The Cadillac that shrank in the wash.
It has been stated here many times before, but the art of product planning is often somewhat akin to an act of faith. Certainly, the job of the strategic planner during the latter part of the 1970s was anything but straightforward. This was a particularly acute problem for luxury carmakers; having already weathered dramatic market reorientation following two successive fuel crises, attempting to second-guess product, still a good five years hence required nerves of steel, in addition to clairvoyant powers.
At General Motors, as market strategists mapped out the next generation of mid-to-large sized sedans, the question was one of proportion: how deep does one cut? GM had already downsized significantly in 1977, but with a widespread belief that the next market ‘correction‘ would prove decisive, it was decided – to coin a much-used phrase – to ‘go early and go hard‘ with the upcoming C-bodies, due mid-decade. This entailed a wholesale switch to front-wheel drive, alongside a quite dramatic curtailment of overall dimensions, while retaining similar interior space.
For GM’s flagship brand, such a move was even more fraught. The new decade was not kind to brand-Cadillac. The second generation of the well-regarded Seville model had not been rapturously received, while 1982’s entry-level Cimarron’s lasting achievement was to cement its position in infamy as a monument to marketing-led cynicism. Even Cadillac’s much vaunted engines were failing. Therefore, stakes were high. Meanwhile, Cadillac’s customer base; largely older, were still keen on ostentation and broadly resistant to radical change. Their views still mattered.
Introduced in 1985 as 1986 models, the C-body Cadillacs – Sedan De Ville, Coupe De Ville and Fleetwood were therefore something of a shock, not simply because they were so much more compact than their predecessors, but also owing to their appearance – which was very much business-as-usual formal, but somewhat in miniature.
GM almost pulled it off. But in compacting the styling themes of a previously much larger car onto a considerably smaller footprint, Cadillac’s stylists really struggled to lend the necessary visual heft, never mind coherence. The issue centred upon a disharmony in the relationship between the various volumes. The deep side glazing lent the spacious cabin an airy lightness, for instance, but viewed in profile, the windows appeared too deep, a matter thrown into sharper relief by the rounded radii and deep inset of the glass itself.
The upright, formal C-pillar motif was a feature of the original Seville model and was clearly considered an essential styling feature. However, its execution was such that it seemed under-defined and ill-placed in relation to the the rear wheel arch and boot volume. A further curious addition for the Sedan De Ville was a filler panel for the rear screen to provide the illusion of privacy glass. This was less glaringly obvious on models fitted with a vinyl roof, but simply lent a cheapskate appearance.
The 1985 Cadillac’s sedan styling therefore spoke of constraint, cost-cutting and a styling team who were in need of stronger, more coherent direction. The Sedan De Ville was not wholly unappealing, yet somehow contrived to appear indefinably ‘off‘. While the Cadillac’s design benefited from greater differentiation than its C-body equivalents, it still bore far too obvious a resemblance to broadly similar models from Buick, Oldsmobile and Chevrolet. Not entirely the image Cadillac wished to project.
Technically, the C-body came with fully independent suspension, rack and pinion steering and in Cadillac form the dubious accolade of having the world’s first transversely mounted V8 engine – the troubled High Technology 4100 unit which had already gained notoriety for a litany of maladies, not to mention rather pedestrian performance. A 4.3 litre Oldsmobile diesel was a no-cost option, a power unit, if anything, more infamous. It was soon deleted.
Fortunately for GM, the traditional Cadillac customer was not likely to cross-shop outside of the domestic arena. The prestige German marques (Mercedes/ BMW) were not only far more expensive, but totally different propositions anyway, while Japanese carmakers had nothing at that time to offer. That left Jaguar (left-field/ risky) or domestic rivals – Lincoln or whatever the Chrysler Corporation could warm over.
