Mid-Atlantic Caddy

Detroit’s SL fighter wasn’t a winner, but was that the point of the exercise?

Image: scorpiosgarage
Image: scorpiosgarage

The Cadillac Allanté was not a brilliant commercial success. In fact its best year was its last, with just over 4,500 cars sold. It’s unlikely the Allanté was a profitable car, even at the (really quite optimistic) prices Cadillac were charging. Its convoluted production process most likely saw to that, even if the warranty claims already hadn’t. Nevertheless, the Cadillac two-seater was perhaps a more significant car than appearances might first suggest.

By the early 1980s the United States was emerging from a bruising recession, and entered perhaps the most dramatic period of economic growth and wealth creation in its history. So-called Reganomics presided over a stock market bonanza which combined with the lowering of the top taxrate for high earners, meant more $millionaires were created in the US than anywhere on earth. The post-’82 boom was great news for European luxury car makers, less so for the demoralised and downsized US motor business.

Cadillac meanwhile was on its knees. The one-time ‘Standard of the World’ had barely survived the downsizing era and was in real danger of becoming the sole preserve of heaven’s antechamber. The true standard of the world now hailed further East – Stuttgart-Untertürkheim to be precise, and new money wouldn’t be seen dead in ‘daddy’s Caddy’. Haemorrhaging sales to the German luxury marques, something clearly had to be done.

Image: oldcarbrochures
Image: oldcarbrochures

The pinnacle of the Mercedes range was the evergreen R107 SL series, the sine qua non of gilded elites, hollywood moguls, and TV’s Bobby Ewing. No longer in its first flush of youth, GM bosses clearly saw an opportunity both to simultaneously catapult Cadillac into the first division and give Daimler-Benz a bit of a left hook. But their new car first needed some European pizzaz, so they handed the styling job to Pininfarina, whose links to Cadillac went back decades. In fact the carrozzeria also nabbed the contract to manufacture Allanté in a purpose built facility outside Turin.

Logistic foolishness saw completed and fully trimmed bodyshells airfreighted to Detroit to be united with their mechanical components. This looked like a very good deal for Pininfarina, but it caused no end of ructions back in Detroit, the Cadillac styling team in arms over the perceived snub.

This was a costly option for GM so naturally costs had to be shaved somewhere. Unfortunately this necessitated a mechanical specification which would exclude the car from the top table at a stroke. The V-body was based on a shortened version of the fwd E-body which underpinned the Eldorado/Toranado/Riviera triplets.

Also lifted from the parts bin was the slothful 4.1 litre HT 4100 pushrod V8 engine. Suspension was by struts all round. There were some innovations however. Fully multiplexed wiring was employed, the instruments were electronic and there was an optional in-car phone – all high tech stuff in 1986 – (albeit as other luxury rivals could attest, innovation such as this came with risk).

Image: goodcar.buycarnow
Image: goodcar.buycarnow

Pininfarina produced a neat, if a somewhat bland looking shape, clearly with one eye firmly on the products of Bruno Sacco’s styling studio in Sindelfingen. Unfortunately the fwd architecture skewed the proportions, so it never quite looked right. Although initially well received, reports quickly emerged of problems with the underpowered HT 4100 engine and electrical glitches.

Unforgivable however was the lack of an electrically folding roof – unthinkable in a luxury Cadillac. A more powerful 4.5 litre version of the HT engine came later before being superseded in 1992 by the all-new DOHC Northstar 4.6 litre unit – itself reputedly no stranger to malady.

From a marketing perspective, Allanté was a sound idea but not only was it priced far too optimistically for what it was, both the timing and execution proved poor. Had it been made available earlier, it may have stood a chance against the aged Mercedes, but by 1988, Jaguar were back in the game and in 1990, when Mercedes unveiled the all-conquering R129 SL, the die was cast. Lexus and Infiniti soon followed, all eating further into the troubled Caddy’s market share. Allanté was discontinued in 1994 with around 21,400 produced, sales never having met projections.

Near miss or another half-baked hopeful from GM? Take your pick, but Allanté illustrated Cadillac wasn’t quite ready for death’s elbow just yet, marking a point when a slow, painful shift back towards relevance began. Its influence on subsequent Cadillac styling is palpable.

As Cadillac rolls out another concept prefiguring a fresh styling direction – (to be frank it looks rather a lot like the last one) – it’s clear the marque has some way yet to travel before it stands head to head with the mighty Daimler. But it can be argued the fightback started here.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

35 thoughts on “Mid-Atlantic Caddy”

  1. I have to step in and suggest that the Reagan years weren’t the ones with the strongest economic growth. That accolade goes to 1950 according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis. In fact long term growth in the OECD has been systematically slower since 1979 than from 1945 to the 70s.
    The Gipper’s genius lay in telling a sunny story even as wage rates began a historic slow down and inequality increased.
    … back to the car, Richard, back to the car.

