How Nicholas Dreystadt ended racism at Cadillac in the 1930s—or tried to

Nicholas Dreystadt

Cadillac introduced its CT6 sedan with the “Dare Greatly” marketing campaign during the 2015 Oscars television broadcast, and while that car’s future has been somewhat clouded by uncertainty, the campaign continues with such messages as “Never stop daring” and “We’ve always dared.” Some of the brand’s past endeavors were, of course, more daring than others: the 1967 Eldorado vs. 1982 Cimarron, for example, but on the whole, Cadillac has had moments of greatness throughout its history.

In 1930, “daring” for Cadillac meant introducing America’s first V-16 powered automobile in the immediate aftermath of the stock market crash that preceded the Great Depression. Two years later, Cadillac made a more daring move: The General Motors luxury car division stopped discouraging its dealers from selling cars to black customers. The higher-ups had felt this unwritten “policy” was needed to maintain Cadillac’s position as a prestige car, and Cadillac was likely not alone in this ugly practice.

An immigrant from Germany changed that. Nicholas Dreystadt, who, while head of Cadillac’s service division, had wondered why he saw so many black customers waiting for their cars to be serviced in the dealerships he visited. He learned that they had gotten their Cadillacs by paying white “front men” to make the purchases.

Dreystadt, who became manager of Cadillac’s Clark Street plant in Detroit, reasoned that Cadillac could sell more cars by removing such an obstacle to people who wanted them enough to pay a middleman’s fee.

He would end up betting his career on it.

Growth in a Depression

1928 Cadillac Town Sedan
GM
1928 Cadillac Town Sedan

By the early 1930s, the Great Depression was crushing auto sales. Cadillac production fell from 20,001 in 1928 to a dismal 3179 in 1933, according to the Standard Catalog of American Cars. When the executive committee of GM’s board of directors met that year to consider Cadillac’s future, drastic measures were considered, including putting the brand on hiatus or even ending it.

Although he was not invited to that meeting, Dreystadt essentially crashed it and requested 10 minutes to make his pitch to save Cadillac. He got his chance. Bolstered by his experience, Dreystadt presented ideas for lowering production costs and improving quality. He also implored GM’s top suits to expand its market by dropping Cadillac’s blatantly discriminatory sales policy.

Impressed by Dreystadt, the committee gave him 18 months to implement his ideas. Production for 1934–35 jumped to 9566 cars: 8318 V-8s, 1098 V-12s, and 150 V-16s. (The numbers for both years are combined, according to the Standard Catalog of American Cars, which says 1935 was essentially carryover of the ’34 models.)

Although some published accounts of this period of Cadillac history attribute the sales increase to Cadillac dropping its discriminatory sales policy, there is no evidence to make such a direct link. Still, that was a step in the right direction to right a wrong, and the change inevitably contributed to widening Cadillac’s market going forward.

Dreystadt was made Cadillac general manager In June 1934. He was just getting started turning around the brand that billed itself as “The Standard of the World.” Dreystadt’s ideas would get a boost, as well, from daring new Cadillac designs coming down the pike, as previewed by the 1933 Aero-Dynamic Coupe concept car.

Seasoned at Mercedes, proven at Cadillac

1930 Cadillac V-16
GM
1930 Cadillac V-16

Dreystadt had come to America in 1912 as a 22-year-old apprentice mechanic for the Mercedes racing team. (Mercedes parent Daimler did not merge with Benz until 1926.) Getting a job at Cadillac, he worked his way up, and by the late 1920s was managing the service division.

Once he was head of Cadillac, Dreystadt turned the division’s attention to production efficiency, where he saw much room for improvement. He believed that the parts and the production process for Cadillac did not need to be far more expensive than for other GM divisions.

His approach paid off. By the late 1930s, Cadillac had drastically lowered per-unit production costs, while of course still commanding luxury prices, therefore raising profitability. Cadillac was still catering to the top of the luxury category with its limited-production V-12 and V-16 models. In the price gap between Cadillac’s lowest-priced V-8 model and its LaSalle companion brand, though, Dreystadt saw a significant opportunity.

The “mid-priced” model to fill that gap arrived for 1936, the Series 60. This new, more affordable Cadillac shared the basic B-body shell with LaSalle, Buick, and Oldsmobile, but had distinctive Cadillac features and was powered by the division’s new “monobloc” flathead V-8. The 60 Series was a hit, accounting for about half the division’s sales that year. In 1938, guided by its 24-year-old head of design, William L. Mitchell, Cadillac issued a longer, more daringly styled deluxe version called the Sixty Special. This influential model solidified Cadillac’s penchant for design innovation and further boosted sales.

War and Peace

1938 Cadillac Sixty Special Sedan
GM
1938 Cadillac Sixty Special Sedan

As chronicled in Ed Cray’s 1980 book The Chrome Colossus: General Motors and Its Times, Dreystadt continued to lead Cadillac through wartime armament production. He generated no small amount of controversy when the division hired black women (identified by Cray as former prostitutes) to help the division fulfill a government contract to produce gyroscopes. When the war ended, though, these women lost their jobs to returning veterans.

Dreystadt’s success with Cadillac earned him a new job after WWII: general manager of Chevrolet. He was also part of a team tasked with developing a new, low-priced small Chevy, a group that also included engineer Earle MacPherson. Code-named Cadet, a bulbous looking 2200-pound sedan was notable for introducing MacPherson’s innovative strut-type suspension.

Finding that it could not produce the Cadet cheaply enough to sell for the absurdly low $1000 target price, Chevy dropped the project. Dreystadt, who had been on a trajectory to become GM’s next CEO, died from throat cancer in 1948 at the age of 58.

Better late than never

1933 Cadillac Aerodynamic
GM
1933 Cadillac Aerodynamic

Dreystadt’s initiative for ending a racist sales policy in the 1930s apparently did not carry into Cadillac’s marketing. The division wanted dealers to stop turning away black customers but did little, if anything, to actively attract them. Through the 1970s, Cadillac’s advertising portrayed a world of glamour and elegance populated exclusively by white people. (Cadillac was certainly not the only brand to do so.)

Also, individual dealers still called the shots in their own showrooms. In his December 24, 1995 column for the Washington Post, renowned automotive journalist Warren Brown relayed the story of how his mother was unable to buy a new Cadillac from a dealer in New Orleans in the 1960s. She got her dream car anyway, a 1965 Coupe DeVille, buying it from a white man in another town.

Brown, who died in 2018, was among journalists Cadillac had gathered in 1995 to discuss its new diversity marketing program, set up to reach minorities, women, and people with physical disabilities. Warren reported that Cadillac, rather than hiding from its past, shone a spotlight on it. The November 1995 issue of American Heritage magazine featured an article about Cadillac history and, of course, Dreystadt, and journalists were given copies.

Cadillac’s diversity marketing program would be used as the template for other GM divisions, and other carmakers were starting similar initiatives. The trend was, not surprisingly, driven by business more than morality: all brands needed to work harder to maintain or gain market share. Diversity programs were also about efficiency, in this case by making marketing dollars go further. Dreystadt likely would have appreciated that.