It’s confounding to me to understand the descent Cadillac has had over the last 40-45 years. As a child, I remember Cadillac being the top of the heap, everything else was not at the same level. I was a teenager when the first Seville was released, it was considered an achievement of engineering at the time. But the dual fuel crises hit and GM could not seem to pivot effectively. The feeling in 1979 was that by 1985 we’d $4.00 gallon gasoline and that drove all of the Big 3.5 to downsize rapidly. Only 1985 had $1.00 gallon gasoline which was quite bearable. The 1977-era Cadillacs had a good reputation and seemed like the future was certain. The smaller FWD Cadillacs were on their way, but the seeming cynicism of the Cimarron may have tainted those cars. They never quite got traction with the new FWD cars, even though they were light years ahead of the behemoth mid-70’s models.
Since then, it’s been a series of ever-increasing investment in cars few care about in the demographic that they’re pitched at, while enduring ever-decreasing sales. I’m sure conflicting corporate directives about fuel economy and other non-car objectives prevents Cadillac from finding the right recipe to make them appealing again. Maybe the coming electrification will work out. But as a GM fan, I’m very skeptical that this will work. I sure hope it does.
I think two big factors have been ignored in all the discussions about the Cimarron, the nightmare implementation of CAFE-compliant drivetrains and sizes, and the role universities played in aligning America-hating with lucrative employment.
The 55 MPH speed limit doomed the esteem American cars were once held in. GM happily breathed a sigh of relief that they need not consider any metrics of performance other than fuel economy and emissions while they navigated the world of exploding regulations. It was easy for cars developed for other markets to be demonstrably better dynamically when Detroit was freed from worrying about high speed composure and acceleration to speeds where aerodynamic drag plays a factor. The feeble Cimarron would never have reached production with a 1.8 liter OHV engine and acceleration times rivalling those of a VW Beetle in a USA with 75 MPH freeways. The same is true for an HT4100 Seville or Eldorado.
The other harbinger of doom for Cadillac was the success of the first Seville and what it told GM about Cadillac customers. If a Nova with an Oldsmobile engine and a thousand pounds of sound insulation and reinforcement could be sold for Fleetwood prices, then why wouldn't the Cimarron find a market? There are still people who argue that the Seville isn't a Nova, no matter how many times people have taken them both apart and used random combinations of the parts to build working cars without having to modify anything. There just aren't enough of those people to keep Cadillac as a viable luxury brand.
A possible third death marker for Cadillac was the second Seville. Here was a car that actually had all the technology missing from the first Seville. The platform was well-received in the 1979 Eldorado, with its Seville-like Oldsmobile V8. Then Cadillac dressed it in a polarizing styling and proceeded to power it with any number of engines that were not as good as an Olds 350. Based on a specification table, the Seville should have been a serious challenger against most of the imported luxury cars of the day, particularly if it had been allowed to keep the engines Cadillac offered in 1979. The 425 would have fit. Unfortunately, Seville buyers stood a strong chance of being snickered at and then the engine offerings went from terrible to worse.
I have access to an 81 Seville (if I ever want it) with a 3.8 V6 transplanted where a 4.1 V6 used to dwell (since the short-run 4.1's are virtually unobtainable now). I told the owner the first thing I would do if I ever bought it is stuff a 425 in it. There's plenty of room and it is pretty obvious the car was intended to accommodate it
You talk a lot of sense, the trajectory of the decline, mostly, I agree with you.
Sadly your insensate Seville / Nova comparisons are simply, technically, wrong. The frame on the Seville is unique and is much closer to a Camaro than a Nova. Much of the front suspension, engine compartment and rear axle, Camaro. I've been with the '76/'79 Seville over 45 years, I now have a Alternative Parts Book developed, almost complete. This explains where the Seville parts come from for restoration purposes, as well of course for service parts requirements.
The Oldsmobile engine, not standard, but built to Cadillac's higher standards and checked and tested at Clark Street to Cadillac's own high engine tolerances.
The sound proofing? They used, for the first time we believe acoustic isolator material, meaning specific sound absorbing materials in specific areas in order to kill the noises from each area of the body.
Regarding your 'reinforced' comment? How about the use of Fast Fourier Analysis and Nastran computer programmes that had been used by NASA for the Apollo Moon missions? It's rather more than reinforcement. There are several articles, one in '75 in Automotive News about this technological leap in terms of body development and structural analysis.
That, you say, someone has built a Seville using Nova parts is incredible, most simply won't fit properly, certainly caster, camber and toe-in measurements would be all over the place? I run a '78 Elegante that's had a long life and is still a daily-driver, I also run a '79 Rolls-Royce and it has to be said, the Seville is a much better road car and is far quieter (decibel tested) than the Rolls. Sure there are elements of a Rolls that takes 12 weeks to build that are stunning, but that's not what we are discussing here. The technology used to get the much more basic platform of the Camaro/Nova put the Seville right at the very top of luxury cars in the day.
