The Perilous Success of the 1976 Cadillac Seville

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.

1984 Cadillac Seville mirror

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 article, 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, one 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 mobile 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 Benzs 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.

1972 Mercedes 280SEL 4.5 front 3q
Mercedes nomenclature is more than a little confusing: the 280SEL designation of this 1972 W109 sedan implies a 2.8 L (2,778 cc, 170 cu. in.) “Super Einspritz” (injection) engine in a long-wheelbase model sedan, but this is a 4.5, which means it actually has a 276 cu. in. (4,520 cc) OHC V8 linked to Mercedes’ new three-speed torque converter automatic. This car, along with the W111/W112 coupes and convertibles, was replaced in 1972 by the new W116 S-Class. Its immediate successor had the same engine and transmission, but was more logically named 450SEL.

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 some wealthy buyers 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.

1973 Mercedes 450SE front 3q
The new Mercedes S-Class, known internally as W116, appeared in late 1972. This 1973 450SE is still unencumbered by the bulky, ugly 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers later added to meet U.S. safety regulations, and it has the composite headlamps of a European model, not technically legal in the U.S. at that time; U.S. models had quad sealed beams. The 1973 450SE was 195.3 in (4,960 mm) long on a 112.8-in (2,865mm) wheelbase, weighing a bit over 4,000 lb (1,825 kg) with the standard (for the U.S.) air conditioning. (Photo © 2007 Tom Bigelow; used with permission)

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 K-Jetronic mechanical 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 apparently 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.

1977 Opel Diplomat B 5.4 front 3q
The Diplomat B 5,4 was a curious blend of American and European ideas. Roughly the size of an S-Class Mercedes, it had a sophisticated de Dion rear suspension (described in our article on the Rover P6) with inboard disc brakes, and and an optional 327 cu. in. (5,354) Chevrolet V8 linked to a Turbo Hydramatic transmission. The V8 was a brave choice in Europe, where engines over 170 cu. in. (2,800 cc) tended to provoke a sort of fiscal apocalypse, but it made the Diplomat more interesting for the U.S. market. (Photo © 2008 Armin Kußler; used with permission)

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 and semiexotic 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 apparently 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.

1977 Cadillac Seville badge
The Seville was the first GM car designed with Bendix electronic fuel injection, although not the first to go on sale; the Eldorado first offered it (on that car’s bigger 500 cu. in. (8,194 cc) engine in the 1975 model year and the fuel-injected Chevrolet Cosworth Vega debuted shortly before the Seville. The 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) Oldsmobile engine was exceptionally smooth and Bendix fuel injection gave it 180 net horsepower (134 kW), but it proved troublesome in service and some owners replaced the fuel injection system with a four-barrel carburetor.

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, Rolls Royce-like air.

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.

1977 Cadillac Seville front 3q
To the credit of Stan Parker and the rest of the Cadillac design team, the Seville displays none of its structural kinship with the contemporary Chevrolet Nova, thanks to square-rigged lines, a formal roofline, and an abundance of Cadillac styling cues. One minor way in which the Seville emulated its Mercedes rival was in styling continuity; eschewing the usual facelifts, it changed only in minor details through its five-year lifespan. Unusually for Cadillac, it was offered only in a single body style. A two-door coupe was considered, but Bob Templin said they ultimately decided the four-door sedan was more in keeping with the Seville’s import-fighting role.

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.

1978 Cadillac Seville rear fender
The “sheer look” in detail: sharply creased edges and gently curved body panels. From a distance, the Seville looks as if it were styled with a ruler, but the shape is more complex than it initially appears.

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.

1978 Cadillac Seville side
The Seville is 204 inches (5,182 mm) long on a 114.3-inch (2,903mm) wheelbase (compared to 111 inches (2,819 mm) for the Nova), weighing around 4,400 lb (2,000 kg) with a full load of options. Brakes were initially front discs and rear drums, but four-wheel discs became standard in 1977. Radial tires were standard on the Seville; the popular simulated wire wheel covers were a $179 option.

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 and the naming process proved one of the 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 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.

