And He Could Have Had a Cadillac. If the School Had Taught Him Right

Driven to Write chanced upon a 1973 Cadillac Eldorado in NW Denmark.

1973 Cadillac Eldorado
1973 Cadillac Eldorado

David Bowie’s 1979 album, Lodger, is remarkable for a number of reasons. Among them is the scope of the record, which is partly a set of postcards back from the wider world, partly rather political (“Fantastic Voyage”, for example) and finally part social commentary. I’ve been listening to it since 1990 and haven’t tired of it.

One of the songs on the album is relevant to today’s car. “Repetition” is sung from the point of view of a dissatisfied and angry man, Johnny, who has come home late, hungry and enraged with his wife and probably his entire life. She will bear the brunt of Johnny’s rage and “the bruises won’t show if she wears long sleeves”. The song’s deadened vocals and falling note sequence captures the numbness of Johnny’s wife.

This Eldorado seems to be the kind of Cadillac I imagine Johnny would have bought “if the school had taught him right”. Johnny is probably getting by in a ’70 Plymouth but he aspires to more and this is what he aspires to, a car like this ’73 Eldorado. For a long time Cadillac has been a car for those seeking to display status.

For David Bowie’s character this is the kind of Cadillac that would help assure him of his place in the world. It’s a 1973 but by 1979 it would have been very much an outdated, grotesque reminder of the days before inflation and the oil crisis years – just the sort of hard-to-sell, devalued barge a status-sensitive man like Johnny can’t even afford on his wages from Harlington Meat Packers. Although not explicit in the song, I imagine Johnny isn’t aspiring to a new Cadillac but one that’s had two owners. That’s how far down he is.

1973 Cadillac Eldorado
1973 Cadillac Eldorado

Taking a close look at this example we find a vehicle which looks striking from about 20 metres. An examination at 40 cm makes it apparent that Cadillac were selling width and length but not quality. The interior is staggeringly cramped. Imagine a VW Polo as wide as Mercedes S-Class. And for all its padded extravagance it does not look as if you’d want to spend long in the back. There’s no arm-rest. It’s as bare as a Caprice. It seems

1973 Cadillac Eldorado
1973 Cadillac Eldorado

very much as if little but features separate this from a Chevrolet or Buick from the same period.

The Eldorado is not tidily built even by the standards of the time. The chrome on the windows is more or less banged on as if the assembly concept was conceived by a woodworker. I had a close stare at the headlamps. The sculpture and the shut-lines don’t gel. There’s supposed to be a rectangular, projecting surface upon which the lamps sit but the huge gap between the bonnet and the lower frontal parts obliterates this.

You could imagine this looking good as a single piece of sculpted clay in a studio. And then the design was sent to the production engineers and savaged in the name of practicality.

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Our theme of the month is engines. This loopy land-yacht packs an 8.2 litre V8 engine producing 175 KW or 238 HP (less than Opel’s 2.0 Ecotec turbo unit does in 2014). Amazingly, this vehicle is front-wheel drive. Seldom has the gap between engineering principle and aesthetics been so great although at times GM really has tried to beat its own records on that score.

Cadillac was the last division of GM to retain its own design of V8.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

24 thoughts on “And He Could Have Had a Cadillac. If the School Had Taught Him Right”

  1. I’ve always had a soft spot for Cadillac, just because a Series 60 was the first car I ever drove. I was around seven at the time and it was a public road but no harm was done. This car’s predecessor, the ‘67 Eldorado was strangely handsome, but this is not. Despite having a premium edge, compared with some imported European brands, Cadillacs were cheap, but I’ve never understood how the US industry didn’t understand perceived quality – and to some degree still doesn’t. Yes, your budgets might prevent you from screwing things together properly, but that never stopped Bill Lyons from making his cars look quality.

