Le Mans Cadillacs
By Maurice Hendry
The 24-hour race at Le Mans, quite apart from several British successes, must also go down in history as an event in which in 1950 a fairly standard Cadillac saloon averaged over 81mph for the 24 hours and finished eighth. There was much favourable comment about its silence and stability at high speed. The significance of this feat was noted by the press throughout the world and it was pointed out in ‘The Motor’ that such a challenge by a comparatively stock car from across the Atlantic laid a certain responsibility on our own manufacturers to see that an adequate reply should be made 12 months later. But we failed to make motoring history at Le Mans in such a way. This was from the British press some fifty years ago.
Today, of course, I am writing after the failure of Cadillac’s entry last year when the cars finished twentieth and twenty first, partly because the 750hp Northstar engine had to be drastically down-rated to comply with race regulation. But then look at Mercedes ‘aviating’ entries the year before, when they put on a display worthy of Warbirds Over Wanaka! (This is what brought engine power limits by the race authorities)
While I would be delighted if Cadillac succeeds at Le Mans (and they will be back for two more years, again in contrast to Mercedes who have tossed in the towel), I don’t think Le Mans is all that important in assessing luxury, quality, prestige automobiles. Most of the best makes have never competed there. The cars are specials extraordinaire! To me, it is important to have, say, the world’s best air-conditioning, both bi-level and tri-level, rather than registering the highest g-pull on the skid pads (which most owners would never see anyway).
No German cars until recently have had air-conditioning systems equal to American cars, where this superiority has been taken for granted for decades, but never mentioned by journalists. Let me cite something else - stereo. I bought my 1964 Coupe deVille from Leila and Murray Fastier, Kiwis who lived Stateside but regularly returned to New Zealand. Both were professional musicians, very significantly in this context. They told me they preferred to sit out in the Cadillac at night to listen to the hi-fi in the car because it was far superior to the one in their luxury flat! Just think what Rolls-Royce or Mercedes would have done with a story like that!
This leads me to point out that whether its self-seeking radios or automatic transmissions, most (not all, but most) desirable features of today’s luxury cars originated with US manufacturers. Here are some more: the self-starter, V8 and V12 engines (Cadillac and Packard had them in World War One!), all-steel bodywork, power steering, flat-riding suspension (front frequency lower than rear), power seats, windows, alternators, automatic headlight dipping, onboard computers, economy cylinder selection, hypoid drive, limited-slip diff, etc, etc. None of these vital attributes came from Mercedes, Rolls, or any European maker - they’re all-American, mateys!
Just a final dig at the New Zealand Herald, which publishes some amazing Cadillac misinformation from time to time. When announcing the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph (BMW V12, ZF transmission), much was made of the care in testing the car: "The car is mounted on special test equipment, simulating road conditions of all kinds, without the car leaving the facility" - In 1998? Cadillac has been doing this for about forty years!