Cadillac Commits Itself to the Limousine Industry: A conversation with Fleet & Leasing Director David John

Posted on September 1, 1986 by LCT Staff

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Once upon a time, Cadillac ruled the limousine industry. Presidents, kings, movie stars, and an impressive array of the world’s rich and famous would consider no other make of limousine. More than just cars, Cadillac limousines were landmarks in automotive design and were capable of drawing crowds of onlookers while parked in public. Through the years,- Cadillac limousines featured engineering developments which were unavailable on any other make of automobile at the time.

One famous model was the 1915 Cadillac limousine which marked the debut of a production V-8 engine in a limousine.

David John, Cadillac Fleet & Leasing Director
David John, Cadillac Fleet & Leasing Director

The 1930 Cadillac Fleetwood limousine, with its powerful V-16 engine, was proudly owned by such notables as President Herbert Hoover, director Cecil B. DeMille, and the flashy gangster Al Capone. Thousands of Cadillac limousines in the late ‘Fifties and early ‘Sixties carried large, distinctive tailfins whichhave become an automotive symbol of that era.

The fins disappeared in the mid- ‘Sixties when Cadillac designed a functional new body bearing an obvious resemblance to the angular Fleetwood Brougham of the ‘Seventies and ‘Eighties. With its powerful six-liter engine, the factory limousine carried the Cadillac name with dis­tinction until 1981 when a fuel shortage and a number of economic factors caused the automotive industry to see a future filled with smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

Not only would the cars of tomorrow be downsized, designers speculated that they would also be front-wheel driven in order to increase the performance of smaller displacement engines. Designers also demonstrated that cars with a traditional chassis and body could not be manufactured as efficiently as a unibody vehicle on which the engine, wheels and other components are mounted directly to the body. In other words, the traditional Cadillac factory limousine was becoming obsolete by modern automotive standards. Changes appeared inevitable if the Cadillac limousine was to retain its slogan, “Standard of the World.”

In the 1981 model year, the Cadillac limousine production facility (Plant 21 in Detroit) stopped building the big six liter engines. Front wheel drive Cadillac models were expected to fill the needs of a limousine industry which had not yet shown a demand for large vehicles filled with passenger amenities. The limousine industry was a relatively sleepy branch of the transportation business ‘81 specializing, primarily in corporate travel.

Then, without much warning, the limousine industry blossomed and Cadillac was taken by surprise. At about the same time Cadillac stopped building its large factory limousine, livery operators started going to independent coachbuilders for roomy limousines suited, .for weddings and nights on the town.

Not only did Cadillac not have a factory limousine available, the company had planned to stop building its Fleetwood Brougham at some point in the early or mid-Eighties meaning that coachbuilders would have to adapt to front wheel drive Cadillacs or switch to the rear wheel drive Lincoln Town Car. Lincoln, it seemed, was in the right place with the right car and, slowly, the industry that had always favored Cadillacs began to adopt the square-ish shape of the Town Car.

As the livery business continued to grow, both Lincoln and Cadillac saw limousines as an effective way of displaying their cars to the public. David John, Cadillac’s Director of Fleet and Leasing, talked with Limousine & Chauffeur recently about his company’s present position in the limousine industry John outlined plans for future Cadillac factory limousines, discussed the fate of the Fleetwood Brougham (now called the Brougham), and touched on the challenges of designing vehicles for the rapidly changing livery business.

L&C: How competitive will the Brougham be in ’87 compared with the Lincoln Town Car?

John: We’re going to be competitive in price this year. We have to be. We have to overcome a pricing problem which at one time amounted to about $2,000 in round numbers.

One thing that will make us more competitive this year is our new coachbuilder package which is the same as our trailer-towing package with the addition of heavy duty wheels. Our coachbuilder delete package is basically the same. We take off the vinyl roof, the opera lamps and some moldings. It amounts to a dealer net of about $340.

L&C: The thought behind it is important isn’t it? It shows your interest in the coachbuilders.

John: The big problem a coach-builder has is the labor involved in taking the vinyl roof off. A coach-builder sometimes has to put the car in their paint drying oven to loosen the glue to tear the thing off. So we leave it off and give them a credit for the value of it. Lincoln started this be­fore we did.

Through ‘84, we had the old Sedan DeVille. The old Sedan DeVille, car for car, was priced low­er than the Lincoln. The Sedan DeVille didn’t have a vinyl roof. When the Brougham became our only rear wheel drive car, we were priced above Lincoln.

L&C: ’84 was a watershed year wasn’t it? That was the year of the first Limousine & Chauffeur Show and the year that Lincoln made a serious move into the limousine market.

