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 a leading luxury car brand. 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 STUMBLES
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.
Those were enviable achievements for any luxury automaker, but for Lund, who was coming off a highly successful stint as general sales manager for Chevrolet, they had made Cadillac’s sales organization complacent, perhaps even lazy. It had been years since there’d been any serious organizational effort to spark competition among the sales force or even promote sales growth, which Lund saw as a waste of potential. Soon after his arrival, he ordered a revamp of Cadillac’s advertising and marketing strategy and a more aggressive sales campaign that he expected to boost Cadillac’s overall volume by 30% or more.
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 tentative fuel-rationing efforts. 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.
During the crisis and in its aftermath, 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 four-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 and, until the advent of the 3.5 and 6.3 models in 1970, relied on modest six-cylinder engines. Mercedes-Benz automobiles 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 on a Chevrolet Malibu, let along a 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 with banks and financing companies offering ever-long car loans, that was no longer enough to deter working-class social climbers, a troublesome situation to the ultra-wealthy keen to flaunt their status.
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, particularly at Cadillac and Lincoln-Mercury, 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?
In any event, 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 in the brand, 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-Benz, but rather by complaints from customers, many of them older women, that Cadillac’s big cars were too cumbersome to maneuver and park.
The results of a marketing study commissioned in 1970 by Bob Lund’s predecessor, George Elges, had led the division to propose a more compact model that would retain all the brand’s other traditional virtues. However, the corporation’s Engineering Policy Committee, which had to approve new models, rejected the proposal on the grounds that it would hurt Cadillac’s image. The committee also made the valid point that what people ask for in marketing surveys is not necessarily what they buy. Cadillac had found that out a decade earlier when the division had introduced a pair of short-deck sedans, the Series 62 Town Sedan and De Ville Park Avenue, in response to customer complaints that existing models were too long for many surburban garages. Both cars were resounding commercial flops and Cadillac had quietly discontinued them after only two years.
Nonetheless, even before the OPEC embargo, Cadillac customers and dealers continued asking when the division would introduce a smaller model. When the wife of influential board member John Meyer (then the chairman of Mellon Bank) posed the same question, GM president Ed Cole asked Bob Lund and new Cadillac chief engineer Bob Templin to revisit the idea of a compact Cadillac.
The target for this new model, whose chances of production were still by no means assured, was the new Mercedes-Benz 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; its exterior dimensions were roughly the size of a Dodge Dart. Unlike many past Mercedes, the W116 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 for the car that became the first Lexus LS400/Toyota Celsior. GM had no interest in making that kind of investment in a low-volume project, particularly one that still rubbed Ed Cole (a former Cadillac general manager) the wrong way. “Economies of scale” had been GM’s corporate religion since the thirties; even luxury models were expected to share platforms and body shells to minimize per-unit costs and maximize return on investment.
The question for Ben Templin and his engineering staff was what platform to use. The whole point of the project was that GM’s big cars (the corporate B- and C-bodies) were too big, and the compact X-body, used by the Chevrolet Nova, hardly seemed a suitable base for a high-end luxury car. Templin considered the intermediate A-body, but while that might have been an appropriate compromise a few years earlier, GM’s contemporary intermediates had grown almost to the dimensions of full-size cars of a decade earlier, which was also too big.
A promising alternative was the Opel Diplomat, the flagship model of GM’s German subsidiary. First launched in 1964 and redesigned in 1969, the Diplomat was a bold but ultimately doomed effort to compete in the higher realms of the executive class. The top Diplomat model even offered a V8 engine, a rarity for 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. The Fisher Body Division warned Templin that they couldn’t use the Diplomat’s existing tooling — designed with metric dimensions and closer tolerances that none of GM’s existing North American factories could accommodate — without a major redesign that would probably cost as much as tooling for an all-new body, defeating the point of the exercise. Templin went back to the drawing board.
