Vault Stories: “Model A” vs. “Model A”

The oldest Cadillac takes on the oldest Ford…

The 2015 Cadillac “Escalade,” the fourth generation of the luxury SUV lineup and the most expensive vehicle currently offered by General Motors

To the left sits an Escalade. Released in late spring of 2014, it is nearly the newest Cadillac (that honor goes to an ATS coupe revealed in early August) and is also the only holdover from Cadillac’s 20th century product lineup. It is the last Cadillac to wear the brand’s famous crest. It is also the only Cadillac with a proper name. Gently pushed by German and Japanese automakers, who christen their products with either an alphanumeric jumble or engineering codename, the current Cadillac lineup (ELR, SRX, ATS, CTS-V, plus the upcoming flagship CT6…) resembles a disorganized Scrabble rack.

But there is too much cache, too much brand equity, built into the Escalade name to abandon it. The three sylables of “Es-ca-lade” pair perfectly with the three of “Cad-di-lac,” a rhythm that has inspired everyone from Rick Ross to Hot Chip. When Elvis made it big, he bought a Cadillac Fleetwood Series 60 and painted it pink for his mother, Gladys. But no Fleetwoods (or Sevilles or Devilles) are sold today. So the “Escalade” rolls on, unabbreviated.

The Escalade is also the last Cadillac before the arrival of Johan de Nysschen, the marketing ace and current Cadillac company president who was highly sought after by GM recruiters after he took Audi from an also-ran to 42 months of record sales. De Nysschen probably has his own ideas on how to manage the same feat with Cadillac, though unlike with his last position (“Global President” of Infiniti), de Nysschen is joining a company with over a century of heritage. He has already shown an appetite for disruption — approving a move for the Cadillac marketing team from Detroit to New York and pushing ahead with plans to make an autonomous car by 2017.

Johan de Nysschen answers questions from auto journalists after his first public appearance as head of the Cadillac brand at the 2014 LA Auto Show

During the endless cycle of briefings and debriefings sure to take place in the silver silos of GM’s headquarters over the coming months, I have no doubt that the keepers of the Cadillac brand will seek to educate de Nysschen, to convey the storied past of the first great American luxury car marquee. Along the way, it might do him some good to consider Cadillac’s very first vehicle…

Cadillac Model A “Runabout” (1903)

Above sits the first Cadillac. So, naturally, its name is basic: The Cadillac Runabout, later called the Model A. It was built over 110 years ago in Detroit. This Model A lives in the vault of the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. Typically, these Brass Era cars are skip-overs on the automotive history tour; they’re older than the oldest living human, so they can be difficult to relate to. Not this car —this car is famous. Its moniker has become metaphor: “The Cadillac of Minivans,” “The Cadillac of Crab Cakes,” etc.. Cadillac themselves have picked up on the game, declaring that their new car is the “Cadillac of Escalades.”

And yet, if you were transported back in time to the Cadillac factory of 111 years ago, the company itself would have been difficult to recognize. For starters, you wouldn’t see any sign of GM — no Billy Durant (the “General of General Motors”), no Alfred P. Sloan holding an organizational chart, either — corporate oversight didn’t begin until 1908. In fact, the company wasn’t even called “Cadillac.” Its first name was the “Detroit Automobile Company,” though that corporation disbanded when its financial backing dried up. Until 1902, the car company responsible for the Model A went by “The Henry Ford Company.” If you were to park a 1903 Ford next to a 1903 Cadillac, aside from the oversized brass badges, it’d be nearly impossible to tell the two cars apart. Clearly, the original Cadillac has an unusual lineage.

Henry M. Leland, as eulogized by the New York Times

On tours through the Petersen’s vault, I take great pleasure in revealing this curiosity to tourists — that the first Cadillac has Ford roots. The story I’ve been telling on the tour goes something like this: Henry Ford’s stint at the wheel of The Henry Ford Company was not long for this earth in part because of Ford’s fiery temper. As I first heard the story, Henry Ford had some sort of disagreement with the man responsible for the motor in the Model A, a churchgoer and an experienced engineer named Henry Leland. Ford’s board of directors were tired of Henry’s procrastination and his obsession with racing—they were set to dismantle the company and hired Leland as a consultant to estimate its value. Leland arrived in the summer of 1902 to find a (mostly) functioning company staffed with workers who would hand-build parts and then grind them down to fit. He believed the enterprise could be salvaged, but not with Ford at the helm. Ford had recently cultivated a passion for racing, and spent a significant amount of company time building a 4-cylinder racing car. The two men got into such a heated argument that Leland approached William Murphy and Lemuel Bowen (the financial backers who initially hired him) and offered his resignation. “You are not going anywhere,” was the response, “but Ford is.”

So, Murphy and Bowen kicked Henry Ford out of the company bearing his name. They gave him a $900 severance package and the plans for his prized race car. Ford had also been working on a more-austere runabout; he had to leave that car behind. That runabout, naturally, became the Model A and it meant Henry Ford had to find a new job (and new financial backing).

With Ford out of the picture, Henry Leland was due for a promotion. Leland’s engine bolted directly into Ford’s Model A body, allowing production to begin in October of 1902. The powerplant was instrumental in the success of the Model A; Murphy and Bowen were so thankful for Leland’s help, they offered to name the whole company after Leland — the shiny SUV above would have been called a “Leland Escalade”—but Henry Leland was a modest man and requested instead that the company be named after the founder of the city of Detroit. That’s why this car shares the same name as Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, the French explorer who “discovered” Detroit in 1701. The site where Cadillac landed three centuries ago is today referred to as the “Renaissance Center,” GM’s global headquarters.

Of course, the real story is a bit more complex. It starts in 1903.

“Wayne County Building, looking east from Majestic Building above Cadillac Square.” Detroit, circa 1903

Two hundred years after Cadillac’s “discovery,” Detroit was in the midst of an explosion in arts, architecture, and culture. Detroit’s population was booming, too, and in 1903 more than one-third of the city was foreign-born. Thanks to the city’s numerous auto manufacturers, well-paid jobs were plentiful, and Detroit enjoyed a reputation as an international city; “The Paris of the Midwest” was its nickname, given the city’s grand boulevards and lush public parks. Because of the recent bi-centennial celebrations, Cadillac’s name was well-known among Detroit’s citizens (and shrewdly chosen by Leland).

