Text by Joe Babiasz, photos by the author, NAHC, and General Motors.
Cadillac, “The Standard of the World”. Today, as it was more than 100 years ago, the word Cadillac remains among the top of luxury car nameplates. Born and bred in Detroit during the infancy of motor vehicle manufacturing, this iconic company rose above the rest to set the standard to which all others only dreamed of. The Cadillac automobile became synonymous with exceptional quality made with precision built components. It was within the walls of the historic Amsterdam Avenue assembly plant in Detroit, Michigan that the legacy began.
The Cadillac nameplate might never have existed had it not been for the efforts of Henry Martyn Leland, a talented machinist, inventor, engineer and later an automotive entrepreneur. While living in New England, Leland was employed by the Colt Company, a high quality mass production gun manufacturer. During his stint at Colt, He learned that mass production could be achieved through the use of highly precision-made components. While he was doing well at Colt, Henry had a desire to go into business for himself. In the late 1880’s Detroit was the mecca for boat and carriage manufacturers. Leland followed his dream and moved to Detroit.
In 1890 Leland along with his son Wilfred, business partner Robert Faulconer and two other investors formed the Leland and Faulconer Company, a maker of precision machine tools. The company quickly gained a reputation for delivering high quality products that were well made, durable and reliable. They expanded and began producing boat launches powered by their own design of internal combustion engine.
The Leland and Faulconer Company later began producing engines for R. E. Olds after the Dodge Brothers couldn’t keep up with demand. Olds placed an order with Leland and Faulconer for 2,000 engines. Their small machine tool company was now officially in the automobile business. Unfortunately a short time later the Oldsmobile factory burned to the ground eliminating the need for their engines.
In August 1902, Leland was hired by William Murphy to appraise the tooling and factory at the Henry Ford Company. While the company had Ford’s name, Henry Ford had been forced out the previous year. After reviewing the company’s situation, Leland saw potential and recommended the company be reorganized rather than liquidated and use the one cylinder engine Leland originally designed for Oldsmobile. Murphy agreed and later in that year the Henry Ford Company became the Cadillac Automobile Company. The name Cadillac was chosen to honor the Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the French explorer who founded Detroit
By October 1902, Cadillac Automobile Company produced their first prototype vehicle, a one-cylinder model at their small factory near the Detroit River. By the end of the year, three Cadillac Runabouts that were later to be called the Model A were assembled. Each used Leland and Faulconer engines, transmissions and chassis’s. The three vehicles were shipped to the New York Auto Show in January 1903. All were sold at the show and Leland received orders for an additional 2,286 Cadillacs with each potential buyer leaving a $10 deposit. The price was set at $750.
Flush with its success at the auto show, Leland and his partners saw the need for additional capacity and in 1903 built a new factory at the corner of Amsterdam and Cass Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. When completed, the plant ran 24 hours a day and produced 40 Model A Cadillacs per day. This was an incredible volume in the days before Henry Ford’s development of true mass production techniques.
Power for the Model A came from Lelend’s 98 cubic-inch 10 horsepower “one lunger” engine located under the seat. Because of Leland’s continued emphasis for highly precision components, Cadillac was becoming the premier automobile manufacturer in America. It was understood that Cadillac engines had tolerances as low as 1/1,000th of an inch. The company later became the first auto manufacturer to use the Johansson Gauge Block Set, a tool to ensure precision machining.
Volume at the Amsterdam factory continued to increase and in 1904 a model B was added to the lineup. Production came to a halt on April 14, 1904 when a cap blew off of a riveting machine spilling oil and causing a fire that ultimately destroyed the plant. The fire generating over $200,000 worth of damage necessitated returning fifteen hundred deposits. Luckily for Leland, his bankers thought well of Cadillac and invested in rebuilding the facility.
Work began immediately and in only 67 days the new factory was once again producing Cadillacs. Designed by respected architect George Mason the complex consisted of a half dozen building, the tallest being three stories high. With nearly 275,000 square feet of floor space the Cadillac factory was the largest automobile plant in the world.
