The 1976 Cadillac Seville was Detroit’s first serious response to the growing popularity of luxury imports like Mercedes. Although it was an immediate hit, earning a handsome profit and inspiring numerous imitators, the Seville marked the beginning of the end of Cadillac’s credibility as “the standard of the world.” This week, we look at the history of the 1976-1985 Cadillac Seville and the reasons for Cadillac’s subsequent decline.
THE 800-POUND GORILLA GETS A COLD
When Robert Lund became general manager of Cadillac in January 1973, GM’s top division was firmly established as America’s number-one luxury automaker. Owning a Cadillac had become a potent emblem of material success, and many working-class and middle-class buyers took out home-mortgage-size loans to own one. Although sales had grown steadily since the early sixties, topping 200,000 in 1967 and hitting a record 267,787 units for the 1972 model year, demand still significantly exceeded supply, ensuring high transaction prices and excellent resale values.
To Bob Lund, who was coming off a highly successful stint as general sales manager for Chevrolet, Cadillac’s sales organization seemed complacent, perhaps even lazy. The general assumption among the sales force was that Cadillacs practically sold themselves, and there was little organizational effort to spark competition or promote growth. Cadillac salesmen rarely used high-pressure tactics; it had been years since they’d needed to. For Lund, who had taken Chevrolet to a record three million sales in 1971, it was clear that the right tactics could improve Cadillac’s overall volume by 30% or more. In a July 1974 Time magazine feature, Lund implied that Cadillac’s past success had left it too content to rest on its laurels. He said he planned to make the division’s sales efforts much more aggressive, calling for new advertising campaigns, more assertive marketing, and the first regional sales contests Cadillac had held in 20 years.
Lund’s mission to improve Cadillac’s growth would have been an easy task in 1970, but it became decidedly more complicated in late 1973. That fall, the member nations of OPEC embargoed oil shipments to the West in retaliation for America’s military support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Fuel prices, already on the rise, gave way to shortages and a brief return of fuel rationing. The very rich had never really cared about fuel prices — driving a gas guzzler when fuel is expensive only demonstrates your affluence — but the prospect of long-term shortages was quite another matter. Overnight, buyers fled from big cars, leaving dealers struggling to move their stocks of new Cadillacs. When asked about the situation, Lund, like many senior Detroit executives, presented a game face to the press, but it was a serious problem that would require new solutions.
THE ASCENSION OF MERCEDES-BENZ
As Detroit floundered, Mercedes-Benz was on the move. Since establishing its own North American distribution organization in 1965, Mercedes had nearly tripled its U.S. sales volume. Its total U.S. sales for 1970 were only about 29,000 units, but that was better than many European imports whose prices were far lower. By 1972, Mercedes was selling more than 40,000 units a year in the U.S.
At first, Mercedes appealed to a somewhat rarefied audience. The contemporary American luxury car ideal was a boxcar-sized wheeled bordello with a 500 cu. in. (8.2 L) engine and a cloud-like ride. By contrast, even the biggest Mercedes-Benz models — barring the very rare 600 and 600 Pullman limousines — were smaller than a contemporary American intermediate. By domestic standards, the Mercedes had frumpy, Calvinist interiors and, until the advent of the 3.5 and 6.3 models in 1970, modest six-cylinder engines. Mercedes were tremendously solid, with roadholding ability that rivaled some contemporary sporty cars, but they were somewhat underpowered, rode stiffly, and had heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) that would not have passed muster at Chevrolet, let along Cadillac. They were not an obvious choice for the sybaritic.
Still, by the late sixties, truly affluent Americans were in the mood for something new. Cadillacs and Lincolns were simply becoming too common. That every grocery clerk in America aspired to a Cadillac was fine; pulling into a gas station in your new Eldorado and hearing that the attendant had one just like it was not. A fully loaded, top-of-the-line Cadillac Eldorado cost nearly $10,000 in those days, but at least one wealthy buyer (quoted in a Popular Mechanics owner survey) wished openly that it cost even more to thin the ranks of would-be social climbers.
What did Mercedes offer such jaded customers? Its European pedigree lent it a certain exoticism, for one, and it was expensive enough and rare enough to provide a welcome degree of exclusivity. Furthermore, Daimler-Benz’s obsessive attention to minor engineering details appealed to the sort of customer who would rather light his Cohiba with a Dunhill than a Zippo. The typical Mercedes sedan was built like a bank vault and its meticulous construction bespoke quality. The fact that it was smaller, less ostentatious, and arguably less comfortable than a Sedan de Ville or Continental Mark III was incidental; it felt like old money and for well-heeled buyers, it connoted a high level of discernment and taste. Soon, a few brave souls were testing the sensibilities of country club valets across America with boxy, compact luxury cars from Untertürkheim. There were raised eyebrows at first, but once the owners’ skeptical peers got a look at the meticulous Mercedes craftsmanship — and lofty prices — many ordered their own.
