A Brief History of Cadillac’s Best Automotive Innovations

Step into any car, and you’ve just experienced an automotive innovation pioneered by Cadillac.

2016 Cadillac CT6

“The Cadillac of such-and-such” is a colloquial phrase, coined in the earlier half of the 20th century, that equates a “such-and-such” with the quality of being top-notch or highly regarded. For the last couple decades, the phrase has felt antiquated, not necessarily because Cadillacs are not top-notch — though, many of them were subpar in the ’80s, ’90s and through most of the 2000s — but because Cadillac is far from the being the automotive leader it once was. But that figure of speech shouldn’t be sidelined. With the exception of recent bleak years, Cadillac historically has been on the forefront of innovations that have made the act of motoring more refined. Some are intuitive, others complex, but they all serve to make the cars of today that bit of luxury comfort we’ve come to accept as standard.

Enclosed Body


Admittedly, it’s a simple innovation, but when Cadillac put a fixed roof on a Model H it became the first manufacturer to build a car with a fully enclosed cabin. Very few coupe versions of the Model H were built and, at the time, they cost $3,000 — an astronomical figure. Just a year later, Cadillac would build fixed-roof cars in greater numbers in the form of the Model M Coupe.

Electric Starter


The hand-crank method of starting a car, ubiquitous in the early days of motoring, was not only inconvenient, it was downright dangerous. The hand-crank would rotate the crank shaft, starting the pistons until they had enough steam to run on their own. When that happened the hand-crank would automatically disengage, but if the engine “kicked back” (essentially running in reverse) the crank would not disengage and a motorist could end up with a mangled hand. This happened to an acquaintance of Henry M. Leland (head of Cadillac) who, with the help of famed engineer Charles F. Kettering, created the electric starter in 1911.

Modern Control Layout


The layout of controls varied a lot in the earliest days of the car. It wasn’t until Cadillac released its Type 53 in 1916 that a car featured the gearshift and handbrake in the center of the car, the accelerator, brake and clutch pedals all next to each other and key-started ignition. It was ergonomically intuitive and has since been the definitive layout for a car’s cockpit.



Developed over 12 years by Cadillac engineer Earl A. Thompson, the synchromesh was a godsend to motorists everywhere. Prior to the invention of the synchromesh, shifting gears in a direct fashion (not double clutching like you should) would result in the gears crashing and grinding, resulting in an unpleasant noise and damage to the gearbox. This was because the gears being engaged were rotating at two different speeds. Synchromesh matches the speeds for these gears in a split second, making for a smoother, quieter and overall better shift.

Automatic Climate Control


In 1964, Cadillac unveiled “Comfort Control”, a system of three thermistors that measured the temperature inside the cabin, the air coming into the cabin and the air outside. The system then regulated the flow of hot and cold air into the cabin to maintain one consistent temperature. Just a few years later, other American manufacturers like Chrysler and Lincoln developed their own automatic climate control systems, as well.

Variable Displacement


You can have the power of a V8 when you need it and have the fuel economy of a four or six-cylinder car when you don’t. That was the predominant theory of the Cadillac V8-6-4 engine, which was the first in the industry to decrease its displacement by shutting off cylinders. It debuted in 1981 as a base engine in Cadillac passenger cars, but, unfortunately, the engine was incredibly unreliable, falling victim to the unsophisticated computer management systems of the era. Recently, though, the tech has been adapted by other makes like Mercedes, Honda, Chrysler and — once again — GM.

Magnetic Ride Control

2011 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe
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Cadillac’s latest and greatest tech — magnetic ride control — uses a fluid filled with magnetic particles and an electromagnetic coil to provide both excellent handling and superior ride quality. The simple breakdown is this: a computer system uses sensors to monitor road conditions, which then tells the electromagnetic coil to turn on and off to varying degrees. When it’s off, the fluid acts like conventional hydraulic fluid, giving the car a more forgiving ride — but when the electromagnet is switched on, it stiffens, allowing for better handling. It’s been developed for more than a decade now, and while it is predominantly used in other GM vehicles it has also been used in Audis and even a Ferrari.

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