Why a renowned automobile is named after a French mountebank who happened to found Detroit in 1701
ANTOINE DE LAMOTHE SIEUR DE CADILLAC
SAINT NICOLAS-DE-LA-GRAVE 1658
CASTELSARRASIN, 15 OCTOBER 1730
The American mechanical engineer, Henry Leland (1843-1932), was born to a Quaker family in Vermont and had learned in the weapons industry, with the Colt revolver manufacturer for example, how important standardisation and precision are in his profession. Starting in 1890 he and a partner had a factory at Detroit where they made all kinds of machines and parts. Around the turn of the century, Ransom E. Olds of Oldsmobile was one of his customers. Around 1901 he redesigned Olds’ engine, using more exact specifications and making it more powerful. The time was inconvenient for Olds to change his production, however, and he left Leland holding the bag.
A year later, Leland’s advice was requested with regard to the shutting down of the Henry Ford Company, one of the early false starts of Ford. Leland proposed to the financiers that they relaunch the company with his new engine as a contribution. On 22 August 1902 the new company was a fact. It was given the name, Cadillac, after the founder of Detroit. In 1901 the city had celebrated the bicentennial of its founding, so the name was in Leland’s thoughts. The name Cadillac called up the class and elegance of the old world. In the year 1903 he manufactured 2497 Model A Cadillacs. Three years later, Leland registered the coat of arms of the city founder as an automobile emblem.
Only later it was discovered that the coat of arms was not genuine. Antoine Laumet, the real name of the man who had called himself Cadillac, did not belong to the nobility. His father, Jean Laumet, was a court clerk and his mother, Jeanne Pechagut, was a simple housewife. Nor did he come from the French city, Cadillac, but from the village St. Nicolas-de-la-Grave, north-west of Toulouse. He did receive a military education. He was a cadet at Charleroi and became an officer at Thionville. It was customary to assume a nom de guerre and Antoine Laumet chose the name Cadillac. Just like Leland, 200 years later, he must have thought the name sounded good.