Vehicles

Hitting The Road With Cadillac 200,000-Mile Durability Test

Donna Englander, staff writer
Posted on February 1, 1994

The thought of traveling to chilly Detroit in the middle of winter from my warm Southern California home sent shivers down my spine. But the prospect of learning the details of Cadillac’s 200,000-mile, two- year durability test first hand compelled me to make the trip.

In the new program, Cadillac is giving two 1994 Fleetwood sedans with the R1P heavy-duty livery package to each of three operators for a period of two years during which the vehicles will ac­cumulate 200,000 miles each. The cars will be placed in fleets in the New York City, Chicago, and Detroit metro areas.

The livery operations chosen to par­ticipate in the program are: American Limousine in Burr Ridge, IL; Detroit Metro Cars in Romulus, MI; and Rudy’s Limousine Service in Cos Cob, CT. One criterion used to choose the participants included the ability to achieve 100,000 miles minimum annually. Plus, the operator had to normally use Cadillacs in his fleet, allow monthly visits by Cadillac representatives, keep thorough records on all aspects of the vehicles, have a good safety record, and have a good reputation and credibility in the industry.

The objectives of the program are two-fold: To demonstrate the durability of the Fleetwood to the livery industry and to provide customer (operator) durability data for future engineering information. The durability test will examine not only how the vehicles hold up, but also the type of service opera­tors can expect from authorized Cadillac Limousine Dealers. Each operator will be responsible to service the vehicles according to normal maintenance schedules at the nearest Cadillac deal­ership to examine how effectively the new “limo lanes” function.

A Cadillac representative will be travelling to each operation month­ly to examine the vehicles and dis­cuss any problems the operators have experienced. The operators will also be required to keep exten­sive maintenance records pertain­ing to the vehicles. At the end of the two-year period, the vehicles will be torn down and thoroughly examined to determine how they held up to the rigorous demands of livery use.

THE ADVENTURE BEGINS

As a witness to the fledgling Cadillac program, my assignment would take me through many informative stops in three states and two of the nation’s largest cities. The cast of characters over the next two action-packed days included: Warren Wickland, the Cadillac representative overseeing the program; John Capparelli, fleet manager of American Limousine; Ed Till, vice president of sales for Detroit Metro Cars; Dave Clark, manager of specialty and commercial vehicles for Cadillac; and Bill Gambrell, manager of spe­cialty vehicle administration for Cadillac.

At 8 a.m. on the first morning Wickland, Capparelli, and I met in the hotel lobby before starting off to Detroit Metro Cars. The livery company had already had its two vehicles in operation for about a week when we arrived. Although not required, Detroit Metro Cars assigned specific drivers to each of the vehicles for the duration of the test.

The two drivers, Pavlos Kanakis and Thomas Betts, were chosen by a peer review board.  “Pavlos is a Greek immigrant who is very opinionated and strongly believes in his convictions. We believe he will be very honest in his critiques of the vehicle. Tom is very outgoing and has a loyal client following. We believe he is very likely to get good customer input,” says Cullan Meathe, owner of Detroit Metro Cars.

Meathe and other company executives sat down with the two chauffeurs to explain what their duties would be. “We told them what was expected and they shot back with ideas of their own that have expanded the program,” he adds. Some of the duties they will be responsible for include keeping logs for things such as fueling, car washes, and preventative maintenance. The company’s in-house mechanic will be in charge of performing normal upkeep on the vehicles including oil changes, changing wipers, and checking tire air pressure. All other maintenance will be handled at Don Massey Cadillac in Plymouth, MI.

In the first week of the program, Kanakis and Betts have put over 5,000 miles on each vehicle. Already, they were able to furnish input to Wickland. “One of the things we have been able to critique is the trunk release placement. When drivers lean over to engage it in the glove compart­ment, their shirt comes untucked. We believe it should be moved to a better position. Another problem we have identified is that very tall drivers have an obstruction of the rear view mirror,” adds Meathe.

According to Till, both cars are running up to 14 hours straight per day. So far, the drivers have re­ ported they like the accessories, handling, traction control, responsiveness, minimal road noise, and gas mileage figures. One vehicle was experiencing trouble with the driver’s seat switch and a loud noise when turning. The other had a noise in the dash that came and went.