  2. “Unfortunately the fwd architecture skewed the proportions, so it never quite looked right.”

    Doesn’t look particularly bad too me. Yes the front overhang is longer than it would be on a RWD platform, but it’s nto wrong per se.

    1. No Laurent, it isn’t bad. But with the front axle line further forward it would have looked more balanced. The tail lamps aren’t great either. But overall, it met the brief, which seems to have been to out-SL the SL. Unfortunately for Cadillac, Mr Sacco had something far superior up his sleeve.

      Richard: I made an effort to swerve the political with this piece – I’m on thin enough ice as it is. I’m no apologist for Regan or his politics – my point was that the market for luxury cars during that period had become particularly buoyant. Point taken on the post-war period. I should have thought of that…

    2. I actually quite liked these tail lights. They are surely a very distinctive feature. I could do without the integrated, squiggly lettering.

      Regarding Sacco’s superior proposal: I’m not so sure about that. Sure, the R107 was outdated by this time, but in terms of design, the R129 for me is a major setback. Details look clumsy on that car and to my eyes, it’s the least pleasing of all Sacco designs. It looks cheaper than an E-class.

    3. I’m in agreement with Simon. I was disappointed by R129 when it first appeared, particularly its wheelbase seemed too short, like the Audi 100 C3, so I find it no less jarring in the proportions stakes than the Allante, maybe more so in fact. Familiarity meant that I got used to seeing the SL around but, now that I see them infrequently, I can’t say that they’ve aged well.

    4. I have to take issue with both Simon and Sean on the matter of the R129. In pre-facelift form I think it’s masterful. I see a well-preserved early version round these parts quite frequently and to my eyes it has aged very gracefully.

    5. I’m not known as an advocate of adornment and distraction in automotive design, by far not. But the SL for me is really too simplistic and reduced for this kind of car. As a reduction exercise, yes, it’s quite something.

      Regarding details, I’d have preferred wider, but slimmer headlights, for example. The front indicator lenses should have been white from the start, outside Germany only very cheap cars still had them in orange at this time. And I have to agree with Sean, the overhangs are no better than on the Allanté, especially at the front where it almost looks like FWD, too.

  3. I think the Allante’s problem was that you’d look at it and think ‘That would be an agreeable hire car for a fortnight in California’ or ‘That would be a nice thing to buy cheap when it’s 7 years old’.

    Pininfarina maybe made it just a bit too restrained and tasteful – from Cadillac’s recent studies, they seem to have found a language that is striking without having to plunder their back catalogue of tailfins.

  4. Eoin: that’s fine, I didn’t Reagan apologism. The economy did grow but mostly in contrast to the malaise that preceded it. It grew partly because of Reagan’s huge increase in military spending. The tax cuts created a big deficit as well and the money went chiefly to the well-off. For middle market firms it made things difficult as blue collar wage growth slowed.

  5. Wading in to the R129 fisticuffs: it’s aged well. It did lead to a momentous change at MB: the parting company of the window line, rear and front wings. Note the side glass base blends into the base of the windscreen rather than heading on forward to the nose.

    1. Richard. I was going to suggest that the W126 almost brought the lower window line round to the windscreen base, though not quite managing it. Then I thought I’d have a closer look, and was quite shocked at the various bits of detailing there.

    2. If anything, these pictures only reinforce my regard for the original R129. For me it’s the last truly desirable Mercedes. Fwd proportions aside, something else bothers me about the Allante’s shape. Can’t put my finger on it – it’s just vaguely unsatisfying.

      That W126 A pillar is astoundingly busy.

    3. The A-pillars of all those otherwise masterful ’80s Benzes are surprisingly busy. Is the fact that one usually doesn’t notice proof of the overall excellence of their styling?

  6. Well Richard. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion – though I’ve never understood why. To help us, here are the two cars, both in open and hardtop form. The SL is, literally, shown in a flattering light, but I actually prefer the less cramped looking cockpit of the Cadillac

    In hardtop form, I freely admit that the Allante loses it entirely.

  7. I love the diversity of opinion on here and refusal to follow the herd, but cheerleading for the Cadillac Allante is a step too far for me. A terrible car, product of a misguided attempt by American car makers to compete with the Yurpeeans by injecting some Yurpness into their models. See also: Chrysler TC Maserati.

