Automotive Alter-History: 1965 Cadillac Seville – The Car That Beat Back Mercedes and Became A Global Best-Seller

seville 4 door 1200 doctored (image by Barry Koch)

(first posted 12/10/2014)    In the annals of automotive history, there are few cars that played such a pivotal role as the 1965 Cadillac Seville. It is the first in that long line of Sevilles that powered the Cadillac brand to global domination of the premium market to this day. It presciently anticipated the growing influx of Mercedes in the early sixties and countered it with a formula so successful it was even embraced enthusiastically by the Germans themselves. It brilliantly synthesized the very best of American and European qualities into a new global standard, one that gave new meaning to Cadillac’s boast of being “The Standard of the World”.

Mercedes 1960 220S W111

And how did this unlikely event come about? In 1962, John DeLorean, Director of Engineering at Pontiac, wrote a memo titled The Growing Threat From Untertürkheim, which was circulated on the 14th floor, but made little impact since  most of the  GM execs had no idea what or where Untertürkheim was. Fortunately, one exec took it upon himself to add “Mercedes Headquarters” to the title, and redistributed it.

The memo predicted that influential upper-income Americans primarily in large coastal cities were on the cusp of embracing the Mercedes as their preferred premium brand, and that Cadillac was highly vulnerable to defection by this influential demographic. What led to this?

Chevrolet 1959 crop-vert

There were a number of converging reasons, but one of the biggest had to do with the decline in Cadillac’s uniqueness and prestige. This had been in the works for some time, but in 1959, when the Cadillac and Chevrolet actually shared the same body, the trend accelerated. In the 1950s, at least the larger C-Body was still unique from the smaller B-Body. From 1959 on, that would not be so, as the C-Body was just a stretched B-Body. Cadillac’s exclusivity was compromised.

Cadillac 1961 short deck

Another issue was size. Whereas size (more of it) once conveyed prestige, that paradigm was crumbling, thanks to the Cadillac’s continual growth in the 1950s, and the rising interest in smaller luxury imports. Women in particularly complained about the excessive size. Cadillac responded rather feebly to this with the 1961-1964 “short deck” sedans, with a shortened trunk to slightly improve parking and maneuverability in cities.

Cadillac 1963 Park Avenue

The brochure rendering doesn’t bring the point home properly, as does this actual 1963 Park Avenue. It looks…truncated, and unbalanced. And these short deck Cadillacs sold poorly. This was not a proper solution.

Pontiac 1961 Tempest cutaway

DeLorean was a firm believer in the potential of smaller cars with American-style performance and Euro-style handling and braking. His 1961 Tempest with rear transaxle and independent rear suspension was an ambitious if somewhat underdeveloped effort to build such a car. The 1963 version even sported a 326 CID V8, making a potent package that inspired DeLorean’s next act.

DeLorean gto

Bunkie Knudsen, Pontiac’s GM, had hired DeLorean from Packard in 1956, and was his mentor. When Knudsen was promoted to GM President in 1962, DeLorean now had an angel on the 14th floor. DeLorean’s proposal to build the 1964 GTO was enthusiastically supported, although DeLorean had moved to Cadillac before it was actually built. But this success was a huge boost to both of their careers.

Knudsen was the one who had made sure DeLorean’s The Growing Threat From Untertürkheim memo was seen by all on the 14th floor, and took up its cause with fervor. He had promoted DeLorean to Cadillac with the specific task to research and act upon the premise, rather than spending his time developing an even bigger new Cadillac for 1965.

Opel Admiral A (1)

DeLorean was vaguely aware of Opel’s development plans for a new family of mid-upper tier sedans, the Kapitän, Admiral and Diplomat. But when he flew to Russelsheim in the fall of 1962, he was pleasantly surprised to see what the Opel designers and engineers were cooking up for a spring 1964 launch.

These were all-new cars, with a rigid unibody structure and a 112″ wheelbase. That alone caught DeLorean’s attention, as the 1961-1963 Tempest/LeMans sat on a 112″ wheelbase too, a size he favored. This, combined with an overall length of 194″, put the K-A-D car just a nick below GM’s new 1964 intermediate cars, with their 115″ wheelbase and 203″ length ( in case of the Tempest).

