Cadillac CELESTIQ | American Dream Machines

Presents their brand new all-electric CELESTIQ against a backdrop of classic automotive greatness on the picturesque California coast

Written by

Hannah Bhuiya

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Well, it's the finest lookin' car that ever rolled off the line
Any other car, you'd just be wastin' your time
Well, one fine day I'm gonna make a Cadillac mine
The Stray Cats, Look at That Cadillac, 1983
“But it is beautiful especially to see up ahead north a vast expanse of curving seacoast with inland mountains dreaming under slow clouds, like a scene of ancient Spain, or properly really like a scene of the real essentially Spanish California, the old Monterey pirate coast right there, you can see what the Spaniards must've thought when they came around the bend in their magnificent sloopies and saw all that dreaming fatland beyond the seashore whitecap doormat -- Like the land of gold -- The old Monterey and Big Sur and Santa Cruz magic —”
Jack Kerouac, Big Sur, 1960. 

When Phil Hill, legendary driver and 1961 F1 World Champion was asked, at 73 years old: “Can the average person enjoy a day at Pebble Beach?" he replied: 

“Oh yes, absolutely. There’s the visual enjoyment. If nothing else, you can just go up there and look at what pleases your eye. You can get along on that shallow a dose of it all. Or, if you go up there again and again throughout the years, you might be osmosing yourself into a pretty  knowledgable person, just by looking at magazines and reading books and what have you, just having been turned into a car fan.”

I set out to take Hill’s advice. Instead of a few years of attendance, I had just five days to do it. But being transported into the thick of an action-packed Monterey Car Week as a guest of Cadillac was the ultimate accelerated intensive course. By the hallowed Pebble Beach ‘Concours d’Elegance,’ my transformation from automotively-undereducated to an ardent and informed car fan was complete. This is my story. 

When ambitious French trader Antoine Laumet set foot on what was later to become American soil, the young man rewrote his own life story, adding an aristocratic upgrade, declaring himself ‘Antoine de Lamothe-Launay, Lord Cadillac.’ Later becoming governor of Louisiana (then part of New France) he also founded Detroit (‘of the Straits’) along the way. In 1902, similarly ambitious fellows decided to name their new horseless carriage company after their city’s earliest progenitor, adopting his heraldic crest as their logo. 120+ years later, Cadillac has built a history of excellence and innovation. In what has truly been a wild ride, the brand has become both symbolic and iconic, setting a standard of style that has arguably contributed more to popular culture than any other car. For over a century, 'Cadillac’ has been an all-purpose adjective synonymous with ‘the best of things,’ immortalized over and over again in song lyric, literature and cinema.

That’s quite a backstory to live up to. But the current generation of General Motors executives and Cadillac design creatives have decided to rise to that challenge. The result: the newly launched, all-electric CELESTIQ luxury sedan, intended to be the ‘halo car’ flagship that drives the brand forward far into the future. As GM and Team Cadillac presented the CELESTIQ and brought a slice of Detroit Motor City to prestigious Monterey Car Week, the launchpad for serious automotive innovation, I was there to watch and learn. 

Each season, the Motorlux event at the Monterey Jet Centre kicks off the long weekend of automotive excitement, and it was my first night of total immersion in Planet Car. Here, the sun set over millions of dollars of vehicular talent from Hondas to Hummers, with exotics, race-team prototypes and custom collectibles sharing the tarmac with military bombers and even helicopters, all brought together by luxury automotive insurers Hagerty. Framed by the wingspan of a Gulfstream Turbo Jet, the serene CELESTIQ took centre stage, undulating waves of alto-cumulus clouds reflected on its elegantly curved ‘smart glass’ roof. It was a striking sight: with 23-inch wheels for literal high-rolling, and dynamically Futurist vertical light choreography dancing across both front grill and bumper, the car immediately drew a crowd of aficionados and collectors.