THE X-BODY CADILLAC
At the urging of Ed Cole, Cadillac turned again to the X-body. GM’s compact X-body was first developed in the early sixties as a rival for the Ford Falcon and a stopgap for disappointing sales of the rear-engine Chevrolet Corvair. Until 1971, the X-body had been exclusively used by the Chevy II/Nova and the Canadian-market Pontiac Acadian (the F-body Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird were mechanically related, but had their own body shell). However, a renewed boom in compact sales in the early seventies led to a rabbit-like proliferation, leading to the introduction of the X-body Pontiac Ventura II in 1971 and the Buick Apollo and Oldsmobile Omega for 1973.
The second-generation X-body, which had debuted for 1968, was the latest evolution of GM’s sixties 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 the X-body 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 was neither as rigid, as light, nor as space-efficient as a true monocoque. Turning it into something that could seriously rival Mercedes-Benz would take work.
A related problem was finding an appropriate engine. Unlike GM’s other divisions, which all had smaller V8s, Cadillac’s smallest engine at that time displaced 429 cu. in. (7,025 cc). Naturally there was no question of developing a completely new engine, so Templin was obliged to adapt one from another division, something Cadillac hadn’t done since the 1934–1936 LaSalle. Hearkening back to those cars, which had used Oldsmobile straight-eight engines, Templin’s eventual choice was Oldsmobile’s 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) V8, fitted with a new intake manifold and a brand-new Bendix electronic fuel injection system. (Cadillac also considered using a Wankel engine, the corporation’s much-publicized GM RCE, but that project was repeatedly delayed and eventually canceled outright.)
To give the compact Cadillac further mechanical distinction, Templin proposed making it front-wheel-drive, adapting the Unitized Power Package (UPP) from the Cadillac 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 lust to the Seville’s image. Cadillac built a number of FWD test mules, but the Engineering Policy Committee subsequently vetoed the FWD idea, apparently due to inadequate capacity at the plant that built the UPP’s unique TH425 transmission. (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 Cadillac eventually abandoned that idea in favor of a refined version of the X-body compacts’ existing 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 THE DWARF
While Templin was beginning the new car’s mechanical development, 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. With the notable exception of the Corvette and other sporty cars, Wilen’s boss, Styling VP Bill Mitchell, had never had much regard for small cars, famously likening their styling to “tailoring a dwarf.”
At Mitchell’s suggestion, Wilen developed an Italianate concept drawing he dubbed La Scala. He then transferred the project to Cadillac’s Advanced One studio, then led by Wayne Kady, which produced several very attractive elaborations on the theme, including one rendering that bore a flattering resemblance to the contemporary Ferrari 365GT.
Unfortunately, La Scala was conceived when Cadillac still hoped to build the car on the Diplomat platform. Once the stylists began adapting the design for the X-body, Irv Rybicki, then in charge of all exterior design for Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile, became concerned that the results were becoming too recognizably similar to the Chevrolet Nova and its X-body siblings, something that would probably have sat ill with potential customers.
Stan Parker, who succeeded Wayne Kady as head of the Advanced One studio when Kady was promoted to chief stylist of Buick, found that that problem could be mitigated by extending the wheelbase a few inches between the B-pillar and the rear axle. Doing that would be more expensive because it would make it impossible for Cadillac to share the rear doors and door glass of the other X-body sedans, but Rybicki eventually persuaded Ed Cole to authorize the change because it would give the Cadillac compact distinct proportions.
Two competing proposals eventually reached the full-size clay model stage. The first, conceived by Kady, had partially skirted rear wheels, a downward-swept beltline (somewhat reminiscent of the 1959 Cadillacs), and a sloping rear deck. The second, the work of Stan Parker, had a more conventional notchback profile with crisp edges that evoked the Hooper-bodied Rolls-Royces that had once inspired the 1963 Buick Riviera. A consumer clinic in Southern California in July 1973 strongly preferred the notchback, which subsequently traded its slanted C-pillars (which to our eyes made the model look a bit like the later Aston Martin Lagonda) for a more formal upright backlight — another Rolls-Royce-inspired suggestion from Bill Mitchell.
