Curbside Classic: 1980-85 Cadillac Seville – How to Lose Momentum (In More Ways Than One)

cadillac seville diesel

In many ways, the second generation Seville looked good on paper. The continued availability of a diesel engine seemed wise, given the popularity of Mercedes’ oilers and the recent oil crises. An entirely new, modern, front-wheel-drive platform also brought Cadillac into the 1980s, and there were newer, more modern gas engines offered shortly after launch. But even if these engines hadn’t been unreliable, the second-generation still would have failed at what was supposed to be its mission. Blame the bustleback.

1976 Cadillac Seville-07 amp 08

The first-generation Seville was a paradigm shift for General Motors’ luxury brand. Arriving two years before the downsized DeVille/Fleetwood and four years before the smaller Eldorado, the Seville shared showroom space with giant land yachts and yet was priced higher than the entire range (bar the Fleetwood Series 75 limousine). Higher price no longer equated to greater size: the Seville was based on a version of the compact X-Body platform used by the humble Chevrolet Nova. However, it was extensively revised and featured a completely unique interior and crisp, distinctive exterior styling that was GM’s first use of the [soon to be over-used] “Sheer Look”.

1979 cadillac seville

The aim of the game had been to lure in buyers who were moving to the European import brands. Cadillac was still a powerful player in the luxury car market, but GM had acknowledged the growing popularity of cars from BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Unfortunately, what GM found was that the inaugural Seville was failing to lure in import buyers: by some accounts, only 15% of Seville buyers had traded in a foreign luxury car, and buyers were barely younger than those of the DeVille.

Still, the first Seville had shown that an internationally-sized Cadillac would sell if it looked the part. Compromises had been made in its development – using an Oldsmobile V8 engine and the X-Body platform as a base, for example – but the modest success of the Seville had surely shown that the basic concept was there, it just needed further refinements to appeal to import buyers.

bill mitchell

If anybody realized that, it wasn’t communicated up the chain. One of the most crucial missteps in the development of the second Seville was letting Bill Mitchell have his way.

A talented designer, Mitchell had become the head of styling for GM upon Harley Earl’s retirement in 1958. He had been inspired by European automotive design, and was responsible for the gorgeous first-generation Buick Riviera and Cadillac Eldorado.  Although he retired in 1977, one of his last acts was to ensure the second-generation Seville would wear a less desirable styling affectation from some European luxury cars of old: a bustleback.

cadillac seville diesel 4

An homage to old Daimlers and Hooper-bodied Rolls-Royces, the second-generation, Wayne Kady-designed Seville was a jarring neoclassical design in a showroom full of handsome, well-proportioned and modern-looking Cadillacs. Wire wheel covers and vinyl tops, those gaudy additions so popular with Cadillac’s core clientele, served to make Seville 2 even more fussy and tacky to behold. It did have its fans, and in the right colors and from the right angles it could look handsome, but the design was an absolutely baffling choice for Cadillac’s purported import fighter. The kind of people buying BMWs and Benzes – the kind of buyers Cadillac was trying to attract – would scarcely have considered this car.

cadillac seville diesel 5

Underneath styling that harkened back several decades was a platform that looked forward. Seville 2 had moved to the E-Body platform used by the 1979 Cadillac Eldorado, Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Toronado, although it was designated K-Body for the Seville. Front-wheel-drive, four-wheel disc brakes and all-independent suspension with automatic self-levelling were the highlights of the E/K-Body cars. For the first time, the Seville could be optioned with a special touring suspension that offered nicely composed handling, but it wasn’t a popular option.

CadillacSevilleInterior-003

The interior was richly appointed, with plenty of brightwork and great big slabs of woodgrain trim. It was very much a Cadillac interior, much like the first Seville’s cabin had resembled the downsized ’77 DeVille’s. Where the new Seville had improved was in space utilization and packaging, as the cabin was much more spacious. The second-generation car was not only roomier, it was also appreciably lighter with a weight saving of almost 300 pounds despite almost identical exterior dimensions.

cadillac seville diesel 2

The weight reduction would have been more noticeable were it not for the seriously flawed engines offered. The 368-cu. in. fuel-injected Cadillac V8 was a no-cost option for 1980, putting out 145 hp and 270 ft-lbs (Californians Sevilles used the carryover, fuel-injected 350 Oldsmobile V8 with 160 hp and 265 ft-lbs). However, the 368 V8 would disappear after just one year and never be replaced by an engine its equal. The rest of the engine range was comprised of the Oldsmobile 350 diesel – actually the standard engine at first – as well as, from mid-1980, the Buick 4.1 V6 with 125 hp and 205 ft-lbs. The diesel engine (as seen in the featured Seville) had been available in the first generation and had very well-known reliability failings, but stuck around until 1985. Where the 368 was rated at 14 mpg in city driving, the diesel was noticeably more economical with a claimed 21 mpg. However, it was painfully slow: while 0-60 in the 368 was around 10.5 seconds, the diesel barely broke the 20 second mark. Diesel Sevilles also had poorer fuel economy and braking than a Mercedes 300SD, although they were considerably cheaper. Official power and torque output for the oiler was 105 hp and 205 ft-lbs.

cadillac seville diesel 3

For 1981, the Cadillac 368 was replaced by a version of the engine with the V8-6-4 cylinder deactivation technology. Developed by the Eaton Corporation, an electronic module controlled the engine’s fuel injectors and opened and closed the valves on two or four cylinders in part-throttle driving. The aim of the game was improved fuel economy, but the technology simply wasn’t there yet. Embarrassingly, Cadillac retired the V8-6-4 engine after just two years; it lasted only a single year in the Seville, Eldorado and DeVille lineups.

