Curbside Classic: 1977 Cadillac Eldorado – The Penalty of Leadership

At some point, every one of us has been or will be in a leadership position of some type.  Having such a role is challenging and rewarding as well as frustrating and ripe for ridicule.  Building the trust of those you are leading can be a huge task while losing that trust can happen instantaneously.

Whether it is realized or not, the leader sets the tone.  The slightest misstep can haunt the leader for years; a wise and shrewd move can long pay dividends.  Leading is neither easy nor for the faint of heart but the personal rewards defy easy articulation.

This all leads us to Cadillac, specifically this 1977 Eldorado.

The January 2, 1915, issue of the Saturday Evening Post was like most others yet with one exception.  It contained a 400-plus word advertisement that, while only printed once, created quite the stir.  In fact, the advertisement was so atypical, and so inspirational, the advertising agency received regular requests for the verbiage for the next thirty years.

It has been claimed Elvis Presley even had a framed copy of this advertisement hanging on the wall of his office at Graceland.  Perhaps he obtained it subsequent to purchasing one of his many Cadillacs, as General Motors issued handouts with this verbiage in the late 1960s.

Despite this Eldorado having been produced some sixty-two years after this advertisement appeared, the message was still remarkably relevant – and still is to this day.

Let’s look at the ad in its entirety.

In every field of human endeavour, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity.

Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work. In art, in literature, in music, in industry, the reward and the punishment are always the same. The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment, fierce denial and detraction.

When a man’s work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few. If his work be mediocre, he will be left severely alone – if he achieves a masterpiece, it will set a million tongues a-wagging. Jealousy does not protrude its forked tongue at the artist who produces a commonplace painting. Whatsoever you write, or paint, or play, or sing, or build, no one will strive to surpass or to slander you unless your work be stamped with the seal of genius.

Long, long after a great work or a good work has been done, those who are disappointed or envious, continue to cry out that it cannot be done. Spiteful little voices in the domain of art were raised against our own Whistler as a mountback, long after the big world had acclaimed him its greatest artistic genius. Multitudes flocked to Bayreuth to worship at the musical shrine of Wagner, while the little group of those whom he had dethroned and displaced argued angrily that he was no musician at all. The little world continued to protest that Fulton could never build a steamboat, while the big world flocked to the river banks to see his boat steam by.

The leader is assailed because he is a leader, and the effort to equal him is merely added proof of that leadership. Failing to equal or to excel, the follower seeks to depreciate and to destroy – but only confirms once more the superiority of that which he strives to supplant.

There is nothing new in this. It is as old as the world and as old as human passions – envy, fear, greed, ambition, and the desire to surpass. And it all avails nothing. If the leader truly leads, he remains – the leader. Master-poet, master-painter, master-workman, each in his turn is assailed, and each holds his laurels through the ages. That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live – lives.”

Theodore MacManus, January 2, 1915

As one reads this, many examples of leaders having various talents and accomplishments come to mind.

One is Sir Roger Bannister.  He was the first human to run a mile in under four minutes, a feat in which the detractors said would only serve the kill anyone who could accomplish it.  Yet this singular event has overshadowed the rest of his life to a degree.  Many fail to realize he was a neurologist at the time he broke this speed barrier in 1954.  Also generally forgotten is this record was soon broken and a sub-four minute mile has been repeated over 1,000 times since.  Bannister was an expert in the field of autonomic failure but this is overshadowed by his earlier achievements.

Let us also consider Charles Lindbergh.  He led a very full life and was a true pioneer in aviation history.  Yet how many people can readily name his accomplishments subsequent to having the first transatlantic solo flight?

Missouri native Samuel Clemens, under the name of Mark Twain, is another person worthy of consideration.  Twain was roundly criticized for his work after Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn because his later works such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or Pudd’nhead Wilson didn’t truly measure up to his earlier works.  The expectations placed upon a leader are simply on a higher level than those placed upon others.  Twain, as a leader in American literature, was no longer demonstrating the same degree of leadership as he had been.

This loss of leadership brings us to Cadillac.

In 1915 Cadillac sales were not at admirable levels, a situation not unlike their predicament 105 years later; the “Penalty of Leadership” ad, which mentions neither Cadillac nor automobiles, helped reverse their fortunes.  Cadillac actively positioned itself to be in the spotlight, to be the premiere American luxury car, as they touted themselves as being the “Standard of the World”, while having also been the winner of the Dewar Trophy in 1908 for parts interchangeability and again in 1912 for the electric starter.