  2. Since reading this, I’ve been considering the Eldorado’s FWD predecessor, the ‘66 Oldsmobile Toronado. In many ways, this was a brave project. Despite its huge engine (in pre-catalyst form it had 385, albeit SAE, hp) the comparatively weedy 185 (DIN) hp Citroen SM still pipped it to the World’s Fastest Front Wheel Drive Production Car, it wouldn’t have been far behind on acceleration and, show them some bends and the Toronado would be left miles behind. Why is that? GM’s designers were no fools and they were far better funded than Citroen’s. But everything about the Toronado was TOO BIG and that is reflected in most US industrial design of the time. TVs had huge chunky switches – everything seemed to be designed for a race of giants. There is some slight mileage in the suggestion that chunkier lasts longer, but I don’t think that explains it. Is perception of your own physical size related to your national consciousness? In the US, certainly back then, I’d say that American designers overperceived the size of their bodies by up to 25% and their motor industry best reflected this.

  3. On the one side it’s plain to see the mediocrity of products that are from centrally planned economies. The other side is harder to see: the mediocrity of the US’s automotive oligopoly. These large and crude cars were equally the result of an unresponsive bureaucracy which is what Detroit’s makers had become. The direct US equivalent of the Trabant was the US Ford Granada for sheer crude and shoddy standards. This Cadillac lumbers not so very far behind. I imagine the designers and engineers assumed an ignorant audience who seldom saw examples of proper engineering. Europe’s cars were more diverse and were products for a more educated and egalitarian society. These days the differences are much less marked, whatever that means socially. I suppose Americans were shown by Japan and Europe that there was more possible than chrome plate rivetted on by the yard and gutless big volume/low output marine motors.

  4. The Toronado was designed by people who were actually quite passionate about the project, though I guess they knew they’d always have to bend their proposals to satisfy the corporate numbskulls. Speaking as someone who once drove a rental Granada around New England, I can testify for its inexplicable awfulness – at least the Trabant wasn’t turned out by one of the World’s leading car makers in the top industrialised nation. After handing the Granada’s (oversized) keys back, I made the grateful transition to a Buick Electra, at least a proper Yank Tank and the reason I share your fondness for the Buick badge.

  5. I’ve great respect for the man, and I know that he has a wide range of interests, but I’m not sure how deeply David Bowie has ever delved into cars – for example Chev Brakes don’t Snarl (or am I being too literal?). Anyway my point is I’d have thought that, aspirationally speaking, Johnny might well have been more of a ‘69 Dodge Challenger R/T sorta guy.

  6. I’m beginning to obsess about this topic. The ‘ELDORADO’ badge is odd. Can you see how the two ‘DO’ section both rise above the other lettering. Is it a secret code? Is the fact that it is an anagram of Lead Odor relevant?

  7. Bowie is, I think, famously unable to drive. I think he was simply making use of the preconceptions around Cadillac. The mis-alligned letters indicate a respray.

  8. My own preconception about Bowie would be that he doesn’t drive. But that’s probably just based on his old, other-world persona. “this wheel is for steering? .. on our planet we steer with our minds”. Apparently having nothing better to do, I found a website full of important David Bowie questions and under ‘Does David actually drive or own a vehicle?’ it claims that he owns a British Racing Green “Jaguar 1.5 E Type”. How typically perverse of the man to replace the XK unit with one from a Wolseley 1500. Of course many pop stars notoriously own cars but can’t drive but, more intriguingly (and so unlikely it might almost be true) the fan site goes on to claim that he once had a 1932 Riley 9 Gamecock 2 seat roadster which, in May 1970 following an accident with the starting handle, caused him to be hospitalised and left his leg permanently scarred. David, if you’re reading this, would you like to write a short piece on the Gamecock? In fact, since we’re doing engines this month, let us know how easy you found it working on that high cam engine – how did it compare with Opel’s similar set-up from the 60s?

  9. How refreshing to realise that, unlike today’s limo cosseted breed, the stars of yesterday came up through the ranks. Doubtless further research will reveal more about Iggy Pop . . sorry Jimmy Osterberg’s American Bantam, and Reg Dwight’s Trojan Utility. Young Michael Jackson (surely not his real name) often joined his four brothers on stage, his fingernails broken and dirty from restoring his Singer Super Nine, and Gordon Sumner was, for three years, editor of the Jowett Driver’s Club magazine.