HT-4100

The following engine would be little better in terms of reliability, and noticeably worse in terms of performance. The HT-4100 (or “High Technology”) was similar in concept to the horribly unreliable Chevrolet Vega engine a decade earlier, mating iron cylinder heads to an aluminum block. It was more fuel-efficient than the other gas engines employed in the Seville – a four-speed automatic had also become standard fitment, which helped – but it was utterly mediocre in power output: 125 hp and 190 ft-lbs, almost identical to the Buick 4.1 V6. A whopping 210 pounds lighter than the old 368 V8, the HT-4100 was also down a similarly whopping 70 pound-feet of torque. To add insult to injury, the new engine quickly established a reputation for flakiness, with legions of HT-4100 engines suffering from cracked heads and warped blocks. Unlike the hastily-scrapped V-8-6-4, the HT-4100 stuck around for several years but was eventually improved. The early 1980s was a dark time for GM powertrains as the corporation hurriedly tried to adapt to new fuel economy standards, and weak, unreliable engines like the HT-4100 were a black mark on GM’s reputation. At least the troubled engines of the 1990s (Northstar; 3400 V6) were powerful!

1982 cadillac seville elegante

On the road, the Seville was as plush and floaty as any Cadillac. That was a problem: luxury imports had firmer and more composed ride and handling, while the Seville handled like a DeVille. It seemed a peculiar choice, considering the new, modern platform developed for the car. Sure, there was the optional touring suspension, but it was scarcely advertised and rarely ordered. There was also no visibly sporty trim level à la the Eldorado Touring Coupe, although one wonders how convincing a sport-trimmed bustleback Seville would have been.

cadillac seville elegante 1980

Like other Cadillacs, the Seville was well-equipped with myriad impressive features. Automatic headlights (or “Twilight Sentinel” in Cadillac speak) were standard, and the Seville was also available with memory seats, electronic climate control, side window defoggers, illuminated entry, and cornering lamps. An upscale Elegante trim was also available with plusher interior trim and a range of two-tone exterior color schemes.

1983 cadillac seville cabriolet roof

The first half of the 1980s had proved to be embarrassing misstep after humiliating failure. Three unreliable engines. A half-baked Cimarron. It was a horrid start for the decade, and initially the more expensive Seville’s sales slumped by 25% for 1980. The first year of the 1980s wasn’t a great year for the automotive industry, but for Cadillac the following year was even worse as Seville sales fell another 31%, and then another 35% for 1982. Then something funny happened: sales recovered. No, the Seville hadn’t gotten any better, a four-speed automatic and a handful of new geegaws aside, but for some reason Cadillac buyers didn’t mind. For 1984 and 1985, sales figures sat around the 36k mark, lineball with 1980’s numbers.

1980 cadillac seville interior

Of course, those Cadillac buyers were not the ones the Seville had been originally conceived to attract. The median age of Seville buyers had reached 60, a whopping 25 years older than the median import buyer and the same median age as the DeVille. Cadillac had a demographic crisis on its hands as owners were becoming older, less-educated and less wealthy than ever before. 28% of Seville buyers were retired, almost double the industry average and almost quintuple the average for import buyers. While Cadillac volume had increased during the 1970s, they had targeted more blue-collar buyers with lower incomes, the kind of buyer who would be far more likely to cut back on luxury spending during an economic downturn. Adjusted for inflation, the median income of Cadillac buyers had fallen around 25%. These statistics were troubling. 

1980 cadillac seville

Clearly, Cadillac had made the second Seville just another sedan targeted at the same ageing buyers they had come to rely on. Only the Cimarron was reaching younger buyers, and one can only imagine how Cadillac’s fortunes in the 1980s could have changed if they had invested one iota of effort in differentiating the smallest Caddy from its J-Body counterparts. With the second generation, Cadillac had steered the Seville far, far away from its intended mission. A cushy ride disguised a modern platform. Unreliable engines infuriated buyers. And, the final blow: polarizing looks chased away any would-be import conquests.

1990 cadillac seville (2)

The subsequent Seville shrunk to more international dimensions and ditched the controversial bustleback. Unfortunately, it was once again handicapped by styling. Although Cadillac made a more concerted effort to appeal to import buyers (eventually), the wire wheel and vinyl top brigade within GM’s ranks ensured the third generation’s positioning remained confused.

1983 cadillac seville base

There are some who are fond of the second Seville’s distinctive bustleback styling, and who admire its plush ride and sumptuous interior. As a Seville, though, the second generation was a miscalculation at best and an utter failure at worst. It helped steer the Cadillac division towards irrelevancy and further compounded the marque’s woes during the most disastrous decade of its existence, and one it is still recovering from today. Among the younger generation and particularly in the coastal states, Cadillac is still struggling to shake a reputation for being a manufacturer of “old man cars.” Cadillac could have made assertive moves in the 1980s to appeal to younger, more affluent buyers and helped establish the more cohesive and desirable image then that it is slowly achieving now. Unfortunately, it took baby steps and kneecapped itself with each one. 

1983 cadillac seville elegante 2

The second Seville didn’t advance the game for Cadillac, let alone for luxury cars. It didn’t follow its own mission brief. All in all, it was the most misguided of all six generations of Seville/STS. 

Related Reading:

My Seville/STS Series

1986-1991 (third generation)

1992-1997 (fourth generation)

1998-2004 (fifth generation)

2005-2011 STS