It took Cadillac a long time to notice Mercedes and longer still to understand it. Most Detroit executives were firm believers in the bigger-is-better school of automotive design: Luxury was synonymous with size, opulence, and comfort. A car like a Mercedes 280SE seemed to repudiate most of the values Detroit held dear. What working man or captain of industry would ever aspire to that? Lincoln-Mercury general manager Bob Benton voiced the feelings of many Detroit executives in August 1973, when he told Motor Trend‘s John Lamm that if Lincoln released a car like the Mercedes, its customers would think they were crazy.
The growth of Mercedes was not an immediate threat to Cadillac. At that time, Cadillac sales were at least twice the combined volume of all its competitors. The danger was a more insidious one. Although Cadillac had not depended on upper-crust buyers for its survival since the mid-thirties, its tremendous prestige hinged on the fact that the rich and famous drove Cadillacs. If those core customers, Cadillac’s image-makers, lost interest, it would eventually bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.
THE COMPACT CADILLAC
Despite its ongoing commitment to the more-is-more ideal, Cadillac did consider building a smaller car in the early seventies. It was not inspired by any desire to compete with Mercedes, but by a marketing study that Bob Lund’s predecessor, George Elges, had commissioned back in 1970. That study found that while Cadillac buyers were generally happy with their cars, some owners, particularly older women, found Cadillacs cumbersome to maneuver and difficult to park.
Based on that study, Elges proposed a more compact Cadillac that would offer the same plush ride and lavish appointments as the big cars in a smaller package. He argued that there was a strong potential market for such a car, but GM management rejected the idea, saying that it would hurt Cadillac’s image. The Engineering Policy Committee also made the valid point that what people ask for in marketing surveys is not necessarily what they buy. A decade earlier, Cadillac had responded to owner complaints that new models were too long to fit in their garages by introducing a pair of short-deck sedans, the Series 62 Town Sedan and de Ville Park Avenue. Both were resounding commercial flops and Cadillac quietly discontinued them after only two years.
The idea of a compact Cadillac was shelved, but it resurfaced again about two years later. According to Bob Templin, who became Cadillac’s chief engineer in January 1973, the impetus came from GM board member John Meyer, the chairman of Pittsburgh’s Mellon Bank. Meyer’s wife had noted that her friends at the local country club were buying compact Mercedes sedans, and she wanted to know why Cadillac didn’t offer anything that size; Meyer subsequently posed the same question to GM president Ed Cole and chairman Richard Gerstenberg. Author Maurice Hendry notes that George Elges had heard much the same from Cadillac dealers during a cross-country tour in the spring of 1972.
Ed Cole told Lund and Templin to proceed with their compact project, although he was not enthusiastic. Cole had been chief engineer of Cadillac earlier in his career and the idea of a Cadillac compact apparently rubbed him the wrong way. Templin thought that Cole expected the project to fall apart without coming to fruition.
THE OPEL DIPLOMAT
The target for the smaller Cadillac was Mercedes’ new W116 S-Class, sold in America as the 450SE and 450SEL. The W116 was bigger than its immediate predecessors, but it was still relatively small for an American car: roughly the size of a Dodge Dart. Unlike many past Mercedes, it had a V8, a 276 cu. in. (4,520 cc) engine initially rated at a modest 190 SAE net horsepower (142 kW). Despite its modest size, it was quite sophisticated, with an overhead-cam engine, Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection, four-wheel disc brakes, and independent rear suspension (semi-trailing arms, replacing the old Eingelenkpendelachse swing axles). It had a price tag to match its pedigree: $13,491 POE at introduction, enough to buy four Darts.
When Toyota decided to take on Mercedes in the mid-eighties with the Lexus brand, the Japanese company developed a completely new platform and a new engine. GM had no interest in making that kind of investment in a low-volume project, particularly one that its president may have considered a boondoggle. Bob Templin and his engineering team were forced to look for existing platforms and engines to share.
One of the most serious early possibilities was the Opel Diplomat, the biggest model offered by GM’s German subsidiary. Launched in 1964 and redesigned in 1969, the Diplomat was a bold and ultimately doomed effort to take Opel into the executive class, even offering an optional V8 — a rarity in the European market. The Diplomat had never sold well in Europe, where it was hamstrung by its down-market badge, but a Cadillac version for the American market was an intriguing prospect.
Alas, it was not to be. Templin discovered that Opel’s production tolerances were higher than those of GM’s U.S. factories and the cost of redesigning the Diplomat to fit the American production lines would defeat the point of the exercise. Templin went back to the drawing board.