1960 Cadillac Eldorado rear 3q
The first Cadillac Seville was not a compact car — it was the hardtop coupe version of the limited-edition Eldorado, offered from 1956 to 1960. This is a 1960 Eldorado Seville hardtop, the last of the line; from 1961 to 1966, the Eldorado was offered only in convertible Biarritz form.

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 — it 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 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.

1978 Cadillac Seville front
The Seville’s 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) gasoline engine remained little changed during the lifespan of the first-generation Seville, although in 1978 it fell from 180 hp (134 kW) to 170 hp (127 kW). A new option, added midway through the 1978 model year, was Oldsmobile’s 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) diesel V8, a response to the popularity of the Mercedes 240D and 300D. A $287 option, it was rated at a meager 125 hp (93 kW). It had a poor reliability record and did much to sour American buyers on diesel engines in general.

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; 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, its belt-and-braces structure made itself known, resulting in the occasional ragged body motion. Car and Driver‘s Michael Jordan wondered (somewhat 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 Benz 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 it 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. It 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.

1978 Cadillac Seville roof
The “Tuxedo Grain” vinyl top was nominally a no-cost option on the 1978 Cadillac Seville, although few, if any Sevilles went without the padded top. It was offered in 16 different colors with or without opera lamps, which were a separate $63 option. This car’s electric rear defogger was a $94 extra. An optional Seville Elegante package, new for 1978, included two-tone paint, wire wheels, and plusher interior trim; it was quite expensive ($2,600 and up), and accounted for less than 10% of sales. There was also a choice of steel or glass sunroofs, a pricey option adding up to $1,106 to the bottom line.

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.

DIRTY HIGH

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 in (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 deserted 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.

1984 Cadillac Seville front
The second-generation Cadillac Seville switched to front-wheel drive, sharing the Unitized Power Package powertrain of the Eldorado, Toronado, and Riviera. The 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) Oldsmobile diesel was now standard, making a meager 105 hp (78 kW), but the 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) Olds petrol V8 was replaced by a new 368 cu. in. (6,040 cc) Cadillac engine, initially with 145 hp (108 kW). By 1982, the 368 cu. in. (6,040 cc) engine was replaced by a 249 cu. in. (4,088 cc) V8 with a modest 125 hp (93 kW). A 252 cu. in. (4,128 cc) version of Buick’s 90-degree V6 was also optional in 1981-1982, making 125 hp (93 kW).

THE FALL: 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 response 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, it looked positively baroque.

1984 Cadillac Seville side
The 1980-1985 Cadillac Seville was about the same size as its predecessor — 204.8 inches (5,202 mm) long on a 114-inch (2,896mm) wheelbase — but the adoption of front-wheel drive brought a useful 269 lb (122 kg) weight reduction. It was still no featherweight; curb weight remained over 4,000 lb (1,815 kg). This 1984 model has the 249 cu. in. (4,088 cc) HT4100 engine with 135 hp (101 kW). The Olds diesel V8 remained optional through 1985, but sales had slowed to a trickle.

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 from 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.

1980 Cadillac Seville Elegante rear
Whatever one might say about the 1980 Cadillac Seville’s aesthetics, it would be hard to mistake it for anything else. Nonetheless, its bustleback styling theme also appeared on Chrysler’s 1981-1983 Imperial coupe; we have not yet puzzled out the full story behind that similarity. While this 1980 model superficially resembles the Elegante package, which added two-tone paint and simulated luggage straps on the rear deck, it is apparently an aftermarket conversion.

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, it 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 and 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.

1995 Cadillac Seville front 3q IFCAR
The 1992-1997 Cadillac Seville was roughly the same size as the 1976-1985 models; 1995-1996 models, like this one, were 204.1 inches (5,184 mm) on a 111-inch (2,819mm) wheelbase, weighing a bit over 4,000 lb (1,815 kg). Despite handsome styling and ample power from its DOHC 279 cu. in. (4,565 cc) Northstar V8 — 275 hp (205 kW) for the base Seville, 300 hp (224 kW) for the sporty STS — this generation sold no better than the bustleback and it seemed to make little impression on import buyers, perhaps in part because of the FWD layout. (Photo © 2008 IFCAR; released to the public domain by the photographer)

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’ Lexuses 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.