The final design, which received production approval in December 1973, was another example of what Bill Mitchell called “the sheer look.” The idea of the sheer look, which Mitchell credited to former GM president and one-time Cadillac general manager Jack Gordon, was to offset sharp, angular lines with subtly rolled or curved surfaces. GM designers had previously applied that aesthetic to great effect on the first Riviera and the 1967 Eldorado, combining the straightforward linearity of European sedans without their severity.
The impact of the sheer look 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 compact Cadillac was crisp and refreshingly no-nonsense — to our eyes, as a clean a design as GM had produced since the late sixties.
MAKING A CADILLAC OUT OF THE NOVA
Even before the OPEC embargo, Cadillac was under increasing pressure from dealers nervous about customers jumping ship to Mercedes or BMW. After the oil embargo began in October 1973, 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. Executive vice president E.M. Pete Estes (who would succeed Cole as president in September 1974) told Cadillac the new compact needed to be ready by the middle of the 1975 model year, leaving the division less than 18 months to complete the X-body’s transformation into a Mercedes-fighting luxury car.
To distinguish it from the Nova, the Seville’s platform received a new K-body chassis designation. Mechanically, the K-body was superficially similar to the X-body despite a 3.3-inch (84mm) floorpan stretch, but the Cadillac differed considerably in detail. Aside from a standard limited-slip differential and automatic level control, the K-body benefited from engineer Robert Burton’s concerted assault on the X-body’s intrinsic NVH problems, which were mitigated in various ways, including increasing the number of front subframe bushings from four to six; adding Teflon liners between the semi-elliptical rear springs; allowing more fore-aft suspension compliance; using small hydraulic dampers to brace the driveshaft tunnel, the front fenders, and the transmission tail shaft; and locking the body bolts with epoxy resin rather than conventional washers. Templin admitted all this was far from elegant, 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 production design work. A full-size fiberglass model of the final version was completed for management approval in June 1974.
The hasty development process was grueling for everyone involved and was further complicated by personnel changes. In September 1974, Wayne Kady returned to Cadillac to succeed Stan Wilen as chief stylist. Later that month, Ed Cole reached GM’s mandatory retirement age and relinquished the presidency to Pete Estes. On November 4, Bob Lund went back to Chevrolet, this time as general manager, and Edward C. Kennard took his place as general manager of Cadillac.
The new compact didn’t have a name until late that year. Since the new car was conceptually similar to the old LaSalle, Cadillac’s ad agency and some dealers proposed reviving the LaSalle name, which had actually been applied to some of the styling prototypes. LaSalle tested well with consumers, but marketing director Gordon Horsburgh and general sales manager Ted Hopkins ultimately rejected it, worried that some old-line dealers and customers recalled the old LaSalle as a commercial failure. Several alternatives, including St. Moritz and Allegro, were also rejected and Hopkins and Horsburgh eventually recommended Seville, a name Cadillac had used for two-door hardtop versions of its posh Eldorado from 1956 to 1960.
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 new Cadillac Seville made its official debut on May 1, 1975, as an early 1976 model. In contrast to the contemporary norm, the Seville was offered only in one body style, a four-door pillared sedan; during the development process, there had been several attractive coupe proposals, but the sedan was judged the most essential for battling Mercedes-Benz.
Cadillac advertising carefully avoided calling the Seville a compact, instead characterizing it as “international size.” Perhaps to forestall any misapprehension that it was an economy model, the Seville was also the most expensive car in Cadillac’s line-up other than the Series 75 limousines; in fact, a 1976 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 1.5 inches (38 mm) shorter than the 450SE, but more than 5 inches (132 mm) longer than a Jaguar XJ12L. The Seville was was heavy, too. All the structural gusseting had inflated curb weight to nearly 4,400 lb (2,000 kg).
