In 1964, the former Dollie Ann Fechner McVey married General Motors executive Ed Cole, who at fifty-five years old was twenty-one years her senior. After Henry Leland, the pioneer of Cadillac's concept of interchangeable parts in 1908, Ed Cole was probably the division's most important engineer. He'd started as a General Motors Institute student in 1930, working for 45 cents an hour, and he stayed at Cadillac for about twenty years. In those days, besides automobiles that were the Standard of the World, Cadillac built armored vehicles. Solving propulsion problems in the M3 and M5 tanks earned Cole early distinction. After World War II, in addition to important work on the Walker Bulldog tank, he codeveloped the high-compression Cadillac V-8. In 1952 he became Chevy's chief engineer. The success of the 1955 Bel Air with the new small-block V-8 led to his appointment as the division's general manager. Cole ran a bootleg program to create the Corvair -- which included an aluminum engine block -- and stunningly won production approval for the car from GM's top management. In 1959 he made the cover of Time magazine, and two years later, on his way to the company presidency, he assumed oversight of all GM automotive divisions. His capacity for work was so great that Mrs. Cole once told me in a phone interview that their wedding ceremony should have said, "I now pronounce you man and wife and briefcase." Breakfast at their Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, home started at 5 a.m. daily. "Edward turned on the lights in the General Motors building," she said.
We looked around her amazing, high-ceilinged house paneled in boards from an old mill she'd bought at auction. The library was rife with memorabilia, including a model of a Corvair Greenbrier van and a Dr. Pepper ad featuring the wholesome young Dollie Ann Fechner. She pointed out framed photos of herself with friends from the highest echelons of politics, show business, and auto racing. Leading through another door into her office, she showed me her husband's desk from the GM building. Among her own many directorships, she has served on the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum board and said she prizes snapshots of herself in "unusual" aircraft, one being the Enola Gay. "I just had lunch last week with John and Annie Glenn," she mentioned.
Aircraft had another role in her life, too. In 1977, less than three years after retiring from GM, Mr. Cole died when the twin-engine plane he was piloting crashed southeast of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Mrs. Cole found widowhood in Detroit awkward, so she eventually moved back to her native state.
When lunchtime arrived, we strapped into the XTS and drove out to the highway. Sixty acres of Mrs. Cole's ranch were acquired for Route 130. She'd fought the acquisition until her lawyers advised it was futile. Now she seemed to ruefully accept the toll road, which here parallels U.S. 183. Arriving minutes later in Lockhart, once a stop on the Chisholm Trail and now the self-proclaimed barbecue capital of Texas, we went to Smitty's Market for a feast. We sat at a plain table, spreading out sheets of heavy paper and each grasping a plastic knife, the only utensil. The big basket of meat was delivered beside a loaf of white bread, whole avocados, and Cokes. "Heart attack on a stick," Mrs. Cole joked as we dug in. Midway through a session that Hieronymus Bosch, the painter of "The Seven Deadly Sins," should have been witnessing, Briarpatch Ranch manager Edward Nicholas Cole, Jr. -- Nick, as he's known -- joined us, bringing along a coworker right from haying. Between bites, Nick talked about his motorsports exploits at Thunderhill Raceway, including stock-car victories and an exhibition of school-bus fender rubbing that resulted in a glorious fireball and lurid rollover.
After a nutritious ice cream cone for dessert, we returned to the ranch and spent more time looking at the XTS. When I mentioned the copious number of passive restraints, Mrs. Cole was reminded of the time Mr. Cole introduced the airbag to the press. "My husband used me as the dummy," she said. "It blew off my glasses and unbuttoned my blouse." The heated-and-cooled front seats of the XTS made her remember the first time she drove a car -- she thought it was an Oldsmobile Toronado -- with seat heaters. This feature was still new to her. "My bottom got very, very hot!" She called Mr. Cole at work to report that the car's undercarriage must have caught fire.
In a parting comment, Mrs. Cole proclaimed the XTS "absolutely gorgeous" but admitted it would take her a week to learn her way around Cue. We exchanged farewells and the journey resumed, heading southbound on the tollway's Edenic, 85-mph stretch. No commercial development, weigh stations, rest areas, or police were to be seen. Pickups and large SUVs accounted for most of the sparse traffic, and none dawdled. Electronic sign displays at intervals along the roadside admonished that the left lane was for passing only. Incredibly enough, drivers observed this maxim. Other signs warned of wildlife. In recent years, feral hogs have overrun this part of central Texas, and since the road's opening some unthinkable collisions have occurred. Today, though, neither road hog nor wild hog was a problem, and we ripped and snorted along, cherishing every aspect of the experience.
Although the XTS was capable enough at 85 mph, the occasional uphill grade showed that the V-6, rated at 304 hp, produces barely enough torque at 264 lb-ft. The muscular response I sought wasn't quite there. And while the interior was elegant and appealing, the finishes had frayed in a couple of places. I tried to sweet-talk the voice-activated navigation, but it seemed afflicted with tinnitus; when I named my San Antonio hotel, the system produced a list of inns around the Seattle-Tacoma airport.
Beyond these trifles, though, the XTS rocked on every level. If it's the antithesis of the traditional big Caddy, Sheryl Crow is the antithesis of Cher. "All I wanna do is have some fun," she sang. "I got a feeling I'm not the only one." Like a good beer buzz early in the morning, the end of Route 130 came too soon. I was just getting untracked in this Texas sweet spot.