This was the first Curbside Classic, posted ten years ago at the other site. I didn’t really have a clear format yet for CC, or know if it was going to be more than a one-off free-form story. Its commentary is more big-picture economic than a detailed history of this Cadillac. It was written in the depths of the Great Recession, and obviously reflects that, although for all-too many folks, things haven’t really changed for the better.
I failed to identify this properly as a ’72, so the story, which takes place in 1971 is slightly off-kilter with the year of this particular example. I wrote about how and why I started doing Curbside Classics here, five years ago. (Note: prices have been adjusted for 2019)
1971 was a very BIG year for Cadillac, as well as for US workers and me. And in a number of ways, things haven’t been quite the same for any of us since. When this 1971 Coupe DeVille first rolled off the assembly line, it was the biggest ever, a full nineteen feet long and almost seven feet wide. And this generation remains the high-water mark for American cars, in size. The ’71 Caddy was the quintessential land barge; it floated along serenely and optimistically across America on the fresh and un-crowded interstate system, its 7.7-liter V8 slurping a gallon of 39-cent gas every twelve blissfully-isolated miles.
In 1971, right after I turned eighteen, I left home and hitchhiked west, with thirty-five dollars in my pocket. One of my first rides could have been in this very Coupe DeVille. It was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, in the mountainous western part of the state. The driver was a teenage kid, about my age. He and his girlfriend had borrowed Dad’s new Caddy for a trip to visit a relative. Dad worked in the steel mills of Pittsburgh.
It was the scariest ride of my trip; the freshly-minted driver was utterly unable to keep the big boat in its lane on the winding mountainous stretches. In between attacks of anxiety as the Caddy rolled and wallowed, I pondered why his steelworker father drove a brand new DeVille, while my father, a neurologist, drove a stripper 1968 Dodge Dart?
It’s a question that I’ve wrestled with over the years. Once I got over lambasting my father for his cheapness, the bigger picture answer eventually revealed itself; and the current economic crisis (2009) has brought it into greater clarity and focus.
The years 1971 to 1973 also represented a high water economic mark for American workers. Average hourly wages (inflation adjusted) hit an all-time peak. And a lot of things were cheaper (prices inflation-adjusted to 2019): the median new house: $152K; college tuition: $2,265 per year; healthcare: dirt cheap; pensions: rock-solid designated benefit pensions were the norm; and that new big 1971 Caddy? $34K—just about exactly one half the sticker price of a 2020 CT6 sedan.
We’ve covered Cadillac’s demographic downward slide before, but along with the house, college, health care, and the size of new Caddies, 1971-1973 marked the peak year of affordability for the average worker. For a mere 25% premium over a similarly equipped Chevy Caprice, the “Standard of the World” could be sitting in your driveway. And the emergence of four-year auto loans suddenly made that possible with almost the same monthly payment as a Chevy on the traditional three-year loan. That vaunted Cadillac premium was now “almost free,” thanks to the magic of easy credit.
Of course, the “Standard of the World” wasn’t eponymous anymore. Quality was now at a low water mark (bathtub ring?). Plastic extensively replaced metal on the exterior and interior of the ’71. In fact, the Caddy just wasn’t all that special anymore and had become precariously similar to the Caprice. No wonder profit margins on the ’71 Caddies were outsized too. More than ever, the two were alike, and the markup of the Caddy over the Chevy was almost pure profit.
1945 to 1971 marks America’s exceptional period, when income and purchasing power grew relentlessly, and our standard of living (and cars) was the envy of the world. But since 1971-1973, the costs of housing, college, health care, and new Caddies has far outstripped relative wages. America has been hard pressed to keep up the American Dream.
America’s first solution was to get wifey back in the workforce. That helped, for those that were ready, willing and able (and had a wife, or husband). It actually was a very significant factor in stimulating the economy in the second half of the 70s and the 80s. But it only went so far. So our nation’s Best and Brightest came up with the grand solution: cheap and readily available credit. From the creation of junk bonds, deregulation of the S&L’s and huge government deficits in the eighties, to subprime mortgages and 84-month car loans in the aughts, America would borrow and deficit spend its way to continued prosperity. Or not.
Cadillac sales peaked in the seventies. Eventually, downsizing, declining quality and reliability, chintzy styling, and rising costs killed the golden goose. Now, the whole American financial system and automobile industry is about as torn and tattered as the vinyl roof on this once proud Coupe DeVille.
I eventually figured out why my father drove a slant-six Dart. And those particular genes have come to full expression in me. I’m debt-free. My new cars keep getting cheaper. There’s nothing quite like writing a check for the full price of a car to make you appreciate its real cost. And the true cost of credit.