At launch, the Seville was offered with only one powertrain: a three-speed TH375 transmission linked to the fuel-injected Oldsmobile V8. The latter 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. If pushed too hard, the Cadillac’s belt-and-braces structure made itself known, resulting in the occasional ragged body motion. 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 and profitable success, particularly in crucial West Coast markets. 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. Cadillac sold more than 16,000 Sevilles in the first four months and almost 44,000 during the remainder of the 1976 model year. The Seville quickly recouped its development costs, providing welcome reassurance for GM that its forthcoming downsized big cars would not be complete commercial disasters.
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 did other Cadillac models; women accounted for about 45% of Seville sales, a significantly higher percentage than the Cadillac norm. All that suggests that the Seville appealed most strongly to the same audience identified back in 1970 by George Elges’ marketing study: older female buyers 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.
Gordon Horsburgh insisted that it did, but Cadillac officials admitted in early 1977 that only about 15% of Seville customers traded in a luxury import, which doesn’t seem an impressive figure for a model specifically intended as an import fighter. 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.
TThe upshot is 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 otherwise have chosen a Cadillac in the first place.
The success and of the Seville helped to pull Cadillac out of its post-oil-embargo doldrums. By 1976, American buyers were returning to big cars as worries about the fuel crisis began to fade. Thanks to the excitement surrounding the Seville and the more aggressive marketing tactics Bob Lund had initiated, Cadillac set a new sales record for the 1976 model year of more than 309,000 units.
As the Seville’s popularity had foreshadowed, Cadillac customers proved receptive to the downsized De Ville and Brougham that arrived for the 1977 model year. Although still gargantuan by global standards, the new Cadillacs 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. A 1979 marketing study suggested a worrisome trend: the next emerging generation of affluent buyers was shunning domestic luxury cars entirely in favor of high-end imports. Spectacular as it was, Cadillac’s 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 traded the previous car’s notchback profile for a peculiar bustleback trunk that evoked the “trunkback” sedans of the mid-thirties. (Ironically, that 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. Ed Kennard, who didn’t care for the design, rejected the idea of making it the 1979 Eldorado, but Mitchell liked the bustleback too much to let it go and proposed making it the next-generation Seville instead.
The second-generation Seville was one of the last designs Mitchell championed before his 1977 retirement and remains one of the most controversial. Kady says Cadillac dealers loved it at the 1980 model year introduction, but critical and consumer response was sharply divided. The seventies had seen a great boom in neo-classical and pseudo-classical designs, from modern replicas of prewar cars to aftermarket accessories like faux Continental kits and simulated sidemounts, so there were obviously people who liked that sort of thing, but there were also many who hoped the eighties would leave such gaudy ostentation behind.
Under the skin, the new Seville was closely related to the newly downsized 1979 Eldorado, Riviera, and Toronado, sharing their FWD platform and fully independent suspension. In a curious sign of the times, the Oldsmobile diesel V8 was now standard, although buyers in states other than California could also order Cadillac’s new 368 cu. in. (6,040 cc) petrol V8, which on Sevilles had throttle-body fuel injection and 145 hp (108 kW). Automatic transmission and four-wheel disc brakes remained standard.
Although the 1980 Seville was as technologically sophisticated as any contemporary Detroit product and its rarely ordered Touring Suspension provided surprisingly adroit handling, the styling made the Seville look positively baroque next to the sober BMW and Mercedes sedans of its era. The new look was undeniably bold, but it was probably the final nail in the coffin for the Seville as erstwhile import fighter; it’s hard to envision affluent young Baby Boomers, already hostile to their parents’ conception of luxury, viewing the bustleback Seville with anything but disdain.
The polarizing looks combined with a shaky economy and a price increase of nearly $4,000 (with several additional increases during the 1980 model year) to cut Seville sales to 39,344, a decline of more than 25% from 1979. Sales of the handsome new Eldorado, which had gotten off to a strong start, were also down for 1980, but recovered for 1981 while Seville sales fell an additional 27%.
