Dudder: Travels With Truman

That's the name of a friend's '49 Cadillac Sedanette that could teach today's Cadillac executives a thing or two about leadership.

He picked me up in Pasadena in his yellow Porsche Boxster and drove me through rush hour traffic to his home in Long Beach so I could finally meet Truman.

He picked me up in Pasadena in his yellow Porsche Boxster and drove me through rush hour traffic to his home in Long Beach so I could finally meet Truman. That is the nickname Mark Ewing has for his 1949 Cadillac Series 62 Sedanette, a car he bought from a California almond farmer. He is the third owner of the car, but not one of those collectors that buys a car to look at, or to flip when the market goes his way. He buys what he wants, and drives it whenever possible.

Since our last face-to-face visit, he'd traded his headstrong Mini Cooper S for the Boxster, and sold his 1957 Ford Thunderbird to make room for the Cadillac. He'd also moved back to the auto industry, ditching a PR job at USC's School of Engineering to become an independent contractor for Toyota. Right now, however, none of that mattered as we rushed to the garage to pull the covers off a car that I'd heard about but never seen.

Cadillac's post-war Sedanette has a landmark design that is at once both sleek and elegantly imposing. A fastback with vestigial rear fins modeled after the twin booms of the P-38 Lightning, its design is so correct that Bentley unabashedly copied its form for its 1952 Continental Sport Saloon (later known as the Continental R-Type). However, the Cadillac used a 160-hp, 331-in.3 overhead valve V8 that went until 1964 without a major redesign, while the Bentley drew its power from a slightly smaller aluminum-head inline six-cylinder.

As he wheeled the Caddy out into traffic, Mark observed: "You can imagine the effect this car had when it was new, especially those that made their way over to Europe after the war. Here, rolling through countries devastated by war, was a car that had an athletic, sexy shape that also exuded a tasteful sense of luxury and optimism." Mark then used this statement to launch into a searing indictment of Cadillac's current lineup he summarized with: "It's almost as if no one in GM ever sat in these cars and even tried to distill the essence of what made them so special into something that can be adapted to today's market. Instead, they conduct focus groups and ask respondents what they think Cadillac means." Looking around the tastefully restrained interior of the Sedanette, I couldn't disagree, especially since I had driven a 2007 STS scant months before. That car, according to my notes, "lacks a point of view or sense of purpose. It's a nicely equipped vehicle, but totally forgettable." That's not what you'd expect from a brand that once claimed it was "The Standard of the World."

As we headed off to dinner in Seal Beach, Mark pushed the Caddy hard, and I was amazed this 59-year-old car accelerated and braked as well as it did, or that—despite my expectations—it cornered flat and rode with a silky authority new Cadillacs lack. "If you took all of the positives of this car and brought them forward," he remarked, "Cadillac would set the standards for the segment because their cars wouldn't be focused just on the technology or producing the best numbers in a comparison test. They would captivate buyers with their personality." Personality. In this case, a natural authority that is astonishingly captivating. I could see why Mark spent months hunting for this car. Truman is a delight, and a surprising window into a time long ago when Cadillac set the tone for the industry.