A Disproportionate Response

 The Cadillac that shrank in the wash. 

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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[1], 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.

Follow washing instructions carefully: 1986 Sedan De Ville. Unattributed via pinterest

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.

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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.

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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[2]; cheaper, and a good deal less ostentatious, important factors to a lot of Americans for whom Cadillac was viewed as irredeemably decadent.

1988 Sedan De Ville. Unattributed via flickr

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[3]. 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.

1990 Sedan De Ville. libfreelibrary.org

In 1989, C-body Cadillacs received a major remodelling, with Sedan De Ville and Fleetwood now larger in pretty much all dimensions.[4] 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[5] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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).

[5] 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. 

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

22 thoughts on “A Disproportionate Response”

  1. Regarding footnote [4], the damage was indeed extensive, reflected in changes to relative market share, and arguably catalyzed by this memorable TV ad:

    Cadillac had kept the former RWD C-body car in production, re-designated as the D-body and re-named “Brougham”, but for various reasons (including CAFE) they failed to promote it. Therefore the Lincoln advert was both on-point, and unfair.

    1. That’s mean, but very funny! Thanks for posting, gooddog.

    2. A great commercial, gooddog. Thanks for sharing it here.

    3. Lincoln also had, starting in 1983/84, pushed large numbers of Town Cars into the Ford-affiliated rental fleets (Hertz and Budget) which were offered at bargain prices compared to what a rental upgrade had typically formerly cost. That had the effect of getting a great many people who wouldn’t have considered one because they simply weren’t “Ford people” behind the wheel for a business trip or a long weekend.

  2. Good morning Eóin. I had never noticed that filler panel surrounding the rear window on the 1986 Cadillacs before, probably because so many of them had vinyl roofs that concealed it, but it really was rather tacky:

    The ‘bustle back’ 1980 Seville always put me in mind of the AMC Gremlin, a three-box design that simply had its tail chopped off rather crudely. It also reminds me of this:

    1. I’ve always had a soft spot for the 1980 Seville. This car really looked unique in my opinion. My opinion is shared by a Dutch car journalist, who I’ll meet in a few days time. He owned an ’80 or ’81 Seville and he really liked it, despite some reliability issues.

      These days of course I seldom see a Seville. Last time was on September 5th 2020, where I saw two, almost next to each other.

      I’m not sure why, but both cars have a teddybear on the left side of the rear window. Is that a requirement of the Seville owners club these days?

    2. I don’t understand why they felt the need to add this faux-privacy glass at the rear. If it’s not hidden by a vinyl covering, it looks weird, even cheapskate – as written in the article. Even the vinyl covering is no guarantee that the seam will be hidden forever; vinyl does have the tendency to dip inside seams and shutlines that are meant to be hidden, if they’re wide enough. Furthermore, it’s impractical: these cars weren’t meant to be taken out only for red carpet events. Instead, they were supposed to be driven around town on a daily basis as posh commuters. So, they needed good visibility, which this “privacy glass” add-on didn’t offer.

  3. I would love to have had the option to sample such vehicles . Eradicate the (un) reliability issues and allow time to adjust to the styling and I think I could waft around in a Seville, 1980 or 90 version, even now. For we have had a very long time to chastise and mock such creatures and rightly so. But considering how aggressive and sporting everything has become, a sedate sedan, however outré in looks appeals more now than ever. I’m sure I’m in the minority here. But you could then say that you drive a Cadillac which will impress probably no one but yourself.

  4. The Lincoln was a stretched version of the standard Ford and Mercury sedans which had a wheelbase of 114.3 inches; the Lincoln 117.3. Cadillac, alas, was stuck with 110.8. In 1989 the four-doors got an increase to 113.8, plus an additional 6” in sheet metal on both coupés and four-doors. Somehow the Lincoln’s obvious origins in the plain old LTD/Marquis never did it any harm.

    1. It’s interesting, isn’t it; the Lincoln was (if I recall) on the rather old-fashioned rwd ‘Fox’ body, so while it looked imposing, it was if anything even more contrived. But what the success of the Town Car illustrates is that at the time, the majority of the target buyers wanted, not only size, but the illusion of gravitas. Cadillac was once the ‘I’ve made it’ car. By the mid-’80s, that aspiration probably lay elsewhere, not aided by GM’s many mis-steps during the decade. But the ’85 Cadillacs were not the product to shift perceptions back.

      The ’89 De Ville (de-chintzed at least) is a rather appealing thing I think. But I can’t help feeling that the equivalent Buick might have been just as nice – and that surely is the nub of the issue?

      But it’s too easy to blame the designers, isn’t it? After all, they worked to a brief. GM’s senior management had their hands off the tiler and allowed Cadillac to drift.

    2. The Lincoln Town Car was on the “Panther” platform shared with the Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis. The Fox platform was a size smaller.

  5. In some ways, I think this article gives the incorrect impression of what Cadillac actually sold in quantity in the 1980s and until the 1997 model year, because no mention is made of the elephant in the room.