THE X-BODY CADILLAC
As an alternative, Ed Cole suggested the X-body, which was GM’s only North American platform of that size. Developed in the early sixties as a rival for the Ford Falcon, the X-body was originally used only by the Chevy II/Nova compact and the Canadian-market Pontiac Acadian. Thanks to the boom in compact sales in the early seventies, however, it had recently begun a rabbit-like proliferation. Pontiac launched a U.S.-market Nova clone, the Ventura II, in 1971, and Buick and Oldsmobile versions followed in 1973. (The F-body Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird also used a variation of the X-body platform, but with their own body shell.)
The X-body was the latest evolution of GM’s 1960s essays in semi-unitized construction. It was essentially a monocoque structure up to the firewall, but the engine, transmission, and front suspension were carried on a bolt-on, wheelbarrow-like subframe, similar in concept to the old Citroën Traction Avant. It was intended to combine the virtues of body-on-frame and unit-body construction, albeit with mixed results. While it felt more solid than most of GM’s perimeter-frame cars of the same vintage, it had more noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) than a body-on-frame car and it was neither as rigid, as light, nor as space-efficient as a true monocoque. The system worked well enough for compact sedans, but it was not a promising basis for a luxury car, particularly one intended to compete with Mercedes-Benz.
The next problem was finding an appropriate engine. Cadillac’s smallest V8 at that time was 429 cubic inches (7,025 cc) and naturally there was no question of developing a completely new engine. Templin eventually selected Oldsmobile’s 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) V8, fitted with a new intake manifold and a brand-new Bendix electronic fuel injection system. The use of an Oldsmobile engine was a big step for Cadillac, which usually built its own engines, but it was not without precedent. From 1934 to 1936, the LaSalle, Cadillac’s one-time companion make, had used an Oldsmobile straight-eight.
Templin originally wanted to use front-wheel drive, using the Unitized Power Package (UPP) of the Eldorado, Oldsmobile Tornado, and the new GMC Motorhome. In recent years, many pundits have decided that front-wheel drive is unsuitable for high-end executive sedans, but at the time, it was considered racy, semi-exotic hardware and would have added to the Seville’s image. Cadillac built a number of FWD test mules, but the Engineering Policy group subsequently vetoed the FWD idea; Templin said in a later interview that the plant that built the TH425 transmissions used in GM’s FWD cars lacked the capacity for an additional model line. (Since the UPP was probably subject to a Ford patent, as discussed in our Toronado history, patent royalties may also have been a consideration.) Independent rear suspension was also considered, but discarded in favor of a refined version of the Nova’s live axle and Hotchkiss drive. The compact Cadillac would differ considerably from the X-body in detail, but in basic layout, it would be a fairly ordinary American car.
TAILORING A DWARF
While Bob Templin looked for an appropriate platform, Cadillac chief stylist Stan Wilen was struggling to find a styling direction. Since it was all new, the compact Cadillac had no specific design heritage on which to build and its smaller dimensions were seen as a challenge. Except for the Corvette and other sporty models, Styling VP Bill Mitchell had little regard for small cars; he once famously declared that styling a compact was “like tailoring a dwarf.”
At Mitchell’s suggestion, Wilen developed an Italiante concept drawing he dubbed La Scala, which he transferred to the Cadillac Advanced studio, then led by Wayne Kady, for further development. Although several very attractive concepts emerged, including one rendering that bore a flattering resemblance to the contemporary Ferrari 365GT, the process was complicated by the decision to abandon the Diplomat platform; Wilen’s initial La Scala design was not compatible with the X-body’s hardpoints.
According to Irv Rybicki, then in charge of all exterior design for Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile, the Advanced group’s early X-body-based concepts were too recognizably similar to the Nova, something that probably would have sat ill with potential customers. Stan Parker, who replaced Wayne Kady as head of the Advanced studio after Kady was promoted to chief stylist of Buick, partly alleviated that problem by extending the wheelbase 3.3 inches (84 mm), which gave the car distinct proportions and better rear legroom. Ed Cole was initially very reluctant to authorize the longer wheelbase, since it would require new doors not shared with the Nova, but Rybicki persuaded him by pointing out that the new car was after all a Cadillac.
By the summer of 1973, there were two competing proposals, both of which were built as fiberglass models. One, developed by Kady before his departure, had partially skirted rear fenders and a downward-swept beltline with a sloping deck and sail panels. The other, developed by Parker, based on Stan Wilen’s La Scala, had a more conventional notchback profile with crisp edges that evoked the Hooper-bodied Rolls-Royces that had once inspired the 1963 Buick Riviera. The models of Parker’s design, which were badged “La Scala,” initially had slanted C-pillars, but Bill Mitchell suggested making the rear window and panels more upright, lending the design a more formal air reminiscent of Rolls Royce.
Mitchell’s instincts were apparently on target: In July, recently appointed Cadillac marketing director Gordon Horsburgh took fiberglass models of both designs to a consumer clinic in southern California and found a strong preference for the notchback version. Parker’s design would become the basis for the production car.