    Ugly, shit to drive, badly made and expensive. American car fans are embarrassed by them.

    1. Jacomo: Had I taken that tack with the piece, it would certainly have brought the word count down. Even allowing for their known cynicism, I don’t believe Cadillac’s engineers set out to produce a crap car. In some aspects, GM went to a good deal of trouble to make something decent, but in others fell well short of adequacy. I set out to present a balanced appraisal of a car which as you say isn’t necessarily loved, but to place it in the same context of TC by Maserati is a little unfair. In cynicism terms, that is a dog of a totally different breed.

      By all means disagree with my conclusions, but a refusal to stick the boot in isn’t the same as ‘cheerleading’ – not in my view anyway…

      Now what did I do with those pom poms?

    2. Oh yes. The TC was remarkably horrid. Every time I see one (which because I used to visit a house where a neighbour owned one was once frequently), my respect for Alejandro De Tomaso increases. Taking on the big boys and winning is one thing. Taking them on and robbing them blind is another thing altogether.

  8. Look at the line going from the side glass to the base of the windscreen: indecisive.
    Eoin: the Allante is unrefined, simple like Simon. It’s undynamic, lumpen, inert. The wheels don’t fill the arches; fine on a sedan but not a sportsish car. GM production engineers savaged this design.
    The SL is well proportioned and quite athletic; the dash to axle ratio is adequate.

  9. I’ll be honest and say I’ve never really reflected on the incohesiveness of the R129 before, but I can see that now. I can see how it strays and where the front, middle, and the end really doesn’t add up. But I’ll also be honest and say the reason I’ve never pondered the question is because the result works so really well together.

    To me, it’s the last high quality Mercedes, nothing after that really comes close. It may not be cohesive when you take it apart, but seen as a whole it works surprisingly well. Also, it’s a design with a really long longevity, it really never began to look old. I had one in the neigbourhood in the late 90’s, and it still looked fresh. Above all, it still looked fresher than both of its sucessors, Mercedes have really not made anything that looked fresher since, it still looks better than anything they have available today.

    So, it has a kind of intrinsic conservativity, Sacco made that one to hold for the long run, and it works. It has a kind of muscular vigority that still makes it fresh. I can say that I see what you’re getting at, but for me, it has qualities that goes beyond that for the really long run. They made that one to last, and it shows. It really is the last Mercedes they built to last…

    1. I can’t dispute what you say about quality and the R129’s value relative to its successors. When I read your comment yesterday, I tried to remember what the following SLs looked like — and couldn’t. For the 129 as well as the previous generations, I don’t have that problem at all. That says a lot about how distinctive their designs are.

  10. Don´t compare the Allanté with that boring solid and overengineered piece of metal from Untertürkheim that does not even has a name but just two letters witout a vowel.

    Compare it to the Maerati Karif and the Allanté is well priced with well balanced proportions and a solid technical layout. Or even with the gelding from Maranello, the Ferrari Mondial.

    Imagine at that time, you were visiting a Cadillac dealer in the eighties – passing a Cadillac Cimarron and a Cadillac Seville and then suddenly you were getting sight of this modern looking sports car….

    1. Reference of the day, surely: the Karif. They were in a jam when they decided to make those. I’ve seen one in real life, in Dublin. I wonder where it is now. Bringing such a car to Ireland is like bringing a panda (the bear) to Inverness.

    2. But the Karif really was an afterthought. It was just a way for Zagato doing some extra cash putting a tin roof on top of the Spyder body. It was really just a cheap way of cashing in, and the results speaks a lot about the compromise of doing so.

  11. I’m firmly in the pro-R129 camp. But only with those dated yellow indicators, as the only served to illustrate how Benz’s ’90s cheapness was creeping in. To me, it’s stance is of the squatting, rather than ill-proportioned kind, and the balance between 1990s soft shapes and Mercedes-like linearity was just right.

    Unlike the W140, which remains proportionally challenged and benefits from hindsight, the R129 is not a car that is in need of excuses. An early, unmolested 500 SL in silver is a very, very appealing car indeed.

    As for the Cadillac: like the ’91 Seville, I consider it a strangely appealing offering. After all the dreadfulness of the eighties, these ‘modern’ Cadillacs possessed a svelte (by American standards of the time) quality that isn’t as appreciated as it possibly should be. These weren’t entirely successful designs in any way, but their attempt at giving an impression of modernism is certainly preferable to the ‘that’ll do’ attitude that was still prevalent at the time. Mentioning the Allanté (I can’t help hearing it pronounced in a very heavy Texan accent) in the same breath as the Chrysler TC definitely doesn’t do it justice.