Cadillac 1965 sedan snip-vert 3

DeLorean had already given serious consideration to the notion of using the new A-Body as the basis of the new small Cadillac. The Chevelle body (center) in particular shared a certain familial resemblance to the softer, less edgy styling  Cadilac would wear in 1965. The Opel also shared many styling elements with the Chevelle, and had some compelling advantages to the Chevelle for the basis of a world-class premium car.

DeLorean was very impressed with the structural rigidity, tight gaps and overall quality of the unibody Opel body, all of which were a substantial notch above anything being built in the US by GM. The Germans (and other Europeans) had long understood the importance of a rigid body structure, which allowed the suspension system to work to its best advantage. This explains why many European companies like Mercedes adopted four wheel independent suspensions as far back as in the 1930s. It afforded a reasonably soft ride but excellent compliance, as well as good control if high-quality shock absorbers were part of the equation.

Another compelling aspect was that the Opels were being engineered to take a Chevrolet V8, to be optional on the mid-line Admiral and standard on the top-tier Diplomat. This would save a huge amount of re-engineering. In fact, quite little would be necessary to make the Opel suitable for US sale, except for fitting proper integrated air conditioning, electric seats and power windows, and a few other amenities. But those were all readily available from the domestic A-Body cars.

Opel Diplomat A sedan

There was only one misgiving: the roof line and C-Pillar on the Opel sedans was very prosaic, with a decided Chevy II look to them. Even with a vinyl roof, it just didn’t convey the look that DeLorean had in mind.

Opel Diplomat A coupe bw snip-vert

When he shared his thoughts on that, the Opel designers showed him their drawings for a coupe version of the Diplomat, that was scheduled to go into production some nine months after the sedan. It looked remarkably like the ’63 Grand Prix he had championed just a year earlier, which was just going into production at that very time. Aha! That’s exactly what he was looking for, not just for a coupe version of the new small Caddy, but also as the basis for the sedan.

seville 2 door 1200 doctored(image by Barry Koch)

It suddenly all congealed, and DeLorean could practically see the coupe version in his mind’s eye. And he knew now this was it, as well as all the specs for the rest of the transformation, thanks to the best and latest goodies from the Detroit mothership: the fully-independent rear suspension from the Corvette and its brand new four-wheel disc brake system. The superb new THM-400 three-speed automatic that Cadillac had just begun using in 1964. Beefy Michelin steel-belted radial tires. And under the hood?

Chevrolet 1964 327 FI

DeLorean wanted to see fuel injection under the hood, as used on Chevy’s brilliant 327 (5.4 L) V8. That would be a point of contention.

DeLorean Pontiac studio

DeLorean wrote up the proposal for a new small Cadillac on the plane home. Knudsen loved it, and despite pushback from Chairman Donner and other execs who couldn’t fathom the need for a smaller Cadillac, never mind one with an Opel as its basis. But Pontiac’s overwhelming success during these years gave Knudsen the edge, and the new small Cadillac was quickly approved and funded by the Board, with a production target of April 1964, as an early 1965 MY car.

DeLorean put together a crack team of designers and engineers, and the project was given a name: Seville. It would be priced above the bigger DeVille, as it was not going to be sold by the pound or inch. The Seville was going head-to-head with Mercedes and Jaguar, and it needed to be fully competitive.

Opel Diplomat V8 Coup-729x486-624e8fb419bbecce

The Opel’s interior was of very high quality, but the dash looked like a Chevelle’s, even with the wood. That wouldn’t do. But the solution was readily at hand.

Pontiac 1965 GTO dash b

DeLorean had the 1964 GTO’s excellent dash adapted, with higher quality components and genuine wood veneer. The four large gauges had full instrumentation. A real wood steering wheel was standard, as well as high-quality leather upholstery.

Opel Diplomat-V8 Coupe-004

The perforated leather specced for the Diplomat and Seville was every bit as good as the optional Mercedes leather, and the front seats were carefully contoured for maximum support and comfort. Everything was coming together with the best that GM had to offer on both sides of the Atlantic.