In addition to its formal roofline, the production version of the Parker’s design featured what Bill Mitchell dubbed “the sheer look.” Although its basic lines were sharp and angular, the surfaces were subtly curved with gently rolled edges. According to author Michael Lamm and former GM designer Dave Holls, the intent was to evoke the straightforward linearity of contemporary European sedans without their severity. The impact of that aesthetic has been diminished through sheer familiarity — GM subsequently applied the same principles to its downsized 1977 B- and C-body cars — but it was a big departure from the bulbous lines of the mid-seventies Cadillac De Ville and Eldorado. As it finally emerged, the new Cadillac was crisp and refreshingly no-nonsense — to our eyes, as a clean a design as GM had produced since the 1967 Eldorado.
MAKING A CADILLAC OUT OF THE NOVA
It’s entirely possible that if it hadn’t been for the OPEC embargo, the Seville program would have languished, as Ed Cole expected. By the fall of 1973, however, Cadillac dealers were screaming for something, anything, with better fuel economy. The new compact, which Cadillac later claimed would return up to 19 mpg (12.4 L/100 km), seemed just the ticket and it received formal approval on December 21 of that year. Cadillac wanted it ready by the middle of the 1975 model year, leaving Cadillac’s designers and engineers only about 14 months — less than half the usual development time — to transform the humble X-body into a luxury car.
To distinguish it from the Nova, the Seville’s platform received a new chassis designation, the K-body. Engineer Robert Burton, whom Bob Templin assigned to oversee the K-body project, used Fourier analysis to identify sources of noise, vibration, and harshness in the X-body structure, which Cadillac then made a valiant effort to mitigate. The front subframe was attached with six Isoflex rubber-bushed clamps rather than the Nova’s four, supplemented by two tiny hydraulic shock absorbers; another hydraulic damper was used to brace the sides of the driveshaft tunnel. Body bolts were held with epoxy resin rather than conventional washers and Teflon liners were placed between the leaves of the rear springs. It was far from elegant, Templin admitted, but it worked.
While Templin and Burton worked the kinks out of the chassis, designers Stan Parker and Donald Logerquist were working overlapping 12-hour shifts to complete the body design work. A full-size fiberglass model of the final version was completed for management approval in June 1974. It was a grueling process for everyone involved, complicated by personnel changes. In September 1974, Wayne Kady returned to Cadillac, replacing Stan Wilen as chief stylist. A few weeks later, Ed Cole retired as GM president, replaced by executive VP Pete Estes, and on November 4, Edward C. Kennard replaced Bob Lund as Cadillac’s general manager.
Until the fall of 1974, the new car still didn’t have a name. The naming process proved one of the project’s biggest challenges. Since it was conceptually similar to the old LaSalle, some older Cadillac dealers suggested reviving the LaSalle name; several of the fiberglass prototypes carried LaSalle identification. General sales manager Ted Hopkins and marketing director Gordon Horsburgh ultimately rejected that idea, concerned that the demise of of the original LaSalle back in 1940 might sully the new car’s image. There were several alternative suggestions, including Allegro, DuMonde, and St. Moritz, but Hopkins and Horsburgh eventually recommended Seville, a name Cadillac had used for hardtop coupe versions of its posh Eldorado from 1956 to 1960. It was familiar to longtime Cadillac buyers, it was judged easier to pronounce than St. Moritz, and it had no negative connotations.
Thanks to the Herculean efforts of everyone involved, pilot production of the new Seville began in late March 1975, with the first production-spec cars rolling off the assembly line on April 22.
THE INTERNATIONAL-SIZE 1976 CADILLAC SEVILLE
The Seville made its official debut on May 1, 1975, as an early 1976 model. Cadillac carefully avoided calling it a compact; advertisements called it “international-size.” To forestall any misapprehension that it was an economy model, the Seville became the most expensive car in Cadillac’s line-up other than the Series 75 limousines — the Seville was even costlier than an Eldorado convertible.
The Seville’s hefty $12,479 list price did include considerably more standard equipment than most Cadillacs, which had long adhered to the American tradition of advertising a modest sticker price and then nickeling and diming buyers on options. However, leather upholstery, cruise control, and gadgets like Twilight Sentinel still cost extra and a full complement of options pushed the bottom line to a hefty $14,000. That was nearly the price of a 1973 Mercedes 450SE, but in the interim, Mercedes had raised the 450SE’s price to more than $18,000, sparing Cadillac from a potentially dicey head-to-head comparison.
Reviews of the Seville inevitably waxed rhapsodic about how much smaller it was than a Sedan de Ville — 26.7 inches (678 mm) shorter overall and half a ton lighter — but the Seville was compact only in a relative sense. It was an inch and a half (38 mm) shorter than the 450SE, but more than 5 inches (132 mm) longer than a Jaguar XJ12L. The Seville was was heavy, too. The Nova was no lightweight to begin with and all the structural gusseting pushed the Seville’s curb weight to nearly 4,400 lb (2,000 kg).
