Since its founding 115 years ago, Cadillac has been synonymous with luxury, even frivolous opulence. High-end products were referred to as “Cadillac models.” Athletes are nicknamed “Cadillac” for their stylish play. Even Obamacare took on expensive insurance coverage it called “Cadillac plans.”
Now Cadillac is setting a new standard by which it wants to be judged: speed.
In winning the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona last month, General Motors Co.’s luxury marque has joined an elite group — Porsche, Ferrari and Jaguar — of high-performance brands to have won America’s Super Bowl of endurance racing. Name-dropping in such company may be jarring to those who once dismissed Cadillac as a manufacturer of overstuffed land yachts. But the 21st-century Cadillac isn’t your grandfather’s Eldorado.
The Cadillac DPi-V.R’s dominating Daytona 1-2 win is an important marker in the transformation of GM’s luxury brand from a builder of boulevard cruisers to a sculptor of four-wheel athletes. While the media buzz for Cadillac’s transformation has largely centered on the edgy “Art and Science” design language that breaks with the bloated past, Cadillac’s commitment to racing at the sport’s highest level is also a key piece of the new DNA.
“Racing is beautifully connected to the passion at the center of Cadillac brand,” said Matt Russell, marketing manager for V-Series, Cadillac’s performance badge. “In the 21st century our high-performance cars and race cars have been the change agents for the brand. They have allowed us to capture the attention and the passion of ... the car enthusiast and car-buying community.”
Cadillac dabbled with racing in the past, most notably its 1950 entry at LeMans with the legendary Briggs Cunningham racing team. But the sedan-maker’s commitment paled next to sports car companies like Ferrari and Porsche. In 1968 Porsche scored its first-ever endurance win at Daytona — the first of a record 22 overall wins that has helped make the Stuttgart, Germany-based carmaker a performance icon. Even mainstream manufacturers used Daytona to establish their speedy bonafides as Ford did 50 years ago when the storied GT40 won back-to-back trophies.
Cadillac’s pivot to performance with the new century has coincided with a major commitment to racing. From 2000-02 it flirted with prototype racing at Daytona and LeMans, then won five Pirelli World Challenge championships with a production-based CTS-V. This year’s Daytona program took it up a notch.
Caddy’s quest began just over a year ago with the IMSA racing series’ change of its so-called prototype format that governs the fastest cars in American sports car racing. General Motors had previously flown its Chevrolet Corvette flag in IMSA in both the prototype and GT classes.
“It was a strategic decision for Corvette to focus on its GT presence, sunset the Corvette prototype, and launch Cadillac,” said Russell.
For its assault on Daytona — and IMSA’s 11-race 2017 championship — Cadillac partnered with some of the premier names in motor sport. It went to Italy to have the DPi-V.R’s chassis made by Dallara. Three 600-horsepower, V-8 powered prototypes were entrusted to a pair of premier racing teams: one with Wayne Taylor Racing, two with Action Express Racing. Behind the wheel would be some of the top jockeys in the business, with the winning Taylor entry including teammates Jordan and Ricky Taylor, Max Angelelli and ex-NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon.
“Cadillac really got behind the styling and the bodywork in the last year,” said Jordan Taylor. “It was cool to be there from the ground up, through the whole design and development process, to see the aggressive styling coming from Cadillac.”
Dillon Blanski, 33, an exterior designer in Cadillac’s Warren studio, racked up frequent-flier miles between Michigan and Italy for months as he worked with Dallara to craft a wicked-looking, world-class weapon.
“Our designer spent many, many hours alongside Dallara making sure the design was as productive as emotive,” said Russell. “The car is a wonderful ambassador for the Cadillac brand, because it almost serves as a concept car.”
It’s no coincidence that the prototype program blossomed under new Cadillac boss Johan de Nysschen. As head of Audi North America until 2012, De Nysschen was part of a brand that soared to global prominence in part on the shoulders of a race program that won the 24 Hours of LeMans 13 times. After a brief stint at Infiniti, De Nysschen came to Cadillac in 2014 and found a kindred spirit in GM product development czar and motorhead-in-chief Mark Reuss, a race-licensed driver. Reuss has made performance cars — from Corvette to Camaro to Cadillac — central to GM’s image.
With Cadillac in the winner’s circle, the race track is becoming an extension of the showroom. Customers want to be around a winner, and Cadillac hopes that will translate to sales. The brand is coming off its best global sales year since 1986.
“We have been enjoying increased participation from our dealer group in metro areas where we have IMSA races — Long Beach, Laguna Seca, Connecticut,” said marketing chief Russell. “Dealers see racing as an instrumental experience that they can bring their guests to for an immersion in what Cadillac is and where is it going.”
The Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix on June 2-3 is one of those races.
“When you connect with most enthusiastic customers, you get a multiplying effect,” said Russell. “It helps when you have proven your engineering prowess on the race track; it goes a long way to convince enthusiasts that your car deserves consideration.”
He said Cadillac has not ruled out a return trip to LeMans — though the European and IMSA series currently run under different rules.
Russell said brands like Cadillac need to keep reinventing themselves.
“We can’t give up on our traditional values of making a comfortable, powerful car,” said Russell. “We have a good (racing) technology transfer story to tell that’s made it into our production cars. We have confidence in engineering that I think is unique to our brand in the 21st century.”
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.