Caleb Cook
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How Did Cadillac Get Its Name?

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Cadillac is one of the auto industry’s most iconic brands of all time, but it’s far more than that. The word “Cadillac” now signals a general ideal of heightened luxury and quality that extends well beyond the brand’s actual vehicles into American culture at large.

So it’s a little ironic that Cadillac is named after an explorer whose grand nobleman’s persona was actually fraudulent.

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Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac: An Ambitious Scoundrel

statue of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac
A statue of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac in Detroit
Photo: Ken Lund via CC BY-SA 2.0

The Frenchman Antoine Laumet came to the New World in the late 17th century, where he worked as a trader and an explorer. He quickly gave himself the fancy title of de la Mothe Cadillac, drawn from a town in France — even though, as the Canadian Museum of History points out, his parents were common folk.

Cadillac’s ambition caught the eye of French colonial rulers, and he was eventually selected to command a key fur-trading fort and lead an expedition to establish a new settlement in the Great Lakes and build ties with the region’s Native American residents.

In 1701, Cadillac arrived at the Lake Erie strait now known as the Detroit River, where he founded Fort Pontchartrain. This settlement eventually grew into the present-day city of Detroit.

As for Cadillac, he’d developed a reputation for abusing his position by handing out bribes and distributing alcohol among the tribes he dealt with. He was eventually relieved of his position but later served as governor of the Louisiana colony. At one point he was recalled to France and served a brief sentence in the Bastille.

Despite Cadillac’s checkered reputation, over the next few centuries his name came to represent a proud and adventurous heritage in Detroit — which is where Henry Leland comes in.

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An early Cadillac logo

According to It Still Runs, when Leland founded the Cadillac Automotive Company in 1902, he felt that the Cadillac name represented the image he wanted his vehicles to promote and communicated a sense of connection with Detroit’s history. Leland even adopted Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac’s spurious family crest as the company’s logo.

These days, historians still remember Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac as the founder of Detroit, but otherwise, the legacy of his name has been almost entirely taken over by the auto brand.

That brand would probably prefer not to focus on its namesake’s reputation as a bogus nobleman, but the rest of us can reflect on how quintessentially American the story is — after all, our history is full of intrepid jerks who’ve gone on to shed their dubious pasts and reinvent themselves as world-conquering successes. And if he were around today, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac just might be amused to see what his name has turned into.