  10. I don´t really think DB has driven himself in a car for four decades, unless we include his time wrecking a limo in a hotel garage that time in 1976. I think DB travels exclusively by ship now.

  11. Has anyone here listened to “Lodger”? It’s often referred to as one of the Berlin records but it was recorded in Montreaux, Switzerland. It prefigures Bowie’s later work in that it isn’t a concept album. But he wouldn’t make a record as instrumentally rich again until ” Outside” in 1995 (also a “character” album).

  12. I haven’t listened to Lodger for 30 years probably. There are exceptions but, generally, I find contemporary music (by which I mean music made in my lifetime, which covers rather too many decades now) a bit too personally evocative of times and places and attitudes for comfort. So I end up listening to more ‘classical’ music than is probably healthy. Oh, not bloody Gotterdammerung again, I can’t put it on without thinking of the sodding Franco Prussian War.

  13. I have some records like that but not so many. The Night by Morphine is one I associate with Essex (Billericay) 2000, and crashing my car. “Lodger” is for me out of time. It’s got no personal associations at all. All classical music is, in contrast, associated with my mid-1980s. Unlistenable as a result.

  14. I suppose Lodger gets lumped with the previous two records because of the presence of Brian Eno and Tony Visconti. Lodger sounds very different to the previous two records however – more accessible, less claustrophobic than Heroes or Low. For me, the four Studio albums – Station to Station to Lodger represent Bowie’s finest work – although I do think ‘Outside’ was unappreciated. I lost interest from ‘Let’s Dance’ onwards.
    I seem to recall a documentary film on Bowie – Cracked Actor – where he spent a lot of time in the back of a Cadillac limo, not too dissimilar from the one above.

  15. The Cadillacs I associate with Bowie are the 1974-1975 Fleetwood Broughams that appeared in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Cracked Actor. I think they were those.
    For me the lumping of Lodger into the Berlin ensemble was just marketing on RCA´s side. I don´t think Bowie was living in Berlin and the album was recorded in Switzerland. Visconti thought the studio was not the right one. It was Mountain Studios owned by one of Queen´s musicians (Brian May, I think). Lodger has a completely different feel and structure and has no sense of place whereas Low and Heroes are very clearly grounded in the mood of 70s Germany.
    Outside is under-rated. It needed some editing but the good stuff is very good indeed. Wonderful singing and a genuinely unusual record. Looking back with hindsight, it´s his last properly strange record. Earthling, Hours, Heathen, Reality and The Next Day are good in parts but lack the wiful strangeness of Outside. Some of TND tries but never quite gets there. But I am not bitter about this as some are; Bowie´s back catalogue is an astonishing one.

  16. I never understood what Bowie was all about, but I cry whenever I hear that lovely pipe tune from the Simple Minds’ Belfast Child. Incidentally, it’s been used in a German beer advert for ages.

  17. Speaking of Tom Waits, he apparently used to own a series of old Cadillacs, mostly Coupe’s, and mostly dating from the pre-Yom-Kippur era. He then switched to Suburban’s, but last I heard, he was driving a Lexus. They always Disappoint in the end.

    Bowie has always been a massive Scott Walker fan, but was reportedly worried that his 1995 ‘Tilt’ album would adversely affect the reception for David’s ‘Outside’ opus. Turned out to be a very different creature – albeit both to be filed under ‘difficult’ in your local record store – assuming you still have one. Both great records in their own way. And Richard, you haven’t forgotten Eno have you?

