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Not long after the launch of its first automobile in 1903, Cadillac earned the title "Standard of the World." That was no idle claim. In 1908, Cadillac won the coveted Dewar Trophy, in recognition of its use of standardized interchangeable parts. Until then, automakers hand-fitted each component during assembly. Henry Leland, the founder of Cadillac, was an advocate of precision craftsmanship.
No less important, Cadillac really was considered the best one could get. Especially after GM established a hierarchy and adopted "planned obsolescence," in 1927, a family was presumed to start with a Chevrolet, then move up to a Pontiac, then to Buick or Oldsmobile. Finally, if sufficient wealth came their way, they'd step into a Cadillac, the pinnacle of achievement.
Like other manufacturers in the early years, Cadillac introduced a succession of cars. Cadillac earned plenty of kudos in 1912, for adopting the self-starter that had been developed by Charles Kettering. Other automobile engines still had to be hand-cranked.
In 1915, Cadillac introduced a V-8 engine, considered to be the first one aimed toward serious production. A year later, Cadillac joined General Motors, which had been established in 1908.
Innovations through the 1920s included the adoption of safety glass in 1926, and a synchromesh transmission to ease gear-shifting in 1929. In 1927, a lower-cost LaSalle brand, made its appearance, destined to last through 1940.
By 1930, Cadillac introduced V-12 and V-16 engines, along with power brakes. A decade later, the last V-16 was installed, and the V-12 was already gone. Hydra-Matic, the first true automatic transmission, was offered in 1941 Cadillacs, though Oldsmobile had it a year earlier.
After a brief continuation of body styles that resembled prewar models, Cadillac was ready with something different: tailfins, inspired by the Lockheed P-38 fighter plane and installed on 1948 models. One year later, Cadillac introduced the Coupe de Ville pillarless hardtop coupe, along with an overhead-valve V-8 engine.
In 1953, an Eldorado convertible was the most costly car on the market, at $7,750. The 1957: Eldorado Biarritz came close, at $7,286, but truly affluent buyers had an even loftier choice: the ultra-luxury Eldorado Brougham hardtop sedan, which cost $13,074.
Following the 1958 Recession, 1959 saw the tallest fins of any Cadillac-or any automobile of the era. Styling toned down in the early Sixties, though vestigial fins adorned Cadillacs for years to come.
By 1970, Cadillac's 500-cubic-inch Eldorado V-8 ranked as the world's biggest production-car engine. In 1975, Cadillac was the only American manufacturer to produce a convertible, but a year later, that Eldorado would be in its final season-until soft-tops re-emerged, temporarily, in 1984-85.
GM downsizing in the Seventies hit Cadillac as well as other brands. In the mid-1970s, Seville was the smallest Cadillac. Then, in 1979, the still-huge Eldorado lost some 20 inches in length.
Traditional Cadillac buyers weren't all taken with the next new Cadillac: the compact Cimarron, related to Chevrolet's Cavalier. Far more intoxicating was the 1987-93 Allante, a two-passenger roadster designed by Pininfarina, with an Italian-made body.
Cadillac Broughams, big and bulbous, carried on until 1992, when they were replaced by a Fleetwood series that remained alive until 1997. The Fleetwood name had been used on a long series of luxury Cadillacs. At the lower end of the size scale, Cadillac launched a Catera sedan, derived from a European model, in 1997.
Eldorados disappeared after 2002, and the long-lived DeVille model name-dating back to 1949-metamorphosed into a DTS full-size sedan in 2006. Cadillac launched a modern CTS sedan for 2003, later adding "V" editions with super-powered V-8 engines.
Cadillac's two-passenger XLR roadster lasted from 2004 to 2009. SUVs joined the lineup in 1999, with the first-generation Escalade. The second generation, launched for 2002, attracted the attention of hip-hop artists and sports figures, helped by the "bling" of its brightly-trimmed body. A smaller SUV called SRX appeared in 2004. Next up for Cadillac is a brand-new XTS full-size sedan, first seen at the 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show.