The Seville’s fuel-injected Oldsmobile engine produced a modest 180 net horsepower (134 kW), the same as a 1976 Mercedes 450SE. With taller gearing and about 200 pounds (91 kg) more weight than the Mercedes, acceleration was leisurely; 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took around 13 seconds, although top speed was a respectable 110 mph (175 km/h). Fuel economy was slightly disappointing, averaging around 16 mpg (14.7 L/100 km), although that was no worse than a V8 Mercedes. (It’s worth noting that nearly half of all U.S. Mercedes sales during this period were of the smaller 240D and 300D diesels, which had glacial acceleration, but much better fuel economy.)
The Seville’s road manners were a matter of taste. Reviewers were consistently impressed with its suppression of noise, vibration, and harshness. In fact, contemporary road tests found that the Seville was significantly quieter than either the Mercedes 450SE or the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. On smooth roads, the Cadillac had a pleasingly well-damped ride with little of the typical land yacht’s waft and float and was far more maneuverable than the bigger Cadillacs of its time. However, the Seville could not match either the grip or the solidity of the contemporary S-Class Benz. If pushed too hard, the Cadillac’s belt-and-braces structure made itself known, resulting in the occasional ragged body motion. Car and Driver‘s Michael Jordan wondered (unfairly, we think) if Cadillac had deliberately left the Seville somewhat unpolished in hopes buyers would perceive it as more Teutonic. The consensus of critical opinion was that the Seville was not up to Mercedes standards, but it was a fine Cadillac.
That seemed to be enough for many buyers because the Seville was an immediate success, particularly on the west coast. Cadillac sold more than 16,000 in the first four months and close to 44,000 during the remainder of the 1976 model year. We’re not sure how well the Seville would have gone over five years earlier, but in the summer of 1975 it was exactly what Cadillac dealers and customers had been asking for. Bob Templin recalled that it recouped its tooling costs very quickly and soon became one of GM’s most profitable cars. It also demonstrated that buyers would not necessarily be alienated by a smaller Cadillac — welcome news for GM, which was then preparing its first downsized big cars for the 1977 model year.
Inevitably, Chrysler and Ford hastened to develop their own “international-size” luxury cars, resulting in a host of imitators like the Granada-based Lincoln Versailles and the Plymouth Volare-based Chrysler LeBaron.
THE FINE PRINT
Before we start sounding too much like a Cadillac press release, let’s consider what the Seville did not do.
First, while Cadillac had hoped the Seville would attract younger customers, the median age of Seville buyers was 57, compared to about 52 for other Cadillacs. The Seville did appeal more to female buyers than other Cadillac models; women accounted for about 45% of Seville sales, a significantly higher percentage than the Cadillac norm. Those figures imply that the “international-size” Cadillac appealed most strongly to the audience George Elges’ marketing study had identified back in 1970: older buyers, particularly women, who liked Cadillac plushness, but wanted something easier to park.
It appears that the Seville also did little to arrest the growth of the high-end German imports. Maurice Hendry quotes Gordon Horsburgh as saying about 30% of Seville buyers would otherwise have bought an imported luxury car, but that doesn’t seem an impressive figure for a model specifically intended as an import fighter. In June 1977, Cadillac officials admitted to Motor Trend‘s John Ethridge that fewer than 15% of Seville buyers had actually traded in an imported car. Meanwhile, German luxury car sales continued to climb. Mercedes’ U.S. sales topped 50,000 units for the first time in 1977 and BMW was growing at a formidable rate.
The upshot was that as successful as the Seville was, it was not really a game changer for Cadillac in terms of demographics. It may have kept some existing customers from defecting to the imports, but it appears to have done little to attract buyers who would not have chosen a Cadillac in the first place.
The success of the Seville helped to pull Cadillac out of its post-embargo doldrums. By 1976, American buyers were returning to big cars as memories of the fuel crisis began to fade. Thanks to the excitement surrounding the Seville and the aggressive marketing tactics Bob Lund had initiated earlier in the decade, Cadillac set a new sales record for the 1976 model year of more than 309,000 units. The Seville also prepared buyers for the downsized Cadillacs that appeared for the 1977 model. Although still gargantuan, the new De Ville and Brougham were 9.5 inches (240 mm) shorter and around 800 pounds (363 kg) lighter than before with engines scaled back from 500 cu. in. (8,194 cc) to a mere 425 (6,970 cc). Sales soared even higher, reaching almost 360,000 for 1977 and almost 350,000 for 1978.
High volume is a dangerous drug for any manufacturer. Like cocaine, it produces an immediate rush, but it can have a corrosive effect on good judgment. With high volume comes the need to maintain it, to move the metal at any cost. In this case, that cost was high indeed. Cadillac’s all-guns-blazing sales push was bringing record business, but it also represented a sort of liquidation sale of the brand’s former prestige while eroding Cadillac’s traditional quality control. It put a new Cadillac in the garage of everyone who had ever wanted one just as the customers who could afford anything they wanted were deserting Cadillac in growing numbers.