But to a large extent, Cadillac’s primary competition amid this subset of customers was Buick/ Oldsmobile, whose closely related C-bodied Electra Park Avenue or Oldsmobile 98 were as good, if not better; cheaper, and a good deal less ostentatious, important factors to a lot of Americans for whom Cadillac was viewed as irredeemably decadent.
1987 saw the Cadillacs receive a modest refresh. Outwardly, the obvious change was to the headlamps, larger integrated units replacing the four old-fashioned sealed beams, which flanked a restyled grille. At the rear, the wing end-caps were elongated slightly, with larger ‘tail-fins‘ and wrap-around lamps, which lent a slightly more balanced appearance. But the major change was under the bonnet, a much-improved 4.5 litre fuel injected V8 unit developing 155 horsepower gave the car much-needed pace (and durability).
Despite the car’s curiously truncated appearance not actively repelling customers, they were not entirely sold on the De Ville/ Fleetwood’s appearance either, the 1987 changes being largely impelled by customer feedback. Hardly aiding matters was the fact that crosstown rivals had not downsized so radically. This would become a more glaring issue as the US economy picked up and fuel prices stabilised.
Were GM’s product planners too rash, caught between geopolitics and the unyielding cliff-face of their traditional customer? While C-Body sales were respectable, more generously proportioned rivals were having a better time of it, and with competition at the close of the decade becoming fierce, it was deemed necessary to subject the C-body to some overdue and considerably more comprehensive cosmetic surgery.
In 1989, C-body Cadillacs received a major remodelling, with Sedan De Ville and Fleetwood now larger in pretty much all dimensions. Overhangs were of a more traditional nature as well, particularly aft, where the tail-fins now jutted more prominently in traditional Cadillac fashion. As a further concession to customer tastes, from the 1990 model year, the Fleetwood model saw a return to semi-enclosed rear wheels. Also altered was the C-pillar; now considerably more decisive looking.
Alongside the innumerable detail changes, the 1989 Cadillacs had regained, not only much of their visual identity, but their confidence – now resembling the cars they ought to have been from day one. Also largely debugged, these would prove a far more resolved ownership proposition to wit.
But just as there are clear limits to growth, the C-body Cadillacs illustrated that there are also definitive limits to downsizing. Because while they were entirely pragmatic and in principle at least, soundly engineered and packaged products, the emphasis seemed to be weighted overwhelmingly on pragmatism over the more emotive and subjective rationales which govern the purchases of vehicular indulgences such as these. For while the Sedan De Ville/ Fleetwood were not quite in the BMC Farina saloon league of ennobled mediocrity, they nevertheless – be they Buick, Cadillac or Oldsmobile – failed to compellingly underpin their relative marque values.
GM have not historically enjoyed a stellar track record in innovation; their forays outside the easier pickings of the known and quantified more often ending in failure, recalls, lawsuits and lashings of red ink. Now as Cadillac embarks on yet another reinvention – 2022’s Lyriq EV – only hindsight will adjudicate whether this time, the General’s response has been proportional.
 It’s widely believed that the second generation Cadillac Seville’s sales success was hampered by its neo-classical styling, albeit, the problems associated with its powerplants can’t have helped matters either.
 Both Electra and Oldsmobile’s 98 were powered predominantly by Buick’s well regarded 3.8 litre V6, avoiding the technical issues associated with the Cadillac V8.
 GM’s domestic rivals did not have better product planners or superior foresight, they simply couldn’t afford to make such radical changes. As matters evolved, they simply got lucky. GM on the other hand, didn’t.
 The 1989 revisions involved a wheelbase stretch of three inches for the four door models aft of the B-pillar, which resulted in longer rear doors and improved rear seat accommodation. (My thanks to reader, gooddog for clarifying this matter – the main text has been altered accordingly).
 The ’85 C-body Cadillacs were broadly sound designs (the overwhelming issues being powertrain related), but probably suffered from insufficiently rigorous development – and a lack of real brand-level focus. Whether they actively harmed Cadillac’s reputation, others can adjudge.