REQUIEM

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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NOTES ON SOURCES

Robert Lund’s remarks on his sales philosophy came from the article “Lido Green and Growing,” Time 1 July 1974, www.time. com/ time/magazine/article/0,9171,942900,00.html, 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 (http://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/ time/ magazine/ article/ 0,9171,917830-1,00.html, 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 (http://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; and John Ethridge, “Cadillac Seville,” Motor Trend Vol. 29, No. 6 (June 1977), pp. 44-48.


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  1. I am a big fan of your site. I think that you usually go beyond the normal party line of automotive history in an attempt to dig deeper into the real story.

    Concerning this article, I appreciate your analysis of increased production at Cadillac leading to a drop in exclusivity and prestige. However, you take shots at the 2nd generation Seville, without realizing what was truly at stake.

    The “bustleback” Seville was a design that Ed Kennard didn’t want. Bill Mitchell trusted his own iconoclastic taste and pushed it through nonetheless. In the last days of the 1970’s, GM was still a leader in styling and the VP of Design Staff was one of the most powerful, influential men in the company. In the tradition of Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell wasn’t afraid to pursue adventurous design.

    The 1980 Seville wasn’t the failure that you represent it as. Production numbers dipped, but the car served it’s purpose as a lower-volume halo car for GM and Cadillac. This is exactly what you rightly accuse the first-gen model of not being. Today, it may seen baroque, but the styling was loved by dealers and buyers, as well as copycats Ford and Chrysler.

    I can say nothing positive for the diesel or the “HT” 4100, but the 368 feels underrated at 145hp. Both ’80 Sevilles that I have owned were powerful, capable cars, particularly at high speed. They were also beautifully constructed, with extensive hand finishing and opulent interiors. I will say that the excellent sales and current collectibilty of 82-85 Cadillacs proves that the public loves the styling so much that it is willing to put up with unreliable, severely underpowered engines.

    The Bill Mitchell era saw some adventurous cars. The 65 Riviera, 66 Toronado, 68 Corvette and 71 Riviera are a few of the cars that staid corporate types hated. They were polarizing and sold in low volumes, but they added a lot of personality to each division. The 1980 Seville is the last in a long line of “personality” cars from GM. What followed was diminished design autonomy, lookalike cars that were the joke of the industry and GM’s place in the world growing ever more tenuous.

    You should be celebrating and mourning the loss of strong, independent designers at GM and exciting cars like the 1980 Seville.

    1. Bill Mitchell’s departure was definitely the end of an era, as I talked about in the story on the Reatta ([url]http://dev.ateupwithmotor.com/model-histories/buick-reatta-history/[/url]). I agree that it had very serious consequences for GM, for which they’re still paying dearly.

      However, I think that the second-generation Seville was also a clear sign of how much Cadillac’s appeal had contracted. The bustleback may have appealed to existing Cadillac customers, but it was wildly out of step with the tastes of much of the luxury car market. I see it as the point that Cadillac went from being a default choice for a broad spectrum of American customers to having a narrow appeal to existing buyers.

      I don’t criticize Mitchell or Kady for creating a polarizing design, even if it’s one I don’t happen to like. As you say, if designers aren’t willing to shake things up, the result is cookie-cutter blandness. And if you’re going to do something radical, a niche product like the Seville or Eldorado is a better place to do it than with your bread-and-butter products. Still, "baroque" is an understatement.

      I’m really not sure that the Imperial was an intentional imitator of the second-generation Seville. Stylist Bob Marcks feels that the Imperial’s design was lifted from a turbine-powered concept car he did in the mid-seventies. I suppose it’s possible that they added the bustle at the last minute after seeing early studies or models of the 1980 Seville, but I have no specific evidence to support that. (By the time the Seville was publicly announced, the Imperial’s design would already have been locked, but stylists are often aware of competing products before they appear.) The Lincoln, however, very likely [i]was[/i] a conscious imitation. Neither of those cars sold particularly well, either, suggesting they appealed to fairly rarefied tastes.

  2. I appreciate your thoughtful, lengthy response to my comment. You bring to mind an age old question about the last of a certain type of car. Did it cause it’s own downfall, or was it the result of changing times and markets.

    As the bustleback Seville was the last stand for exciting styling at GM and the ultimate statement of the neoclassic school of the 70’s, one would have to wonder if it’s excesses caused the downfall of that entire school, causing a radical shift toward rational, boring design.