It's here that I first meet Erin Crossley, who oversees the research, design and development of interior and exterior colors and materials across all GM vehicles. She has personally shepherded the CELESTIQ into being; when any car is ordered, Crossley will consult on the wide palette of color and texture decisions required to fulfill the purchaser’s personal vision. I ask the designer about the particular deep coral tone of the car on show, which to me evokes 1950s Revlon’s ‘Fire and Ice’ nail enamel, or a Negroni if it was a Pantone square. “We were definitely looking for a color that would feel unexpected for the brand, and unexpected for a large luxury sedan like this. It’s not orange, it’s not red, it inhabits an in-between space. We really wanted to do something that was solid, bright and bold. So ‘Habanero’ it was.” Hot stuff. 

An all-leather interior in crisp winter-white delivers a deliciously cool contrast. Erin continues, giving me the inside track into the particular alchemy of its construction: “I’m just incredibly proud about the car on a number of levels. One of my favorite details about the vehicle is that everything that looks like metal is real metal. That was quite an endeavor, because we had to leverage a number of different metals, and a number of different manufacturing technologies. One of them was devising new ways to 3D print metal to be able to form these shapes. The bezel on the steering wheel–that’s 3D-printed aluminum. It was the most genuine solution.”

And this level of innovation infuses the entire mega-machine. Just like Johnny Cash sang in his tale of an acquisitive GM factory worker, it’s all hand-made "One Piece At A Time." But in 2023, this means that the car’s around 100 custom-developed parts are ‘grown’ via 3D printing to the required precision, rather than stamped out in multiple on an assembly line. This all takes place at the previously prototype-only Eero Saarinen-designed, historically landmarked GM Global Technical Centre in Warren, Michigan, which has undergone an $81 million dollar refit to be able to do so.

The CELESTIQ has a slew of incredible features, all designed for, as Bruce Springsteen put it so well in his seminal Pink Cadillac, ‘cruising down the street’ and ‘feeling out of sight.’ Caddies are famous for the sensation they give of ‘floating’ above the road and the extravagant level of comfort they’ve always offered. And that feeling is taken to the nth degree with the CELESTIQ because, as projected for all GM vehicles by 2035, she’s All-Electric. Powered by GM’s ‘Ultium’ EV battery and platform, CELESTIQ delivers a super-smooth 600 horsepower, 300 miles per charge, and can to go from 0-100mph in 3.8 seconds, which adds up to a theoretical top speed on par with a high-speed train. 

She runs strong and silent but she can be loud if she wants to: with 38 AKG Studio Reference Audio System speakers in the interior cabin and 4 speakers outside, CELESTIQ is also potentially the biggest mobile boombox ever. I realize that the car is as full of fun as it is packed with functionality as I discover the little ‘Merlettes’–the silhouetted duck emblems that hark back to Sieur Cadillac’s 1687 crest–which appear as ‘Easter egg’ detailing at the side of the dash.  

Michael Simcoe, a dapper Australian, is Global Vice President of Design at GM and has been with the company for 40 years, starting at GM Holden in Australia in 1983. As we contemplate the massive mint-silver ‘flare’ metallic Escalade IQ and the spicy CELESTIQ together, I ask what he feels now that these concept-cars have become reality. “Vindication. Vindication that we have the capacity to do it. All designers have an ambition to be able to change a brand, to be able to change people’s impression of a brand, to do a vehicle that is unique and special at least once in their lifetime. And we got the chance to do that here.” I moot that there’s a real artistry to automotive design, and a car is nothing if not a large form of fast-moving sculpture. 

He takes this idea and runs with it. “A car is the piece of sculpture and the highest form of art that the majority of the population actually engages with.” On his phone, Simcoe shows me a four-wheeled work of art that sold a few days earlier in the Monterey Jet Centre auction. “This is a Cadillac Fleetwood Aerodynamic Coupe. It looks black, but it's really a very, very dark purple. This was what was happening in 1933-1934, while at the same time there were still cars running round that looked like old coaches. Harley Earl, who was one of my predecessors in charge of GM design, he invented this process, which was about ‘styling’ the vehicles, creating an emotional hook, and communicating that through design. He was the first in this game. That’s where the Cadillac Goddess came from, it came from this car.” This lineage and legacy is deliberately coded into the new progeny. “If you get inside the CELESTIQ, you will see three profiles there. One is the 1933 Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe. One is the 1957 Brougham, and one is the CELESTIQ. Because they are the same sort of emotion, the same sort of drive, across the centuries.” Behind his glasses, his eyes sparkle. 

