When John Grettenberger arrived as Cadillac's general manager in 1984, the General Motors luxury division — the nation's top luxury marque for years — was still selling a lot of cars, but the brand was at death's door.
Cadillac was reeling from major technical and marketing disasters that had tarnished the brand's quality and longtime sterling image.
Failed diesel engines and severe technical problems with Cadillac's V-8-6-4 engine, with cylinder deactivation to boost fuel economy — coupled with stodgy designs — prompted luxury buyers to shop elsewhere. The compact Chevrolet Cavalier-based Cimarron, introduced in 1982, hurt the brand even more when it became the butt of jokes.
German stalwarts Mercedes-Benz and BMW — with their taut suspensions, powerful and sophisticated overhead-cam engines, floor shifters and class-leading safety equipment — were poaching Cadillac customers in droves. And there was a new juggernaut, Japanese luxury brands from the likes of Toyota, Nissan and Honda, just around the corner.
Thirteen years later when Grettenberger, who died Tuesday at age 82 in Lansing, Mich., retired, Cadillac's image had been rebuilt. And a seed he planted, the Cadillac Escalade SUV that debuted in 1998, has grown to become one of, if not the, most profitable and important nameplates in GM's lineup today.
Yet when Grettenberger stepped down in 1997, it also marked the last year Cadillac was the nation's top-selling luxury brand, after decades on top. The U.S. luxury car market nearly doubled during the 80's, but Cadillac deliveries grew only slightly. Moreover, the division's share of U.S. luxury sales sank to 27 percent in 1990 from 40 percent in 1980, and from more than 60 percent in 1970.
While GM executives are now retooling Cadillac yet again for a new era — electrification — it is Grettenberger who gets credit for the brand's original turnaround.
While he wasn't the embodiment of the old-fashioned, all-powerful GM division general manager, in 2014, when yet another executive was named to steer the brand, Automotive News and others called Grettenberger the last pure general manager of Cadillac.