    I would draw a parallel to the Lincoln Mark VIII, which was certainly a polarizing design that stretched the jellybean look and the concept of what a luxury car should look like. Was it’s excessive styling the reason that there was no Mark IX, or was it just time to stop making personal luxury cars and go home?

    Loving the bustleback and hating the Mark VIII, I hadn’t seen the connection until now. Are they really two sides of the same coin? Two excessive styles from their respective schools which ended the party for that kind of design.

    I would still submit that a company with as many model lines as GM [i]should[/i] tailor some of it’s products to more rarefied tastes. Lately, they have been trying to make every car a car for everybody, with a precious few notable exceptions (CTS, Camaro). Has this policy of watering down the styling mix and trying to satisfy too many divergent tastes resulted in a fleet that nobody feels strongly about? I would argue that it does and that it has taken a severe toll on a company that made it’s money on selling status and the concept of “moving up.”

    1. I think the demise of the Mark VIII had more to do with the contraction of the big coupe market in the nineties than with buyer reaction to its styling. Many of the consumers who had previously bought cars like the Mark were buying luxury SUVs like the Yukon Denali by then, and even the Thunderbird didn’t survive the nineties. (In fact, sinking T-Bird sales may have affected the fate of the Mark, since the Mark shared the Thunderbird and Cougar’s MN12 platform.)

      I don’t know that I think creating deliberately polarizing designs is useful, except for show cars and exotics. The problem with polarizing designs is that stylists tend to create them for the benefit of other designers, rather than for the buying public. That was the case with GM’s 1959 cars; there was a conscious push to be radical and innovative to reclaim styling leadership from Chrysler, and even Bill Mitchell (who led the ’59 designs) later admitted they went overboard. By contrast, a design like the 1968½ Continental Mark III was a risk — no one had done anything quite like that before — but it was developed with a specific marketing concept in mind. Iacocca had an instinct that customers would perceive the Mark III’s melange of retro and Rolls design cues as opulent and rich looking, and it turned out that he was right.

      I think part of GM’s problem today is its misguided emphasis on branding. The fundamental problem is that a lot of GM’s products are now very much alike (something the demise of Pontiac and Saturn will only partly address). Styling is clearly under a lot of pressure to create a distinct visual identity for each brand, but I think that the corporation has lost sight of where its customers’ tastes lie. I ask the same question an old colleague of mine from another industry used to ask about new products: “Who is this aimed at, and who do you think is buying it?” If you understand the priorities of your target market, you can challenge and develop their tastes without alienating them or boring them to death. If you don’t — and I’m not at all convinced GM has [i]any[/i] understanding of the current market, except perhaps for Corvette buyers — all the tacked-on brand identification and self-conscious design philosophies in the world will not help.

    2. As for the Seville, I think that the bustleback suggests that Mitchell didn’t quite understand [i]why[/i] neoclassical design was so popular in the seventies. My suspicion is that buyers did not gravitate toward cars like the Mark, the Monte Carlo, et al, because they perceived them as [i]retro[/i], but because they looked [i]expensive[/i]. The Marks didn’t really have a unified theme — they looked liked a cross between a Thunderbird and a limousine — and Bill Mitchell was very critical of their hodgepodge styling. However, customers didn’t see them as a hodgepodge; the important thing was that Mark’s Rolls-Royce grille, opera windows, etc., all looked ritzy and opulent.

      The bustleback Seville, on the other hand, was self-consciously neoclassical, which was not what buyers were really after. I’m sure there were (and still are) people who liked it just because it looked different, but I don’t think it was as appealing to the greater mass of buyers as the Mark IV or Mark V Continentals.

      Furthermore, by the early eighties, the market had changed. A younger generation of buyers was finally hitting the point where they could afford luxury cars, while the traditional Cadillac and Lincoln crowd was aging. To a Baby Boomer yuppie, whose car-buying history may have gone from Mustang to Maverick to Rabbit to Honda Accord, the neo-classical Cadillacs and Lincolns were just bloated and gross. Many of those buyers walked past the Cadillac and Lincoln showrooms without a second glance, and ended up with BMWs, Audis, and Mercedes.