And everyone I met this week truly did get a gleam and fire in their eyes when discussing the cars. This is a pure passion–even for many, an obsession. Each motoring season, Monterey is full of fellow petrolheads, sometimes rivals who can here recognize each other in a convivial brotherhood. Respect is expressed and received as the newly launched cars–and the teams that built them–showcase the products of their labor before they hit the consumer market.

John Roth, newly promoted to Global Vice President of Cadillac, was as excited as anyone, even though he’s attended many times before: “It’s one of the few moments in time where we drop our badges and our logos and really look at all this amazing design, in awe of the history of the auto industry. It’s amazing; all of the stories, and all of the people that bring all of this together.” Chief Engineer on CELESTIQ Tony Roma agreed. “There’s no other time of the year like this for us. I can just admire everything and anything. Last night, one of the guys from Pirelli was talking to me about the CELESTIQ–and we use Michelin tires–so one of his competitors was there, from Porsche and other companies, and we were all talking about it. That’s my favorite thing about Pebble, this whole week.” Roma, who celebrates 30 years at GM later in 2023, is a Michigander through and through. Steel and speed are in the blood, with his son Alessandro also recruited to the company; they both like to take factory test cars around the track on weekends. “It's been an honor to spend 5 years of my career working on what I consider to be the essence of Cadillac,” he tells me. “The CELESTIQ is what Cadillac aspires to be: individually styled, very capable. When people drive it–when we actually do let people drive it–[and here, the esteemed engineer laughs affably] they’re going to be blown away by what it can actually do.” 

And some prescient people are already signed up. At an exclusive dinner in a secluded glade in Carmel Valley Ranch Estate’s lush vineyards, the new Cadillac EVs were framed alongside a stellar array of meticulously restored classic cars, including two from collector Jonathan Segal, notable San Diego architect and urban developer. Presented with a ‘Goddess’ lapel pin as the symbolic first installment of his custom CELESTIQ to come, Brit Rory Harvey (latterly Cadillac boss and newly appointed GM President North America) jokes, “Car to follow.” It's all coming full circle for Segal, who noted in a recent podcast that in the 1960s, “my Dad had Cadillacs, because he was from England, and that was the deal–when you came to the United States, you established you were someone, you bought a Cadillac.” Segal’s own letterbox-red 1957 one-off Maserati Spyder, its dreamy seamless riveting on display during dinner, would go on to win the prestigious ‘Phil Hill Cup’ at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance to come.

And just what is the Pebble Beach Concours? The most pervasive impression today is perhaps ‘plutocrats at play in a prosperous valley.’ But it all began very differently. Salinas local John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row paints a rough, gritty portrait of life in Monterey, and he certainly doesn’t mention any Ferraris. In 1950, souped-up speedsters arrived to roar through the sleepy fisherman’s village of Monterey en route to road race through the whiplash curves of the shady Del Monte forest. This is where modern sportscar racing really began in the USA and the American public first got a taste of the pedal-to-the-metal excitement of Monte Carlo or Le Mans, at a time when motorsport driving was all gumption and derring-do, adrenaline and actual danger. 

The Pebble Beach Concours was staged the same weekend to show cars of interest from dealers and owners. Which brings us back to my favorite unaffected, plain-speaking race champion Phil Hill, truly the ‘Patron Saint’ of Pebble Beach. He not only won that very first race in 1950 (with a Jaguar), but also in 1953 (in a Ferrari direct from Enzo). In 1955, Hill won both the Concours (with a Pierce-Arrow he had restored himself) and the road race, (in a second Ferrari) which garnered the publicity to really put the event on the prestige map. After a fatality in 1956, a circuit track was built by 1957. Laguna Seca Raceway is going still strong, hosting the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion with 14 categories and 400 drivers competing over two days. But while engines splutter and benzene fumes fill the air, this is a gentleman’s run, pleasing the crowd with thrills, but no spills, aiming to cross the finish line with cars and selves both intact despite the tracks’s signature six-story plummet, ‘the Corkscrew.’

