The 1907 Cadillac Model K was a breakthrough for American automakers. In the very early years of the automobile industry, Europeans accorded precious little respect to any of the various American marques. In no small measure, that attitude probably represented pure snobbery. But, of course, this country had yet to demonstrate that its products were the equal of Europe's best. All that changed during 1908 -- and the difference was due to two historic events.
The first of these was a race sponsored by the French newspaper Le Matin, in which six automobiles undertook a round-the-world trip from New York to Paris. In the dead of winter, often with no roads to follow, they were driven across the United States, after which they were shipped by steamer to Vladivostok, Russia. The cars then plodded on across Manchuria, and thence to Moscow, Berlin, and finally across Belgium and on into Paris.
Of the six cars entered in the contest, only four survived the journey across the North American continent. The original group consisted of three cars from France, one each from Italy and Germany, and one from the United States. And in the end the American car, a Thomas Flyer, was declared the winner. As auto historian John Bentley has written, that victory "set a new seal on the prestige of the infant American automobile industry. It proved that Americans could build a machine fully the equal of anything found in Europe."
In the meantime, over a two-week period commencing February 29,1908, Cadillac scored an even more impressive triumph. Annually, starting in 1904, Britain's Sir Thomas Dewar had made a practice of awarding a trophy to the automaker deemed to have made the most significant advance in motor car manufacture over the preceding 12 months. The award, which took the form of an enormous silver cup, was considered to be the "Nobel Prize" of the automotive industry.
It happened that the first Cadillac to arrive in England had been imported by an aggressive young salesman named Frederick S. Bennett. And Bennett thought he knew how the Dewar Trophy might be captured, something no American car had managed to accomplish up to that time.
The secret lay in Cadillac's standardized parts. Parts interchange-ability was literally unheard of in those days, either in England or on the Continent. For that matter, the concept had not yet been generally adopted in the United States, either. But Henry M. Leland, Cadillac's general manager, had been trained as a gunsmith during the Civil War and as a result of that experience he had developed very high standards of precision. Furthermore, he had learned how important it was to be able to substitute parts from one rifle in order to repair another. At Cadillac, he would apply the same principle to the manufacture of automobiles.
On the next page, learn about the development of the 1907 Cadillac Model K.