  3. I can’t resist replying to you on this one, as we are talking about my favorite subject here.

    I think you are right about the Mark III, IV and V being very commercial designs and the sales figures show this to be a fact. Gene Bordinat was the type of designer who never wanted to outstrip his buyers’ tastes. I think that with some exceptions, Ford was a well known follower of design trends.

    GM, under Earl and Mitchell was known as the leader in styling and the innovator of new trends. This reputation produced a hubris that gave these men the conviction to release some pretty remarkable designs. This, combined with the autonomous division structure, is what I think caused their success and high market share. The Seville was certainly an excess from this era, but the disappointing products we have had to endure since the Seville make you realize that it was the end of the GM Dynasty. For that, I will always love the bustleback Seville.

    As far as the younger generation goes, someone that wants a BMW, Mercedes, etc. will never be as satisfied with a Cadillac or Lincoln copy of said car. I think Cadillac just realized this. The Escalade and CTS-V are two models that rely on distinctively American characteristics and are a hit with the baby boomers.

    1. In 1975, Bill Mitchell told Brock Yates of [i]Car and Driver[/i] that the problem with Ford styling was that the sales guys were in charge, and were constantly saying, "Couldn’t you add…" To a large extent, that was true, particularly under Iacocca, who was first and foremost a sales guy.

      Interestingly, Gene Bordinat didn’t like the Mark III at all. Dave Ash, who was the lead designer on it, said if he’d submitted the concept to Bordinat without it being Iacocca’s idea, Bordinat would have told him he was full of it. I think Bordinat later warmed to it, but at first, he was nonplussed by it. It was not something he would have come up with himself.

      I think that Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell were cantankerous and full of hubris in part because they had to be; if they had been more cooperative, they would have been steamrolled. Dave Holls and Michael Lamm felt that was the great failing of Irv Rybicki, who succeeded Mitchell. By all accounts, Rybicki was a really nice guy, and he was certainly talented, but he acquiesced to things that would have made Mitchell throw a tantrum. The problem was that after dealing with Earl and Mitchell’s temperament for 50 years, GM management was very reluctant to put up with any more. They wanted a good team player, and they got one, but you can see the results.

  4. Aaron,

    Thank you for another insightful article on the Seville – and the beginnings of Cadillac’s (and GM’s)long hard fall. That first 1976 Seville may have been a patchwork quilt of engineering bandaids on an old Nova platform, but it was a game changer for the American auto industry as far as design went at the time. Mitchell’s “sheer look” was the impetus for the more organized, squared-off less bloated styles that permeated US design throughout the 1980’s. I was smitten the first time I saw one on the street and still am today. To these eyes, it ranks right up there with Mr. Mitchell’s first Cadillac Sixty Special. In it’s day, it was a beautifully detailed luxury automobile that whispered quality and exclusivity – something unique for a Cadillac. It was too good to last, as the next generation bustle backed car shows.

  5. I’m absolutely shocked to see the love for the bustleback 80’s Seville. I guess that’s because for me it was this very car that put the final nail in the coffin for “American luxury” cars for me.

    Growing up in the 70’s even I as a kid noticed the excessive family resemblance of the premiere Caddy’s to their supposedly less polished GM siblings, I never understood why older folks held them in such high regard.

    When I was about 13 a neighbour down the street bought a new brown 83/84? Seville Elegante and brought it to our house to show it off. Stylewise I thought it had weird proportions with the stubby trunk but it was all the tacked-on crap that just turned me off completely.
    Vinyl top, fake wheel cover on trunk, fake “luggage” straps? All fake and chintzy looking.
    Then the interior which was leather still felt like vinyl and the dash and center stack looked not very different from our 78 Cutlass.

    I couldn’t believe that this represented some pinnacle of luxury? style? class?

    His various reliability problems further tarnished the image.

    From that point on (aside from the STS sedans) I never really looked at Cadillacs with anything but pity until the CTS-V came out, hell I even seriously considered buying one 5 years ago but couldn’t get over the brand’s reputation.