    1. I don’t really get all the bad rap the amber turn signals get. Mercedes was a very conservative company at the time, having blacked out rear lamps a la the facelifted XJS or clear front signals was a fad at the times, and only appeared on cars because it was new and fresh, and since everybody did it, it was just a styling fad. I have no problem seeing Sacco et al saying: “Give it another decade or so, and we’ll see….”

    2. I agree that – especially as Mercedes – you don’t have to jump on everystyling trend there is. Also, orange lenses don’t have to be bad per se. But I can’t help the impression they look cheap on the SL. What I also noticed when comparing pre- and post-facelift cars is that the white lenses help to optically prolong the headlights, which is highly beneficial in the SL’s case. Maybe that’s where my impression comes from.

  12. As I was pulling weeds in the garden earlier – ( I know, you’re all desperately interested in my Bank Holiday activities) – I ended up considering the way in which three luxury convertibles were used to portray characters during the latter years of the once-popular TV show Dallas.

    Bobby Ewing – (decent, God-fearing, deathly dull, probably voted democrat) drove an R129 SL. Brother, JR Ewing – (housewife’s shag fantasy – morally bankrupt, unscrupulous, clearly Republican) – drove an Allante, like the good patriot he was. On the other hand, Cliff Barnes, JR’s would be nemesis – (inept, conniving, no housewife would touch him with a bargepole) – drove an XJ-S convertible.

    What does this say about how these cars were perceived in the US I wonder, or was no real thought given as to who was allocated what? To my eyes, the mix should have been as follows: JR = Jag. Barnes = Allante. Bobby = Merc. I did toy with the idea of giving JR the Benz – after all he had a W126 in earlier episodes, but all good villains have to drive Jags. It’s written in scripture.

    Anyway, Back to the garden. Those weeds aren’t going to pick themselves…

    1. Eoin. The Villain = Jaguar thing is certainly a suitably lazy shortcut in US dramas these days. But it wasn’t always so. For instance, in the mid 80s, the thoroughly decent hard-man character played by Edward Woodward drove a black XJ in The Equaliser. Is it a positive or negative sign that Jaguars now have this edgy image? I mean some of the people who drive them these days, you wouldn’t want to get involved with over a warranty claim.

  13. The problem with the Allante was the problem that was rampant all over GM at the times, benchmarking to the current competition, not looking ahead. They benchmarked the Allante to the R107, and when the R129 appeared, it made the Allante looking a day late and a dollar short. The R129 was simply better and more agile in every dimension, and the buyers recognized that and flocked to the Mercedes. I don’t know if you remember that, but in the first half of the 90’s. the R129 was everywhere as the thing to have. It was a slam dunk success for its intended demographic, it succeeded in everything it set out to do and be.

  14. Bobby Ewing should have driven a Cadillac as it would be in line with his old-school conservatism. JR probably would not have limited himself to one car: Lincoln/Cadillac, Porsche, BMW 7, Ferrari. Cliff Barnes needed one car, a top-line Oldsmobile in a quiet colour like dark brown, burgundy or white.
    The Equaliser needed a Bristol. The ugly appearance would have fitted in with low-key character.

    1. JR did drive an Allanté when it came out. It was a bit of product placement that got a lot of press in America at the time.

      The Allanté was typical GM think: they decided to out SL the SL but were using the R107 as a target. planning in 1982,when the SL it was already 10 years on the market. The “Sky Bridge” concept was good press but horrible in reality adding needless costs and the fiddly top didn’t help. As for FWD and the suspension, that’s something that you and me and a few magazines cared about. The target audience were going to be piloting up to the Valet at the Bistro Gardens or a boutique on Flagler, not carving up the “Esses” on Mulholland (not that most of the Benz drivers would either, but..) The Northstar engine was supposed to debut in this but teething problems (that were not fixed until years into production of the engine) meant it didn’t get in there until ’93, when everyone had ceased to give a damn, including GM brass.

      I once saw one with a retractable hardtop (I don’t know who was responsible for ir) and while it looked pretty goofy when in the up position it would in 1988 have made the Allanté make a heck of a lot more sense.

      Now let’s talk about how they screwed up the XLR..

    2. Somewhere in the dusty recesses of my mind is a recollection that, under Lee Iacocca, Chrysler produced a two door convertible version of the K-Car with ribbed bumpers and side panels and a large pentastar in the grille that was a blatant attempt to rip off the R107 SL. I can’t find any photos of the car, apart from this prototype:

      If might gave been a Dodge. Note the style of the badge on the back of this one:

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