One of these citizens was Oliver E. Barthel—a brilliant engineer who had been instrumental in two of the city’s most significant early automotive achievements. His job in 1903 was as Chief Engineer of the “Detroit Automotive Company” on Mack Ave. near the outskirts of town.

Another was Alanson P. Brush—a brash, young engineer with a knack for oversized promotions. Brush was only 24 years old in 1902, and yet he already held two patents before he was hired at a workshop that had the reputation of being Detroit’s most exacting: the “Leland & Faulconer Company.”

One tough company — with Mr. Faulconer, left, and Mr. Leland, right.

In 1902, Detroit had another landmark to celebrate: the Wayne County Building (the giant Beaux-Arts edifice towering over smokestacks in the image above) was finally finished after five years of construction and a cost of $1.6 million, amid rumors of widespread graft and sweetheart contract deals. When its doors opened to reveal a five-story masterpiece, the building’s detractors had to pause to admire all the opulence; the offices featured Tiffany windows and was crowned by four statues built of copper. All the signeage was printed in three languages: German, Polish, and English, to represent the diverse population of Detroit. Even before the Motor City got its official nickname, Detroit was a beacon for intellectuals and engineers— immigrants from New England and beyond—and the Wayne County Building stood at the booming city’s epicenter.

Alanson P. Brush, driving the very first Cadillac prototype up the steps of the Wayne County Building in downtown Detroit, October, 1902

As such, it was the perfect place for a product demonstration. A long, landscaped square lay in front of the Wayne County Building. Typically this park was the site of a weekly farmer’s market, but in October of 1902, strolling pedestrians and horse-and-buggy operators alike were shocked to hear a tremendous rattling coming from a maroon runabout with Alanson Brush at the wheel. Brush aimed his runabout at the grand staircase of the Wayne County Building, set the intake valve for extra throttle and pushed the accelerator. In seconds, he was climbing the staircase, one crashing step after another. When he reached the summit, the assembled crowd thought Brush’s car had lost power, so he pointed the runabout’s sloping dash westward, and, amid gasps from the gathered crowd (Brush recalled “thousands” in attendance), clattered his way back down the stairs, demonstrating the holding power of the dual rear brakes. When he safely reached level ground, the crowd erupted into cheers and the landscaped park was renamed “Cadillac Square” in honor of the car that conquered it.

It must have felt like a personal victory for Brush. The land that Wayne county used to build their extravagant offices was first purchased from a British soldier by a Vermont native and Detroit immigrant—Elijah Brush, Alanson’s grandfather. The Wayne County Building was built on an ancestral burial ground on the old Brush family farm. Years later, the streets built around Cadillac square still reflect the family: Alfred, Adelaide, and Edmond, with Brush St. immediately behind the county building.

Detail of the 1903 Cadillac Ad featuring Brush’s remarkable feat.

Even though this feat—tantamount to a skateboarder grinding on the handrail of a newly-built police station—appears extraordinary, around the turn of the century, it was a common occurrence to show off a new car’s capabilities by driving it up the steps of a stately building. Earlier in 1902, Ransom E. Olds piloted his “curved-dash” Oldsmobile to the top of the staircase at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing. But Brush’s hillclimb proved to be the more impressive—the county building’s staircase in Detroit was even steeper than the stairs at the capitol—and it showcased the power of the Cadillac’s “Little Hercules” engine so perfectly that photographs of the event were featured in company advertisements throughout the following year.

The Leland & Faulconer Manufacturing Company, (Henry Leland, left) November, 1903

A year and one month after that famous “hill climb,” the offices of Leland & Faulconer were captured by the Detroit Photographic Co. The images reveal a hive of activity, with the “Master of Precision” —Henry Leland himself— stationed behind an overflowing desk. The “Model A” had been on sale for eight months; orders were stacking up. Cadillac would go on to ship 2,497 runabouts in their first year. Though it’s nearly impossible to verify, sitting across from Leland is a (literally) well-heeled gentleman with a youthful appearance. I believe this man to be Alanson P. Brush, who would only be 25 years old when this photo was taken.

And yet, youth would simply not hinder Brush’s career. Adding to his two existing patents, Brush racked up five more with improvements he made on Leland’s existing “Little Hercules,” including a patent on the variable intake valve and a unique crank which turned counterclockwise, meaning that if it backfired before ignition, the Cadillac would fling the hands of right-handed motorists away safely instead of snapping their wrists (as many clockwise cranks were known to do).

Diagram showing the inner workings of the “Lil’ Hercules” engine, Cadillac promotional material, 1904

As far as the engine itself — it lived up to its nickname. Henry Leland originally developed “Little Hercules” for the Oldsmobile company, but Ransom E. Olds thought the engine swap would be too troublesome and turned him down. After Brush’s modifications were installed, the little horizontally-opposed one-cylinder was claimed to develop (conservatively) 10.25 horsepower and could propel the runabout to speeds of nearly 30 mph. It was easy to maintain—curious owners could remove the cylinder head for cleaning; the most adventurous ones could even change out the transmission’s gear ratios to customize the Model A for driving on hilly roads.

Thanks to Brush, Leland had a superb engine. But the Leland & Faulconer company didn’t manufacture cars in-house. So the “Model A” still needed a fair bit of engineering (and another talented engineer) before they could attach “Little Hercules.” That engineer was Oliver Barthel of the Detroit Automobile Company.

Oliver E. Barthel with Charles B. King (left), 1896, and Henry Ford (right), 1901

By the summer of 1902, Barthel had already witnessed automobile history happen twice from as far away as the passenger seat. When the very first vehicle was completed in Detroit, it was not much more than a four-cylinder motor bolted to a rented delivery wagon. The wagon’s rear wheels were friction-belt-driven by means of a side-mounted chain and was steered with a tiller by an inventor and serial entrepreneur named Charles B. King. King’s passenger (and the car’s co-engineer) was none other than Oliver E. Barthel.