John: I think they started a little before ’84.

L&C: People went to Atlantic City for the first Show and they saw a number, of Lincoln limousines.

John: At that point we had telegraphed that we were dropping the rear wheel drive car. We had every intention of maybe keeping it through the ’85 model year and that was it. We were looking at $2.50 a gallon fuel. We were looking at a lot of other things that didn’t really come about. When we telegraphed that, even though we had a car available, people started looking around. They looked for a rear wheel drive alternative and it hurt us even though in ’84 we had the same car we had before and relative pricing wasn’t really a problem.

We were a little cavalier. We took the customers a little bit for granted. We took the industry for granted. It was ours. You can never do that no matter who you are.

L&C: You also had a front-wheel drive model that you thought was going to take over.

John: We had a new front wheel drive limousine. We probably didn’t visualize where the industry was going. Prior to ’84, we thought we were going to drop the Brougham but we thought that was okay because we had this new car that had essentially the same interior room and would take care of the industry. At that point, we also didn’t visualize, as a manufacturer that the standard stretch was going to be 46 or 48 inches. We viewed the industry as wanting perhaps a 24 inch stretch as we were designing in our factory limousine at the time. All of a sudden, the industry wanted to get larger. The industry felt more comfortable getting longer on a rear wheel drive car than on our new model.

L&C: There was an adverse reaction to the idea of downsizing wasn’t there?

John: That’s right. People were buying smaller cars and there was more and more demand for a big car for specific situations. That was a factor in the whole growth of the industry which really took off in late ’83. Prior to that, in my view, the industry was divided into corporate limousines and livery business. That was really it. The livery car almost doubled as a car to take you out on the town.

Earle Moloney was probably the early one to visualize the growth of the luxury limousine with the TV and the bar. I think he was the pioneer in that aspect of the business. Other people who were in the business in the ‘Seventies and early Eighties were almost making cookie cutter versions of our factory limousine at the time.

In hindsight, I think the industry felt that we deserted them. We were also, even as late as ’84, probably not as sensitive to the needs of the industry in terms of service and allocation of product as we should have been. We somehow conveyed to the industry that we felt the only real limousine was our factory limousine. Our competition was sitting on the sidelines watching all of this. They made a concerted effort to go to their dealer organization and say, “We’re supporting these coachbuilders and we want you to help us.”

L&C: Is that a training problem?

John: It’s a communication problem. We are communicating that these people are good customers. They generally build good vehicles. We want you to service them. The real problem comes in the interpretation of what is a warrantable item and what isn’t. When something goes wrong, was it a result of the modifications or was it something of ours. Sometimes this was a subjective problem.

L&C: Are you organizationally responsible for servicing problems?

John: Our field fleet people and field service people are handling more and more of the problems. In the past, they always came to me.

L&C: What kind of promotional value do you see in having Cadillacs in the limousine business?

John: There’s great promotional value. Short of some livery cars in certain cities, limousines are always clean, they’re on the road 24 hours a day, and they show your car in a positive manner. Even as common as they are now, people still turn their head when a limo goes by and, generally, they’re clean. That’s the value of it.

Including our factory limousines, there will probably be three thousand Cadillac limousines built this year. The entire industry is probably only six thousand cars a year. Nobody really knows because, really, our factory limousine is the only one you can identify by a Vehicle Identification Number. But we also know how many coachbuilder delete options we sell. We’ll know this year with our coachbuilder package. That’s really not many cars. On the Fleetwood Brougham itself, we’ll do 55,000 cars this year. In total, Cadillac will do 300,000 cars this year. So it’s not many cars. But the exposure is ten times what we actually sell. In my job, the fleet business, it’s ten percent of my fleet business but I can honestly say I spend thirty-five percent of my time on it.

L&C: Let’s pick up again back in ‘84 when the Sedan DeVille went away, the Fleetwood Brougham was your only RWD car for conversion, and you found yourself at a price disadvan­tage. Did you immediately know that you had to do something to retain the market?

John: I wish I had been that perceptive. I’d been told by people in the industry that we had competition and, at that point, we were a long way out price-wise. I saw the Limousine Show in ’84 and still sat back hoping that our name and reputation would carry us. It didn’t. So we didn’t react as quickly as we should have. We were still a little short of cars so a bit of the attitude crept in that we were selling all we could build anyway. This was ’84 when we weren’t going to build many Fleetwood Broughams and we hoped we would have a better reaction to the factory limo.

L&C: You were waiting for consumer thinking to change a little?

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