US luxury car maker Cadillac stole the show at the 2003 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, revealing what could only be considered an imposing concept - the Cadillac Sixteen.
Bob Lutz, long time CEO of General Motors, wanted a new Cadillac with all of the virtues that once made the company “the standard of the world”. Inspired by the classic Cadillac V-16 of the the 1930s, which was designed by Harley Earl, the concept car had to be imposing, luxurious and exclusive in order to prove Cadillac was a strong contestant in the closed group of premium automakers.
Head of Design, Wayne Cherry, oversaw the development of “the ultimate aspirational luxury sedan” as he described it. One of the last concept cars designed before his retirement in 2004, it is considered to be the crowning achievement of his 42-year career at General Motors. Another designer with great influence on this project was Brian Smith who had the role of the Design Manager.
Instead of going retro, the Cadillac Sixteen previewed a new direction for the future of the American brand. The 'Art and Science' design language, introduced a few years earlier with the Evoq (1999), Vizon (2001) and Cien (2002) prototypes, found its best implementation on the Sixteen (2003) which was destined to become Cadillac’s new halo model.
Under the long bonnet with swivelling sides, lurked a monstrous 13.6-litre V16 engine that shared components with GM’s LS V8 units. The V16 produced a monstrous 746kW (1000 hp) of power and 1356Nm (1000 lb-ft) of torque. In the early 2000s, those outputs were unheard of - not only in full size sedan territory - but also in the rarified air of supercars in production at the time.
Yet, despite its impressive size, the V16 motor was fuel efficient thanks to the displacement on demand system, which allowed running on four, eight or 16 cylinders, depending on the throttle pedal position. A four-speed automatic transmission sent power to the rear wheels of the 2270kg limousine. For easier manoeuvring, the car was equipped with Quadrasteer four-wheel steering system.
But enough with the numbers and the technical specs so we can move on to the most important element of the car - its imposing design.
The first thing someone notices when looking at the Cadillac Sixteen are its stretched proportions. With a length of 5672mm, a long bonnet and a low roofline of just 1392mm, the concept looked like it came straight out of a DC comic book. Its profile was characterised by the extra long wheelbase of 3556mm, its 24-inch alloy wheels (265/40 R24 tyres), the steep rake of the windshield.
The absence of door handles and the pillarless windows combined with the surfacing and the minimal creases of the hand-built aluminium bodywork gave the car a very clean look. Other details include the eight inlets on each side sitting on a sharp line of chrome which extended towards the back, and the aerodynamic mirrors with a V-shaped base.
At the front, the Cadillac emblem was proudly emblazoned on the large pentagon grille. The vertically positioned LED headlights emphasised the short length of the front overhang, adding an opulent look to the face of the car which was 2029 mm wide. The front bumper had minimal styling with chrome surrounded fog lights forming a physical extension of the headlight units, and a small air intake sitting lower.
The angular shape of the vehicle was complemented by the curved front fenders sitting higher than the rest of the bonnet.
At the back, the short rear deck was in stark contrast to the long bonnet, a feature resembling many classic Cadillacs of the past, along with sharp angles. The narrow rear windscreen and the strong C-pillar above the rear axle provoked a greater sense of security for the rear passengers.
The lines of the vertically arranged LED tail-lights were extended by the quadruple exhaust tips repeating the theme of the front end.
Finally, the crease in the middle of the bodywork was another signature design element of Cadillac, as was the integrated third brake light.
Inside, the dashboard featured a minimal look with retro inspired gauges in the instrument cluster and a Bulgari clock mounted on the top of the centre console. The fact there are no screens or any outdated infotainment systems, make the dashboard classic and timeless, even though the overall design might seem a little too conservative.
Most of the cabin was upholstered in hand-stitched Tuscany leather, combined with walnut burl veneer inlays and hand-woven silk carpets. Rear passengers could enjoy two independent seats with reclining backs and footrests, however the available space for feet was not as impressive as the exterior dimensions of the car suggested.
So, what happened next?
For many years it was rumoured Cadillac would put the concept car into limited production, to compete with the likes of Rolls-Royce Phantom, Maybach 62 and Bentley Arnage, something that would also benefit the image of Cadillac's lesser models. Another scenario would be a series production flagship model inspired by the Sixteen which could compete against Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7 Series, Audi A8, Jaguar XJ and Lexus LS.
Unfortunately it never came to fruition and in 2005, Cadillac launched the uninspiring DTS full size sedan which was far from a design statement, although its styling was sharper than the DeVille it replaced.
Thankfully, the impact of the Sixteen was more significant and long lasting than anyone could have predicted, as design cues from the concept could be found on almost every member of the Cadillac model range for many years. It is no coincidence that even the recent Escala (2016) concept that previewed the evolved design language of Cadillac, has a degree of visual connection with the Sixteen.
The Cadillac Sixteen could have provided the impetus for Cadillac to reclaim its position amongst world class luxury brands and make a solid statement in the automotive world. A possible production version could have met high standards of refinement and design, even though it would need to be toned down a lot compared to the brash and unapologetic design of the concept.
Unfortunately, being a member of a larger group (General Motors) has its drawbacks, as all of the important management decisions come from another office, sometimes sacrificing risks that should have been taken, on the altar of sustainability for all brands.
That said, we must acknowledge the progress of Cadillac’s design through the last decades which materialised with the help of concept cars like the Cien (2002), the Sixteen (2003), the Elmiraj (2013) and finally the Escala (2016).
The American company has slowly evolved from conservative to relevant, adopting a more modern design approach that attracts younger customers and seems to be on par with the tough competition from Europe.