  18. You´ve never understood Bowie? I didn´t start listening to his work until he was into the hated Tin Machine phase. My very first Bowie record was Tin Machine and it was from there I worked my way back. This happened before the internet so I just bought the records at random and took them at face value. It isn´t a matter of nostalgia for me, not even the records he realised after I´d started my “fandom”. That was because it wasn´t a shared experience in the way, I suppose, the Glam/Ziggy period was for some people, say, those about ten or fifeen years older than me. My point is that it´s never too late to give DB a spin. People generally find their own favourites. I don´t care much for the first five or six albums; I respect Station to Station but for me it kicks off with Low, “Heroes” and Lodger but I also enjoy Tonight, Buddha of Suburbia and Black Tie White Noise. It all gets played quite frequently.
    If you don´t get into Bowie one has a few other titans to choose from. I know a guy who thinks Bob Dylan is “it”. Or there´s Leonard Cohen. Or Tom Waites perhaps? Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry didn´t have the stamina or diversity of Bowie though people often find their decade 1970-1980 rich in gems. Interestingly (for me) Bowie did Roxy Music the honour of covering “If there is something” from their first album but I don´t think Roxy Music ever covered Bowie – too insecure.
    If you want to plough another furrow there´s Scott Walker who has inspired Bowie (he covered his song Nite Flights on Black Tie White Noise, for example) in the 70s and then again in the 1990s. Scott Walker´s a strange case: he was part of a wildly popular pop group singing fairly smooth poppy songs but he went off his own direction and became more of an auteur, moving to London in the late 60s, for example. He´s a really great singer, as accomplished as Bowie but much more idiosyncratic. He supposedly doesn´t listen to his records again once their recorded.
    Apart from DB my record collection is mostly miles out to lunch, with the main exception of REM who I binged on in the period 2001-2006. They might not turn out to be a band with legs. They can´t seem to write a song you can sing yourself. Michael Stipe’s vocal delivery is too peculiar. The songs work for him and nobody else.

  19. Bowie did some interviews in 1995 where he said he wanted Outside to be part of a non-linear Gothic hypercycle. Google that. I haven´t forgotten Eno: I see him as being like garlic. Not much good on its own but essential in other dishes.

  20. Richard,

    I fear my occasionally scattershot sense of humour has led to a bit of a misunderstanding.

    My main intention had been to namedrop Belfast Child, which I consider to be among the worst crimes against good taste in music, like, ever. Even more so as I’m deeply fond of pre-New Gold Dream Simple Minds.

    But back on topic: regarding Bowie, I’m among the dullards sitting on the fence who would admit to ‘liking” Bowie, without having much of a deep understanding of his career and work. I actually mainly know him as an actor and find him a very interesting public persona, but that’s about it.
    And his song for Cat People is clearly a guilty pleasure of mine, which is something I’d never say about China Girl – neither in public, nor all by myself in a dark, damp closet.

    So, despite the initial confusion, I’d like to thank you, Richard, for your guidelines for exploring the Bowie back catalogue. I shall do so soon.

  21. Speaking as someone who falls into Richard’s quite a bit older than him category, early David Bowie does have too many specific memories, such as driving a twin wheeled Transit bus through France to the sound of Panic In Detroit (how did the Great Man foretell the fall of the US Motor Industry?) On the other hand, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I never listened to much Bob Dylan in my youth, so had the pleasure of ‘discovering’ him ten or so years ago. But now, listening to Dylan just evokes memories of more recent years that I’d rather not have. I think it’s because I’ve never regarded it as ‘speaking for me’ in any way at all, that I find a lot of classical music so tolerable. It’s its ability to evoke moods without any verbal aid that I like. I prefer the more melancholic – Biber’s Mystery Sonatas for instance. Possibly my inclination towards the melancholic is the reason all my associated memories with music seem to be negative ones – since you mention it Richard, REM hold some of these too. As for Scott Walker – I bought ‘Drift’ a while back and found it wholeheartedly admirable, yet had no desire to ever listen to it again. Does that make it the perfect music?

  22. Kris – I am afraid I missed the joke. I´m really bad a spotting humour in written form!
    My music life and personal life parted company about a decade ago. I think that was the point I became a “grown up”. I was 33. Since then I have emotionally ossified, I would say. I would suppose the music of my 20s “spoke to me” as I was very cross and so was the music I listened to. These days, it´s all damped-down middle age nostalgia and mild regret. Now and again I have a brief insight into the emotional roller-coaster of my early life when I listen to certain tracks; seldom though. If I want emotionally colourless music I turn to Stereolab. It´s complex but entirely devoid of literal content. Great band at the very same time.

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