Just as worrisome was a 1979 marketing study that revealed that the next generation of affluent buyers was shunning domestic luxury cars entirely, turning instead to high-end imports. Spectacular as it was, the boom couldn’t last.
THE BUSTLEBACK 1980 CADILLAC SEVILLE
If Cadillac’s late-seventies success was a bubble waiting to burst, the Iranian revolution in early 1979 provided the needle. Fears of renewed oil shortages sent the economy reeling and inflation soaring. Cadillac sales plummeted from more than 380,000 in 1979 to around 231,000 for the 1980 model year as GM — and all of Detroit — took a bath.
The redesigned 1980 Seville wasn’t much help. Developed by Wayne Kady, its design had its roots in a number of concept renderings Kady had done back in the sixties, capitalizing on Bill Mitchell’s enduring love of Rolls-Royce. Like the 1963 Riviera, the new Seville’s sharp-edged roof evoked Hooper-bodied Rolls-Royces, but the design substituted a curious bustleback trunk for the Riviera’s notchback profile, evoking the “trunkback” sedans of the mid-thirties. (Ironically, it was a look that one of Bill Mitchell’s own designs — the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special — had helped to make obsolete three decades earlier.)
Kady had originally developed the bustleback concept in early 1967 as a possible successor to the then-new FWD Eldorado. While it hadn’t made the cut at that time, Kady resurrected the proposal when he became Cadillac’s chief exterior designer in the mid-seventies, suggesting it for the downsized 1979 Eldorado. Ed Kennard was not at all supportive of that idea, but Bill Mitchell liked the design so much that he pushed it through for the second-generation Seville instead — one of the last designs Mitchell oversaw before his 1977 retirement.
The neo-classical Seville was a polarizing design. Kady said it received a standing ovation at its dealer introduction in late 1979, but critical and customer reaction was sharply divided. The radical looks combined with the shaky economy and a price increase of nearly $4,000 (with several additional increases during the 1980 model year) to cut Seville sales by more than 25%. The bustleback was certainly distinctive, but if the Seville was intended as an import fighter, it was probably a mistake. Next to the sober BMW and Mercedes sedans of its era, the new Seville looked positively baroque.
The Seville’s woes increased the following year with the introduction of Cadillac’s ill-fated “V8-6-4,” more formally known as the Cadillac Modulated Displacement Engine. It was based on the 368 cu. in. (6,040 cc) gasoline engine optional in 1980, but added the industry’s first cylinder deactivation system, developed by Cadillac under an Eaton Corporation patent. Under light load conditions, solenoids could shut down either two or four cylinders by disabling their rocker arms; a dashboard display indicated how many cylinders the engine was using at any given moment. Bob Templin said the system provided a greater boost to fuel economy than an overdrive transmission, but contemporary reviewers were dubious about its real-world benefits. The V8-6-4 proved to have serious reliability problems as well and it was quickly dropped.
The 1982 Seville adopted a smaller 249 cu. in. (4,088 cc) V8, with an aluminum block and iron cylinder heads (like the old Chevrolet Vega engine) along with a new TH325-4L transmission and an overdrive top gear. None of this helped sales, which fell from 28,631 for 1981 to fewer than 20,000 for 1982.
By the time the V8-6-4 arrived, Ed Kennard and Bob Templin had turned their attention to a new model even smaller than the Seville. The idea of a compact, entry-level car made a certain amount of sense; it would it help the division meet its CAFE requirements and it might snare some of the younger buyers who were avoiding Cadillac in favor of the BMW 3-Series or other high-end small cars. As with the first Seville, cost considerations precluded the development of a completely new platform or engines, so in early 1980, Kennard persuaded GM president Pete Estes to allow Cadillac to join the corporate J-body program, a new line of FWD compacts slated for the 1982 model year. According to author Tom Bonsall, Estes was none too sanguine about that prospect since it left Cadillac very little time to differentiate its car from the other J-bodies. Nonetheless, Kennard persevered, perhaps hoping that the Cadillac name would be enough.
The result was the compact Cimarron, which bowed in May 1981. The Cimarron suggested that Cadillac had learned all the wrong lessons from the success of the first Seville. Like the 1976 Seville, it shared its underpinnings with an inexpensive Chevrolet, but was priced in the same realm as its import rivals: At launch, the Cimarron was about $750 cheaper than a BMW 320i, but nearly $3,000 more than an Audi 4000. Unlike the Seville, the Cimarron did little to hide its kinship with the other J-cars, which cost around $5,000 less. The short lead time meant the production Cimarron was little more than a Cavalier with a Cadillac grille. Despite generous standard equipment and an attempt at Germanic suspension tuning, it convinced neither BMW fanciers nor existing Cadillac customers. Sales were well below expectations.
