Cadillac Sharpens Focus on Limousine Industry: Interview with Vic Poleni

LCT Interview
Posted on November 1, 1988
Vic Poleni

Vic Poleni

Stretch limousines made their official debut in Cadillac’s new model brochure for the 1989 model year. In previous years, limousines had been appended in supplements and special catalogs. In this year’s brochure, however, Cadillac integrates stretches from Hess & Eisenhardt and Limousine Werks alongside its other models under the official marketing tag - “Cadillac Style.”

The brochure explains that, “Cadillac Brougham inspires America’s premier coachbuilders to create custom limousines of classic distinction.” Coachbuilders are not specifically identified or endorsed in the brochure, but Cadillac appears to bestow its blessing on today’s coachbuilding industry in general.

Also emphasized in the limousine spread is Cadillac’s new 36- month/250,000 Commercial Vehicle Protection Plan. The C.V.P.P. is designed to provide worry-free service for both private buyers and commercial operators. The new program comes as a pleasant surprise to commercial vehicle operators. For a relatively low additional cost, the C.V.P.P. goes far beyond other manufacturer warranties and provides a restatement of Cadillac’s commitment to stand behind commercial operators.

Cadillac delivered another unprecedented statement about limousines at its annual new model preview for dealers last September in Las Vegas. Stretch limousines from seven select coachbuilders were displayed adjacent to Cadillac’s factory lineup. By placing limousines under the official spotlight, Cadillac conveyed to dealers that limousines are important members of the product family in terms of sales and service.

Vic Poleni

Vic Poleni

Vic Poleni, assistant manager of fleet and leasing, is a familiar Cadillac representative at limousine industry events. At the Limousine & Chauffeur Forum in Cherry Hill, NJ in September, Poleni addressed limousine operators on Cadillac’s involvement with commercial vehicles and responded to questions from participants. He also discussed Cadillac’s current view of the limousine business with L&C editor and associate publisher Scott Fletcher.

L&C: When did you first get involved with Cadillac’s commercial vehicle program?

Poleni: About three years ago,

L&C: Did they still have the factory Series 75 limousine at that time?

Poleni: At that point it was the front- wheel-drive “C” car. That was 1985. Cadillac itself was not building a limousine. It was built by Hess & Eisenhardt and marketed through Cadillac dealerships. It was a good automobile.

There were 35 to 55 coachbuilders in the United States, and they could offer more than we were offering in a limousine. They were putting in bars and TVs, and were building different stretch lengths. The market was demanding more than we were offering so, at that point, General Motors and Cadillac decided to leave the market to the coachbuilders because they were out there selling a lot more vehicles than we were.

Since that time, we have had the coachbuilders in to discuss manufacturing and engineering. Last December, I believe there were 18 coachbuilders and manufacturers. We showed them the 1990 vehicle and found out what their needs were from an engineering standpoint.

They told us the market is looking for a car that can stand up under high mileage. Commercial operators are running 5,000 to 10,000 miles per month and are putting on 100,000 miles a year.

They were looking for stronger suspension and a package specifically designed for heavy-duty usage. We enhanced our heavy-duty package for 1989 by adding a transmission cooler for stop and go situations. Because of the varying lengths and weights of their cars, it appears to me that a lot of the coachbuilders were adding the heavy-duty package to their vehicles as an option. Now, we’ve made it a part of the coach- builder delete package.

In 1989, other optional equipment has become standard. As an example, the level control. It was an option in 1988. We’ve made it standard on the Broughams. It’s an item that’s needed. There are a few other operating items on the inside.

Last year we came out with the Commercial Vehicle Protection Plan. It takes the car for 36-months/ 250,000 miles and it appears to be very well accepted. It alleviates a lot of problems that a commercial operator would have. A car gets out of its normal warranty in rather rapid fashion when you’re running 10,000 miles a month. We expect that to help us in our marketing of the vehicle.

The heavy-duty package is also available on the standard Brougham in the event it is being used in commercial operation.

L&C: When you get coachbuilders together, do you express safety and engineering concerns to them?

Poleni: Engineering does come up. The engineering committee is in attendance. There is concern about the size of some of the limousines they are building.

L&C: Would you say Cadillac is concerned about the level of quality in limousine construction?

Poleni: We’re always concerned about the level of quality. Currently, we’ve got a very good image. Cadillac’s ‘88 models, including the Brougham, received the highest CSI (Customer Service Index) ratings of any make of domestic car in the Initial Quality Survey conducted by J.D. Powers and Associates.

In late 1989, we may have a heavy-duty package for the new front-wheel-drive De Ville. At that point, we could have a coachbuilder delete option on that particular vehicle. We had a C-body concept limousine at the dealer preview in Las Vegas but we wouldn’t recommend that a coachbuilder stretch that model until we get the suspension and the transmission beefed up.

