which created them.

But as with most SUVs, the only jungle this Caddy will ever face will be the urban jungle, the one whose natives so haunt the nightmares of the new aspirants. The income gap is widening and the safety net has collapsed. Those former Ford-buying masses are slipping back to what in the nineteenth century were quaintly called the “dangerous classes.” Having recently relocated their headquarters to the Renaissance Center, located in 80 percent black and overwhelmingly poor downtown Detroit, General Motors executives know the terror. And the natives are getting restless: Recalling their militant past, the United Auto Workers struck GM plants over half a dozen times last year. Appropriately enough, the largest strike was triggered by management’s decision to move the metal-stamping dies for their “lifestyle vehicles” out of their Flint, Michigan plant to cheaper lands. Workers effectively shut down GM production across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. “Envy, fear, greed, ambition and the desire to surpass” howl at the gates of the managerial class.

With the Escalade, Cadillac is returning to its roots. Once again they’re promising the arriviste a way out of the very class system through which they’ve risen. But there’s a difference this time: The separation that Cadillac is selling these days is made of heavy-gauge steel. Insulate, insulate, insulate was the mantra of Tom Wolfe’s “masters of the universe” back in the eighties: For the most part, the new master class can stay safe inside the walls of their gated communities, order out for food, and telecommute to work, living in exile from the brutal world they created and which created them. But sooner or later—perhaps when nothing good is playing on pay-per-view—they’ll have to venture out. And then there’s that other day lurking on the edge of every corporatron’s consciousness, the day when the bubble pops and the “dangerous classes” begin to regard them as a symbol of what they don’t have. What better vehicle for such special occasions than a rolling ruling-class survivalist compound, a super-lux SUV. As long as there’s inequality, Cadillac’s future is assured. Introducing the new Escalade: The Caddy for the Class War.