Adding to the Seville’s woes in 1981 was the introduction of Cadillac’s ill-fated “V8-6-4,” more formally known as the Cadillac Modulated Displacement Engine. This modified the existing injected 368 cu. in. (6,040 cc) gasoline engine with 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 claimed this system did more for fuel economy than adding an overdrive fourth gear to the automatic transmission (something the Seville wouldn’t get until 1982), but contemporary reviewers were dubious about the cylinder deactivation system’s real-world benefits. The V8-6-4 proved to have serious reliability problems as well and was quickly dropped on everything but the slow-selling Series Seventy-Five.
Unfortunately, Cadillac did not simply revert to the standard 368 cu. in. (6,040 cc) engine for 1982, instead substituting the new HT-4100, a fuel-injected 249 cu. in. (4,088 cc) V8 with an aluminum block and iron cylinder heads (like the old Chevrolet Vega engine). The HT-4100 was more fuel-efficient than its predecessor, helped by the new TH325-4L four-speed automatic, but could muster only 125 hp (93 kW) and 190 lb-ft (257 N-m) of torque, which made for lethargic performance. Sales fell an additional 30%, to only 19,998 units.
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 Pete Estes to allow Cadillac to join the corporate J-body program, a new line of FWD compacts slated for the 1982 model year. Estes was none too sanguine about that prospect since it left Cadillac very little time to differentiate its car from the other J-bodies, but Kennard persevered, apparently hoping that the Cadillac name would be enough.
The result was the compact Cadillac 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 its platform-mates, which cost around $5,000 less. Despite generous standard equipment and an attempt at Germanic suspension tuning, the early Cimarron was little more than a Cavalier with a Cadillac grille, which 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 almost 40,000 units a year in both 1984 and 1985. Even so, the Seville never sold as well as its predecessor and the mechanically similar but more orthodox-looking Eldorado outsold its bustleback cousin 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. The median age of bustleback Seville customers was 60, four years older than the median age of all Cadillac buyers and a worrisome 25 years older than the median import buyer. (The median age of Cimarron buyers was 53.) The inflation-adjusted median income of Cadillac buyers had fallen by about 25% since the early seventies and fewer than one-third had a college education, suggesting that the brand now appealed more strongly to older blue-collar customers than to affluent yuppies.
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 to affluent Yuppies.
After languishing throughout the late eighties, the Seville was redesigned again for 1992, courtesy of Cadillac chief stylist Dick Ruzzin under the auspices of design VP Chuck Jordan. Stylistically, the new Seville was first-rate, a sharp, confident melding of European and American design themes. However, the new car’s impact was muted somewhat by Cadillac’s decision to delay 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 Cadillac Seville turned out much better than it had any right to considering the unpromising foundation, hasty development schedule, and the deep-seated corporate ambivalence toward the whole project.
We also remain deeply skeptical of the Seville’s value as an import rival. There was certainly no shame in offering traditional Cadillac values in a tidier package, which the Seville did very well, but the idea that a made-over Nova would have stemmed the growth of Mercedes strikes us as more than a little far-fetched. It was not that contemporary Mercedes-Benz cars were dramatically better than contemporary Cadillacs (although in certain specific ways they were); it was that Cadillac did not entirely 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 despite its virtues, it was not really a serious Mercedes rival, nor was its bustleback successor.
Throughout the seventies, officials of both Cadillac and Lincoln often reminded the motoring press that those brands’ many existing customers neither appreciated nor would have accepted the qualities that enthusiast critics so loved about BMW and Mercedes-Benz. That was probably true, at least to a point, but Cadillac’s determination to cling to its traditional clientele would cost the division dearly in the eighties and beyond.
The alternative would have been for Cadillac to make a genuine effort to analyze the allure of the high-end imports and produce a car that would actually have appealed to BMW and Mercedes buyers, just as Toyota did with Lexus. Admittedly, that would have undoubtedly cost far more and wouldn’t necessarily have worked, but the problem was that the outstanding success of the first Seville appears to have convinced Cadillac and GM that it wasn’t necessary to take such a leap. By the time the division realized the depths of the problem, they had lost a great deal of ground that, even more than 30 years later, Cadillac has yet to regain.