The concept limousine is a beautiful car and it seemed to be the right size. It was built by one of the major coachbuilders and there was a lot of interest in it.

L&C: What are the typical complaints you hear from the limousine industry? Is the powertrain one of the areas that you’re looking to improve?

Poleni: The powertrain is important but we feel we have a good combination of engine and transmission right now. But problems can occur with some longer limousines when excessive weight is added.

Service is another of our main concerns. Cadillac is going to stand behind its product whether it’s a stretch or not. We send out letters each year stating that all factory-installed components enjoy the same complete protection as the limited warranty unless the failure can be clearly attributed to the aftermarket converter. If the coachbuilder makes a 102-inch stretch and has a failure that can be directly attributed to it, then that’s his. We feel that coachbuilders have to stand behind their own work. But we get very few complaints about coach builders. They seem to handle that very well. They have reputations to protect.

L&C: What general direction is Cadillac going in overall automotive design? Is there still a trend toward downsizing or front-wheel-drive cars?

Poleni: I feel Cadillac is moving toward the upscale market. Take 1989 as an example, we definitely haven’t downsized. We have increased the wheelbase and length of several models this year.

Our models have become more distinctive from those of the other General Motors divisions. Cadillac is the flagship of GM. It has to be, and will remain, the best car GM makes. We don’t build an inexpensive vehicle.

The Brougham is currently a rear-wheel-drive car. We will have it into the early 1990’s. You will probably see minor evolutionary changes in exterior, but the base car is going to pretty much stay the same. After the early 1990’s, I’m not aware of what changes there will be. I suspect there will be a rear wheel drive car. I think it’s needed. As long as the market is asking for it, I believe Cadillac will have it.

Cadillac is continually working to improve power plants and will continue to do so. And we are working with the coachbuilders. We’ll have another meeting this year to discuss what the future holds. We want to remain out in front.

We expect our numbers to continue increasing. Our numbers had a dramatic increase from 1987 to 1988. It corresponds to the addition of the five-liter engine, and to the fact that we have been more active with coachbuilders. For example, last fall we published a Cadillac guide to limousines and sent it to every dealer in the United States. We’ll upgrade that guidebook this year. Now dealers have an idea of what’s being offered in the market.

A lot of our recent growth is attributable to the way we’re treating our customers. The five area fleet managers are all well aware of coachbuilders. They’ve each got a certain number of coachbuilders to contact on their normal business. If there is a problem with service on a particular vehicle, they’re able to work through the zone offices to find solutions.

A few months back. Cadillac introduced roadside service. It’s a 24-hour service that is available to every customer by calling an 800 number. They’ve got a line mechanic on call and, if a car has broken down, they will either fix it on the spot or have it towed to the closest Cadillac dealer.

L&C: Would your dealers like to see a new generation of Cadillac factory limousines?

Poleni: I suspect they would but, from an economic standpoint, it is just not feasible at this point. But we honestly feel that there are Cadillac limousines available that you can be comfortable with. We are still going to put our same warranty on the vehicle.

As far as recommending one of those vehicles, as they used to say years ago, “Ask the man who owns one.” I wouldn’t attempt to vouch for any one coachbuilder over another. They all seem to build a good quality product.

L&C: How competitive do you think the ‘89 Cadillac Brougham will be?

Poleni: It is extremely cost-competitive. Our main competition is the Lincoln division and we feel we have more to offer. We are offering a 36-month/250,000 mile service agreement. We have a bona fide heavy-duty package that includes a transmission cooler versus their Class III trailer towing package. We have a 105-amp alternator and it’s important to have that heavy-duty alternator when coachbuilders are putting in TVs, shredders, refrigerators, and other things that require additional power.

We think we’re going to be extremely competitive. We have a good, proven product. And, as time goes on, it will improve.

L&C: What do you see ahead for the limousine industry?

Poleni: I believe the entire limousine market is growing as more and more areas are getting limousine operations. Five years ago, the only areas that had limousine service were New York, Washington, Chicago, and L.A. Now, you’re now seeing it in cities like Detroit, Minneapolis, and Miami. So the market is growing and, as it grows, we anticipate growing with it.

As far as government regulation on limousine building, something will probably be done on the length of stretches. In our Commercial Vehicle Protection Plan, we limit the length of stretches to 60 inches. We’re comfortable with that based on the GVW rating of our vehicle.

We want the car to hold up. You start getting into 100 or 120-inch stretches and the customer has to be concerned with how it’s going to stand up. I understand there are states that are putting limits on lengths. I suspect that lengths will be limited to about 60 inches. If coachbuilders don’t control it themselves, then the local governments will step in.       

Related Topics: Cadillac, The LCT Interview, Vic Poleni

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