Fifty-six years later, when he was interviewed by the Ford Motor Co. in a piece called “Reminiscences of Oliver Barthel,” the German-born engineer could still clearly recall the morning of the motor city’s maiden car voyage on March 6 of 1896—as King and Barthel eased the horseless carriage out of its garage, there was a thin man with a mustache who was parked at the street corner, waiting to watch them. Barthel recognized this man’s face—months later, Barthel delivered a pair of discarded valves from King’s four-cylinder motor to this fellow tinkerer so that he could finalize his very first engine. This tinkerer was Henry Ford.

Henry Ford, at the tiller of his Quadricycle in the winter of 1896

The year prior, to supplement the $100/month income from his day job at the Edison Illumination Co., Henry Ford spent his nights teaching shop class at the YMCA over on Grand Avenue. That was where Barthel first encountered Henry Ford—as a student in Prof. Ford’s classroom workshop. Barthel also counted Charles Brady King as a teacher and when it came time to compare the educational abilities of the two, Barthel was rather unimpressed by ol’ Hank: “As teachers go, I would say that Mr. Ford is an ordinary teacher.”

Yet it wasn’t enough to extinguish Barthel’s curiosity about Ford’s first engine—he would stop by the Edison plant on his way to class to watch the progress of this primitive, single-cylinder engine. And when Ford finally got this motor to crank, it was a visiting Barthel who fed it drops of fuel from a squirt can. Ford took the engine home afterwards—his wife Clara was responsible for the fuel injection (an anecdote which later found its way into Ford’s ads).

Ford must have recalled Barthel’s assistance, because when it came time for the young maven to establish his name as a builder of racing cars in 1901, Ford picked Barthel as chief engineer. By that time, King was working for Oldsmobile, and Barthel was offering his services as a freelance engineer. Henry Ford was between companies in May of 1901—the organization known as the “Detroit Automobile Company” was organized one year earlier with Ford at the helm, but some of the company’s investors were impatient when couldn’t turn a profit (or build a viable vehicle) after a year, so they took the loss, withdrew their money, and in January of 1901, the D.A.C. was no more.

This setback did nothing to dampen Ford’s drive. The early days of the automobile industry looked like the early days of the boom, with whole enterprises formed out of pure speculation. Then, as now, the most critical partnership for a young auto magnate to make for their new venture was with a venture capitalist. And Henry Ford still had the confidence (and the capital) of the D.A.C.’s biggest financial backer: William H. Murphy.

Henry Ford (left) passes Alexander Winton in the seventh lap at the Detroit Auto Club’s Grosse Pointe track, October 10, 1901

Murphy decided to re-invest in Ford after attending a race in Grosse Point in October of 1901, wherein a heavily-favored racecar from Cleveland, Ohio—the dreaded “Winton Bullet” with bicycle shop owner Alexander Winton at the helm—was beaten soundly by the local hero. Though the victory was hard-fought, the race wasn’t even close. Ford’s two-cylinder racing engine was down on power compared to Winton’s Bullet (26 horsepower vs. nearly 40). But the Ford had its spark plugs insulated in porcelain, the first of their kind, and proved more reliable after the sixth lap, when the Bullet started belching blue smoke. By the next lap, the Bullet was dead, and the Henry Ford Company could count their first competition victory, with the company founder himself driving Sweepstakes to victory. The top prize from the race—aside from Murphy’s continued support—was advertising. Suddenly, people far and wide knew the name of Henry Ford.

By now, you can probably guess the name of the principle builder who actually built Sweepstakes. Why, it was Oliver Barthel, of course. The porcelain insulating the race car’s spark plugs was from Barthel’s dentist.

Now that Henry Ford had established his reputation as a builder, Murphy expected Ford’s focus to shift towards making a marketable product (an inexpensive runabout, hopefully). Instead, Henry obsessed more and more about racing. He commanded Oliver Barthel to begin construction of not one but two larger, four-cylinder race cars—the Arrow and the 999, which took their names from the fastest locomotives of the day. Barthel was to build Ford’s runabout, too, in his spare time.

In the sprawling, near-700-page book about Detroit’s auto dynasty, 1986's Ford: The Man and the Machine, writer Robert Lacey described Henry Ford’s work ethic at the former Detroit Automobile Company:

“The Cass Avenue factory was on the outskirts of Detroit, and [Ford] would go off into the nearby woods, saying that he was going to do some designing. [Fred] Strauss and other mechanics in the shop saw less and less of him— “he might come in every day for about an hour or two”—and when eventually his directors got tired of this and forced a showdown, Henry continued to play truant. “If they ask for me,” he told Strauss, “you tell them that I had to go out of town.” (Lacey, p. 40)

The directors of Henry Ford’s new company (Murphy included) were largely D.A.C. alumni, so when it came time to fund Ford in his new venture, they’d learned their lesson about oversight. On a surprise visit to the factory in the fall of 1901, William Murphy—the old, ex-lumber baron himself—discovered Oliver Barthel putting the finishing touches on the assembly design of the 999. Barthel remembers Murphy instructing him once before to stay away from Henry’s race car habit: Murphy said, “…not to do it, and that he would fire me, and if I valued my job, I’d better not do any work on [the 999].”

In spite of his threat, Murphy didn’t fire Barthel. (Of course, it would be unwise to fire the most-qualified engineer at an engineering company). Contrary to the story I tell to tourists in the vault, Murphy didn’t fire Henry Ford either. Though Murphy knew of Ford’s racing dalliances before the end of 1901, Ford didn’t leave the company officially until March of 1902.

Ford was indeed given a $900 severance package—that part of the story is true. Murphy, for his part, agreed to stop producing cars with the Ford name. According to Robert Lacey, Ford was permited to keep the plans of his prized race car, but was forbidden to take the designs for the unfinished runabout.

At least Henry Ford got a severance package. According to Barthel, “I was not considered in this deal and was not paid by either party for my overtime work in designing this larger racing car.”

Oliver Barthel in 1952, during an interview for the Ford Motor Company’s Oral History department

Before he left his first eponymous company, Henry Ford tried to recruit Oliver Barthel for his third (and slightly more successful) venture. Though Ford did not have the wherewithal to pay Barthel, he needed a draftsman to finish the plans of his 999 and an engineer to build it, so he offered Barthel 10% of any subsequent ventures. All Barthel had to do was “gamble [his] time until [Ford] would finish this racing car and get a new group interested to organize a new company.”

