Cadillac Turns Back to Hand Work

By Bill Griffith of The Boston Globe

    When Cadillac turned the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline into its own version of a ``Caddy Shack" on a rainy, late summer evening, the star of the show was the lovingly restored 1930 V-16 Phaeton owned by Rhode Island collector Dick Shappy.

    Shappy's car -- a reminder of Cadillac's storied past -- wasn't there as a nostalgia item. Instead, it was proudly displayed as an icon of hand craftsmanship, starting with the $8,000 Lalique eagle hood ornament/radiator cap.

    The message of the night: ``You're going to find more hand craftsmanship in future Cadillacs."

    In recent years, the Cadillac brand has been a bright spot in an otherwise dismal new century so far at General Motors.

    The Escalade caught the fancy of the ``gotta have one" crowd, and the marque's Northstar engines have become a symbol of quality, performance, and reliability. Along the way, Cadillac has changed its market, appealing to a younger buyer.

    All for the good.

    The not-so-good includes two complaints -- a matter of arts (interior design) and letters (model names).

    Once, it was easy to tell a Seville from a DeVille from a Fleetwood from an Eldorado. Now a newcomer to the brand has to decipher the CTS from the DTS from the STS and the SRX and the XLR.

    The other issue has become an almost universal complaint: How can a GM division with so much styling acclaim and so much under the hood keep producing such pedestrian interiors?

    Cadillac is finally doing something about its interior decorating, but the confusing letters remain.

    ``We are going to keep the focus on eye-grabbing design and tremendous performance," said John Howell, product director for Cadillac.

    ``But the second phase of our renaissance, if that's what you want to call it, will feature hand craftsmanship," he said. ``Because the Cadillac brand was formed around craftsmanship and tradition , we want to raise the bar for luxury."

    To that end, the Cadillac people had two SUVs on display at Larz Anderson: a 2006 SRX and a 2007 SRX. The 2007 was a sport model, featuring a mesh screen behind the grill and polished 4-inch exhaust tips, but the real difference was inside. After all, as a driver, does one spend more time looking at a vehicle from the outside or from the inside?

    If you said inside, and are buying or looking at a 2007 SRX, you'll find some remarkable improvements.

    Where the 2006 SRX has the basic molded plastic dashboard and door panels that aren't all that different from what is found on a compact Chevrolet Cavalier, the 2007 features leather.

    More than that, it's hand-sewn, French-stitched, and hand-assembled. In addition, Cadillac has an elegant but simple center stack for instrumentation, as well as a hidden storage compartment behind a wood dashboard panel. The transformation is akin to gutting a home and completely remodeling the interior.

    The interiors are done in a three-step process of cut, sew, and wrap. Even the ``door" for the passenger-side air bag is hidden. The leather is level over the opening but perforated in back so that if an air bag deploys, it would come right through the leather, Howell said. ``We want technology without complexity," he said.

    ``Back in 1904 [Cadillac founder] Henry Leland proclaimed, `Craftsmanship is a law, accuracy is a creed,' " said Howell.

    The handcrafting isn't limited to the interior accoutrements. The supercharged Northstar engines in the STS-V and XLR-V models are hand-assembled and signed by the builder.

    Meanwhile, the cut-and-sew approach to luxury interiors will expand through the Cadillac lineup.

    Still, as nice as Shappy's 1930 V-16 Cadillac was, the company isn't going back to that scale of hands-on craftsmanship. After all, only 4,076 of those V-16s were built, between 1930 and 1940.