Forgotten Places: Cadillac House

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Saying that Cadillac has a bit of an image problem is like saying The Young Pope is “a bit” verbose. But before we delve too deeply into marketing jargon or brands, I feel it’s necessary to say that Cadillac’s cars– the big, two-ton rolling things that the company actually sells- are actually quite good at the moment. Arguably the best lineup they’ve ever had, actually. They just don’t sell. And it’s not as if the brand hasn’t been trying. Their management has international experience in the hopes of capturing some of that BMW (or rather, Infiniti) magic. They’ve moved their corporate headquarters out of Detroit and into Manhattan in an effort to distance themselves physically and ideologically from their corporate overlords at General Motors. They’ve even changed their logo. And yet, Escalades and CT6s sit off to the side of the luxury-car party, hands-in-pockets, incessantly checking their phones until it’s an acceptable time to leave. To find out why, I went downtown to visit Cadillac’s latest brand exercise. Welcome, everyone, to Cadillac House.

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It is, first and foremost, a coffee shop. Joe Coffee, to be precise. It’s pretty good coffee too, but then again I’m far from an expert and I was on my fourth cup of the day, so take that recommendation with a grain of salt. Or sugar, because salt in coffee sounds gross. Cadillac House opened last June, and was billed as a part coffee shop, part art gallery. Nowhere does Cadillac say they’ll actually sell you a car, because they won’t. Cadillac House isn’t a dealership. They will sell you some clothes, and there’s another, separate area that looked like a fancy conference room. To explain exactly what Cadillac is up to, we have to talk about Don Draper.

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Mad Men, for those of you who lived under a cultural rock from 2007 to 2015, is an excellent 1960s period drama that ran for seven seasons on AMC. It focused on an ad man, womanizer, and tortured genius named Don Draper. A lot happens in the show involving mistaken identity, suicide, roller skates, LSD, and musical numbers, but I want to talk about Don’s car. Here is a man who’s at the top of his game and just made partner, and what kind of car does he drive? A 1965 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. Not a BMW, not an Audi, not a nice watch. A Cadillac. How often have you heard of someone doing that in 2017?

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Cadillac’s sales have been declining steadily since the late 1980s, and just last year their market share dipped below 1%. That’s not good. Now, if you’re Audi and you’re in that position, you make a sexy new sports car and toss it in a couple of video games and Marvel movies. But Cadillac is different. First, they have a whole lot more heritage to consider. Second, General Motors is loath to give Cadillac the green light on a supercar for fear of encroaching on their darling Corvette, which is a Chevy (that’s not to say they haven’t tried, however). There’s also the grandpa problem. Perhaps because of Cadillac’s renaissance in the 50s and 60s, the brand has, in recent decades, garnered a bit of a reputation as a car for, well, grandpas. They’re old, they’re wealthy, and they’ve reached the age where they feel like they deserve to treat themselves to something nice. That’s far from the young, urban artist (and I guess, coffee aficionado) that the brand wants to attract. Which is how we end up with a fancy coffee shop in SoHo with the Cadillac logo plastered on the front door.

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Okay, I’ve restrained myself for too long- I have to talk about a car. This is a brand new Cadillac CTS-V. It has a 640 horsepower, supercharged V8 from a Corvette Z06. It has shock absorbers filled with magnetic particles that react to the conditions of the road 1,000 times per second. 0-60 miles per hour is dealt with in 3.7 seconds. Top speed? 200, but who’s counting? This is the third generation CTS-V, and its predecessors followed largely the same formula, with one major exception. The 2017 model has an eight-speed automatic transmission. The first and second generation cars were both available with six-speed manual gearboxes. The elimination of a manual option was something of an inevitability for the CTS-V because it’s rivals, namely the BMW M5 and Mercedes E63 AMG, had long since done away with standard transmissions. I know it’s dumb for someone like me to critique an $85,000 super sedan I’ll never own, but manuals are a crucial part of driver involvement, and go a long way toward creating a car with personality. You have to learn how to drive a manual: it’s a hone-able skill. You loose something when a computer does that sort of thing for you. That said, I haven’t driven the new CTS-V, so the automatic could be great. Cadillac, if you’re listening, I’d happily accept a loaner.

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Does Cadillac House solve the problem it sets out to solve? Not really. People still see it the brand as an old man’s car, even in the trendiest parts of New York. Some fancy coffee and minimalist design won’t change that. But I do think it could be the start of something. People were spending time here. They were working on their laptops and talking to one another. They were spending time with the product. And that’s kind of what brands are all about: it’s really just elaborate courtship. Instead of electing to go to a dealership or a website to find out more about a car, Cadillac says you can just go to a coffee shop. Or an art gallery. Or a fashion show. And maybe, if you’re interested, they’ll show you a car. Instead of you going to them, they go to you. It’s different. And different might just be what Cadillac needs.

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Additional Thoughts:

  • In perhaps their most pointed effort to destroy their octogenarian image, Cadillac decided to smash a 90-era DeVille into a wall in their fashion section.
  • Technically, Don Draper’s first Cadillac was a Series 62, which he eventually upgraded to a Coupe DeVille in later seasons.
  • Cadillac House hosted the opening night of last year’s New York Men’s Fashion Week.
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