There is a fundamental truth about Cadillac having had a multitude of admirable accomplishments over the years, having demonstrated a true leadership among luxury cars.

Leadership requires diligence in looking toward and planning for the future, whether it be anticipating future events or the needs of those who follow you.  There should be zero tolerance for complacency or a “good enough” attitude.  Yet like a viral pestilence, complacency has quietly and quickly overtaken many leaders, with Cadillac having slowly succumbed to it.  The real problem with the complacency that diminishes leadership is the incubation time between infection and the onset of symptoms.

In 1967, the front-drive Eldorado was introduced to the world.  Based upon the Oldsmobile Toronado, this new Eldorado was a sight to behold.  Having sharp, creased lines and a distinct sense of purpose, this Eldorado was quite unlike any Cadillac that came before it.

Yet by 1967, the incubation period of complacency was underway at Cadillac.  The standard drum brakes of the Eldorado were woefully inadequate.  Better front disc brakes were available, for a premium, but were viewed by Cadillac as being intended more for the performance enthusiast.  Showing disregard for the needs and desires of your followers is not an ingredient of successful and sustained leadership.

By the early 1970s, Cadillac would show another symptom of its eroding leadership by chasing sales numbers.  For 1972, sales of the Eldorado’s cousin DeVille jumped substantially and it would maintain healthy sales numbers for the rest of the decade.

The 1960s had been a time of many great societal changes; this naturally spilled over into the early 1970s.  When Cadillac restyled the Eldorado for 1971, it was still within the idiom for the time – a little bigger, a bit heavier and having slightly more ornamental presence than before.  But its leadership among the personal luxury cars was waning; the Eldorado was on a sales parity with the Lincoln Mark III for 1971 and was simply behind the Mark IV for its life cycle of 1972 to 1976, and trailed the Mark V in similar fashion.

Some have called the Mark V, such as this 1977 model, one of the most beautiful post-war Lincolns.  Saying it is the best looking Lincoln of the 1970s is certainly less controversial.  A person cross-shopping American personal luxury cars would have compared this Mark V to our featured Eldorado.

By 1977 this Eldorado was out of form for the times, with this same body having competed against three generations of Lincoln’s Mark Series.  It was just ten years prior that Cadillac had displayed true leadership with the original front-drive Eldorado, a true leader for those times.  Those days were over.

The cynic could argue this generation of Eldorado is perhaps the first caricature of Cadillac produced by Cadillac.  As the 1970s unfolded the Eldorado was continually the leader of gaining more chrome based ornamentation and other assorted gingerbread with a frequency that seemed to be annual.  There are some realms in which a leadership position is not desirable.  While the Cadillac Eldorado led the Lincoln Mark Series in some limited territory, primarily with the availability of fuel injection and a convertible, the old Eldorado was little more than a dead car driving.

The fanboy could make a case the many pejoratives that have been aimed at this Eldorado over the years are simply a reflection of the hurlers envy of the leader.  Perhaps that has some merit.  One can likely think of many situations in life in which the detractors are continually ankle-biting the leader.

One could also argue Cadillac regained its Eldorado leadership mojo for 1979.

If one compares the 1979 and 1980 Cadillac Eldorado to the 1980 Lincoln Mark VI, there is no comparison.  The Eldorado outsold the Lincoln quite handily.  Yet that is a snapshot in time.

Since 1980 the automotive market has changed immensely.  Lexus came into being, as did Infiniti and, more recently, Tesla.  Mercedes and BMW have realized even stronger acceptance throughout the entirety of North America.  Audi is a distinct player, also, and Cadillac’s current competition isn’t limited to just these makes.

The non-leader’s perpetual efforts to equal the leader is simply proof of the leader’s abilities.  Since our featured Cadillac was built in 1977 there have been phenomenal changes at Cadillac and Cadillac’s ongoing mode of operation is to chase the others in the hopes of being seen as an equal.  Perhaps it is an equal; perhaps it isn’t.

Cadillac is not unlike another leader of the 20th Century, King Edward VIII.  Their choices led to the same outcome; voluntarily or not, both long ago abdicated their thrones.

Found May 2015, Hannibal, Missouri