In the hectic days leading up to the 72nd Concours, the narrow streets of Carmel By-The-Sea are awash with crayon-coloured Lambos, grandpa’s garage gems, still-in-progress fixer-uppers, basically, flooded with flashy talking-point vehicles of all descriptions peacocking in all directions. Professional car spotters and general rubber-neckers gather at the intersection of Ocean Avenue and Lincoln, which functions as an open-air meet resembling a valet queue at Nobu Malibu (albeit one that never parks.) From Steinbeck’s sardine syndicate-ruled seaside sump, to the summer supercar capital of the world took some rapid redevelopment. Hollywood hero Clint Eastwood’s profile-raising stint as mayor of Carmel from 1986-1988 may have helped. He also tossed out most of the old town council’s antiquated rules and regulations, which included a bizarre ban on ice cream consumption with city limits. Now even though you can enjoy a creamy cone, everything from Aston Martin to Zonda revs up and down the main drag, and you can’t cross the road without bumping into a Bugatti. But, even the newbie that I am, I kind of want to ask most in the gawking crowd : “Do you even Pebble, brah?”

Because Sunday morning is what all the best and brightest car aficionados and connoisseurs have been preparing for for months, if not years. Despite all the vehicular white noise, cruising in a brand-new Caddy still turns heads. While making our way to Pebble that morning in a substantial yet sleek Cadillac LYRIQ EV, Carmel-by-the-Sea necks craned. One strolling passerby was so moved, he shouted out “How is it?" Whirring down his electric window as we stopped at the traffic lights, it was a Grey Poupon moment as Hearst’s seasoned automotive editor Eddie Alterman gave a rare live review: ‘Smooth–comfortable–great.’ Then we were off again towards the fairway.

Pebble Beach Lodge occupies a commanding position on a naturally sandy-pocketed cliff that’s been terraformed into airy golf links with a spectacular view over the rocky bay. JFK came here for a spot of R&R on the campaign trail in 1960, and Pro-Golfers have always come to… pro-golf. It has the kind of refined, gentle charm that makes ultra high-net-worth-individuals feel right at home. And so do I. The weather on the coast is golden, despite the damp squib of a southerly hurricane bringing unexpected summer rains to L.A. The light wisps of marine mist steamed off by 9.30am to reveal both a perfect day and the Concours d’Elegance competitors. From a swooping gull’s eye view, the 216 glittering chassis are set out like the ultimate Matchbox collection just for one beautiful day, albeit awaiting the toughest inspection of their storied lives.

These cars, dating from the early 1900s dawn of automotive technology up to 1990s F1 Grand Prix contenders, are the rarest and most special survivors of their type. The display is overwhelming, with the vehicle's original capabilities enhanced, engines tuned up, every last screw shined and spring primed far beyond what their first designers, builders or engineers ever dreamed. Section after section, it’s a United Nations of automotive elegance, from the niche categories like the Spanish Pegaso or celebrating Porsche;s 75th anniversary to the panoply of Jags, Rollers, Duesenbergs, Bentleys, one-off Manta Rays and Kurtis Sorrells as well as several head-turning Chevrolet Corvettes and Cadillacs. 

The immense concentration of wealth is unparalleled on American soil. But the great thing about the Concours is that the drivers, owners and even the busy judges love to chat about what lies before them. I feel like I am being allowed to witness a very special cultural rite, in an anthropological sense, where fathers, sons and grandfathers share the knowledge and stories of their people. These metallic forms, preserved from the passage of Time, landfill burial, junkyard crusher and backyard rust, are kept most of the year in darkness, then, saged with sawdust and sprinkled with oil, they’re brought out into the light and displayed like precious jewels in this particular, and peculiar, annual tribal ceremony.