    Traditional Cadillac buyers didn’t have to suffer these front-wheel drive small scale experimental indignities featured in the article. From the 1977 model year, the full-size B-body Caddy was called the Fleetwood Brougham until the 1987 model year, when it just became the Brougham and the Fleetwood name was transferred to the downsized FWD vehicle (Sedan de Ville shown above) in the article which was a version of the BOP so-called full-size FWD cars as you mention. GM were merely testing the waters on changing Cadillacs in the 1980s, with very mixed sales results. However, they sold enough of the RWD separate chassis big boys to justify the investment of updating the full-size RWD Brougham for the 1993 model year to a version based on the bubble Chevrolet Caprice, which ran out the 1996 model year. After that the full size Cadillac went FWD with the new DOHC Northstar V8. It was no shrinking violet in size either, much larger than the late ’80s Fleetwood/Sedan de Ville. A friend’s father ran a 1998 one for a decade and it was a spectacularly smooth machine with a very willing engine that made very nice noises in a discreet way.

    The full-sized RWD Cadillacs of the late ’70s, 1980s and most of the ’90s were what most people who purchased Cadillacs bought. Over 120 inch wheelbase, RWD, traditional. GM knew where their bread and butter came from. When a fellow at work won the national lottery in 1986 or so, first thing he and his wife did was boogey on down to the dealer and get themselves the full-size land yacht.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cadillac_Brougham

    The Lincoln mentioned above in a comment was an awful blocky outre looking thing with wheels set well inboard for a knock-kneed stance viewed head on, and although I can’t be bothered to check, I’d be surprised if they outsold the full size Cadillac in any year. The Lincolns featured at Avis Rent-a-Car, so desperate were Ford for sales, and were a giggle to drive, as in being completely inept understeering waffle but with a heavy-feeling completely isolating ride. You could saw the steering wheel half a turn each way to absolutely no response from the straight ahead at all at above 30 mph — my boss found this hilarious! He had just bought himself a Mazda 626, but four of us engineers were on a business trip together and rented a Lincoln. Having driven quite a few privately-owned B-body GMs from 1977 on, I can tell you they were far better cars in all ways that matter, and I owned Audis during the GM B-body run from 1977 through 1996, so have a bit of a clue.

    1. Hi Bill:

      “Consumers recognized the decline in quality of Cadillac’s cars, and it reflected in the company’s sales. Cadillac’s share of the U.S. luxury car market dropped from 31% in 1980 to just 22% in 1990. As Cadillac fell, its competitor Lincoln reaped the benefits. Lincoln’s share doubled during the course of the decade to 20%. And in 1998, for the first time in 59 years, Lincoln outsold Cadillac.”

    2. https://www.businessinsider.com/cadillac-rise-fall-luxury-brand-market-industry-2019-10 (reference for quote above).

      Considering that you didn’t like the Town Car, and think that Cadillac were better cars, and that Cadillac offered many more models including direct competitors for every Lincoln model, to what would you ascribe the vast loss in market share experienced by Cadillac from 1980 to 1990, and the doubling of Lincoln’s market share during the same period?

  6. Eóin-
    The Fox body was the Fairmont/Mustang/Thunderbird/Cougar etc., as well as the revived Lincoln Continental. The Town Car/LTD/Marquis was the Panther platform.

    1. David: My apologies, I was getting my cats and canines muddled. Thanks for the correction.

  7. The upright C pillar motif is quite attractive in an odd way. It featured heavily in 1980’s cars, probably because it meant rear passengers had to duck down less getting in and out. Where did it come from though?

    I’d long thought that the Alfa Nouva Giulietta of 1977, attributed to Ermanno Cressoni, was the first but what looked like a sit-up-and-beg rear pillar in front 3/4 view was actually fairly “Normal” in side view. The 1982 Volvo 740 definitely had a vertical C pillar (At least 2 years before the Honda/ Rover 213), and copped a lot of criticism for looking too “American” but this was 3 years before the 1985 C platform. Was there an earlier Chrysler or Ford that set this trend?

    1. Richard: I’d be inclined to cite the first generation Cadillac Seville (1977). This appeared to set a trend, certainly within Cadillac for this kind of almost self-consciously formal roofline. It worked quite well on the Seville, which was quite a handsome, balanced shape. But my knowledge of Americana is limited, so there could be better precedents out there.

  8. Strangely, GM designed two fwd platforms in period, one for the second generation Seville (as well as for the Olds Toronado and the Buick Riviera), and another one for the downsized C body cars. For reasons known only to them, absolutely nothing was shared; the older Seville used the template of the old 66 Toronado (longitudinal engine, gearbox besides the engine driven by a silent chain), the newer C body had the standard transverse engine – gearbox layout. Cadillac’s first small V8 was idiosyncratic as well; utterly conventional in layout (ohv-2 valve with a pentroof combustion chamber) yet strange in execution, having a linered die-cast aluminium block with cast iron (!) heads

  9. The 1986Sedan de Ville has to be one of the nicest Cadillacs. It´s the one I could imagine owning. I´d probably like the two door version (after having had a vision of one in Cologne many years ago). I suppose this makes that model the very best of Irv Rybicki´s tenure as head of shapes at GM. On second thoughts, the Fleetwood might be the one to go for. The formal roofline is right for Cadillac; the interior is on the right side of the opulent/Victorian bar divide. Also, given the moderate speeds at which I spend most of my time, the 85 mph hour top speed might be quite acceptable. These cars are remarkably unpopular with the American car crowd in Scandinavia. You never, ever see them. It´s not as if the 1986 is all that European other than the size is not too gross. It´s probably not much bulkier than a 740 GLE.

  10. “Ennobled mediocrity” should be Cadillac’s slogan.

    I’ll remember that one!

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