That, and put his trust in Henry Ford. Barthel recalled a wintery day in early December when Ford took him shopping for a wristwatch in downtown Detroit. The watch that Barthel chose was “a nineteen jewel, Waltham watch, and I still carry it.” They left the downtown jewelers before purchasing Barthel’s chosen watch, and Ford drove to a warehouse across town where the same timepiece could be bought wholesale — a generous gesture showing how Henry Ford took care of his friends. Barthel, however, still had to pay for the watch.

Regardless, Barthel considered Ford’s offer seriously — sufficiently so that Barthel enlisted a banker to help weigh his options. As a man with an engineer’s salary circa-1902, Barthel didn’t have enough of a financial cushion to float himself and his family while Ford searched for another financier.

The banker advised Barthel to stick with his old job. After all, Ford had burned through two companies in less than two years: He was unreliable. Murphy was offering Barthel the position of chief engineer as long as Barthel chose to “carry on where Mr. Ford left off.” So, Oliver Barthel went back to complete the runabout at his former teacher’s former business, and turned down 10% of the Ford Motor Company.

The engine assembly room at the Leland and Faulconer Co., November 1903

With Henry Ford gone for good, William Murphy wanted to assess if the company Ford left behind still had value. Murphy needed to find an expert industrialist who could discern if the once-promising enterprise was worth continuing. Being a devout man, Murphy hired a fellow churchgoer at Westminster Presbyterian who was regarded around town as a manufacturing perfectionist: Henry M. Leland.

When Leland first arrived at the Cass Ave. plant in August of 1902, what he found was a gold mine. Not just for Murphy and his fellow investors, but also for himself. Leland had spent quite a bit of money developing the “Little Hercules” engine on spec for the Oldsmobile company. Leland & Faulconer already produced the transmissions for the “curved dash” Oldsmobile and thought their one-cylinder engine would fit the Olds nicely. However, Ransom E. Olds didn’t want to pause production on the Oldsmobile line long enough to re-tool for a new engine, so he declined Leland’s proposition. Leland had an engine, but no car with which to house it.

But there, sitting unfinished in the workshops of the ex-Henry Ford Co., was a proper runabout, designed and engineered by Oliver Barthel. Barthel had a two-cylinder engine planned for the runabout, but Leland quickly saw an opportunity to make money twice on the same car. The first was from selling Leland & Faulconer-built engines to William Murphy. The second, from the sale of the car itself: Henry Leland was to be part-owner and board member in Murphy’s new corporation. All that it needed was a name. And so, on the company’s incorporation day — August 27, 1902 — Leland officially christened the Cadillac.

The first prototype of Cadillac’s runabout rolled through the Cass Ave. factory gates a mere two months later, on October 17, 1902. From the moment that Alanson P. Brush took it up the steps of the Wayne County Building, the Model A captured public interest. That next January, during the car’s public debut at the 1903 New York Automobile Show in Madison Square Garden, Cadillac sales manager William Metzger tallied up 2,286 pre-orders (with $10 deposits). Cadillac would go on to produce 2,497 cars in their first year.

The elation of Cadillac’s success in 1903 would be nearly extinguished in April of the following year. On April 13, 1904, a fire at the Cass Ave. factory engulfed the building. Oliver Barthel would not be there to watch it burn.

It is difficult not to feel pity for the man responsible for the Model A. Having turned down Henry Ford’s offer for a percentage, Barthel tried his luck once again as a freelance consultant, eventually finding a job tuning broken Oldsmobile marine motors for a wealthy Detroit dentist. Barthel’s reputation as an automobile designer was sufficient in 1904 for a group of three investors — including the owner of a chain of apothecaries, James E. Davis, and Alex J. Grossebeck, a lawyer and the future Governor of Michigan along with Barthel himself — to bankroll the first vehicle not only built by Barthel, but properly credited to him as well. The company launched with a striking name (“Mohawk Automobile Company”) which quickly changed to something more befitting of its figurehead—once the design was finalized on the second Mohawk vehicle, the company’s name changed officially — The “Barthel Auto Company” was incorporated in 1903. Barthel couldn’t sell enough stock to fund his own company. It folded the following year.

Cleveland, Ohio circa 1911 — the highlighted car in the right lane is a Brush runabout
Alanson P. Brush, displaying the Cadillac’s towing capabilities in 1903

As for Alanson P. Brush, the younger engineer stuck around Leland & Faulconer for a few years, at least enough time to design Cadillac’s first four-cylinder engine. Brush’s knack for marketing stunts didn’t recede —in 1902, he chauffeured no less than 13 men up Shelby St. hill in a Cadillac Tonneau, the bulk of the men towed behind the tonneau in a four-wheel cart.

Yet, when Brush showed Henry Leland his designs for a complete vehicle — a lightweight, two-cylinder runabout — the old man rejected his young apprentice’s pitch. So, Brush left Leland in 1906, and with financial backing from none other than William Murphy, founded the “Oakland Motor Car Co.” in the new suburb of Pontiac, MI. The (still-)young, (still-)impetuous engineer didn’t stay in Pontiac long, founding the “Brush Runabout Co.” in 1907.

Brush’s runabout was practically a graduate thesis from the young designer. First, the car was not heavy. Brush found that the original Cadillac was limited more by its weight (1,400 lbs.) than by its motor. All that mass pushed the car downward — into the awful, rutted roads of the age. In contrast, the Brush runabout would be made of featherweight woods — oak, hickory, and maple— from trees grown in northern Michigan. Brush’s chassis weighed only 700lbs.

Like the Cadillac, the Brush had a motor which ran counterclockwise, to lessen the sting of a backfire. Unlike the Cadillac, or any other vehicle of the age, Brush installed a coil spring and a shock absorber at each of his runabout’s wheels. Also unlike the Cadillac, the Brush retailed for under $500.

By 1909, William Murphy, that great patron of automotive arts, was dead. Oakland, the parent company which Brush helped found, was absorbed into what would become General Motors. It would later be outsold by its “companion brand,” Pontiac, and phased out entirely in 1931.