Thanks to an improving economy, Cadillac’s overall business recovered somewhat by the middle of the decade, topping the 300,000 mark in 1984 and setting a new record of 394,840 for the 1985 model year. Sales of the bustleback Seville improved commensurately, reaching nearly 40,000 units a year in both 1984 and 1985. Even so, it never sold as well as its predecessor and the mechanically similar but more orthodox-looking Eldorado outsold the bustleback by more than two to one. The downsized 1986 Seville, no longer as flamboyant but now bearing a disconcerting resemblance to the cheaper GM20/N-body cars, sent sales skidding once again. The Seville wouldn’t top 25,000 units a year until 1990. The Cimarron did even worse and Bill Hoglund, head of the new Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac group created by GM chairman Roger Smith in 1984, eventually persuaded Cadillac general manager John Grettenberger to cancel it after the 1988 model year.
Despite the upswing in sales, it was becoming painfully clear that Cadillac’s demographic was aging and neither the Seville nor the Cimarron had succeeded in turning that around. According to Car and Driver, the median age of bustleback Seville customers was 60, four years older than the median age of all Cadillac buyers and 25 years older than the the median import buyer. Cimarron customers were only slightly younger; the median age was 53. Cadillac buyers’ inflation-adjusted median income had fallen 25% since the 1970 model year and only 30% of its customers were college-educated, suggesting that the brand now appealed more to older blue-collar buyers than affluent Yuppies. Bill Hoglund was increasingly concerned that GM’s flagship division was competing more with Buick than with its upper-crust rivals from overseas.
After languishing throughout the late eighties, the Seville was redesigned again for 1992, developed by Cadillac chief stylist Dick Ruzzin under the auspices of design VP Chuck Jordan. Stylistically, it was first-rate, a sharp, confident melding of European and American design themes. The author recalls a conversation on an airplane in 1992 with a middle-aged businessman who said the new Seville was the first Cadillac sedan he could park next to his friends’ Lexus LS400s without embarrassment.
Sadly, Cadillac shot itself in the foot by delaying the planned DOHC Northstar engine until 1993, leaving the ’92 Seville with a serious power deficit relative to its major Japanese rivals. That was subsequently rectified, but it was a blunder that suggested Cadillac was still not competing in the big leagues. The current model, once again rear-wheel drive and now called simply STS (previously a Seville sub-series), has remained largely invisible, selling no better than the downsized 1986–1991 models. Cadillac’s current business relies heavily on the cheaper CTS, which is aimed not at the S-Class Mercedes or 7-Series BMW, but slightly easier targets like the Infiniti G-series and Lincoln MKZ. It remains to be seen whether Cadillac will once again field an effective entry in the high-end luxury market.
Considering its unpromising foundation, the original 1976–1979 Seville turned out much better than it had any right to. With due respect to the talented engineers and designers who labored so hard to create it, the basic concept strikes us as deeply ambivalent. GM wasn’t even sure they wanted the Seville — the fact that it might not have been built at all if not for OPEC and John Meyer’s wife makes that clear enough.
Cadillac didn’t seem quite sure what they wanted it to be, either. There was certainly nothing wrong with offering traditional Cadillac values in a tidier package, but the idea that a made-over Nova would lure Mercedes buyers strikes us as more than a little far-fetched. It was not that Mercedes were dramatically better than contemporary Cadillacs (although in certain specific ways they were); it was that Cadillac apparently failed to grasp why well-heeled customers thought they were better. All Cadillac really seemed to understand was that Mercedes were relatively small and very expensive. The Seville was certainly both of those, but while it had its virtues, it was not really a serious Mercedes rival, nor was its bustleback successor.
Cadillac could have made a genuine effort to analyze the allure of the high-end imports and produce a car that would actually have appealed to Mercedes and BMW buyers, just as Toyota did with Lexus, but that would undoubtedly have cost more, probably would have been less profitable (at least in the short term), and might have alienated the division’s existing clientele. Moreover, the outstanding success of the first Seville seems to have convinced Cadillac management that it wasn’t necessary. At the time, it may not have been, but more than 30 years later, Cadillac is still struggling for credibility in the high-end luxury market.
In a sense, Bob Lund was right about Cadillac’s complacency, although not quite in the way he meant; we think his drive to increase Cadillac’s sales volume ultimately did more harm than good. Cadillac, like GM itself, was at the top of its game in the seventies, but it was about to become a victim of its own success.
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Robert Lund’s remarks on his sales philosophy came from the article “Lido Green and Growing,” Time 1 July 1974, www.time. com, retrieved 8 November 2009. Additional thoughts from Bob Lund on the energy crisis, as well as Bob Benton’s feelings about Mercedes, came from John Lamm, “The King of the Hill: Mark IV vs. Eldorado,” Motor Trend Vol. 25, No. 8 (August 1973), reprinted in Cadillac Eldorado 1967-78 Performance Portfolio, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 2000), pp. 114-117.
