On July 29, 1909, the newly formed General Motors Corporation (GM) acquires the country’s leading luxury automaker, the Cadillac Automobile Company, for $4.5 million.
Cadillac was founded out of the ruins of automotive pioneer Henry Ford’s second failed company (his third effort, the Ford Motor Company, finally succeeded). When the shareholders of the defunct Henry Ford Company called in Detroit machinist Henry Leland to assess the company’s assets for their planned sale, Leland convinced them to stay in business. His idea was to combine Ford’s latest chassis (frame) with a single-cylinder engine developed by Oldsmobile, another early automaker. To that end, the Cadillac Car Company (named for the French explorer Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, who founded the city of Detroit in 1701) was founded in August 1902. Leland introduced the first Cadillac–priced at $850–at the New York Auto Show the following year.
In its first year of production, Cadillac put out nearly 2500 cars, a huge number at the time. Leland, who was reportedly motivated by an intense competition with Henry Ford, assumed full leadership of Cadillac in 1904, and with his son Wilfred by his side he firmly established the brand’s reputation for quality. Among the excellent luxury cars being produced in America at the time–including Packard, Lozier, McFarland and Pierce-Arrow–Cadillac led the field, making the top 10 in overall U.S. auto sales every year from 1904 to 1915.
By 1909, William C. Durant had assembled Buick and Oldsmobile as cornerstones of his new General Motors Corporation, founded the year before. By the end of July, he had persuaded Wilfred Leland to sell Cadillac for $4.5 million in GM stock. Durant kept the Lelands on in their management position, however, giving them full responsibility for automotive production. Three years later, Cadillac introduced the world’s first successful electric self-starter, developed by Charles F. Kettering; its pioneering V-8 engine was installed in all Cadillac models in 1915.
Over the years, Cadillac maintained its reputation for luxury and innovation: In 1954, for example, it was the first automaker to provide power steering and automatic windshield washers as standard equipment on all its vehicles. Though the brand was knocked out of its top-of-the-market position in the 1980s by the German luxury automaker Mercedes-Benz, it sought to reestablish itself during the following decades, and remains a leader in the luxury car market.