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Cadillac: The New Car for the New War

Why are GM Cadillacs the perfect cars for the impending U.S.-led war in Iraq?

February 15, 2003

Why are GM Cadillacs the perfect cars for the impending U.S.-led war in Iraq?

The Cadillac is probably the most enduring symbol of American might — as well as wounded American pride. In the 1950s and 1960s, driving a huge Cadillac — preferably smoking an enormous cigar — was an instant mark of power and success in the United States.

It was, of course, World War II that propelled the United States to world dominance. And the Cadillac paid the most famous tribute to American military might in automotive history — the classic Cadillac tail fins. After all, their original inspiration came from wartime fighter planes.

True, these humungous cars were way over the top by the time they reached their largest size in the late 1950s.

Still, it was comforting to know that the design of those classic Cadillac cars — outsized and outlandish as they were — was meant to celebrate the heroism of U.S. pilots fighting in the war.

However, by the 1970s, the U.S. car industry — once the unquestionable global leader — was in deep trouble. And the Cadillac, of course, was once again the industry's leading symbol but in this case, of decline not heroism.

Cadillac was the original American gas-guzzler. The boat-sized American luxury vehicle drove into a wall in 1973, the year OPEC raised oil prices. True, the Cadillac was scaled down in the 1980s and early 1990s, to emulate smaller, more fuel-efficient Japanese and European models that American consumers wanted to buy.

Yet, somehow the pint-size Caddy never caught on. The brand was too closely connected to the American Way of Life, in which burning as much gas as you want seemed to be every American's birthright.

But now, as the Bush Administration puts the finishing touches on its military plans for a war in Iraq, the Cadillac — wouldn't you know it? — is back.

True to form, it has once again emerged as a symbol of the new era — and the new mood in the United States.

Indeed, what could better encapsulate a war — which many Europeans claim is all about oil — than a Cadillac? In the new generation of the GM luxury model, the company’s managers completely abandoned any idea of making the Cadillac "green."

The division's line-up now features a Cadillac Escalade, billed as the most powerful full-size SUV in the world, boasting a 345 horse-power engine. (Could its name be derived from escalation, a word much used at the Pentagon during the Vietnam era?).

The Cadillac is also a symbol of the kind of insular attitude toward the rest of the world, which has been driving the Bush Administration to pursue its vendetta against Saddam Hussein in blithe disregard of the opinion of America's allies.

The Cadillac, at one point the Number One luxury brand sold in the United States, has been in a seemingly terminal decline over the past three decades.

It has fallen to number five in the crucial U.S. market — behind not only such venerable European manufacturers as Mercedes and BMW, but even Japanese upstarts.

Yet, Cadillac and Lincoln still keep annual track as to who sells more cars — for the hollow bragging rights of being the best luxury brand built in North America.

They seem to be oblivious of the fact that American elites are now far more likely to be dashing about in a BMW or an Infiniti.

In 2001, executives at GM had a brilliant idea — to make the Cadillac the official car of the Super Bowl. True, the championship game of the National Football League is the most-watched event on U.S. television.

Still, at first glance you would think that American football and Cadillac don't mix. After all, the typical football fan is a blue-collar worker, for whom a $30,000-55,000 base price for a Cadillac is out of the question.

Yet, GM executives are happy with the result of their ad campaign — even though Super Bowl commercial spots are the most expensive on U.S. television.

And indeed, there are more links between America's quintessential luxury cars and America's most popular game than meets the eye.

Both stress size and power, and both cast the kind of spell over Americans that most foreigners find hard to understand.

In fact, the new Cadillac XLR roadster, which is coming in the summer of 2003 and was much heralded during Super Bowl XXXVII, taps directly into the new bellicose mood in the United States.

The car's design is derived from the Stealth fighter plane. It has the same distinctive styling which — although not particularly elegant — conveys a certain militaristic awe.

The designers of the XLR were consciously trying to tap into the new sense of patriotism—and they have guessed right.

Especially in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and in the run-up to the war against Iraq, big is once again considered good — and mighty.

Big Cadillacs — as well as SUvs are large and comfortable. They come to resemble army vehicles — it feels much safer to get up and go inside one. In short, at a moment of general insecurity, Americans prefer to be at least in a superior vehicle.

Short of that, it feels much better to sit in such a car to brave the stressful daily civilization battle. Perhaps there is yet another psychology. Simply put, there is the famous "my home is my castle" instinct.

Since Americans spend ever more time each day to get through their daily commute, that "castle" better be big — and look menacing.

In that view of the world from the car designers' perspective, they were also following in the footsteps of Cadillac designers of the 1950s. They were the ones, as you will recall, who developed those famous fins as a tribute to World War II heroism.

But the question GM executives should be asking themselves now is whether the patriotism on display in the new Caddis flaunts or undermines the future U.S. world agenda.

After all, raw displays of power may feel good to the soul — but may contribute little to the innovative solutions they world now needs.

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