‘Overheard in Pebble Beach’ might not have as much edge as ‘Overheard in L.A.’ or New York, but here are few snippets of the one track-minded chatter from attendees checking out the beauties on the green:

‘You don’t need the provenance, it’s Ayrton Senna’s race car!’ [Two young men stunned to be in the aural presence of the gunning of the holy Mclaren MP4/4 F1 engine]

‘This was all made with bumper steel.’ [re. the baroque chrome rear extrusions of a convertible in the ‘Post-War luxury’ category.]

‘The name of this shade? It’s just whatever paint that came out of the can in 1932.’ [re the charmingly rough patina on a ‘French blue’ Figoni Alfa Romeo 8C.]

‘The Rose Queen would ride in one of these at the Rose Bowl.’ [a woman in front of a cream-with-deep-red-interior Cadillac El Dorado, clearly channeling a childhood memory.]

‘I can’t believe this even exists!’ [An awestruck car guy contemplating a 1953 metallic-blue Cadillac Coupe with a strikingly curvular Ghia body.]

2023 ‘Best of Show’ winner is glossy black 1937 Mercedes Benz Long-Tail Special Roadster, and after the awards are all bestowed, the champagne corks and yellow and white confetti streamers popped, the Concours begins to wrap up. I have to admit I didn’t want it to end. I hadn’t quite managed to make the ‘Dawn Patrol’ with the veteran GM execs, which is the sacred rite of being there at 5am as the lawn opens and the classics drive in, so I stay as long as I can to watch the cars depart. Leaving the grounds, the cars pause a moment in the last rays of glory. Then, given the all-clear by the stewards, they glide away, seemingly driving over the cliff. Exit stage right, with some splutter and putt, beholden to the whims of their engine and gears and gas and motor. But I wonder if there’s a point in the future, based on current trends that, just as Bob Dylan went electric and shocked his contemporaries, one day so will the wonderfully quaint Pebble Beach Concours. Perhaps, fast forward 30 years and prestige EV’s will be welcomed into the world’s premier cliffside pageant, and stealthy silent chassis will cruise with a soft electro-hum instead of bursting backfire while touring Ocean Avenue.

In the afterglow of the show, my automotive colleagues and I gather around the fire-pit back at our homebase, the boutique-rustique Carmel Valley Ranch. Discussion breaks out over the total worth of the precision hardware spread over that Pebble fairway. “$2 billion,” estimates one. Another counters by making some quick calculations. “Ok, so it’s 200 cars, and that would make it $10 million a car. Some of these cars cost as much as $10 million, but not all. Think about the auction prices–that Ferrari went for $30 million at Quail, but most were around $1-2 million. So…. I’d say just under <$1 billion all told.” He smiles. “However, just pick any three of the individuals around the cars, and you’ll get $2 billion in assets, no sweat.” We all concur. 

Which makes the entry price for the Cadillac CELESTIQ, starting at $340,000, just water off a merlette’s back to many individuals in the supercar scene. A canny car-istocrat can tell that this is a future Future Classic–pre-sold and exclusively made to order, a maximum of only 400 examples a year can ever be produced. If you’ve got it, why not flaunt it? Choose an American-made, ultra-high-performance flagship. Tomorrow’s Caddy will never need an oil change; it’s a masterpiece of automotive craft you can customize with your own palette and an insane array of built-in functional features. So let’s give the last line to Rich Boy, from the gone-platinum summer 2006 hit, ‘Throw some D’s’ :  

“Shit tight, no slack just bought a Cadillac.”

Suffice it to say, one was blown away on this particular mission, by innovation and sparkling passion, yes, but also by that expansive breeze rolling in off the sea that Kerouac euligized, and that the experts here gratefully inhale annually, filled with awe and wonder for another year ahead of unequivocal art-making.

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Detox, Cadillac CELESTIQ, Hannah Bhuiya