In a sense, Bob Lund was right about the dangers of 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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NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included C. Edson Armi, The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988); 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; Cars That Never Were: The Prototypes Skokie, IL: Publications International, 1981); and 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; John Barach, “Cadillac History,” Motor Era, June 2002, www.motorera. com/ cadillac/ index.htm, last accessed 30 November 2010; 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): 35-40; Thomas E. Bonsall, “Trouble in Paradise: The Story of the Cadillac Cimarron,” RideandDrive. com, 1997; archived on web at web.archive. org/ web/ 20010118205200/ www.rideanddrive. com/ disasters/cimarron.html, last accessed 30 November 2010; www.cadillacseville.org, accessed 7 November 2009; 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): 63–70; Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); David R. Crippen, “Reminiscences of Irwin W. Rybicki” [interview transcript], 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; Jim Dunne, “Cadillac’s Revolutionary 3-in-1 V8,” Popular Science Vol. 217, No. 4 (October 1980): 121-122; Helen Jones Earley and James R. Walkinshaw, Setting the Pace: Oldsmobile’s First 100 Years (Lansing, MI: Oldsmobile Division of General Motors Corporation, 1996); “Estes, Elliott M.,” Generations of GM History, GM Heritage Center, n.d., history.gmheritagecenter. com/wiki/index.php/Estes,_Elliott_M., accessed 7 November 2009; 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): 106–107; David Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986); Bill Hartford, “Too Rough a Ride for the Soft Life,” Popular Car June 1969, reprinted in Cadillac Eldorado Performance Portfolio 1967-1978, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 2000), pp. 56-57; Maurice D. Hendry and Dave Holls, Cadillac: Standard of the World: The Complete History, Fourth Edition (Princeton, N.J.: Automobile Quarterly, 1990); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); John Lamm, “The King of the Hill: Mark IV vs. Eldorado,” Motor Trend Vol. 25, No. 8 (August 1973), reprinted in Cadillac Eldorado Performance Portfolio 1967-1978, pp. 114-117; L’Editrice Dell’Automobile LEA, World Cars 1973 (Bronxville, NY: Herald Books, 1973); “Lido Green and Growing,” Time 1 July 1974, www.time. com, retrieved 8 November 2009; Donald Neff, Warriors Against Israel: How Israel Won the Battle to Become America’s Ally 1973 (Ft. Collins, CO: Linden Press, 1981); Productioncars.com, Book of Automobile Production and Sales Figures, 1945–2005 (N.p.: 2006); Gary Smith, “Wayne Kady,” Dean’s Garage, 10 November 2010, deansgarage. com/ 2010/ wayne-kady/, accessed 29 November 2010; “We RememBear: Cadillac Cimarron,” 14 March 2004, AutomoBear.com, accessed 5 November 2009; Gary Witzenburg, “1980 Cadillac Seville: Unforgettable or Unforgivable?” Collectible Automobile Vol. 26, No. 4 (December 2009): 34–45; Kevin Wong and Greg Pruett, “Port Fuel Injection,” Olds FAQ, 2000, www.442. com/ oldsfaq/ ofinm.htm, last accessed 29 November 2010; and the Wikipedia® pages for the Cadillac STS (en.wikipedia. org/ wiki/Cadillac_STS, last accessed 29 November 2010) and Opel Diplomat (en.wikipedia. org/ wiki/Opel_Diplomat, last accessed 29 November 2010).
We also referred to the following period road tests: “Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5,” Car and Driver Vol. 16, No. 3 (September 1970): 33–36, 94, 98; “Mercedes-Benz 450SE,” Road & Track Vol. 24, No. 10 (June 1973): 40–43; “Cadillac Seville: Not a Mercedes, but a very good Cadillac,” Road & Track Vol. 27, No. 2 (October 1975): 84–87; Michael Jordan, “Ground Zero in Detroit: Target: Seville,” Car and Driver Vol. 22, No. 11 (May 1977): 49–60; John Ethridge, “Cadillac Seville,” Motor Trend Vol. 29, No. 6 (June 1977): 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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