Alanson P. Brush as expert witness — photographed sometime during the 1950s

Brush’s own runabout company was itself absorbed into a conglomerate called the “United States Motor Co.,” which aimed to challenge the corporate might of General Motors. At first, the venture was a success. In 1910, Brush’s new parent company sold 10,000 runabouts. Like GM, the US Motor Co. was funded by promissory notes. Unlike GM, these notes were worthless, and when two of USMCo.’s bankers (who also held shares in GM) withdrew support in 1912, the company went into recievership. It reorganized in 1913 as “Maxwell Motor Company, Inc.,” and again in 1925 as “Chrysler Corporation.”

In 1902, both the Cadillac factory (left) and the Leland & Faulconer Mfg. Co. (right) were illustrated for Cadillac promotional materials

Neither Barthel nor Brush would outlive the Cadillac. The brand which, in its younger and more vulnerable years, both Barthel and Brush helped steward, has gone on to be the longest-lasting marquee from Detroit. During the 1950s, while Cadillac was building fantasy cars with giant fins which sliced their way down Woodward Ave., the two ex-engineers derived most of their income as expert witnesses in patent lawsuits. Cars bearing the names of “Barthel” and “Brush” were never again to cross an assembly line; the only place that either man would be referred to as “Chief Engineer” would be in a courthouse.

Henry M. Leland with his 1905 Osceola, named after a Seminole Chief

Ironically, Henry M. Leland — the “Grand Old Man of Detroit” and their former boss—would outlast both Barthel and Brush in the field of building cars. In 1905, Leland supervised the construction of the very first closed-body coupe, the Cadillac Osceola, which stands as the company’s first concept car. Though Leland used the Osceola mostly as his personal car, five years later all Cadillacs came closed-bodied as standard.

Of the many talents for which Leland is praised today, his way with words remains relatively un-lauded. “Osceola,” for instance, is the name of a chief from a Florida tribe who was such a fearsome fighter in the Second Seminole War, the U.S. government had to resort to deception to capture him; waving a false white flag at St. Augustine. Quite a name to pick for your personal car.

Leland had still one more brand name in mind when he left Cadillac during the outbreak of World War I. Ever the patriot, Leland clashed with William Crapo Durant when the founder of GM would not repurpose his factories to build the armaments necessary for war, so Henry Leland and son Wilfred went into business manufacturing 400 h.p. V-12 engines for Liberty airplanes. After the war was over in 1917, the Lelands returned to the car business with a new company named after Henry’s favorite president: Abraham Lincoln.

The great revenge sagas of Bushido-era samurai have nothing on Detroit. Even though the Lelands arrived at Cadillac long after Henry Ford’s departure, it seems likely Ford still held a grudge. Barthel theorized that perhaps, “It might have been because of the apparent success they made out of one of his earlier failures.” It has also been claimed that the member of the Ford family most interested in acquiring Lincoln was not Henry, but his son Edsel, who wanted a prestige brand atop the Ford product lineup. Either way, in 1922, Ford Motor Company picked up Lincoln for the price of accumulated debts (approximately $12 million). Two weeks later — the day after Leland’s 79th birthday — Ford engineers arrived at the Lincoln factory to assess their new asset, they found that the “Master of Precision” still watched as his engines were hand-built, one-at-a-time. Though Leland’s engines were meticulously constructed, they were expensive. And, though the early Lincoln car was stately, its open-wheel design looked obsolete by the early 1920s. Ford production chief Charlie Sorensen, by then a veteran builder of assembly lines, viewed the Lincoln factory and the old man who operated it as antequated. So, on a mid-June afternoon in 1922, the founder of both Lincoln and Cadillac was forced to resign by Ford secretary Ernest Liebold.

Henry M. Leland, defiant until the end, refused to abandon his office chair. So the members of Ford’s “special operations” department picked up the chair by its armrests, walked out the door and deposited the “Grand Old Man” out in the middle of Warren Ave., just another piece of obsolete machinery.

Henry Ford, photographed in 1946 in Greenfield Village

Henry Ford always had the last laugh. When Henry Leland’s son, Wilfred, soon realized what the young tycoon had planned for Lincoln, he demanded a face-to-face meeting. When Ford didn’t respond, Wilfred drove to his house and snuck in the gate.

There, in the dimly-lit halls of Ford’s Fair Lane mansion in Dearborn, Wilfred Leland begged Henry Ford to buy back his father’s company. His starting offer was the same $12 million that Ford initially paid plus interest. “Mr. Leland,” came the reply from the newly-minted billionaire, “I wouldn’t sell the Lincoln plant for five hundred million dollars.” (Lacey, p. 279)

This was during the boom years of the Model T, when the car seemed to drop in price every year. The “T” set sales records, too: At the end of World War I, Robert Lacey writes in his biographic tome, “almost half the cars on earth were Model T’s.” (Lacey, p. 97) Ford wouldn’t need financing ever again.

Some twenty years earlier, after his departure from the Henry Ford Co., Ford had nothing. William Murphy had sided with the Lelands, so Henry Ford was in search of a financier. Ford first sold his beloved race cars, the 999 and the Arrow to Tom Cooper. That wasn’t enough. Next, he found Alex Y. Malcolmson, another young entrepreneur who built an empire by delivering coal (via horse and buggy) to the hungry factories of Detroit. Malcomson’s empire, sadly, was built on credit. He had no cash to lend Ford, either.

When Ford & Malcomson, Co. produced their first car in 1903, Henry Ford couldn’t afford to hire Oliver Barthel to design an engine. Ford couldn’t pay the Dodge brothers to license their existing two-cylinder engine or transmission, either. So, in a move that would come back to sting Henry Ford, he cut a deal with John and Horace Dodge for $7,000 in Dodge engines and $3,000 in cash in exchange for 10% of Ford’s newly-formed company. Some 15 years later, when the Dodge brothers cashed in their shares of the Ford Motor Co., the final value of the stock (plus dividends, minus the cost of a lawsuit to ensure Ford paid in full) was more than $30 million. In 1919 dollars. Ouch.

