A few weeks ago, my wife and I were in downtown Manhattan, where we spent a pleasant afternoon at the new Whitney Museum. Our trip into New York County was via the Staten Island Ferry, and while we had taken a taxi from the ferry terminal to the museum, the afternoon weather was pleasant enough for us to make the return trip to the terminal on foot.
Much of our walk took us south on Hudson St., through the West Village and SoHo. These areas are full of trendy bars, coffee shops, and galleries, and autumn’s Sunday warmth had lots of people out and about.
I’ll be the first to tell you that my eyesight isn’t that great … except when it comes to spotting cars. A few blocks past Houston St., in the glass window of a building across the street from where I stood, was the unmistakable chrome face of a 1958 Cadillac. “Wait, wait”, I yelled to my wife, whom I knew would have no choice but to follow me. “What is this place? Wait, the Cadillac emblem is on the front of the building!”
My wife went in first; I wasn’t even sure they were open. But sure enough, they were. We scooted past two young adults who were building some kind of display, and entered the first floor ‘showroom’, all glass and mirrors and chrome. Oh, and several Caddies from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
We wandered around a bit. There was a hipster coffee bar, and a small clothing boutique in the rear. A large placard gave details about an upcoming Andy Warhol exhibit. The space is open seven days a week, and “hanging out” is encouraged.
We didn’t stay long, and on the way out, I asked the young woman at the desk if this was in fact Cadillac’s headquarters. “Oh yes” she exclaimed enthusiastically. “All the upper floors are where all the offices are. We like it here, because this is a great neighborhood.”
The Cadillac brand, in an attempt to establish independence from its General Motors parent, moved its national operation to New York in 2015. This is all part of brand chief Johan de Nysschen’s grand plan to take the luxury car maker upscale.
My presumption had been that their offices would be somewhere in Midtown: perhaps near Bloomingdale’s (and Trump Tower), or maybe around the corner from Rockefeller Center. So Johan wants to be where the young trendsetters are. Hasn’t this been tried before?
I had one more question for our hostess: “Where are the new cars?” She said that they had all been moved out in preparation for the Warhol event. For now, these behemoths from Cadillac’s heyday had the floor to themselves. Here’s hoping that Cadillac finds its muse somewhere in lower Manhattan.
Similar stories about the end of this storied Italian design house can be found in other locations on the internet.
Reading this saddened me, and not just because a Bertone-designed car currently sits in my garage. First, on a higher level, we have observed that the car business goes through changes, and those changes can drive away marques that you thought would be around forever. When I was 15, posters of the 1969 Pontiacs were Scotch-taped to my bedroom walls. Never in my lifetime would I have believed that the day would come when Pontiac would be no more. The last 20 years have also witnessed the demise of Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Mercury, and Saab, among others.
Second, on a more personal level, I am fortunate to have once visited the Bertone factory outside of Torino, Italy. It was one of the most memorable business trips I have ever taken, and it’s a story that I’ve never told in its entirety. Allow me to tell it here.
In January of 1988, 15 months into my employment with Volvo Cars of North America (VCNA), the management team decided that I should travel to Volvo’s world headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden, to be trained in the investigation of vehicle fires. While fires were not a huge problem for the company, very little was known at that time about the cause and effect of “thermal events” (the euphemism we used). The Volvo Car Corporation in Gothenburg (VCC) had done some investigative work on its own, and they had an in-house fire expert who would train me. For me, it was an opportunity to travel to the land which gave birth to all those Volvo 140s and 240s I had wrenched on as a technician, so off I went, my delight completely undiminished by the concept of winter in Scandinavia.
Arriving in very snowy and very dark Gothenburg was a culture shock. Given that “daylight” such as it is lasts from about 9am to 3:30pm in January, this combined with a 6-hour time difference made the first few days at work a struggle. Nevertheless, my hosts were cordial and accommodating, and always polite about speaking English in my presence. Within 3 days, we made a field trip to investigate a Volvo which had gotten crispy a few days before. What a thrill – I was getting my hands dirty.
