I can still remember the sensation of riding in a Cadillac for the first time. It was my uncle’s car—an El Dorado—and I recall the sinking plushness of the seats, the hot leather aroma, the exquisite timbre of the horn’s call, and the smoother than smooth glide over roads I knew to be bumpy. All that on top of the sleek, elongated lines of the body, the exhilarating shine of the chrome bumper, and that sweet, sweet medallion on the hood. Yeah, I could see why someone wouldn’t mind driving a Cadillac.
But I knew many Black folks who insisted on driving nothing but. My brother was a self-proclaimed “Cadillac man.” I knew cousins and comrades, pastors and deacons, business men and entrepreneurial women who all drove Cadillacs with pride. A good friend of my mother insisted on renting a Cadillac to pick her son up upon his release from prison. It became very clear to me that Cadillacs were a big deal to my people–obviously, a sign of prestige. But I never really questioned why. I just accepted that Blacks loved Cadillacs and that I must have been an odd Negro because I was rather partial to BMWs.
Turns out that Cadillacs didn’t come to be a fan favorite among Black people by accident. The Cadillac is one of the longest surviving brands in automotive history. Having first entered the market as General Motor’s luxury brand in 1903, the brand was immediately successful and quickly developed a reputation for excellence in automotive engineering, design and driving experience. And…they weren’t sold to Black people.
When Cadillac sales began to slump during the 1930s, Cadillac changed their tune according to the following excerpt from The Real Pepsi Challenge: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Barr:
General Motors was on the verge of shutting down the division when Nick Dreystadt, German-born service manager at Cadillac, persuaded the company to try promoting its cars to Negroes, Drucker wrote in his 1979 book, Adventures of a Bystander. “It was company policy not to sell Cadillacs to Negroes,” he said, because it wanted the “prestige” buyer. But affluent white customers were disappearing as the economy sank. Dreystadt knew the car was already doing well among wealthy Negroes, mostly entertainers, boxers, doctors, or realtors, who often had to have a white friend or manager buy the car for them, and persuaded his bosses to actively court the African-American consumer. The company ended up selling enough cars “to make the Cadillac division break even by 1934”…
Hence, Cadillac was the first luxury automobile brand to purposefully and strategically market directly to Black consumers. And as we all know, we Black folks appreciate being acknowledged. As such. the affinity we have for Cadillacs goes deeper than just appreciating a well-engineered automobile. Yes, Cadillac exploited our desire for prestige but they also embraced a diverse audience when other brands did not.