Sources on the development of the Seville included the recollections of engineer Bob Templin, recounted in the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1976-1979 Cadillac Seville,” HowStuffWorks.com, 7 November 2007, www.howstuffworks. com/1976-1979-cadillac-seville.htm, accessed 7 November 2009, and Maurice D. Hendry and Dave Holls, Cadillac: Standard of the World: The Complete History, Fourth Edition (Princeton, N.J.: Automobile Quarterly, 1990). Additional information about the design process, including the remarks of Bill Mitchell, Stan Parker, and Irv Rybicki, came from Michael Lamm and Dave Holls, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); Dave Crippen’s 1985 interview with Rybicki, “Reminiscences of Irwin W. Rybicki” (27 June 1985, Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife. umd.umich. edu/Design/Rybicki_interview.htm (transcript), accessed 7 November 2009); Gary Smith, “Wayne Kady” (10 November 2010, Dean’s Garage, deansgarage. com/ 2010/wayne-kady/, accessed 29 November 2010); www.cadillacseville.org, accessed 7 November 2009; and Gary Witzenburg, “1980 Cadillac Seville: Unforgettable or Unforgivable?” Collectible Automobile Vol. 26, No. 4 (December 2009), pp. 34-45. A few technical details about the Bendix fuel injection system came from Kevin Wong and Greg Pruett, “Port Fuel Injection” (2000, Olds FAQ, www.442. com/ oldsfaq/ ofinm.htm, last accessed 29 November 2010). Some information on the Opel Diplomat came from the Wikipedia® page (en.wikipedia. org/ wiki/Opel_Diplomat, last accessed 29 November 2010).
Some details on year-to-year changes, production, prices, and optional equipment came from John Barach’s Cadillac History website (June 2002, Motor Era, www.motorera. com/ cadillac/ index.htm, last accessed 30 November 2010). Some information on contemporary Mercedes-Benz and BMW models came from Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001).
Additional background came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); “AUTOS: More Miles for More Sales,” Time 15 September 1975, www.time. com, last accessed 30 November 2010; Helen Jones Earley and James R. Walkinshaw, Setting the Pace: Oldsmobile’s First 100 Years (Lansing, MI: Oldsmobile Division of General Motors Corporation, 1996); Henry Frank, “Hard Times at Cadillac: Unfocused marketing and aging customers spell trouble for GM’s luxury division,” Car and Driver Vol. 31, No. 6 (December 1985), pp. 106-107; and Bill Hartford, “Too Rough a Ride for the Soft Life,” Popular Car June 1969, reprinted in Cadillac Eldorado 1967-78 Performance Portfolio, pp. 56-57. A few details on the current model came from the Cadillac STS Wikipedia entry (en.wikipedia. org/ wiki/Cadillac_STS, last accessed 29 November 2010).
Information on the development of the Cimarron came from Thomas E. Bonsall, “Trouble in Paradise: The Story of the Cadillac Cimarron” (1997, RideandDrive. com, archived on web at web.archive. org/ web/ 20010118205200/ www.rideanddrive. com/ disasters/cimarron.html, last accessed 30 November 2010) and from Patrick Bedard, “The Making of an UnCadillac,” and Rich Ceppos, “Cadillac Cimarron: America’s number-one luxo-boat maker takes aim at the likes of Audi, BMW, Volvo, and Honda. No Kidding,” Car and Driver Vol. 27, No. 2 (August 1981), pp. 35-40. Details on the V8-6-4 came from Jim Dunne, “Cadillac’s Revolutionary 3-in-1 V8,” Popular Science Vol. 217, No. 4 (October 1980), pp. 121-122, and Rich Ceppos, “Cadillac Sedan de Ville: Holding on for dear life with the world’s first variable-displacement engine,” Car and Driver Vol. 26, No. 10 (April 1981), pp. 63-70.
We also referred to the following period road tests: “Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5,” Car and Driver Vol. 16, No. 3 (September 1970), pp. 33-36, 94, 98; “Mercedes-Benz 450SE,” Road & Track Vol. 24, No. 10 (June 1973), pp. 40-43; “Cadillac Seville: Not a Mercedes, but a very good Cadillac,” Road & Track Vol. 27, No. 2 (October 1975), pp. 84-87; Michael Jordan, “Ground Zero in Detroit: Target: Seville,” Car and Driver Vol. 22, No. 11 (May 1977), pp. 49-60; John Ethridge, “Cadillac Seville,” Motor Trend Vol. 29, No. 6 (June 1977), pp. 44-48; and “Giant Test: Daimler Double Six Vanden Plas, Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II, Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9, Cadillac Seville,” CAR September 1977, pp. 36–43, 72–73.
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