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

LCT Staff
Posted on September 1, 1986
David John, Cadillac Fleet & Leasing Director

David John, Cadillac Fleet & Leasing Director

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?

John: That’s right. It was our feeling at that time that everybody was going away from rear wheel drive. Our plan was to end with the ’85 model year. We thought Lincoln was going to do the same thing fairly soon. Times changed, the price of fuel changed, the economy changed. It became a horserace again. Now we are going to be in this car until the Nineties. We’re going to spend some money on this car and keep it in the line. There will be a front and rear end re-design in either ’89 or ’90. So we’re committed to stay in there, as I’m sure Lincoln is. This is the car we will push to the coachbuilders because, in this business, a large car is still important.

L&C: What did you do from a marketing point of view when you decided to push the Fleetwood Brougham?

John: We came into the ’85 model year with a price rebate upon application. At that time we also had retail price incentives so we had two incentives on that car at the same time. It brought us down price-wise but, to a degree, the damage was already done. We went below Lincoln with those incentives but it was the end of the model year and, in effect, we were done.

Also, we didn’t come out with the ‘86 model until Jan 1, 1986. That was really done for some EPA mileage factors. Now, all of a sudden, when everyone was looking for an ’86, all we had to offer was an ’85. That’s when we had all these incentives. We had $2300 worth of incentives. Part of that was, in effect, paying a liquidation allowance ahead. That resulted in a short ’86 model year.

L&C: There was talk that your ’86 would have a larger engine too.

John: Which it did. We went from a 4.1 liter to a 5 liter engine which helped us out. The engine lacked a little in electronics but, for livery operators, it was a blessing because they could start working on their engine. They were now dealing with an engine they knew rather than something boggling from an electronics standpoint. That helped us out last year but we were still priced out. We came in with a $400 incentive last year but, at the same time, we had a price increase which about wiped out the incentive. I want to start ’87 on a competitive basis.

L&C: When will ’87 Broughams be available to coachbuilders?

John: They start production in August. The coachbuilder packages will start being built the week of August 11. We shouldn’t have any problem with availability this year. We haven’t really had a problem with availability of product since the ’84 model year. I pretty much get what I need for coachbuilders.

L&C: When do coachbuilders order their cars for a coming model year?

John: They come in heavy right out of the chute. We have orders in right now for the Limousine & Chauffeur Show. I would say we get thirty-five percent of our business in the first quarter of the year, maybe a little more. It eases off a little in the third and, obviously, the fourth quarter. First and second quarters are really where the majority of the business comes because of the long lead times involved.

L&C: When did you introduce the front wheel drive Fleetwood 75 limousine?

John: Our first ’85 model factory limousines came out about the first of the year in ’85. Our total build in ’85 was 375, of which probably 50-60 went to Canada and overseas. In effect, we had about 320-330 domestic cars. This year Hess & Eisenhardt will build 1000 for us of which 880 will go into the domestic market. The rest will go overseas and to Canada.

It’s a 24-inch stretch which is rather limited in its appeal and, as a major manufacturer, some people ask why we didn’t build a 40 or 42 inch stretch? As a manufacturer, we have certain certification guidelines that coachbuilders don’t have to meet. As a result, we have problems with mass and all sorts of things. One reason we don’t have a larger car is engineer­ing limitations.

L&C: What about stretching the Fleetwood Brougham?

John: Our old factory limousine, the one we had since the Twenties in one form or another, was manufactured by Cadillac in its entirety. It came off a commercial chassis and had its own power plant. Up until the very end, that car had a 6 liter engine in it. Now we flat ran out of 6 liter engines. We quit producing the 6 liter engine at the end of the ‘81 model run, but we kept enough to build the limousine. When we ran out of those engines, we dropped the factory rear wheel drive limousine. We thought we were only going to keep the rear wheel drive car for another year.

L&C: With hindsight, it would have been interesting to take the Oldsmobile 5 liter engine and keep building the rear wheel drive limousine.

John: The Oldsmobile 5 liter or the Chevrolet 454. Hindsight says you can do a lot. We’re going to make some decisions on the factory limousine. Some post-1989 decisions. A significant re-design of the C-car is planned for 1989 and anything we do to the C-car will impact the limou­sine. We’re going to stay in the factory limousine business.

The ’89 car will have a longer wheelbase, a larger trunk, and a lot of other improvements. For ’89, we have two scenarios at this point. A front wheel drive scenario and a rear wheel drive scenario. The decision has to be made fairly soon. There are two separate proposals being evalu­ated. We’ve had meetings on it. Our factory limousine is going to have to have a great deal more flexibility. It’s going to have to be longer and it’s going to have to appeal to more than just the corporate executive. That’s where our business is primarily limited to now.”