    1. From an aesthetic standpoint, I have to say I find the bustleback quite appalling, although having a better sense of where it came from, design-wise, has reduced the “What the hell were they thinking?” factor. I give Cadillac credit for trying something radical, which is not easy for well-established brands to do, but the fake luggage straps are pretty difficult to rationalize in any sense…

  6. Just found your site and this was the first article I’ve read, what can I say… amazing!

    Well written, articulate, highly researched and thoroughly detailed – bravo!

    I’ve loved cars all my life and a have a grudging fondness for older GM vehicles such as these. Though I must admit I became alienated and disenfranchised with GM since the mid 80’s.

    That said I would like to add a piece of missing info your fine article. You may not have come across this during your research but early, first generation Sevilles were unavailable from the factory without a vinyl roof.

    My first job out of college was working for a Cadillac dealer in Queens, N.Y. in 1976 as a fleet dept. administrator (fancy title, low pay, fun job).

    I worked with the owner’s son scheduling delivery of vehicles to fleet customers. We received numerous requests from some very wealthy clients to order the ’76-’77 Seville with a metal roof. I was requested to contact Cadillac’s N.Y. regional office (I believe it was Tonawanda, N.Y.) for special approval.

    The response I received was titled “confidential” but I suppose I can reveal it now… The factory did not offer it due to cost. I learned it was more expensive to delete the vinyl than to make it available, if that makes sense.

    The reason given indicated the necessity for a greater amount of labor needed to grind, smooth and polish out the weld lines between the roof and “C” pillars.

    In the end, the dealership took it upon themselves and offered it to “select” customers as an in-house customization and collected a tidy profit.

    BTW, this was done for a significant number of “international” customers from the middle east who purchased a dozen cars each month. I had the unique experience of driving at least one or more of these custom Caddys to the docks where the cars where “containerized” and shipped to Saudi Arabia.

    Some of the mods done included repainting the cars to match specific fabric colors (submitted by the customers), custom interiors including rear bucket seats with refrigerators, TVs, telephones, etc.

    Very common “toys” today but very unusual and expensive back then. I remember one Seville with over $20K (above and beyond the cost of the car) of additional dealer installed items and customizations.

    I sometimes wonder if any of those cars survived and where they might be today?

    Anyway, great site and look forward to reading more…

    Best Regards,
    =Hy=

  7. Love your site, BTW.

    The ’80 Seville you’ve got pictured is not an Elegante (it does not have the “french curve” side mouldings and the two-toning does not follow the correct contour) and the chrome trunk straps are aftermarket schmaltz, not factory equipment.

    If you want better pics to use I have an ’84 Elegante that is in mint condition, take a look at my FB page and let me know if you’re interested in that or any other photos. My taste in cars seems to lean heavily towards GM marketplace failures so you might find something useful.

    In defense of the bustleback edition given its price-point at the very top of Cadillac’s line-up coupled with it’s comparatively diminutive size next to its more traditional stablemates that it sold in the numbers that it did can best be attributed to its unique styling.

    Arguably if Cadillac had gone with a less gorpulent three-box design for the second generation it’s hard to say that its sales would have been significantly better as evidenced by the total collapse of sales that the much-maligned third generation experienced. I’d say for the times it was pretty much in sync with what Cadillac buyers wanted, granted not a lot of import-intenders were conquested, but back in the day if you were looking for the ultimate domestically-produced luxury car, the Seville was at the pinnacle in terms of luxury, handling and distinctiveness.

    That the Eldorado was a runaway success does not reflect poorly on the Seville given that they were aimed at the needs of significantly different buyers not to mention the (initially at least) wide differential in pricing between the two models. The Eldorado was simply exactly the right personal luxury coupe for those times; while it was significantly smaller than its predecessor in every dimension it sported a larger, more comfortable interior, contemporary styling, better performance, fuel economy and errr.. handling than the boat it replaced.

    1. Thanks for the correction on the photo; I’ve amended the text.

      [quote]if Cadillac had gone with a less gorpulent three-box design for the second generation it’s hard to say that its sales would have been significantly better as evidenced by the total collapse of sales that the much-maligned third generation experienced.[/quote]

      I generally agree. I’m always leery of historical arguments that boil down to "if they had only done/not done this, things would have been different," because it’s seldom that simple. I think what the Seville does reveal, though, was the emerging schism between Cadillac brand values (a term that makes me cringe a bit, but is fairly appropriate here) and median buyer tastes of that period. As I wrote in the article, I’m not sure how many import buyers the earlier model actually swayed, but if a potential Mercedes or BMW buyer might not have been convinced by a 1976-1979 Seville, they definitely wouldn’t have touched a bustleback with a 10-foot pole.