That took care of the running gear. Still, Ford desperately needed to produce a finished car. How he managed to design, build, and sell a complete vehicle between June 16 (the date the Ford Motor Co. was established) and July 15 of 1903 (the date the first Ford Model A was sold to a dentist, Dr. E. Pfennig) is nothing short of incredible…

1903 Ford “Model A” (left) and 1903 Cadillac “Model A” (right)

Aside from the logos, the two cars above have much in common. Both listed for the same price ($750, plus $100 for a rear tonneau) in the same year (1903) in the same colors (maroon with black trim). They share the same lights, the same hickory wheels with the same number of spokes, the same seats covered in the same leather, the same optional leather buggy-style top. These days, both are referred to by the same, primary designation: “Model A.”

Both cars debuted sans logo — comparison shoppers in 1903 wouldn’t even have the massive brass branding to distinguish Ford from Cadillac. One could read the tire sidewalls, which spelled out “Goodrich” on the Cadillacs and “Firestone” on the Fords. You’d have to be pretty sharp to spot the six coils on the Cadillac’s radiator (vs. four for the Ford) or the optional twin-level handlebar on the Ford (vs. a less-ornate single handlebar on the Cadillac).

Cadillac’s Model A sported patent-leather fenders and fleur-de-lis detailing on its side flanks. Only later was the first Cadillac referred to as the “Model A” — until 1904's “Model B,” the “A” was simply “The Cadillac.”

Ford’s Model A also sported a nickname: “The Fordmobile.” Later advertisements proclaimed the first Ford the “Boss of the Road” and the “Latest and Best.”

Cadillac fired back with photographs of Alanson P. Brush’s stair climb and promised that every trip in a Cadillac runabout had a guaranteed return trip.

In a tactic that looks familiar today, Ford boasted about their larger engine: “The double opposed motor gives such universal satisfaction that manufacturers of single cylinder machines are changing their engines to compete with our type of car.” If this was a thinly-veiled insult towards Cadillac, it didn’t seem to offend Henry Leland. More, the claim was false: Leland had no intention of modifying “Little Hercules.” The patents, provided by Brush, turned the Cadillac’s one-cylinder into a potent powerplant. By many accounts, it was a reliable and robust engine.

In contrast, the motor powering Ford’s car had some quality “issues.” From their first meeting in mid-February of 1902 (while Ford was still technically still employed by the Henry Ford Company) until mid-July when the first Ford sold, the Dodge brothers had less than five months to design the running gear for the Fordmobile — a difficult deadline, not to mention that John and Horace Dodge still had to manufacture (and pay for) its tooling.

The 1903 “Ford Motor,” designed, built, and delivered by the Dodge bros

Crushing deadlines have a way of causing even talented builders like the Dodge brothers to sometimes overlook the basics. Ford dealers often had to repair the Dodge-built rear brakes upon delivery. According to August Deneger, a Ford employee charged with inspecting the Dodge parts as they were delivered to Ford’s Mack Ave. factory in 1903, “First 2-cylinder motors arrived from Dodge in July. Did not get any power out of the first motors. It took a week to find out we had no hole in the muffler.” This quote appears in Charles K. Hyde’s biography of the Dodges, The Dodge Brothers: The Men, the Motor Cars, and the Legacy, and Hyde goes on to relate a story about what happened when Fred Rockelman, a Ford quality tester, paid a visit to the Dodge factory after finding loose flywheels on brand-new Dodge engines:

When he threatened to stop accepting the machines they were shipping, the Dodge brothers nearly started a fistfight with Rockelman. According to Rockelman, once he proved that the hole drilled in the flywheel was too big for the crankshaft it was supposed to accept, “they were gentlemen enough to apologize and said they would correct that.” (Hyde, p. 37)

Clearly, the similarities between the first Ford and Cadillac didn’t extend far past their shared bodies, which were hewn from Michigan-sourced timber. These days, a modern automaker would waste no time contacting their in-house attourneys if a competitor released such a lookalike product — imitation, far from flattery, is today grounds for a lawsuit.

In the course of researching this piece, the question I’ve most pondered is: “Why didn’t a proud man like Henry Leland better defend his product?” I have yet to find a definitive answer, though I can see four possibilities:

The first posibility — which I call “The Pride Hypothesis”—seems likely when reading Henry Leland’s classic one-page sermon, The Penalty of Leadership: “The leader is assailed because he is a leader and the effort to equal him is merely added proof of that leadership…” Like many today, Leland believed that industry leaders had nothing to gain by comparing themselves with the also-rans. Ford Motor Co. sold 647 copies of their Model A in their first year of business. Leland, a leader from the beginning, sold 2,497.

The second possibility— which I like to call “The Wilson Body Hypothesis” — is that Leland didn’t sue Ford over cosmetic similarities because both companies contracted the same supplier, the C.R. Wilson Body Company, which built its reputation coach-building horse-drawn carriages. Henry Ford had even worked for Wilson part-time at one point while he was in-between jobs, and even appears in their company photo, circa 1900. From Wilson, Ford ordered leather seats ($16) and wooden chairs ($52), giving his Fordmobile a distinguished look. Well, if you pry up the leather upholstery on a 1903 Cadillac, and you will find a serial number preceeded by a “W” — which stood for the very same C.R. Wilson Body Company. Leland respected their craftsmanship, too — when it came time to build his closed-body Osceola, Leland chose C.R. Wilson.

The third possibility — which I like to call “Everyone Else Is Doing It” — can be illustrated below:

Top row, from left: 1902 American, 1903 American, 1903 General, 1903 Clarkmobile, 1903 Eclipse — Second row, from left: 1904 Eldridge, 1904 Glidemobile, 1900 Friedman — Third row, from left: 1903 Crestmobile, 1903 Marr, 1904 Elmore, 1903 Prescott

The site where I found all these Model A look-a-likes is called Early American Automobiles, and there is a quote on its main page from a 1905 issue of Automotive Industries magazine: “Almost all cars look so much alike these days that no one can tell the difference in them from a little distance, The only notable feature that I can see on this car is the radiator.” Perhaps Leland didn’t sue Ford because runabout design didn’t vary all that much at the beginning of the 20th century. Besides, what lay beneath the hood was more important, and Leland had “Little Hercules.”

