No one who has ever worked in Detroit's auto manufacturing sector could possibly be surprised by General Motors bringing Cadillac back home after a four-year foray in trendy Manhattan.
In fact, it's much the same dynamic that prompted Ford under Jacques Nasser to move Lincoln to Irvine, Calif., and then bring the luxury Premier Automotive Group — Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo and Lincoln — together in that same venue. That was 1999. Lincoln announced its return to Dearborn in 2002, and in 2009, with Ford then under Alan Mulally's leadership, the Premier Auto Group was dissolved.
Management failure? No doubt. But it's not difficult to understand their thinking in wanting to bring younger buyers, a more Euro luxury image and trendiness to aging brands mostly purchased and leased by aging customers. After all, as the famous Detroit maxim goes: "You can sell an old man a young man's car, but you can't sell a young man an old man's car."
But while wanting to transform a vehicle preferred by older buyers into one desired by younger ones is understandable, success is rare, and both companies made it near impossible. Cadillac's and Lincoln's coastal relocations consisted of small staff numbers — 110 for Cadillac and 90 for Lincoln — most of whom were marketing, sales and communications specialists.
What remained in Detroit were the real power functions: design, engineering, finance and, most importantly, the executive decision-making group. And any trendy cachet the companies hoped to earn by the moves was largely illusory, fueled by purchased advertising and sponsored events but rarely if ever yielding spontaneous brand- or consumer-generated response.
Castigating domestic automaker leadership is a time-honored Detroit sport, but in this case, that's overly simplistic because what the domestics do well, they do really well — trucks, for example, and more often than not, sedans. That's because trucks and sedans are heart-of-the-market mass-production products. They speak to Detroit and middle-American values. They're driven and understood by all of us, including GM and Ford executives and employees who were born, went to school and reside in Michigan.
And the intuitive understanding we have about a Ford F-150 or Chevy Silverado doesn't quite extend to a small car or a true sports car or a luxury sedan that might appeal to someone in his or her 30s or 40s. Those just aren't a core part of our vehicular DNA.
When Sergio Marchionne's Fiat acquired Chrysler from the government's TARP program in 2011, he understood us better than we ourselves did. He didn't move Dodge to Turin; or task the company with producing a homegrown version of the Fiat Spider; or change the dress code to all black. Instead, he encouraged Chrysler to double down on Detroit — on who we are, what we stand for, what we produce. Which is why instead of "not your father's Chrysler" advertising, we got "Imported from Detroit" and for Dodge, new versions of the Dodge brothers.
New leadership, corporate average fuel economy legislation, bankruptcy, disruptive technologies, ownership changes, autonomous vehicles — the domestic automakers and their leaders have seen it all. But locating their brands in Irvine or SoHo makes as much sense as if they had tried to move Oldsmobile to Seattle or Pontiac to Cap Ferrat.
The inescapable conclusion is, for all homegrown automakers, we are your father's car company.