“Overall we are pretty pleased with the cars,” reports Till. “It will be interesting to see how they hold up over the long run. We normally use a lease/buy back program and turn our vehicles over three or four times per year. We can compare the new models to the test vehicles. So far, we are getting a great response from our customers.”

After touring the company’s facilities, we gathered around for the obligatory photo shoot before heading off to Detroit’s Metro Airport for an up-close look at how Detroit Metro Cars operates. In a nutshell, the company operates as a luxury taxi operation that has its own curb- side parking and customer service reps to get the clients in the cars. The Cadillacs will be an integral part of this operation. Meathe also operates as Carey International’s Detroit affiliate.

AN ‘ALARMING’ AFTERNOON

Ed Till joined us and were on our way to tour the Modern Engineering offices in Warren, MI. Modern Engineering is the company contracted to coordinate the Cadillac Master Coachbuilder Program and durability program. At the facility, we met up with some old friends and met some new ones. Cas Jasin, formerly coachbuilder manager for Cadillac and now an employee of Modern Engineering, met us at the door. We also bumped into Dave Clark.

Wickland gave Capparelli, Till, and me the grand tour. First stop was a large garage area where specialty vehicles are experimented on. While trying to get a closer look at a luxury sedan that never made it into production, we made the annoying mistake of opening the door to an alarmed vehicle. After searching frantically for the keys, Wickland disarmed the piercing shrieks, and we quietly made our way upstairs.

The top floor of the building is filled with a plethora of information. “There is a wealth of Cadillac information housed up here,” Wickland explains. “It is sometimes difficult for a GM employee to find where to look for the right information. We figured it would be even harder for a coachbuilder to find the information he needs. That is why we compiled everything a coach-builder would need to know up here. Whatever they might need, the coachbuilders can just give us a call and we can find it.”

Clark explained the “First Word” program Cadillac has created for the coachbuilders and how the company would like to institute a similar arrangement with the three test operators. “In the First Word program, if a coachbuilder finds a problem with the vehicles, he can fax that information to us,” he says. Don Ableson, platform manager in the mid-size car division, and Mike Glessner, quality manager in the Arlington plant, get that information immediately.

“The dealers may not know for weeks about the same problem a coachbuilder encounters immediately. If necessary, we will put a hold on at the plant to fix the problem. Our philosophy is, ‘If we don’t know about it, it isn’t gonna get fixed.’ We are looking to institute the same type of program with these three operators.”

Till discussed the loud-noise- when-turning problem with Clark, who pointed out there was a service bulletin that covered the problem. It was a simple lubrication concern. The service bulletin was forwarded to Till.

With that background under our belts, it was off for a quick lunch before heading off to the proving grounds for a more detailed explanation of what went into the 1994 Fleetwood.

OUT FOR A BUMPY RIDE

Luckily, it was a balmy 40 degrees and there was no snow on the ground for the long drive to the GM Proving Grounds in Milford, MI. Once there, we were given a driving tour and shown the different durability tests that all General Motors vehicles must endure before passing into production.

We explored the different road surfaces the proving grounds had to offer, all the while viewing camouflaged versions of next year’s new models zipping by us. We sped into a highly banked turn, cruised up a rather sharp grade, and then made our way over to the back of the proving grounds where the automotive photographers sneak pictures of new vehicles. Our next road surface was called the Belgian Blocks. This tumultuous, jostling road surface was made to simulate a block road from Brussels to Antwerp that killed many an army vehicle during World War I. Once we pulled ourselves back together, our next stop was a meeting with Cadil­lac engineers for a short presentation.

We met up with Julie Van Houten, test engineer, and Roger Knoebel, lead development engi­neer, who explained the general durability tests and specific inspections the test vehicles underwent.

According to Van Houten, every new prototype undergoes a 25,000- mile, 1,209-hour continual run through different durability schedules. “That is equivalent to approximately 100,000 miles of the worst case driver usage,” she explains. Some of the specific driving schedules the vehicles endure are the pot holes, 16° driveway, gravel and hills, freeway, salt splash, and mud.

Knoebel went on to illustrate how the test vehicles were evaluated. The six vehicles involved in this test are standard-issue production cars. They have not been altered in any way, but as part of the program, they were thoroughly inspected before delivery as an initial gauge.

