Cadillac’s Electric Self Starter Turns 100

DETROIT – With the turn of a key or push of a button, starting a car today is taken for granted. But a century ago, the electric starter that debuted in the 1912 Cadillac Touring Edition helped establish Cadillac’s reputation as a test bed of technology and innovation.

Before the electric starter, it took a hand crank, a lot of muscle, and a bit of hope to start driving.

“Hand cranking was the No. 1 injury risk in those early days of the automobile,” said Greg Wallace, director of the General Motors Heritage Center, referring to the kickback on a crank handle that could break an arm, or worse.

As cars grew larger and purposeful, so did the engines and effort required to start them. It was so difficult, in fact, that it gave rise to the term “cranky,” which often described someone’s mood after struggling to start a car.

Cadillac founder Henry M. Leland, who had already pioneered electric lights and electric ignition on his cars, worked closely with Charles F. Kettering, the inventor of the electric starter, to incorporate the device into his cars. The electric starter also was GM’s first electric motor – a core business today anticipating the growth in the electrification of the automobile.

“It was one of the most significant innovations in the history of the automobile,” Wallace said. “It was a complete game changer. Within a few years, Cadillac featured women in their advertising showing them as drivers, instead of passengers or bystanders.”

Before the electric starter, Leland was an expert machinist and precision manufacturer. A few years earlier, he devised component standardization and interchangeable parts. Soon after the electric starter, Cadillac would be the first to introduce the V-8 engine and the synchromesh transmission for easier gear shifting.

Cadillac was also the first car company to offer a fully enclosed car body as standard equipment.

“As a premium brand even in its earliest days, Cadillac positioned itself as a technology and innovation leader as a way to set it apart from the dozens of other auto companies,” Wallace said.

Among the more visible Cadillac innovations beginning in the 1920s were designer bodywork and color lacquer paint. Later, Cadillac would innovate design with sleek, curvaceous body styles and jet-inspired tail fins.

Cadillac introduced the first automatic climate control and heated seats. Twilight Sentinel automatically turned on and off headlamps, and the first tilt-telescoping steering wheel helped drivers feel more comfortable behind the wheel. All were Cadillac firsts.

In more recent years, Cadillac was the platform for many high-tech innovations. It pioneered the air-cushion restraint system 1974 – a precursor to modern air bag systems. In 1996, Cadillac vehicles were the first to include OnStar, the leading on-board security, communication and diagnostic system.

In 1999, Cadillac introduced the first automotive night vision system. Magnetic Ride Control, the world’s fastest-reacting suspension technology, was introduced by Cadillac in 2002. Today Magnetic Ride Control is a crucial element in the performance of Cadillac’s CTS-V and Escalade models, as well as the upcoming XTS and ATS sedans. It’s been adopted by a few other automakers on a handful of elite sports cars.

Cadillac expands significantly in 2012, with new advanced technology elements CUE, a new user experience for in-car connectivity that will be a signature feature of the 2013 XTS and ATS. CUE recently received a Popular Mechanic’s Editors’ Choice Award at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show.

Cadillac has been a leading luxury auto brand since 1902. In recent years, Cadillac has engineered a historic renaissance led by artful engineering and advanced technology. More information on Cadillac can be found at

Please, You’re Tinkering with my Art – Dagmar

Cadillac automobiles have often featured a lot of chrome.  From early on Cadillac has been a premium American brand, and that meant a lot of chrome to buyers.  The more the better.

Dagmar bumpers, also known simply as Dagmars (D-HAG-mar) is a slang term for the artillery shell shaped styling elements found on the front bumper/grille assemblies on some Cadillacs.  Artistically, the bumpers were probably supposed to suggest a feature from an aircraft.  However, to the Viewer they suggested a popular actress of the day, Virginia Lewis (Dagmar).

Standing 5 feet 11 inches in her heels, Dagmar combined ”the voluptuous curves of a Venus, the provocative grace of a young Mae West and the virtue of a Girl Scout,” Murray Schumach wrote in The New York Times in 1950.

NY Times’ Douglas Martin wrote:

Dagmar’s significance transcended [television,] beating Cher and Madonna to first-name-only status. Her necklines were debated on the floor of the House of Representatives, and when her salary soared from $75 a week to $3,000, the government’s Wage Stabilization Board took public notice.

Wikipedia has this info on Virginia Lewis (Dagmar):

In 1950, when Virginia Lewis was hired by Jerry Lester for NBC’s first late-night show Broadway Open House (1950-52), he renamed her Dagmar. Lester devised the name as a satirical reference to the huge success on television of the TV series Mama (1949-57), in which the younger sister, Dagmar Hansen, was portrayed by Robin Morgan.

As Dagmar, Lewis was instructed to wear a low-cut gown, sit on a stool and play the role of a stereotypical dumb blonde. With tight sweaters displaying her curvy 5′ 8″ figure (measuring 42″-23″-39″), her dim-bulb character was an immediate success, soon attracting much more attention than Lester. Lewis quickly showed that regardless of appearances she was quite bright and quick-witted. She appeared in sketches, and Lester made occasional jokes about her “hidden talents.”

Virginia Lewis’ success as a performer was stated eloquently in an article in Huntington Quarterly magazine (Issue 35) which read:

“The secret of Dagmar’s success was a star quality that transcended sex appeal. Beneath the bust line and the punch line beat the heart of the nicest hometown girl you would ever want to meet. And to a generation of men separated from home — and from mothers, and sisters, and wives and sweethearts — Dagmar was American womanhood in its most appealing outward form. She was the farmer’s daughter and the Pretty Girl come to life. She was nothing less than an icon — a living, breathing example of the pinups painted on the noses of U.S. military aircraft during World War II and Korea.”

Says Milton Berle: “She was extra-talented. She could sing, she could dance, she knew how to throw a line, and she was a good ‘feed,’ like a straight woman. She was a pro.”

Certainly this is one classic Cadillac anthropomorphic detail that should make a return in the modern cars.  Celebrating the beauty of a Woman who found her own voice in early media as a genuinely talented comedic actress would be a good thing.

Re: Auto Alphabet Soup: What’s in a Car Name? –

From the Wallstreet Journal “Opinion Journal”:

A long time ago, almost all cars had evocative names—the Cadillac Eldorado, the Pontiac Bonneville. In that automotive galaxy far away, there was even the Ford Galaxie

via Auto Alphabet Soup: What’s in a Car Name? –

1915 Cadillac Type 51

Of course, our CaddyInfo readers recall this article and that Letter or Numeric names are actually old-school for Cadillac.  The stylized names did not pop up until after WW II.