In May 1971, Motor Trend was deliberately provocative with an article comparing the best-selling product from General Motors’ prestige division with the prestige product from the company’s best selling division. It was an audacious challenge of the Luxury Segment status quo, calling into question the supremacy of America’s favorite luxury car. Little did MT know how prescient they would be.
First a bit of context is in order, since it has been so long since Cadillac has been viewed as a leading, desirable luxury brand. However, at the dawn of the 1970s, the world was a different place and Cadillac absolutely, unequivocally dominated the American luxury car market, gobbling up the vast majority of sales and certainly being top of mind for most Americans as the nation’s leading luxury car.
The closest modern equivalent I can think of is Tesla and that brand’s unmatched dominance of the EV market. Sure, there are more EV competitors than ever, but Tesla still gets all the attention, glory and sales in the segment. No one else today comes close to Tesla’s market leadership. You can argue that Tesla has genuine product superiority in ways that Cadillac never did even at the brand’s prime, but from an image standpoint, both brands command (or used to command in Caddy’s case) immense reputational value.
However, even the Tesla comparison fails to capture the power of the Cadillac brand at its peak. While Tesla Is dominant in California (~50% of Tesla’s U.S. sales in that one state) and strong in affluent, trendy urban markets across the country, the EV luxury brand has not been broadly embraced coast-to-coast. In contrast, Cadillac was known as THE luxury “statement” car from the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan to the sleepiest hamlet in Mississippi. Wherever you went in America in the early 1970s, there was no avoiding the fact that Cadillac was still viewed as the country’s preeminent luxury conveyance, the car for “rich people” whether they were actually wealthy or not.
Of course that didn’t mean that everyone loved Cadillac at the time. The brand was polarizing, to say the least (again like Tesla). By virtue of being big and brash, Cadillac was also portrayed as the epitome of wasteful gluttony. VW spoofed Cadillac in advertising, to the delight of the countercultural target audience. Many buff books were also not necessarily fans. Cadillac was antithetical to everything Road & Track represented. Car and Driver lampooned Cadillac cars—and Cadillac owners. But Motor Trend, that bastion of industry cheerleaders?
Yet it was none other than Motor Trend that brazenly broke the taboo on the Cadillac mystique. Of course many people already knew that Cadillac had plenty in common with Chevrolet, and for years Chevrolet had been aping Cadillac design. But to call it out directly, with the price spread and all? That was like ripping the curtain back on the Wizard of Oz and exposing the almighty image as something created via smoke and mirrors, with a rather pedestrian man (GM bean counter perhaps?) doing the manipulation.
For starters, to put the headline in context, that $3,500 in 1971 represents an inflation adjusted $22,466 today. That was quite a bit of coin! Plus, the Chevrolet was moving closer than ever to Cadillac in terms of styling and features. So the Cadillac had better build quality than Chevrolet (though not necessarily better than VW’s) and posher trim, but as Motor Trend would note, that seemed like a steep price to pay for superficial trappings.
Adjusting for inflation, the $5,550 Caprice would be $35,627 in today’s dollars, while the $9,081 DeVille would ring in at $58,291, an enormous 63% mark-up. Cadillac also charged a healthy premium for options coming straight from the GM parts bin. The margin-rich vinyl roof cost 30% more on the Cadillac, while cruise control was 32% higher than Chevrolet’s price. Even the tinted glass was 14% more expensive on the Caddy. Rich gravy is great when you can get it!
No surprise that the lighter Caprice turned-in faster 0-60 times than the Sedan DeVille. Otherwise they were comparable in terms of braking and general performance (the Chevy being a bit firmer, likely due to the test car carrying the optional heavy duty suspension). Neither car offered the sort of responsiveness or practical space utilization that was rapidly coming into fashion for the U.S. market in the early 1970s.
Most importantly, Mercedes-Benz was beginning to challenge Cadillac’s image supremacy in the U.S. By 1971 even Elvis had ditched Cadillac for a sedan from Stuttgart. But rather than understanding how the high end of the U.S. luxury market was evolving and then developing credible responses to the changing tastes of luxury customers, GM did the opposite and allowed its flagship brand to come ever closer to its volume offerings. Great for short-term profits, horrible for long-term brand health.
It’s been decades now since Cadillac has even known what it stands for or what it wants to be. About 20 years after the Germans (and later the Japanese) had thoroughly reshaped the American luxury market, Cadillac tried frantically to copy BMW cars, wasting billions of dollars in failed attempts to convince people to pick a pseudo-German luxury sport sedan from Detroit rather than a real one from Germany. All the while, the high-end market was shifting away from sports sedan performance and toward comfort-oriented luxury SUVs, an area where the Cadillac brand could have had a definitive lead. If Cadillac’s sports sedan development monies had instead gone to creating world-class SUVs to rival/beat the likes of Range Rover, BMW X5, Mercedes GL, Audi Q7 et al, the brand might find itself in a far different and better place today. But instead Cadillac once again copped out and rebranded a Chevy as its flagship product.
Sadly, the only approach that has really worked for Cadillac in recent decades was the one so clearly in view in 1971: building a premium Chevrolet and charging an obscene fortune for it. Not for a significantly better vehicle, mind you, just for the bragging rights of paying “the most,” which appeals to people wanting to trumpet that they have money to burn on frivolous trappings. The newly announced 2021 Tahoe and Escalade adhere strictly to the 50-year-old formula: better trim and a posher interior for the Cadillac, only now GM doesn’t even bother with meaningful exterior styling differentiation for its top-of-the-line offerings. If 2020 pricing is any indication, the base price difference between the two will be around $23,000, almost exactly the inflation adjusted price delta Motor Trend showcased in 1971. So the more things change the more they stay the same, and the reign of Chevrollac caries on, even though the once great Cadillac brand reputation is dead and gone.