Where Did the Name Cadillac Come From?

by Rob Wagner
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Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Henry Martyn Leland, the founder of Cadillac Automotive Company in 1902, named his luxury, precision-made car after Frenchman Le Sieur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. Leland wanted to honor Cadillac, who founded the city of Detroit in 1701 initially as a frontier outpost and fort. The Cadillac Automobile Company roots are traced to a precision machine company created by Leland and his partner Robert Faulconer.

Cadillac Origins

Leland named his car the Cadillac because it evoked quality and the pioneering spirit. Leland probably didn't know that Le Sieur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac was a fake. Cadillac fled France for America to escape the persecution of Protestants and bad debts. He reinvented himself as a nobleman. The title created a new persona of a French dandy and adventurer.

Cadillac the Explorer

Michigan in 1701 was uncharted territory. Cadillac was exploring what later became the Detroit River when Cadillac and his crew spotted an ideal shoreline for a settlement from their canoes at what is now Shelby Avenue and Jefferson Street in Detroit's city center. He named the new settlement for the French word "détroit" or "strait of a river."

The Tinkerer

Leland was a tinkerer and astute student of machinery. His father instilled in him a strong work ethic and demanded that not only his son operate machinery with a high level of competence but understood how it worked. While employed as an apprentice for gun manufacturer Colt, he began to understand the importance of mass-produced, precision-made machines.

The Perfectionist

The automobile industry at the turn of the 20th century perfected the concept of precision-made product manufactured in large quantities. Interchangeable parts in machines and products were fledgling technology. Leland's work in developing interchangeable bicycle gears and his appreciation of the simple but effective inner workings of a revolver foreshadowed his ability to create a reliable luxury car.

Cadillac Inspiration

Leland wanted a car that was reliable but featured a higher standard of workmanship and comforts not found with his rivals' cars. Eschewing the tradition of naming the car after himself, he wanted a name that denoted nobility, albeit on a less class-conscious scale.

Why the Name Fits

Detroiters of the late 19th century were a proud lot. Their French roots ran deep and set them apart from the British and German origins of their neighbors farther East. Leland saw in Le Sieur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac what he wanted in his own company. Cadillac the man represented the best of Detroit. Leland recognized Cadillac's sense of adventure. Images of the man reflected a well-dressed, well-coiffed high-caliber person. The Frenchman's heraldry, the family crest, was chosen by Leland as the car's logo.

The Result

Leland's first Cadillac rolled out of the factory late 1902. It was a one-cylinder runabout featuring patent leather fenders. The engine design and execution reflected Leland's precision-making skills. By 1903, the chassis was equipped with a steel frame, two half-elliptic springs and a steering wheel instead of a tiller. More than 20,000 Cadillacs were manufactured by 1907.

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