Then Friday came.
During my first four days at work, no mention was made of a looming “engineers” strike. In Sweden, unlike the U.S., many of the white-collar workers are unionized. Lots of banter in the native tongue was overheard but not understood about management, the union, the labor negotiations, etc. On Friday morning, there were union representatives outside the now-barricaded chain link fence in Torslanda (the Volvo factory). No one was being allowed admittance to the buildings. My Swedish colleagues were on strike, and I was on my own.
The strike, at first predicted to last only several days, was soon seen to be stretching out to a week or more. As part of my business trip, I had made tentative plans to also travel to Brussels, Belgium for an auto show; to Hamburg, Germany, if only because my father was born there and I had yet to visit; and to Italy, because I had been there 10 years before and had fallen in love with the place. Besides, I told my boss back in the States, visiting Italy was really a “business trip”.
In 1988, for the second time in its history, Volvo contracted with Carrozzeria Bertone to design and manufacture a limited-production, 2-door specialty car. First was the Volvo 262C, made from 1978 to 1981. Next came the Volvo 780, which was in production at Bertone at the time of my planned visit. Such was the extent of freedom with business travel that I needed no more of an excuse than that. Euro-rail pass in hand, I headed south through mainland Europe, arriving in Italy, and finding it less snowy but just as cold, dark, and damp as Sweden.
Through contacts in Gothenburg, I was given the name of someone who would host my visit. Taking a cab from the train station in Torino to the suburb of Grugliasco, I somehow found my way to the correct office building in the sprawling Bertone complex, and was greeted by a Mr. Mario Panizza. He welcomed me, and asked me to sit while he fetched my Swedish host. Within a few minutes, Mr. Roine Lundin arrived.
Roine was a Swede temporarily relocated to Italy in order to oversee Volvo’s interests there. (As an aside, Roine told me that he had a Chinese wife and a 6-year-old daughter, both living in Italy with him. The daughter went to an English-language school, and she was already fluent in Swedish, Chinese, English, and Italian. Wonder what she’s doing today.) Roine gave me the behind-the-scenes tour of the factory. Photographs were strictly prohibited. But I have a clear memory of watching the factory workers as they assembled FOUR distinctly different cars going down the assembly line at the same time: in addition to the Volvo 780 were the Lamborghini Jalpa, the Fiat (Bertone) X1/9, and the Opel Kadett Cabriolet. The point was made to me that at Volvo’s insistence, Bertone significantly upgraded their painting facility in order to meet the Swedish carmaker’s standards, and the Fiat, Opel, and Lamborghini also benefited from the improved painting process.
At lunchtime, Roine and I dined in the factory cafeteria with the line workers. That lunch was the best meal I had during what turned out to be an almost 3-week-long visit to Europe. After lunch, Roine invited me to have espresso with him in the executive dining area. As coffee was served, he asked me if I wanted my drink “fixed”, a time-honored Italian way of asking if I desired a shot of liqueur, such as Sambuca or Amaretto. I demurred.
Knowing he was setting me up, Roine pointed to a sign hanging over the bar and asked me what it said. It was in Italian, so I had no idea. He translated: “There shall be no alcohol served at this bar during work hours”. He paused and, as a smile crept across his face, waited for my reaction. “But Roine, you just offered to ‘fix’ my drink, what gives?” He answered “you have to think like an Italian. The sign means that you cannot drink the alcohol by itself. But in the coffee, it’s OK!”
The tour concluded, I left the Bertone complex and found a hotel to spend the night. By the next morning, I was again on a train for the return trip north. Convinced that the strike would be over by the time I got back to VCC, alas it was not. Calling my boss back home one more time, we both agreed that enough time had been spent waiting (and wandering). The long-planned training event lasted for 4 days out of its expected 2+ weeks.
Since that trip in January of 1988, I made business trips to VCC in Sweden in excess of 20 times. Yet that first trip remains most memorable. And someday, I’d like to have another one (or three) Bertone-designed cars in the fleet.