We also have to decide whether the factory limousine of the future will be based on a coupe or a sedan. If it’s built off a coupe, as it is now and has been in the past, you have a lot of passenger privacy because the seats pull back. On the sedan you have better ease of entry. This is one of the things we’re looking at.

L&C: Was the current model designed in-house or in consultation with Hess & Eisenhardt?

John: It was designed in-house and in consultation with Hess & Eisenhardt. We originally came out with a design that we worked with them on, especially when we got into the more advanced engineering.

L&C: It will be interesting to see how the next generation of Cadillac limousines develops.

John: The important thing is that we’re building another generation of them. There’s been talk about just getting out and letting the coachbuilders do it. I don’t think that’s going to happen. As we talk now, we will have another factory limousine.

L&C: I guess I have to ask why Cadillac would do that when such a small number of cars is involved. It doesn’t seem like a real income producing avenue.

John: Image. It’s an image builder. We try to make money on it. It’s also tradition. The Cadillac factory limousine has been around for an awfully long time.

L&C: Is there what you would call a limousine design team or department?

John: There are Cadillac engineers, and we have a specialty vehicle group at the Buick-Oldsmobile- Cadillac level which is deeply involved in it. General Motors is divided into two main groups, Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac and Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada. We have done some concept cars and we’ve also done some designs with an outfit in Detroit called Triad. They did an extended version for us. We’ve spent a lot of money on development and ideas. We hope this will result in something.

L&C: Who says, “Now this is what we think the limousine industry will want in ’89?”

John: Well it’s a team approach. We have one person in product planning, Don Stuart, who specializes in vehicles like convertibles and limousines. Don’s the product planning input. I guess I’m the sales input. We say, “Yes we think we should have a factory limousine and these are the general parameters we should look at.” We give our ideas to engineering and they do a lot of their own work. We haven’t gotten that far with the new limousine yet.

L&C: You said one of the possibilities is a new rear wheel drive car. That’s interesting because you have to assume a continued demand for a large car in ’89, hope for affordable gas prices, and consider a lot of other factors.

John: That’s right. You say to yourself, “If we go with the rear wheel drive car, how many years will we have it and are we taking a step backwards.” Maybe we can come up with componentry that will justify more weight on the front wheel drive car. That decision has to be made.

On one hand you have to weigh that the front wheel drive is the car of the future. I doubt seriously that in the year 2000 there will be many rear wheel drive cars other than specialty sports cars and things like that. Now we’re not going to keep the Brougham forever. We’ll keep it as long as there’s a market out there. At this point we think that’s into the ‘Nineties, but it’s not going to stay forever. Lincoln Town Cars are not going to stay forever either. What happens if the oil is turned off again? We’d have an extinct animal on our hands. So those are the things you have to weigh. On the other hand, there’s a school of thought that says, “Let’s make it as big as possible with as big a trunk as possible.”

Assuming we have the componentry that will handle the added weight, we can make the front wheel drive car as long as we want, but we can’t add a great deal of width. We know we don’t have enough trunk room. We’ll do something about that. What might hurt us is the width. There may be only one inch difference between the front wheel drive and the rear wheel drive but that makes a big difference on a car. There’s two inches difference in rear shoulder room. You have to weigh that into your thinking. One of the things I don’t think you can fool with is the width for manufacturing reasons.

If we had possessed the knowledge in ’81 when we made decisions on our limousine that we have now in ’86, I think we would have done some things differently. Again, we were limited by a lot of things. Our horizons have expanded. I think we’re seeing a lot more realistically than we were then. In ’81, there wasn’t much to this market. We thought we were the market in ’81. In some respects we were. In ’81 we were building 1200 factory limousines a year in a market that probably wasn’t much more than 3000 cars a year.

L&C: I know you don’t go back this far but in the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties Cadillac was building 2000 limousines a year.

John: Yes. The most we got up to was just before our redesign in ’77. A lot of people were buying ahead because they knew this was the last year of the really big limousines. We built 2000 or 2500. Let’s go back to the ‘Seventies. I’m not sure of my numbers but if we ever did 2500 cars, the industry wasn’t much over 3000 or 3200.

In the old days, we were around 1200 cars a year. We were limited because the line that built the limousine, the Fisher Body plant we call Plant 21, was also used by Fisher Body to do pilot cars. Pilot cars were all built during the spring and summer. Limousines were built during the winter basically to keep a flow through the factory. You didn’t get your first limousines until October or November. Your last ones were built in March. We were limited to 1200 cars and, if I remember right, that used to be like six a day. We were limited because that was all the time we had in the calendar. We could have gone to second shifts and things like that but we didn’t. So we sold 1200 a year. 

