We've previously told you the tragic tale of the Cadillac Cimarron. A half-baked attempt at badge engineering a small Caddy out of the not-very-good-to-begin-with J-car, the Cimarron lives in infamy as one of GM's most heinous offenses against its own brand equity.
How bad was it? Let's put it this way: one of Cadillac's executives had a picture of a Cimarron prominently placed in the design offices--as a shining example to all of what not to do.
Ignoring that object lesson, Cadillac tried the same trick again fifteen years later, badge-engineering another new small Caddy out of a car from a more pedestrian GM division. The car that resulted when history repeated itself wasn't quite as tragically flawed as the Cimarron, but what seemed like a promising little ride at first glance quickly became a farce involving a duck, a supermodel, a lot of warranty claims, and a doctor on TV.
I'm talking about the Cadillac Catera, introduced in 1997 as "The Caddy that zigs."
The Catera was an attempt by Cadillac to appeal to a younger demographic and move into the performance-luxury segment occupied by Acura, Lexus, BMW, and Mercedes Benz. The starting point for the project was the German-built Opel Omega, a rear-wheel drive sedan riding on a 107-inch wheelbase. The Cadillac engineers based the Catera on the "MV6" version of the Omega, which used a 3.0 liter DOHC V-6 with an unusual 54-degree vee angle. This engine produced 200 horsepower and 192 foot-pounds of torque, and was mated to a computerized 4-speed autobox. To turn the Omega MV6 into a US-spec Caddy, it was given a grille with a Cadillac crest, a new rear fascia, a full compliment of luxury gadgets, slightly softer springs, a little structural stiffening, and a whole lot of sound-deadening insulation.
The end result seemed to be a reasonably competent car. Contemporary reviewers said that the handling was pretty good and the brakes were excellent. Acceleration left a lot to be desired, though: 0-60 took a leisurely 8.9 seconds, as the low-torque V-6 strained against the 3,800-pound curb weight. Car and Driver put it this way: "Like a rookie priest, it's slightly overwhelmed by mass."
On the outside, the styling was, well, pleasant enough; I mean, it wasn't ugly or anything. Unfortunately, it also wasn't particularly distinctive. In transforming the Omega into the Catera, GM had not changed any of the body panels--probably to keep development and tooling costs down. GM styling in the 1990s tended to be boring and generic, but even in those dark days Cadillacs still had some distinctiveness. The circa-1997 De Ville and Seville were no beauty queens, but their styling at least had some continuity with previous years, and they looked more like each other than like anything else in the GM brand portfolio. The Catera's grille was an attempt at giving it a Caddy-like feel, but apart from that it didn't quite look like a member of the Cadillac family.
The Catera did, however, look uncomfortably similar to other, cheaper GM cars. As the Catera was hitting our shores, GM was also selling the N-body family of front-wheel drive cars; the fifth-generation Chevrolet Malibu, fourth-generation Pontiac Grand Am, Oldsmobile Achieva and sixth-generation Cutlass, and the sixth-generation Buick Skylark. The N-bodies rode on a 107.5-inch wheelbase, and their overall dimensions were amazingly close to the Catera's: less than an inch difference in height and width, and either two or four inches' difference in length depending on the particular model. They all had more or less the same profile and proportions, and shared many of the same styling cues, details, and feature lines. The Catera had a very different architecture under the sheetmetal, but if you parked one in the middle of a row of N-bodies, you'd be hard-pressed to pick it out from a hundred yards away.
Despite its GM-generic styling and less-than-thrilling straight line performance, the Catera was at least a decent start at a performance-luxury sedan. It would have made a believable Buick or, with perhaps a little more "excitement" in the engine bay, a plausible Pontiac. But no, GM wanted it to be a Cadillac, and sell it at a Cadillac price ($30-35k), so the question became how to market it as a credible Cadillac.
What GM and their ad agency ultimately decided was that the Catera would be the rebellious, free-spirited Cadillac for nonconformists.
What in the name of Henry Martin Leland were they thinking?
There are cars which have become successful by appealing to a nonconformist, free-spirited mindset. This was how Volkswagen marketed the Beetle in the 1960s, and how Subaru defined its brand in the '70s. Thing is, both VW and Subaru were, at the time, underdogs going up against the Establishment. Traditionally, Cadillac drivers aren't underdogs going up against the Establishment; they are the Establishment. If the notion of an anti-Establishment hippie-granola Cadillac isn't absurd enough, the idea that it was an act of profound individualism to drive a Catera--a plain-vanilla, badge-engineered, styled-by-committee Catera, which looks just like a Malibu costing thousands less--well, that easily crosses into the realm of the delusional. Still, that's what they went with--the ads would present the Catera as the nonconformist "Caddy that zigs."
Then things got really weird.
The point person chosen to deliver the Catera's totally radical anti-Establishment message was . . . a duck. A bright red anthropomorphic cartoon duck.
As Chico Marx once famously asked, "Why a duck?"