64 seville straight with badge email copy(image by Barry Koch)

The biggest challenge lay behind the Seville’s hidden headlights.The easy and obvious solution was to drop in the Chevy 327 V8, in whatever state of tune was most appropriate for the job. But DeLorean worried about how that might be perceived. Yes, the Chevy V8 had an excellent rep for performance and efficiency, but was its lowly provenance going to be a deterrent?

Olds 1964 330 v8

There was an alternative: Olds had a brand new engine arriving in 1964, the first of its generation2 V8s, with 330 cubic inches (5.4 Liters) and built with a high nickel content block. And it made plenty of power; as installed in the 1965 Cutlass, it was rated at 315 (gross) hp.

For the Seville, the Olds V8 was assembled on a special line with all-premium components, including a forged crankshaft. This engine was designed to be “autobahn safe”, standing up to high-speed full-throttle runs for extended periods.

Rochester FI

The fight over standard fuel injection (or not) made the 14th floor a place to avoid for some weeks. In order to supply the quantities needed, Rochester would have to tool up, and the unit was pricy to start with. But with increased production volumes as well as some efficiencies achieved through a thorough refinement actually decreased unit costs by 43%, and ended up paving the way for GM to step up development of a new generation of advanced and cost-effective fuel injection systems to be widely adopted over the coming years, thereby vaulting it to the world leader in FI production, efficiency and technology.

As installed, the Seville V8 was rated at 320 hp gross hp (255 net hp). There was considerable discussion about a higher performance version, but that was wisely tabled. There was to be only one Seville, with all of its dynamic qualities carefully tuned to satisfy both someone moving from a traditional Cadillac as well as the most discriminating European car buyer.

opel diplomat v8-coup-04

More effort went into refining and tuning the Seville’s suspension than any other GM car ever to date. Seville mules, trimmed externally like the Opel Diplomat, were subjected to extensive testing over the most grueling conditions. Koni developed special shock absorbers that allowed a surprisingly supple suspension, yet with no loss of confidence or control at triple digit speeds and rough roads. With its fully double-jointed independent rear suspension, the Seville exceeded the Mercedes’ low-pivot swing axles in every parameter. The Corvette four wheel discs also surpassed them. And its performance with 320 hp was well above the Mercedes sixes; the Seville had a phenomenal top speed of 142 mph (230 km/h), and one it could sustain for extended runs. Mercedes soon started early development on a new family of V8 engines.

CC 18 082 1200

The Seville was priced aggressively: $8,000, fully equipped ($58k adjusted); about 30% more than a base deVille, but closer to 10-15% more than a comparably equipped one. And that was right in S-Class territory when the new W108 cars arrived for 1966, also comparably equipped.

seville 4 door 1200 doctored

Well, we all know how that turned out. The Seville’s vastly superior performance, better handling and ride, and fully comparable quality made it the second smash hit of April 1964, along with the new Ford Mustang. Of course it didn’t sell in anywhere near the numbers, but Americans embraced the Seville as the car that they most aspired to trade in their Mustang in a few years down the road.

How many actually did is another story, and largely irrelevant. What was more significant is that the influential elite suddenly had a car that they could embrace with their disposable dollars, and one that reflected their desire for a more compact but exclusive luxury car, and one that could leave the Mercedes in the dust. And as is usually the case, what the early adopters drove soon became the most desired and best selling luxury car.

The success of the Seville vaulted DeLorean’s power at GM, and set off a palace coup that cleansed the 14th floor of the beancounters like Chairman Donner. By 1969, DeLorean was President of GM, and the rest is of course well-known history.

Cadillac elmiraj 4 door

Poor Mercedes managed to eke out a niche in the US, but the Seville has been the best selling premium car in the land for fifty years, as well as enjoying very healthy sales in Europe, never mind its dominance in China and other Asian countries. The world’s most successful luxury sedan and coupe, thanks to the prescience of a couple of car guys who had vision and guts.

Special thanks to Barry Koch aka “Barko” for realizing the 1965 Seville.

Related reading:

1975 – 1979 Cadillac Seville: GM’s Deadly Sin #11 – The Sin Of Underachieving