Posted in Cars, The Business
April 21, 2018

Johan de Nysschen failed at Cadillac because he didn’t know a darned thing about Cadillac

This is an article I had been thinking about for months, but recent events have spurred me into getting this written now.

You see, Johan de Nysschen is an interesting guy with an interesting name.  And, unless you’re a car nut like me, you’ve probably never heard of (nor cared about) him.  Let me tell you why you should.

Until this past Thursday, April 19, de Nysschen was the Executive Vice President of General Motors, and head of the Cadillac division.  He got there by way of Infiniti (a Nissan division that he created a lot of controversy at), and before that led Volkswagen’s Audi division in North America (which was resoundingly successful).

Today, he’s at home drinking coffee at his kitchen table in SoHo at 11 a.m.

Why is the former head of a motor division that helped make Detroit famous drinking coffee in NYC?  That’s…a very good question.  The answer to which was de Nysschen’s first blunder running the Standard of the World.

You see, when he first took the reigns of Cadillac in 2014, Johan de Nysschen focused himself so narrowly on the brand of Cadillac, he decided that a “luxury brand” simply could not be effective while calling Detroit home.  So me moved Cadillac’s HQ out of the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit and set up shop in NYC’s trendy SoHo neighborhood.


To explain why that was such an ignorant move, I need to introduce you to a French explorer.  Bear with me here.  Because that explorer’s name is Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac.  Cadillac did not found the Cadillac Motor Car Company (that was Henry Leland, after buying out the Henry Ford Company and changing the name).  No, Cadillac founded a little place he called Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit. That’s right, Johan de Nysschen took a company that was literally named for the founder of the City of Detroit out of Detroit…because luxury reasons.

Then there was his weird need to ape ze Germans.  Now, let’s be clear…the Germans (Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz) are on top of the luxury car world right now…right where Cadillac used to be.  But instead of copying the German tactic of making exceptionally engineered (if overcomplicated) cars with top-quality materials, Cadillac instead copied German prices (without justifying them) and car names (badly).

De Nysschen took the whole name thing during his time at Infiniti berserk, and replaced all their letter-series names (G37, M45, FX45, etc.) with either Q or QX (Q50, Q60, QX70, etc.).  Then he did the exact same thing at Cadillac.

This idea of de Nysschen’s is simple: If you make the model name innocuous enough (like he thinks the Germans have), you’ll only think of your car as the make.  That is, instead of saying you drive an “Eldorado,” you’ll both think and say you drive a “Cadillac.”  Why he thinks this is helpful when German car owners say they drive a “Benz” or a “Bimmer” or a “4-Ringed Douchemobile” I’m not entirely sure.

Cross (old) town rival Lincoln has already seen the folly in this idea, and is now replacing their idiotic “MK” names with real names (the MKS is now Continental, the MKX is about to return to Aviator, a new Explorer-based crossover will be Nautilus, and there’s rumors that MKZ will go back to Zephyr).

And then there’s the cars themselves.  The first problem…they’re cars.

De Nysschen spent so much time renaming cars, and focusing on cars like the ATS, CTS, and CT6 (you have no idea which those are, do you?) that he let the Escalade grow long in the tooth (hasn’t been updated since 2015), pulled a half-ass job on the cars (crossovers) that should be selling like hotcakes like the XT5 (replacement for the SRX…you still don’t know which car I’m talking about, do you?), and set up the newly-announced XT4 to get its lunch eaten by everyone else who is making a compact, luxury crossover that is either better (ze Germans) or cheaper (Lincoln) or both (the Japanese).

But then, the cars he spent so much time on…didn’t turn out all that great.  Let’s be clear, the driving dynamics of the ATS, CTS, and CT6 are on par with their German counterparts (Mercedes C-Class, E-Class, S-Class, for example).  And when you get them in “V” or “V-Sport” trim (what with their Corvette engines and all), they’re downright silly fun.

But the quality of the interiors, the quality of the engines (in terms of noise/vibration/harshness, and versus the Japanese, reliability), just don’t measure up to the increased price that de Nysschen slapped on all new Cadillacs.

And then there’s how he cheesed off the Cadillac dealers.  De Nysschen, realized people aren’t generally willing to plunk down $80k at a dealership run by Ted here.

Fair is fair.  Cadillac dealers, which are often attached to accompanying Chevy or GMC or Buick dealers, hadn’t given buyers the kind of confidence or buying experience they need to say “spending an amount of money equivalent to a small condo here feels like a good idea.”  That’s one advantage ze Germans have.  A Mercedes dealer is a Mercedes dealer.  And if they’re paired up with anyone, it’s a peer label, like Jaguar or Maserati.  Cadillac?  They’re probably paired up where Ted here bought his used Cobalt.

But turning dealers around requires working with them, not at them.  And that’s what de Nysschen did.  He didn’t build relationships with the Cadillac dealers, but still insisted they spend millions of dollars upgrading their facilities and training their staff if they wanted to keep their franchise agreement.

No bueno.

Back when Henry Leland, a master engineer, was running Cadillac, the British Royal Automobile Club took three identical models (1908 Model Ms), completely disassembled them, scattered their parts together, reassembled them using only hand tools, and two fired up on the first try (the third fired on the second try), then they then ran them on a 500-mile race successfully.  The publication of that group declared Cadillac’s engineering prowess the “Standard of the World.”

Cadillac first introduced a lot of things for cars we take for granted today: overhead valve engines (1902), fully-enclosed cabins (1910), electric starters (1912), V8 engines (1915), cross-plane crankshafts (1924), synchro-mesh transmissions (1929) so you didn’t have to double-clutch anymore, fastback bodies (1933), sunroofs (1938), air conditioners (1964), and so on.

Cadillac today, however, is selling a car style hardly anyone wants, by names nobody understands, for prices nobody wants to pay, at dealerships that either hate themselves or hate you.

I wonder why Johan’s tenure didn’t work out.

Maybe another cup of coffee from his SoHo Kuerig will help him reflect on it.

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