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Cadillac opening NYC digs—just don't try to buy a car

In a trendy part of Manhattan known more for art galleries than car dealerships, Cadillac is taking the next step in its efforts to revitalize its brand image and reach a new audience.

On Wednesday, the automaker will open the doors to its new Cadillac House, a space that's part art gallery, part coffee shop — but no parts dealership.

Instead of serving as a hub to sell cars, the ground-floor location in New York City's SoHo neighborhood is meant to introduce the brand to certain affluent shoppers who may not have have previously had an interest in its cars.

"We think that people who are luxury consumers, people who are tech innovators, people who are from the fashion world, the creative spirits that make our cosmopolitan society so interesting all will find something of interest here," said Johan de Nysschen, president of Cadillac.

A Cadillac on display at Cadillac House in New York City.
Meghan Reeder | CNBC
A Cadillac on display at Cadillac House in New York City.

When General Motors agreed to move Cadillac's world headquarters from Detroit to New York City in 2014, de Nysschen stressed the need for executives to think about the brand in different terms. For decades, it struggled to break its image as an iconic American brand that had fallen out of touch with trendsetters. That image was reflected in sales that continually lagged other luxury automakers since the late 1980s.

Though the brand has recently regained some of its momentum, its sales are down 12.4 percent so far this year.

"The current generation of Cadillac product has never been as good in the entire history of the brand, but we also know that it's about intangible perceptions and those we keep building and enforcing day by day," de Nysschen said.

"The priority is not about about sales volume, it's about the business," he said, explaining that includes the nature of the brand's customers.

Attracting new people to Cadillac is one reason the Cadillac House is not a dealership. In fact, very few of its vehicles will be on display, and they won't necessarily be the latest models. During the grand opening, for example, passersby will encounter a 1953 Cadillac Le Mans concept car — a rarity given only four Le Mans were ever built.

If someone strolled in and wanted to purchase a Caddy, the staff would help them find a dealership in the area; but they would not sell them a car. Eventually, the Cadillac House will include a pop-up design retail store where local fashion designers can show and sell their newest items.

As GM tracks the reaction to its first Cadillac House, it's planning another three to five locations around the world, including next year in Shanghai.

In recent years, luxury auto brands have been looking for new ways to attract different buyers. That includes "Mercedes me," a restaurant and bar concept that takes an understated approach to pushing that brand.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.