1903 Model A: The Car that Started Cadillac
The third year of the 20th century was a tough one for employees of the Henry Ford Company of Detroit, MI. The company’s namesake had pulled up stakes after a dispute with financial backers, leaving the firm with little more than a factory filled with unused machinery and no vehicle plans. Despondent, the managers called upon revered engine builder Henry Martyn Leland to appraise the remaining equipment, as a benchmark for an asking price. The pioneering automotive engineer was 60 years old at the time, but retained his passion for perfection. RELATED: See Photos of the 1903 Cadillac Model A Runabout
Rather than appraising the company’s worth, Leland showed its owners a single-cylinder engine he had developed, proposing that they build automobiles based around it. Company officials were so elated after looking at Leland’s creation they instantly changed their minds about shutting the doors. Instead, they went all-out to create the car that would become the first Cadillac: the 1903 Model A. Henry Ford would soon have a fierce competitor and America its first luxury automaker.
Two or Four Seats: Buyer’s Choice
The revolutionary engine that inspired the change of plans was a 98.2 ci (1609 cc) design that measured 60 x 111 inches, turned out 6.5 hp, and sat under the front seat. It transferred power to the two-speed gearbox which in turn propelled the rear wheels with a chain drive. Builders affectionately referred to the compact engine as the “Little Hercules.”
Buyers could choose between either a two-seater model or a four-seat tonneau version. Construction was of steel components mounted to an all-steel frame. The only wood on the car was for the 12 spokes on each wheel. Owners had a choice of red or...well, red, actually. Brass headlamps and white tires added stylish contrast.
RELATED: See Photos of the 1904 Cadillac Model B
Two-seater runabouts sold for $750, while the tonneau version went for $850. A leather top added another $50 to the price. One feature that set the 1903 apart as a truly refined machine was its use of a steering wheel. Lesser vehicles turned their tires with a “tiller,” sort of a curved handle that looked a bit like a scythe.
The Model A first appeared at the 1903 New York auto show. Later that year it proved its quality by completing a trans-European endurance run, scoring first in its class after the arduous 1,000-mile journey. The company built 2497 Model A’s, all of which sold and went on to its current status as a world-class automaker.
RELATED: See Photos of the 1904 Cadillac Model K
A new century had been born, and with it a visionary American company. Cadillac would not always show the same devotion to excellence. But its first effort set a standard that, to this day, is hard to beat.
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