The last possibility –my favorite– is admittedly the least probable of the four. I call it the “Oliver Barthel Hypothesis.” Though Leland was not licensed to practice law, he would have certainly realized that dragging Henry Ford into a courtroom to describe how he built the Fordmobile would raise several uncomfortable questions about who built Leland’s car. Especially when the chief engineer of both Model A cars no longer worked for Ford or Leland.

When Oliver Barthel saw his car on display at the Automotive Golden Jubilee, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Charles King’s innagural drive, he found his place in history was overlooked. Sitting in Convention Hall was a car labeled, “The 1902 Leland-Ford Car”:

Beyond the porcelain spark plugs and the prototypes, perhaps Barthel’s longest-lasting contribution to the automotive world came from the pages of a thin volume by Orlando Jay Smith: A Short View Of Great Questions, which tackled the tricky issue of death and the reincarnation of the soul in a new body. Barthel gave a copy of the book to Henry Ford after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Barthel also lent Ford the book’s sequel, Eternalism: A Theory of Infinite Justice, which Ford allegedly never returned.

Henry Ford, beaming at the helm of a 1903 “Model A” at the Automotive Golden Jubilee in 1945

When Henry Ford famously claimed the success of the Model T was shaped by “invisible forces, within and without me,” he is referring to his own “old soul.” (Lacey, p. 62) When, after the death of Ford’s only son Edsel, he related to his confidant Harry Bennet: “You know my belief — Edsel isn’t dead,” you see the influence of Orlando Smith’s reincarnation theory. (Lacey, p. 442) When Henry Ford noticed a resemblance between his wife’s niece and Ford’s own dear, departed mother, he assumed the teenage girl posessed the soul of Mary Litogot Ford inside her. “[Ford] took his reincarnated mother for rides in the countryside, teaching her to drive when she reached the age of sixteen, so that she could experience the creation that had made her son famous.” (Lacey, p. 443)

Bill Ford Jr., beaming at the helm of the world’s oldest 1903 “Model A” at the Ford Headquarters in 2012

Of course, Henry Ford would go on to be one of the world’s wealthiest men — not simply of his own time, but of all time as well — he’s listed here just two places down from William the Conquerer, with an inflation-adjusted net worth just shy of $200 billion. But Ford’s future fortune was very much unlikely at the time of the Model A. If Dr. E. Pfennig (Ford’s first customer) had paid for his car with an insufficient check, the young Ford Motor Company would have been the third company Henry Ford bankrupted in three years. The margins were really that tight. So when Henry’s great-grandson, William Clay Ford Jr., endeavored to find and purchase the world’s oldest remaining Fordmobile, it was an acknowledgment of what the car meant to the family company’s bottom line, more than what it said about the mechanical or technical abilities of the company’s eponymous founder. These days, Ford might turn to the past to provide a name for their “SVO” performance division, which may be renamed “999” after the racing car which brought its founder so much attention.

Years later, Leland would indeed bring suit against Henry Ford and his company for misrepresentation during the takeover of Lincoln. Through the long months of legal warfare, Leland would experience firsthand the drudgery of America’s “civil” court systems. The trial apparently left Leland “a broken man.” Leland died in 1932, with nothing more than a humble, crumbling plaque to mark his grave. A short-lived online campaign to restore Leland’s gravesite attracted public interest, but no commitment from Ford or GM.

At least Henry Leland is mentioned whenever the histories of Lincoln and Cadillac are considered. The names of Oliver E. Barthel and Alanson P. Brush are spoken with far less frequency. Their contemporaries — who started companies to produce “Glidemobiles” and “Crestmobiles” and “Clarkmobiles” — are even less remembered. Even Ransom E. Olds, who had fabulous success selling thousands of “Merry Oldsmobiles,” was removed from his own company in 1904. Regardless of his own engineering abilities, when Alexander Winton is referenced today, he is usually referred to as the man who lost a big race to Henry Ford.

At the end of his “Remembrances,” Oliver Barthel reflected on his relatively un-heralded career with the comfort of a man sure his soul will return to life:

The question has often been put to me why, in growing up with the automotive industry practically from its inception, I did not receive more financial benefits from it and become wealthy like many others more favored than I. All I can say is that because of my philosophy of life being based on giving of myself for the benefit of mankind for the good of humanity, I gave my talents to those in need of them as they came along.
Being more interested in solving the particular problem than in any financial return to me, the result was that much of my pioneer work and early efforts passed on to the automotive industry with no compensation to me.
I nevertheless posess that secret joy of the tinkerer and know that long after I am dead and forgotten, people will be still moving to the measure of my thought and effort. Such is the life of the engineer; an endless round of tasks, now great, now small, often taxing one’s ingenuity to the utmost, to the end that people may travel more easily, breathe more freely, live better in every way.
That is why an engineer’s achievement is not valued or measured for its size, cost or fame, but rather what it means to those who use it. Thus my life’s work of a comparatively little-known engineer has benefited millions of people, even though I never got much notice in the newspapers. I trust that you do not think I complain, for my passion has not been for publicity but for achievement. (Barthel, p. 86)
Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac, depicted in 1701 at the founding of Ft. Ponchetrain


In this discussion of the men who built the Cadillac automobile, we have overlooked the man himself — Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. I’ve found a story about the explorer, fur trader, and faux-nobleman (not to mention “one of the worst scoundrels ever to set foot in New France”) that can serve as a proper post-script:

Before Cadillac left Quebec for the dark wilderness of America, he celebrated at a lavish party at the Chateau St. Louis thrown by the governor of New France. While Cadillac occupied the position of honor at the banquet table, his fortune was analyzed by a “woman of unusual height,” with, “a dark, swarthy complexion.” Other partygoers were astonished by the fortune teller’s knowledge of intimate details about their histories. Cadillac was bored with history: “Ma bonne Mere, see what you can tell for me of the future, I care not for the past.”