“We have a team that is specially trained to examine the vehicles inside and out to see if they can identify things that customers would notice,” Knoebel adds. “The problems they find are often things customers never would notice. Some of the problems they found on the test vehicles are that the left rear interior door handle is slow to release, there are clear-coat drips on the hood and nicks on the right front door hinges, and some of the chrome molding is sharp.”

While Capparelli and Till had the attention of the engineers, they brought up a problem both had experienced. “When the driver opens the door, he inadvertently hits the lock button with his hand and locks the door. The lock is too close to the handle. We have had chauffeurs locked out of cars before,” says Capparelli. The engineers promised to evaluate the situation, and rectify it if possible.

With a long day drawing to an end, we collected the two sedans destined for American Limousine, drove into scenic downtown Milford for dinner, and cruised back to the hotel.

GOING TO HELL

We all gathered at the crack of dawn to start our trip south—Wickland, Clark, Gambrell, Capparelli, and myself. Wickland had arranged a driving schedule that would have each of us alternate driving and sitting at each seating position in each of the two cars. Sadly, I only experi­enced the back seat once. (I was planning on napping.)

Our route took us over an abundance of different road surfaces and through many scenic small towns. One that we all found particularly interesting was Hell, MI. With nothing but time and a few hundred miles ahead of us, I had time to chat about the intricacies of the program.

According to Wickland, the reason Cadillac chose to initiate this program is “because the company wants to demonstrate the durability of the vehicle. Hopefully, the publicity we receive will help change the minds of people who had bad experiences back in the 1980s. We want all information regarding the test to be publicized. We don’t want to hide anything.”

He added that even though Cadillac had conducted numerous focus groups to collect data on the industry’s needs, they didn’t yield as much specific data as is needed. “This is a way we can get engineering data that would be hard to get any other .way. We are already getting valuable input. For instance, we have found out that because of the high volume of use, the door locks tend to wear out. We are paying attention to every complaint.”

Clark adds that the idea for the durability test came out of one of Cadillac’s focus groups. “This is the first time Cadillac has ever placed the Fleetwood in livery fleets. Since we are going to stick with rear wheel drive and the body style for the foreseeable future, there is a definite benefit to getting this input. The reason we chose 200,000 miles for the test is because we wanted to surpass the optional Commercial Vehicle Warranty, which ends at 150,000 miles. It is possible that we could keep some of the vehicles in fleets longer, but that hasn’t been determined yet. We thought about accelerating the program, but we wanted to get actual livery miles,’ Clark explains.

While taking in the scenic surroundings for awhile, I noticed a road sign and asked with a start, “Are we in Indiana?”—thinking we had veered off course. I was assured that we were indeed in the Hoosier State and were still on course to Chicago. I suppose I should check out a map more often.

It seemed like we had just left when we headed in for the final assault into Burr Ridge. Capparelli took the lead and valiantly guided us home.

We had just enough time for a quick tour and the signing of the papers (and of course, the obligatory photo shoot), and we were off to the airport with just enough time to catch our flights home.

After arriving home and repacking my winter woolies, I took the opportunity to phone those involved to get some final input. After Capparelli’s first weeks “with the cars, he reports that one has a “minor clicking” that will be lubed at the first oil change.

Like Detroit Metro Cars, specific drivers have also been assigned. “The first driver is an ex-police of­ficer who we are very confident in his abilities. He drives a lot and will use the sedan six days a week. For the other car, we are rotating two drivers—each working four days on and four days off. That car will be out seven days a week. Both cars should get equal miles on them. We may rotate driving teams quarterly to see if there are any differences in the vehicles,” he explains Capparelli held a meeting with the drivers to tell them where to take the vehicles for service— Napleton Cadillac in Park Ridge, IL. He also filled them in on their evaluation duties and explained they would be randomly questioning passengers to get their input on the vehicles.

Capparelli also took the opportunity to add, “It’s an honor to be chosen to participate in the program. I think this test is a real conscious effort on Cadillac’s part to be a leader in the livery industry. It’s a very gutsy move—one that could backfire on them. They must have a lot of confidence in the 1994 cars.”

Meathe agrees, “My hat is off to Cadillac for doing this test. They really have their tail on the line. They must have a lot of confidence in their product to put vehicles in some of the highest volume fleets in the country. The cars will be put through an abnormally high volume of wear and tear.”

And the readers of L&C will be there to read all about the progress of the unprecedented test. So be sure to stay tuned.

Related Topics: Cadillac

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