      Sales-wise, the bustleback was hardly a complete disaster (particularly if we consider that the 1980-1981 model years were affected as much by the economic effects of the Iranian revolution as anything to do with the product), but by the time that model ended, it was becoming very apparent that Cadillac was no longer desirable to most buyers in the way it had been from the fifties through the seventies. I’m not suggesting the Seville caused that, simply that it was a case in point.

      You make a good point about the Eldorado’s price, although I’d want to take a look at the options lists to see how big the gap actually was on an equipment-adjusted basis. As with the earlier generations, I suspect a lot of Eldorados were still sold fully loaded, which may have put them closer to the Seville than the base MSRPs would suggest. I’ll have to check that out.

  8. If Mitchell were still around, he’d probably admire the Phantom, a vehicle that, in my opinion, could have been styled by Tonka or Fisher-Price. It baffles me how the same man was responsible for many of GM’s most beautiful designs — as well as many of its most horrifying.

    1. I think the interesting thing is that the classic designs and the appalling ones are clearly drawn from the same set of influences. He liked the Auburn Speedster (and other early-thirties boattail roadsters), which directly influenced both the Sting Ray and the ’71-’73 Riviera. He loved the Hooper-bodied Rolls-Royces and thirties luxury cars, which influenced both the original Riviera (which looked great) and the second-generation Seville (which, well…). I suppose the moral of the story is “they can’t all be winners.”

  9. I can’t read all the way to the right on this page and the imperial page. Other pages work fine. I am on an Iphone

    1. Okay, I think I’ve managed to fix it. I don’t have an iPhone, I’m not able to confirm it, but I see what I believe was the issue and I think I’ve resolved it. Let me know if you still have any issues with it. (Please note that you may need to clear your iPhone browser cache to see the changes — some browsers like to cling to the previously cached version even if you hit reload.) Sorry for the trouble.

  10. Thank you for a well written article on the Seville. I enjoyed your analysis of consumer mindset. My family had a ’78 Seville which we bought in about 1985. I think the appeal for my father was a tried and true drive train, Olds 350 and TH400 trans, RWD and a classy look. My father painted the car in a maroon color which wasn’t available from the factory.
    We only kept the car for a few years, it was not entirely reliable, and it still handled like a big car. When looking for a replacement we considered some boring cars like 80’s Cutlass Cieras, and the Mazda 929. We settled on a Volvo 740 turbo due to its tried and true drive train, peppy engine and good handling and safety (it’s pretty sad when a Volvo 740 was considered an exciting car!). So maybe its true that Seville buyers were leaning towards European car values. I remember on the test drive of the Volvo the seller referred to the 760 as an old mans car. My father bought the Seville looking for a more sporty Cadillac, but we ended up going European after all.
    I think if it had gotten smaller and more sporty in 1980 they may have gained more buyers. Instead they seemed to run from success and make it more bloated and FWD and ugly to boot(no pun intended).

  11. The ’76 – ’79 Seville is one of my all time favorites. As you point out it introduced the Sheer Look that ended with the ’90 Caprice and remains one of my most appreciated styling themes. I’ve spent decades reading on the first generation Seville and yours is the finest treatise that I’ve ever encountered.

    Thank you and congratulations on receiving the E.P. Ingersoll award. It is the reason why I discovered your site today.

  12. I purchased and still own the 1978 Cadillac Seville I saw rotating in a Southern California showroom window for $12,500, Tara White with the Red Carmine leather interior. It has been a very reliable car for 36 years. Recently, I had to have the engine replaced and it needs a new vinyl top. I don’t know why they ever put a vinyl top on such a beautiful automobile. The most expensive thing I had to do with this vehicle until replacing the engine was to replace the vinyl top four (4) times. The first 15,000 miles the speedometer failed, but the dealer replaced it. I believe the longevity of the car is due to the frequent oil changes (every 3,000 miles). In 2013 the State of California issued a Historical License Plate for this fine American automobile.

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