I agree completely that Cadillac read the Seville's success wrongly, hence the cynical Cimarron and the fact that here in Europe, especially Germany, they could've taken on Mercedes on their own patch. GM just missed that entirely. So sad.
I don't think Cadillac moved away from the market as much as the market moved away from Cadillac. Cadillac was on top in a day when a luxury car was a large car with a large motor that rode and accelerated as smooth as butter and was upholstered like a living room. All of a sudden, cars got smaller, performance, handling and economy got more important, and the separation between a luxury car and a sports car has become very small, and wanting old-school luxury has become very unpopular. It's not like better competitors took over the luxury segment, it just plain disappeared and now Cadillac has to compete a the sport coupe arena that was already dominated by Germany and others
I love Cadillacs and have owned a few of all sizes from that era. I can confirm that those FWD versions did indeed have the same luxurious and high quality driving characteristics of the big ones that came before. I always wanted any version in that pale yellow with matching leather interior. Maybe one day.
This article in the magazine prompted me to look at 80's and 90's cadi's for sale, there are some CHERRY examples that are going for small money. Would be fun comfy cruisers. Also had me checking out GM wagons of the same era.
I owned several 1978 and 1979 Devilles and loved every mile I drove in them. They were quiet, reliable and stylish, though not exactly economical on fuel. I later bought a 1991 Deville new and then a 2006 DTS. Both were as reliable as a Yugo, and incredibly cheaply built cars. The usual 4.1 and Northstar issues finally finished me on the brand. It is a tragedy what has happened to General Motors, but especially to Cadillac.
So there I am standing in the Cadillac booth at the 1987 Pittsburgh International Autoshow (age 14) with my best friend who was a huge fan of the big old Caddy’s. I think his dream car at the time was a Fleetwood Brougham D’elegance. He is lamenting the demise of the big rear wheel drive cars out loud, when one of the salesmen walks up to us and says “Son, Cadillac’s changing and you’ve got to change with it!”. I was already a Ford man so the arrogance of the salesman didn’t lose GM a future customer but it didn’t do much for my friend who went on to own a number of big Lincolns. I still quote that guy today as both an example of how you have to change with technology and as an example of how not to talk to your clients...
It’s amazing to think that Briggs Cunningham entered a couple of nearly-stock Cadillacs at Le Mans in the early 50s and they did surprisingly well. Cadillac truly was the standard of the world, and it seems like every once in a while they still come out with some really outstanding cars. But rather than continually investing in the product to take it from very good to the very best, they stop developing it and use it as a cash cow until it is no longer a segment leader. Then a decade later they build another car that is almost great, and let it die a slow death again….
Maybe it's because I'm a member of the "boomer" generation, but even though I came to admire the looks of some of the late 80's-early 90's Cadillacs, they just don't ring my bell as this glorious '76 model does! I've never aspired to own one, but even from childhood, when I saw a '58 Fleetwood Sixty Special cruise by in all its glory, I KNEW that THAT was a Cadillac! The newer versions have never developed the type of presence that these cars had & and still have. 🙂
Another thing that damaged Cadillac was the 1980's trend of selling the same car as two or three different brands, at wildly different prices. I remember going into the Cadillac dealer in Oakland CA (27th and Harrison) right after they had taken over the failing Buick franchise, and seeing a Cadillac and the corresponding Buick model sitting side by side. The salesman was actually laughing as he said to me "It's the same car! How am I suppose to explain to a customer why the Cadillac is $3,000 more?"
If the salesman was talking about the FWD GM products, I'd think it's a pretty easy sell via informing would-be wealthy customers of the benefit of a 4.1/4.5/4.9L V8 over a 3.8L V6. If nothing else, on sound and torque alone. But that's just me.
My mom drove a 1979 Olds Cutlass with the V8 that my dad bought new for himself as an undercover fast-ish car after he decided he was too old for sports cars and sold his RX-7. But my mom was done with station wagons and took it from him. It was perfect for a housewife who wanted to drive fast but didn't want anything flashy. Pretty much the definition of Olds! But a Caddie it was not. Looking at the photos of the newer car in this story, it is is nearly identical in every way to mom's Olds. Look at the photos. Does this say high end luxury? Not to me. The new Caddies are such good cars and fast to boot. Yet they don't sell well. Its what happens when you taint a brand with Oldsmobiles for Caddie money. People give up. Move on to European cars that are considered cutting edge, which they are not any more than Caddies, but now carry the cache that Caddies once carried, but no more. It makes me sad.
I like them both - as well as the new-for-1977 version that was mentioned but not featured. I am suspicious of the 1986's 0-60 times, though; I seem to recall reading a test of an early-1980's Eldorado, and it was more like 16 seconds 0-60.