L&C: What is your feeling about the general quality of stretch limousines? When you see a stretch Cadillac, are you concerned about whether it still performs reliably. Is it a black sheep at that point?

John: I used to worry about that. Sure I see some cars where I don’t feel the coachbuilder has done a very good job and it bothers me a little. There was a time when I said, “How can they do that to our car?” I don’t feel that way anymore. Sure there are some cars I don’t like. It still bothers me to see a limo on the side of the road with steam coming out of it, perhaps caused by somebody’s conversion. What the public is going to see is a Cadillac broken down and that bothers me.

I don’t see much of that to be very honest with you. Most coachbuilders do a pretty good job and the Brougham has held up pretty well considering that some coachbuilders put an awful lot of weight on those cars. They do an amazingly good job of structurally taking care of the car. I think the heavy duty coachbuilder package is really going to help out. Our heavier wheels will carry the added weight of a conversion and we have improved our transmission. We’re always going to run into problems but the car has really proven to be stronger than we expected. Our engineers designed better components than they originally thought. The same is true on some front wheel drive conversions. We’ve run into problems, yes, but not the kind of problems we expected. Basically, this says that the car has more durability than we thought.

L&C: Do you feel that the front wheel drive car is suitable for converting?

John: Yes. There are still some people who are going to go overboard and I think they are asking for some trouble.

L&C: You’re talking about long cars in particular?

John: Yes. Just too much weight. But the cars perform better than a lot of our people thought they would.

L&C: The smaller size has suited some markets real well hasn’t it?

John: Yes. There are some nice six- door versions of it that have performed real well.

L&C: Is the jump seat a lasting institution- in the business?

John: To be honest, our plans for the redesign don’t include the jump seat. We are almost sure it will have a rear facing seat. I think the jump seat as we know it is pretty well history.

L&C: Are there plans to increase production of the Fleetwood 75 limousine?

John: No In the ‘87 model year, Hess & Eisenhardt is going to build a car called the Sixty Special which is a five-inch stretch off the Fleetwood d’Elegance. It will be a top-of-the-line model with footrests in the backseat area. As a result, instead of building 1000 limousines in ‘87 as we are going to do this year, we will only build 500 ‘87s. This basically says we’ve got even more reason to support the coachbuilder market. Hess & Eisenhardt will build somewhere in the area of 2000 or 2500 of the Sixty Specials. What we’re going to do in ‘88, I don’t know. It may start at the 500 level, it may go up or go down.

The Hess & Eisenhardt plant that makes our factory limousine is located in Madison Heights, Ml. The plant is dedicated to cars manufactured for Cadillac. They manufacture it but it’s our car. We ship it, we invoice it, we warrant it. It’s the same as when American Sunroof built our Eldorado convertible.

L&C: How highly automated are your plants?

John: The Brougham is the old style of car which is not as automated as it should be. That basic car design has been going for years. It is not heavily involved with robotics. The Brougham is built in our Clark Street plant where we also build the Chevrolet Caprice and the Oldsmobile wagon. That plant was built in the ‘Twenties.

L&C: Wouldn’t that make it more easily changed? If you wanted a restyled front end for ’87, for example, couldn’t you do it?

John: There’s an unbelievable cost in any cosmetic change. The Brougham is a car that will sell 50,000 or 55,000 a year. If you decide to do some redesign on that, you have to do some real soul searching. Even a minor cosmetic change is very expensive. If you’re doing half a million of them it’s different.

L&C: How long has the Brougham looked the way it does now?

John: We’re getting out of my area now but the rear end has stayed in effect the same since at least ’81. The front end has had some cosmetic changes but, basically, it’s the same design we’ve had since ’77 in terms of sheet metal.

L&C: Cadillac has had a tradition of customer loyalty. Have times changed or does Cadillac still have buyers who wouldn’t have any other make of car?

John: We like to think we do. We know that Cadillac still has more own­er loyalty than any other car within General Motors.

L&C: Do you feel good about where you are in the limousine market for ’87?

John: It’s still an uphill battle for us and it’s not easy to come back. We should never have gotten ourselves in the crunch that we did. One thing I will say is that we have everyone, from the General Manager on down, behind us on this thing. I get more inquiries from the General Manager about what’s going on in the limousine industry than you can shake a stick at. We definitely intend to be competitive in ’87.

Related Topics: Cadillac, The LCT Interview

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