I couldn't find an official explanation, but the duck seems to have its origin in the Cadillac crest. The shield in Cadillac's traditional shield-in-a-wreath emblem uses the actual coat of arms of the man the car was named after, Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, the French nobleman who founded the city of Detroit. In the upper left and lower right quadrants of the shield, there's a trio of black, duck-like birds. The official term for them in heraldry is "merlettes." Merlettes are a symbol of the Holy Trinity, and their presence in the coat of arms indicates that someone in old Antoine's family tree did something brave in one of the Crusades.
In the TV commercials, the cartoon duck would deliver his pitch, and then at the end, when the announcer was reciting the "Caddy that zigs" tagline, the duck would jump into the lower right quadrant of the coat of arms and take the place of the bottom merlette--where, being bright red and facing in the opposite direction, he stood out like a sore thumb. This was presumably intended to symbolize the daring revolutionary spirit of the Catera. Dude, that duck is, like, totally sticking it to The Man!
When the Catera was introduced, GM ran scads of Catera duck commercials on network TV, many of which exhorted you to "lease a Catera"--so much so that "lease a Catera" became more of a catchphrase than "The Caddy that zigs." (More on that a little later.) GM even bought time during Super Bowl XXXI for an elaborate fantasy-themed spot in which the duck played opposite supermodel Cindy Crawford:
The duck also appeared in print ads like the ones seen here. In some of these, the duck was placed in a white space in the middle of three columns of mildly zany text extolling the Catera's virtues. One such ad attributed the Catera's design to "duck logic;" another claimed that "Catera scrambles your preconceptions and turns out to be a whole new omelet."
The duck ads were supposed to be amusing and definitely not intended to be taken seriously. There's nothing wrong with amusing, non-serious car commercials--many of them are very good. The problem is, "amusing" and "not serious" and "duck logic" (whatever the heck that is) are not concepts one traditionally associates with high-dollar luxury cars. As columnist Ian Shoales of the then-newfangled online magazine Salon put it:
"Think about it: 30,000 bucks for a sedan. That's more than what my father paid for a house. To entice me into buying, what do the marketing geniuses dream up? A [expletive deleted] duck....
"If I'm going to shell out that kind of dough for a car (and I'm not about to, even if I could, believe you me), it'll be in exchange for a Mercedes or BMW logo, something classy, not a little cartoon waterfowl."
GM met its first-year sales goal of 25,000 Cateras, but things went downhill from there. By 2000, annual production of Cateras was down to 17,800. The last Catera waddled out of the factory in 2001, and the model is now generally considered to be something of an embarrassing flop.
Why didn't this particular duck take flight? Part of it had to be that the Catera was awfully expensive for something that looked and accelerated more like a fleet-special Chevy than the Standard of the World. Part of it was undoubtedly the cultural dissonance between the smart-aleck duck and Cadillac's traditional highbrow image. The biggest problem was that the Catera had something else in common with the N-body Malibu besides the boring styling--a distressing propensity to break down in expensive and inconvenient ways.
How unreliable was it? Let's put it this way: Cadillac-Catera.com, a website run by and for Catera owners and fans, describes the car on the masthead of its home page as "The finest car of the 1990's! . . . On the occasions when the Catera actually works." When even the car's die-hard fans admit it has reliability issues, and hold up their repair bills as badges of honor, you know something has gone horribly wrong.
Cadillac replaced the Catera with the CTS, the first car to use Cadillac's "Art and Science" design theme. It's mechanically a much better car and, whether you love or hate the look, there's no danger that anyone will ever mistake an "Art and Science" Caddy for a Chevy!
The CTS was also the first Cadillac to wear the current version of the Cadillac crest. According to official sources, the crest was redesigned to give it a "machine" feel which compliments the high-tech Art and Science look. One change is very noticeable:
The merlettes are gone from the new version. It is widely believed--though no one at GM will admit to it--that the merlettes were deleted out of embarrassment over the failed Catera and its cheeky spokes-duck.
There's one more chapter to the Catera story that I have to relate to you, and it's the most farcical of all. As I mentioned before, the Catera was heavily advertised on prime-time TV, to the point that one couldn't sit in front of the tube for more than fifteen minutes on any give evening without being told to "lease a Catera." The writers and producers of the prime-time medical drama Chicago Hope must have found that amusing--or maybe they just heard the catchphrase too many times. For the show's fourth season, in the fall of 1997, they added a new regular character, a doctor named . . . Lisa Catera!
Cadillac was one of Chicago Hope's regular sponsors, and some were suspicious that Dr. Catera was the fruit of some sneaky product placement deal. These suspicions were seemingly confirmed when the character was given lines of dialogue like, "Sometimes when you can't zig, you gotta zag." However, it really was all just an elaborate joke. In the episode "Cabin Fever," the audience finally got to see Dr. Catera's car, and it wasn't a Cadillac Catera.
It was a Volvo.
Discovering the deeper symbolism behind that (if there is any) is left as an exercise for the reader.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The black Catera was photographed by Flickr user leopolean. The blue one is from Flickr user thunder jeno. The forlorn Catera in the junkyard is by Flickr user jeff868_2000. The print ads come from the Cadillac ad collection compiled by Flickr user That Hartford Guy. The ducks/no ducks infographic came from Cartype.com, a website devoted to the study of automobile badges and logos.