Vintage Review: 1976 C/D Cadillac Seville GT – How To Build A Mercedes-Killer

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As chronicled on the pages of Car and Driver, arguably America’s most irreverent and entertaining car magazine in the late 1970s, a few short years saw the first generation Seville go from being a car that could have easily been transformed into something genuinely world class (C/D showed us how!) into the diesel-powered, drooped-butt throwback machine that could in no way be reconciled with the evolving desires of luxury car buyers. Tragic for GM’s flagship brand, but these period piece articles make for entertaining reading today.

 

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As a car crazy pre-teen and teenager in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of the best sources of information for my passion was the automotive buff books. Compared with today’s prenagers and teenagers, my entertainment choices were a bit more limited. The phones were connected to the wall, and there was only one number for everyone in the house. While I packed in as many episodes of Charlie’s Angels as I could, the programming schedule and choices were dictated by the stations—CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS and one independent (Channel 26 in my native New Orleans), not by me setting a device or scanning NetFlix.

Personal computers were still a novelty, there was no public internet. Playing video games meant traveling to an arcade loaded down with quarters. So information about cars, provided by the car enthusiast press, became a centerpiece of my free time. While the Malaise Era was a tough time for any car enthusiast, the automotive press made the best of a bad situation, with clever writing and coverage of cars designed to keep the enthusiast flames burning. In 1976, I was given a subscriptions to Car and Driver as well as Motor Trend. It was one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten. I eagerly awaited the arrival of the mail when I knew the next month’s issues were being released. I devoured each issue from cover to cover.  I adored the wise and witty points of view offered by some fantastic writers such as David E. Davis, Brock Yates, P.J. O’Rourke and Jean Lindamood.

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Though I am far from being a hoarder, I kept every issue of my car magazines.   My passion for collecting had been ignited. Whenever I went to the K&B drugstore, I’d look for any auto related titles on their magazine rack. In the summer, I’d keep an eye out for the New Car Preview Guides, and then in the Fall I’d watch for Auto Guide and Auto Test from the folks at Consumer Guide (not to be confused with the more strident Consumer Reports).  Given that I was a huge David E. Davis fan, I obviously had to be a charter subscriber when he launched his own magazine, Automobile. My stash continued to grow, and I just kept adding boxes to keep everything.

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As I got older, and was lucky enough to find a wonderful spouse whose virtues include being supportive of my car craziness, I decided to augment my collection. Thanks to Hemmings, I was able to locate a collection of Motor Trend magazines starting with their inaugural issue in 1949. Similarly, I found Car and Driver issues dating back to when they first changed over from Sports Cars Illustrated in 1961. A lucky encounter in a used bookstore introduced me to Road Test, a much more obscure auto magazine from Southern California that accepted no advertising initially, thereby ensuring editorial independence.

While I still subscribe to the print editions of all the buff books, I must admit I most enjoy what I consider to be the golden era of automotive journalism from days gone by. I love pulling out and rereading old issues. They are a wonderful lens into both the automotive landscape as well as the culture of the times.

Curbside Classic has become my new outlet for my automotive passion, and it is so enjoyable to be part of a community of like-minded enthusiasts. With encouragement from Paul and inspiration from YOHAI71 who just started posting from his Road & Track collection, I figured I’d jump into the fray and share some excerpts from my collection as well. I’m guessing that if there were ever an audience who would enjoy these automotive blasts from the past, they’d be on this site!

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So to kick off, I’m taking a cue from Calibrick, who noted that he’d love to see the August 1977 Car and Driver article on the “Super Seville.” That was the 1976 Cadillac Seville that Car and Driver modified to create a more credible Mercedes-Benz challenger.  While the buff books were well aware of the Seville’s humble X-body origins, and they decried the fact that it was simply more of a small traditional Cadillac rather than a truly new kind of Cadillac, they were still intrigued enough to want to play around with the car and see what was possible. It was an exciting beginning, and a way to showcase how close Cadillac was to redefining American luxury cars.  It makes for a great read, and really gets you thinking about what might have been if Cadillac had dared to take a different path in the late 1970s/early 1980s.

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It is interesting to note that the subject vehicle belonged to a presumably young(ish) male executive in Southern California, proof that not all Sevilles were bought by dowagers wanting a Cadillac that was easier to park.

