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