What Cadillac and Buick should have been
Cadillac and Buick continues to struggle for credibility and sales, in their current niches as the sharp-edged American BMW and diluted Lexus, respectively. Cadillac in particular has been through several leaders, and nearly moved to Manhattan for prestige.
What could GM have done differently? What could they do now?
It’s interesting, but Lincoln was faced with a similar quandary some time ago. They found that upscale buyers, the kind they had lost long ago to Lexus and Mercedes, wanted a car with classic looks and clear luxury. They wanted good enough handling, but comfort and a quiet interior, with technology that just worked.
Could Cadillac have done what Lincoln half-heartedly almost tried to do? Perhaps. There seem to be three real errors around Cadillac and Buick, though:
- Making Cadillac the “American BMW,” complete with (arguably) ugly “Art and Science” styling, while Buick took up the traditional Cadillac post of space and comfort.
- Switching, as Lincoln did, to an impossible-to-explain three-letter car naming system. In Lincoln’s case, it was MK-whatever, “but don’t pronounce MK as Mark.” In Cadillac’s case, it was something-T-S.
- Finally, sacrificing image for sales by giving Buick cars that should not have been Buicks.
One truly has to wonder why Cadillac was changed to make the Catera (later renamed CTS) the model car. The styling one can see; they wanted something distinctive, that people would love or hate. It worked at Chrysler in the 1990s, and even after Chrysler started to fail under Daimler, GM insisted on copying anything they did—a reflection of Chrysler copying anything GM did for decade before Iacocca showed up. But it’s far easier to embrace stereotypes about your car and build on them, than to try to get people to think your car is something completely different. Sure, John DeLorean recreated Pontiac as a sporty car after years of stodginess, but that was a different time, with fewer car brands around.
Cadillac could have gone up against Lexus and Mercedes, its more traditional enemies, rather than BMW. BMW and Audi were rising quickly at the time (the latter, largely due to the Shades of Gray novels), but it took far more effort and money to try to compete directly with them. Cadillac would have to both out-luxury and out-perform both, where one could go after Lexus and Mercedes with a mixture of luxury gear, materials, quality increases, and, perhaps price hikes.
Buick, traditionally GM’s upscale performance brand, already had an image similar to where Cadillac was trying to go, with the Grand Nationals and other such cars still in memory. Cadillac’s sporting days are as far back as Plymouth’s glory days, further away than Oldsmobile having unique engines. Buick’s are not so far behind.
Would Cadillac have done better by doing the Prowler/PT Cruiser routine, using its own 1930s cars as inspirations? We tried to bring one of their past vehicles up to date, outfitting it as a crossover. With LED headlights and fogs, modern wheels, retro sidelights, and a basic SUV-style body, you get a pretty attractive and distinctive car. Imagine selling this before the PT Cruiser came out, or shortly after. Imagine the Chevy SSR being branded as a Cadillac, and starting out with the hotter V8—there would have been much less disappointment over the price, if it had always been a Caddy, and it might have sold better.
Lincoln took a halfhearted journey to where high-end customers wanted it to go; Cadillac made its own way, and never reached its destination. Perhaps there is still time for GM to swap the Buick and Cadillac images, and give high-end customers more of what they seem to want.
Clark Westfield grew up fixing up and driving past-their-prime American cars, including various GM and Mopar V8s. He has ghostwritten auto news for the last few years, lives in Farmingdale, New York, and can be reached at +1.516-531-4021.