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The structural reinforcements required to provide the X-body with a more upmarket feel for its transformation to a K-body made for a pretty heavy car (light only in comparison to the dreadnought weights of Cadillac’s biggies). So Car and Driver focusing a lot on lightening the car and slightly improving the front/rear weight balance from 55/45 to 54/46. Cadillac’s engineers surely were sharpening their pencils and taking notes.

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These engineers actually had so much of what they needed to make a more world class Seville right at their fingertips courtesy of the vast GM parts bin. Simply deploying different weighting for the small steel torsion bar within the Saginaw power-steering gear could have made a tremendous difference. The Pontiac Trans Am, noted for its excellent steering feel, provided the perfect part that could fit right in, and fly below any bean counter’s radar.

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The total cost of the modifications was $3,250 ($12,781 adjusted), bringing the total price of the car up to $16,069. ($63,193 adjusted) That price was not too much higher the Mercedes-Benz 280 SE 4.5 that inspired the modifications and would have cost $10,076 ($57,447 adjusted) in 1972 (the last year that model was available).  Plus the Super Seville was far less than the car which replaced the 280SE 4.5 in the Mercedes-Benz line-up: the 1976 450SE set buyers back $18,333 ($76,785 adjusted). So, with some smart massaging and a fairly reasonable investment, the Seville was transformed into a car that could hold its own while canyon carving with what was arguably the world’s best sedan at that time. The future for Cadillac’s baby suddenly looked pretty interesting!

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Cadillac did in fact offer a special edition of the Seville starting in 1978. That car was the Seville Elegante, and it kinda-sorta adopted a few elements from the Super Seville. For starters, genuine wire wheels, the ne plus ultra of 70s style that were prominently featured on the Super Seville, were standard Elegante fare. Inside, buckets seats (sadly a far cry from anything Recaro-based) and perforated leather were standard, along with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a center console between the front seats. Striking two-tone paint with no vinyl top rounded out the package. Pricing was at super premium levels, with the package adding a whopping $2,600 ($9,503) to the $14,267 ($52,148 adjusted) price of the base Seville.

Even though the Elegante was purely a cosmetic package, it still demonstrated that there was a market for a special, more expensive Seville. According to the Standard Catalog of Cadillac, around 5,000 Elegantes were sold, representing 9% of the 56,985 1978 Sevilles produced.  Not bad for a very pricey specialized option package, and indicative that there was likely a good market for more Super Sevilles.

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Hopes were running high then for the redesigned Seville due for 1980. The Elegante in 1978 had only scratched the superficial surface of what was possible. GM was the master of downsizing, with outstanding results on their full-size cars, very good results on the smaller mid-size models. The dramatic new X-cars were a smash hit right out of the gate. With that kind of action at the world’s largest carmaker, the future looked bright for how well the next Seville would turn out. Surely Cadillac had taken notes and feedback from both Cadillac owners and import buyers. They had worked with Car and Driver on the Super Seville and gotten some great input on making a great new-generation luxury car that could handle the road as well as it cosseted its passengers.

Undoubtedly, the new Seville would be lighter and more nimble, with modern space efficient packaging and clean international styling, offering even better ride and handling characteristics while coddling all occupants in a tastefully tailored and very luxurious interior. A true world-beater from America’s preeminent luxury car brand, right?  Unfortunately, the sneak previews were alarming.  Maybe the strange renderings and lumpy prototypes were a huge ruse designed to make competitors complacent…

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When the annual new car issues for October 1979 arrived, Car and Driver’s Larry Griffin was as kind as he could reasonably be in his first review of the 1980 Seville. Reading between the lines, the write-up was about as lukewarm a response as you could give in a long-lead puff piece covering the new product from a major advertiser. And as usual for that time period, Car and Driver was pitch perfect in their assessment.  While 1980 model year marked the beginning of a phenomenally disastrous decade for Cadillac, it ushered in the start of yet another outstanding year for the writers and editors of Car and Driver.  Their wit and wisdom intact, they quickly moved on from covering Cadillac’s baroque bomb and focused on the next wave of cars they knew would be interesting to enthusiasts of all ages.