"The fact that its size serves hardly any practical purpose—we’re talking about a two-door as long as a modern pickup..." Interesting comparison. The main fad vehicles of today include huge four-door pickups, which also serve little practical purpose; most people seem to never put anything in the bed. Many, perhaps most, would be far better served by an SUV, or maybe a REAL CAR, with a REAL TRUNK.
A friend of mine once told me he and his best friend were walking down the street in town one day back in 1979 when they happened to go by the Cadillac dealer's showroom. There on the showroom floor was a brand new, black '79 Eldorado. He said his friend was frozen at the beauty of that car.
He said his friend vowed right there on the spot that he was going to start saving some money out of each paycheck until he could afford to buy one of those for himself. And he said, sure enough, his friend did save money to do just that!
And he told me it took him 40 years but his dream finally came true!
I said, "You mean he bought a brand-new black Cadillac?" He said, "No, he bought a black '79 Eldorado!"
My first was a '50 fordor sedan, looked good but gave a lot of trouble, I finally traded it off, got rid of it. In '86 I bought a nice '76 Coupe DeVille with 42K, at 118K the tranny puked, I junked it. Then in '93 I bought an '86 with that small but powerful V8, FWD ... this one cost me a huge amount of cash in repairs, I rebuilt the engine myself, then the water pump went out, another 700 bucks down the drain, I ended up giving that one away and swore off Caddies from then on, should have bought a Lincoln much earlier, had I known what I know now. Sorry, I wouldn't want another Caddie if you gave it to me ... that was my experience.
OMG! In graduate school in the mid-90’s, I was in a bad car accident that totaled my little Chevy Cavalier. Physically, I recovered fine, but was a bit shell-shocked and afraid to get behind the wheel for a few months. When I did feel like I wanted a car again, I had about $2000 available and bought a 1984 Coupe Deville from an elderly lady. It was a beautiful car! Beige inside and out with a hint of pink undertones! My boyfriend named it Waldo... my friend Katie named it Buffy... my sister’s fiancé coveted it! We all loved it! Was a great car. When I got my first real job after graduation, I bought a brand new 1997 VW Jetta. That was a poor choice on my part! I had a 10 year love-hate relationship with that car. Meanwhile, I ended up giving it to my sister and her husband. They enjoyed it for some time. I still miss that beautiful, comfortable car.
A different take on Caddy downsizing ... When I first met the my close friend-to-be in 1970 she was 76yo and was on her 16th Cadillac (she got her first as a gift from her father when she learned to drive, well before WW I). She told me she had briefly owned only one non-Cadillac, a '57 Oldsmobile convertible. Her current Cadillac was a 1967 Fleetwood, Marina Blue with black vinyl roof. Her 1961 Black Fleetwood with cloth interior was still in the driveway. She described the '61 as being her "work" car. By 1976-77 (she at 82 was still looking fit and clear as a bell) the sides of the monstrous '67 were starting to look a bit banged up - her explanation: " I think people keep brushing up against my car in parking lots". Doubting that explanation, I suggested that she might want to consider the new Seville - easier to maneuver with much better visibility. Always sharp, she instantly replied "Honey, those things cost $3.00 a pound and I would never pay that much for a car!" You can fool some of the people... (Not too long after that, she decided to depend on others to drive her, in the '67 or their own car).
I walked into a cadillac dealer with my wife back in 1981 . We walked in and there sat by itself a lt blue coupe deville with wire wheels . Little did i no that an hour later it would be ours . That was the most comfortable car to drive vehicle I've ever owned and still wish i had .
Nice article about two great symbols of U.S. car culture. Can't believe that David has chosen to perpetuate the myth of the Fall, 1973 energy crisis from the often-quoted Middle East oil embargo against the U.S. Oil tankers were parked off the coast of San Diego at that time, and apparently, they refused to unload their contents until they got the price that they wanted. More puzzling is the report that U.S. oil reserves in the fall of 1973 were less than 1% of what they were in the fall of 1972. So where was the crisis? Wonder if this was how Enron got some of its market signal ideas? Thanks.
Currently have a 2000 DTS, 2005 XLR and 2015 XTS. The DTS feels like a big, comfortable GM car, but quicker and more agile than 70s cars. The XLR is a little race car, sort of an upscale Corvette. Could be appointed better inside. Most fun with the top down. The XTS might as well be an Impala. Far from a Cadillac of the past. Good enough car quality-wise, but doesn’t even feel like a Cadillac. They definitely lost their mojo somewhere along the line, and didn’t seem courageous enough to really compete with Mercedes and BMW. My supercharged Jag XJL is more like the modern Cadillac should be. Of course, to be fair, the XJL didn’t make it either! Discontinued.