Leland demanded the most modern equipment of the times be purchased for the factory. Cadillac was unique in that unlike Ford’s factory on Mack Avenue that simply assembly parts produced from outside suppliers, the Cadillac facility produced many of its components. After all, the plant had its own machine shop, iron factory, brass foundry and pattern-making shop and producing their own parts guaranteed the highest of quality.
In 1905 the company reorganized when it combined the Leland and Faulconer Company with the Cadillac Automobile Company. Now named Cadillac Motor Car Company, it continued to produce the single cylinder Model A but added the long wheelbase four-cylinder model D to the lineup. The two-model lineup increased sales putting 3,942 vehicles going into customer’s hands, second in the nation only to Oldsmobile.
During the next several years, Cadillac honed their reputation for being amongst the finest automobiles. Validation of that reputation came in 1908 when they won the prestigious Dewar Award. The Royal Automobile Club of London, England gave the award each year in recognition for passing what was considered the most severe standardization test to be given to a motorcar.
The standardization test consisted of a committee of mechanical experts randomly selecting three Cadillac’s that were then shipped to England. Those vehicles were driven to the Brooklands racetrack where they were run 25 miles. They were then disassembled and all parts mixed together. Afterwards mechanics re-assembled the vehicles then drove them 500 miles on the Booklands racetrack. All crossed the finish line with less than 200 yards between them and none experiencing mechanical problems. The test results were considered one of the greatest achievements by an automobile manufacturer.
By 1909, Cadillac Motor Car Company had 3,400 employees and was well on its way to producing 10,000 vehicles. The company’s growth along with its reputation for exceptional quality caught the eye of William C. Durant, then president of General Motors Corporation. At the time General Motors was on a buying spree having snatched up Buick and Oldsmobile but was still looking for additional acquisitions.
On July 29, 1909 General Motors got its wish when it purchased Cadillac for approximately $4.5 million. The change in ownership came with one caveat. GM wanted Leland to continue running the company as if it were still his. General Motors knew what Leland brought to the table and didn’t want to mess with his successes.
As a division of General Motors, the Amsterdam Street factory continued to produce world class automobiles and innovative engineering designs. In 1912, Cadillac became the first automobile to have an electrical starting system, exterior lighting and ignition system. These innovations led to a second Deward Award making Cadillac the only automobile company to receive the award twice. Nineteen twelve was also the same year Cadillac introduced a line of enclosed cars.
In 1915, another innovation came from the Amsterdam Street factory. It was a 90-degree V8 engine that powered the new Cadillac Type 51. With a 3.125-inch bore and 5.125-inch stroke, the engine displaced 314 cubic-inches and developed 70 horsepower, making Cadillac one of the fastest automobiles on the road. Nineteen fifteen was also the first year Cadillac produced over 20,000 vehicles, an amount that wouldn’t be matched again until 1922. Leland was on game, adding innovations at every opportunity and keeping General Motors in the limelight.
With World War I in full swing, Leland wanted to support the war efforts and suggested to Durant that a portion of the plant be used to produce war materials. Durant advised Leland that he didn’t want GM to be involved in any military work. Durant’s decision would have an everlasting impact on GM as well as Leland for Leland decided to resign rather than fight with the GM president.
Interestingly, after his resignation and with the help of his son Wilfred, Leland formed the Lincoln Motor Company building airplane engines for the war. He later formed Lincoln Motor Car Company producing premium quality automobiles designed to compete with Cadillac.
The Amsterdam facility continued to build GM’s luxury car line in record numbers but the factory was becoming too small for the increased volume. Ultimately, its doors closed in 1920 when GM’s new Clark Street factory opened in southwest Detroit. During its 22-year tenure, the Amsterdam Street factory produced nearly 200,000 Cadillacs.
Over the years, all but one of the original buildings were demolished to make way for parking lots. In the early 40’s, Fred Westcott and Allen Campbell purchased the remaining 94,000 square foot building for the Westcott Paper Company. Today, known as Westcott Display Inc, and run by the grandson of Allen Campbell, the company remains at 450 Amsterdam Street.