I spied a maroon 1912 Cadillac 30 Demi-Tonneau touring car at the inaugural Concours d’Elegance Australia in 2010. It’s shiny brass fittings and tall stance brought plenty of antique character to the event.
More importantly, this car represents a historic turning point in the story of Cadillac and of the automobile itself. This Demi-Tonneau is a cut-down, ‘sportier’ version of a regular touring car, with lower body lines. Placed upon the same Cadillac chassis as any other body style available, the Demi-Tonneau is lighter, but not by much, so any performance improvement would have been minimal.
The engine is a 30 horsepower four-cylinder side-valve, with 50 bhp actual output. It is copper jacketed for more efficient cooling, like previous Cadillac engines. But the modest size does not explain Cadillac’s pre-eminence among four-cylinder cars then.
The Cadillac’s success was partly due to its being so well made. Its precision-built parts (many accurate to 1,000th. of an inch) and assembly won for the company the prestigious Dewar Trophy in Great Britain. The Cadillac’s technical excellence was the result of chief engineer Henry F. Leland and his painstaking engineering. With his son Wilfred, Leland would later go on to design and build the Lincoln V-8 luxury car.
The early years of Twentieth Century motoring could be characterised as one of experimentation and adventure. The manufacturers were testing and applying innovations in an urgent effort to both make their products more comfortable, reliable and with greater performance. The owners and drivers were taking to ‘automobiling’ as a sport initially, but soon also as business and pleasure travel.
The only way to start a car was to crank its engine by hand. The effort to do this, and the danger if done incorrectly, went a long way to preventing women from taking up driving. It also boosted the popularity of electric cars, at least within the city and suburbs.
Various efforts were made to make starting a car safer and easier. One was to release compression on half of the cylinders on a six-cylinder car. This made the effort of turning against the compression of so many cylinders lighter.
Other methods were tried, some quite successful. A system of compressed air held in a reserve tank, could be used to crank an engine by forcing air into the cylinders until the spark from the magneto could fire it up. Generally, luxury car makers such as Winton (U.S.A.), S.C.A.T. (Italy) and Wolseley (Great Britain) were the only ones to apply this effective but complicated system. An air compressor bolted to the engine was necessary to keep that reserve tank of compressed air full.
This compressor had the added benefit of being available for inflating tyres after they had their punctures repaired. The unsealed roads of the day had sharp stones and were littered with nails from horse-shoes, so tyre punctures were an unpleasant feature of early motoring.
Some compressed air systems used acetylene gas, presumably from the same pressure tanks that supplied the gas headlamps. One hopes that the acetylene wouldn’t have been used to also pump up tyres!
Electrical systems of starting a car engine were experimented with, but there was no clear winner in terms of practicality or reliability. Auto electricals were still quite fussy and unreliable at this time.
At this time, Charles F. Kettering of DELCO (Dayton Electrical Company) laboratories was in the employ of Billy Durant, then head of General Motors, a new combine Durant had launched in 1908 using Buick and Cadillac.
Kettering’s friend Byron Carter – who manufactured the CarterCar – stopped one day to help a woman motorist to crank-start her car. He must have leant forward too far while at his task. The engine backfired, swinging the crank handle violently backwards with enough force to break Carter’s jaw. While recovering from his injury, Carter contracted gangrene, and before the era of antibiotics, died of this infection in a matter of days.
His sudden death cast a pall over Kettering and forged a determination on his part. He would finally solve the problem of electrically starting a car.
The 1912 Cadillac was the fruit of his endeavours. It was the first production car with a built-in electrical self-starter of the type we still use today. The two-unit assembly consisted of a dynamo and starter motor. It was advertised “somewhat ominously,” according to David Burgess-Wise, as the “‘Self-Starting, Self-Igniting and Self-Lighting Cadillac.'”
A combination of dynamo and starter motor also served to unify the electrical system so that it was also capable of providing current for the lights. Up to this time, stand-alone, dry cell batteries were sometimes used for the minor lights (but certainly not for headlamps). Now, not only could the engine be activated at the touch of a button, a switch could also operate all the lights desired, without having to go round with matches to light each lamp!
The Kettering system was so successful and revolutionary, that for the 1913 model year, every American auto manufacturer offered either a compressed air or (more commonly) an electric self-starter, on all but the cheapest cars. The acceptance of the electric starter was slower in Europe and Great Britain, and it would be the years immediately following World War I that the way would be led, first by European luxury cars, them middle-priced cars, then to the least expensive. By then, in the United States, only the Ford Model T could be bought without a self-starter, though it was optional since 1919.
So this Cadillac Thirty is a harbinger of the future with its electric self-starter. But it was also the last Cadillac model before the new V-8 Type 541 was introduced in 1914. The Thirty was a quality car, but still a car firmly in the middle-price bracket.
With the introduction of the V-8, Cadillac moved into the lower luxury car field for the first time. Its Northway-assembled, multi-cylinder engine was another revelation, being the first successful V-8 to be made in any quantity. It joined the new Packard Twin-Six V-12 for 1915 in ushering in a new era of multi-cylinder luxury.
Cadillac has remained a luxury car ever since – for almost a century. It’s continuing survival and success was built in part on the self-starter and other innovations.