The sorceress paused, then spun a tale of Cadillac’s “strange destiny,” involving a treacherous journey through the wilderness to found a city that would one day boast more citizens than all of New France. Cadillac himself would enjoy the fruits of this discovery; the fortune teller delighted the explorer, explaining to Cadillac that, “many children will nestle around your fireside.” Intrigued, Cadillac asked for more details.

“Mon Chevalier, I wish you had not commanded me to go on, for dark clouds are arising and I see dimly your star,” the old woman continued, “The policy you intend pursuing in selling liquor to the savages, contrary to the advice of the Jesuits, will cause you much trouble, and be the cause of your ruin.” She told of bloodshed, of resistance from the natives and competition from the dreaded English.

Already expecting an arduous journey, Cadillac was undeterred. He was more concerned with legacy than competition anyway, and asked the woman, “Shall my children inherit my possessions?”

If the fortune teller was amusing before, now she turned deadly serious, warning Cadillac of any undue ambition, which she said would cause his progeny to inherit nothing. She left Cadillac with strict instructions: “Appease the Nain Rouge! Beware of offending him. Should you be thus unfortunate…your name will be scarcely known in the city you founded.”

Six years later, so the story goes, Detroit’s population was flush and growing. The city lay on a critical juncture for the booming fur trade of the age, and the military base at Ft. Pontchartrain protected France’s conquest from English expansion eastward and from the neighboring Iroquois tribe to the west.

Cadillac was, by then, an established governor, himself growing flush from heavy taxes imposed on alcohol and imported goods. Detroit, according to the official reports that Cadillac sent back to Quebec, was a successful venture. In the spring of 1707, Cadillac hoisted a stately flagpole and raised the Fleur de Lis for all gathered, and some 60-odd settlers applauded, feasted, and made merriment.

Yet, not all of Detroit’s citizens were satisfied. Later that evening, Gov. Cadillac returned with his wife to stroll the King’s Garden, when they overheard a conversation between two settlers drunk from the night’s festivities. The first settler complained about the price of brandy — which was five times cheaper across the border in New France. Yet, he continued (referring to Cadillac and his wife), “our Seigneur and the Dos Blanc carry themselves very high, with their silver plate and fine clothing…”

The second settler turned to his friend and told him not to worry. The reign of Cadillac was coming to a close: “My wife saw a few days ago ‘le petit homme Rouge’ and…”

The Cadillacs heard no further — the settlers’ voices were lost on the night — but what Mme. Cadillac heard was more than sufficient for concern. When the fortune teller delivered her dire warning, Cadillac’s wife was sitting beside him, and she gave more credit to the woman’s words than her husband. She implored, “”Did you not hear?” ‘Le petit homme Rouge’ is the dreaded ‘Nain Rouge.’”

Antoine Cadillac brushed off his wife’s fears, at first not even claiming to recall the old seer or her prophecy. Besides, the village was fortified. And prospering. Cadillac guided his wife towards the shoreline for the walk home.

There, on the banks of the Detroit River, a small figure emerged from the waves. His face was glowing, the color of coal, firey in spite of the darkness. The figure had but one eye, and it scanned the governor and his young wife.

““It is the Nain Rouge,” whispered Cadillac’s wife.”

Overcome with rage, Cadillac drew back his cane and struck the figure, thrashing the Nain Rouge, and shouting, “Get out of my way, you red imp!”

The mysterious figure only laughed as Cadillac struggled, cackling with masochism and evil until it disappeared into the night. Cadillac was satisfied with his efforts, but his wife knew better: “You have offended him,” said Mme Cadillac. “Your impetuosity will bring you and yours to ruin. You were told to coax him — to beware of annoying this demon — and in your ungovernable temper you do just otherwise. Misfortune will soon be our portion.”

Cadillac was transferred to Louisiana which, at that time, was the French colonial equivalent of Siberia. He complained so vociferously, he was removed from office and sailed to France with his family in 1716. He lived out the remainder of his years as the governor of a rural village in the Midi-Pyrénées mountains. The locals didn’t elect Cadillac; he purchased the position and never returned to Detroit. His descendants never enjoyed the spoils of Cadillac’s “discovery.”

(And, let us also acknowledge that Antoine Cadillac merely “discovered” land the native Iriquois, Huron, Ottowa, and other tribes used for 6,000 years.)

Detroit itself fell into disrepair. In part, because Cadillac had been boosting his population numbers. The colony had never been the success Gov. Cadillac claimed. Every time that a new tragedy befell the city — from the Great Fire of 1805, when every building but two burned to the ground, to the riots of 1967, when the National Guard drove their tanks down Woodward Ave. — Detroit’s residents claimed to see the gloating face of the Nain Rouge, that specter of arrogance and selfishness and pride which elevates the city to dizzying heights, before plummeting, inevitably, back down again.

The Nain Rouge, interpreted by contemporary Detroit artist, Michael Eugene Burdick

Today, the Nain Rouge, like any good ghost story, is more metaphor than truth; the tale provides a framework to explain Detroit’s signature brand of hubris. Or, at least, to find someone to blame. When fire consumed the Cadillac factory in 1904, the Nain Rouge was the arsonist. When Leland refused to modernize his cars because they were “world-leading,” he invoked the Nain Rouge. When the Ford employees strong-armed Leland into an early retirement, their faces red with the power of the Nain Rouge. Even today, when Cadillac executives in the Silver Silos start believing that their cars are “The Standard of the World” by definition, one can gaze out the window toward the Detroit River and see a small figure emerging from the waves…

And yet, Leland would have known this story. The tale of the Nain Rouge was included in this book, Legends of Le Detroit, by Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin. The book was printed in 1883 and re-printed shortly before Detroit’s bi-centennial celebrations. A well-read gentleman, Leland would have been familiar with the fable, even if he didn’t read Hamlin’s folklore.

The point: Leland knew that Cadillac was an audacious scoundrel, an adventurer and a dilettante with a healthy distaste for authority. Leland knew that Cadillac was instructed to beware the Nain Rouge and instead of listening to what he was told, he literally beat his superstition into submission. At its core, that’s what the Cadillac brand stands for.

So my advice to the newest inheritor of the Cadillac legacy, Johan de Nysschen, would be two-fold…

“Beware the Nain Rouge!” And, also:

Thrash the Nain Rouge!”