Curbside Classic: Cimarron by Cadillac – GM’s Deadly Sin #10 by Cadillac

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(first posted in 2010 at TTAC; 6/6/2014 at CC)    What exactly is it that magnetically stops us in our tracks to look at a junky old car sitting at the curb and ponder it? Yes, it might unleash a treasured or long-forgotten memory of our youth. Or it might dredge up experiences we’d just as soon forget. But for most of us, there are only so many cars that afforded us memories of happily spilling our bodily fluids within or that spewed its hot fluids in our faces.

In the bigger picture, since old cars aren’t exactly fossils or butterflies, they tell the highly variable story of the humans that created them: that rare spark of true brilliance, or the flights of imagination, for better or for worse. But all too often, it’s really schadenfreude. Yes, there are few things guaranteed to make one feel better about one’s own foolish mistakes and shortcomings than to chortle at someone else’s.  And today, I’m going to need a really big helping of schadenfreude if it’s going to keep me from slipping into empathy for this car. Because the truth be told, we’ve all built our own personal Cimarrons. Or at least come mighty close to it.

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When I last left you all, it was with the brilliant idea to rescue a half-fallen down, rotting wreck of a gutted old house with my younger son, for him (and his friends) to live in. I saw the project through the eyes of a strong young man; more correctly my own youthful eyes. I imagined myself forty years ago, as eager to learn about old houses as I was about old cars. Just one minor problem: my son isn’t me, forty years ago, or ever.

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Yes, he initially got excited about the idea of the project; or should I say, he liked the idea of the end result of it. But he has none of the enthusiasm and aptitude about actually doing what it takes to make something like this happen. And I really can’t blame him for that. He’s as strong-willed as I was then; if my father had tried to get me involved in Greek history or electroencephalography (or anything he might suggested, for that matter) when I was eighteen, the outcome would have been inevitably the same. But that’s only part of the story.

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We did spend one day tearing off a hundred years’ worth of accumulated roofing on one side of the house (someone/something else tore off most of the fake cabrio roof on this Cimarron), along with a couple of his friends. To set an example (and the pace), I worked hard and fast, and royally tweaked my back. It took a solid month to (sort of) for it get back to its increasingly semi-permanent state of precariousness. Did that stop me? Did Cadillac pull the plug on the Cimarron after the howls of protest when it foisted a slightly tarted-up Cavalier on an unsuspecting public at over twice the price of a similarly equipped Chevy donor-mobile?

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No; I spent weeks nursing my back at the work table, putting my imagination into endless drawings for how the house would be raised and moved forty feet onto a whole new lower level, creating a three-thousand square-foot three-story monster, and engrossed myself in fleshing out all the details while losing sight of the bigger picture. The epiphany came just after I dropped off the plans at the engineer’s: this house was going to cost way too much, and I was starting out with a sagging old box of two by fours, and my son’s fleeting interest had long evaporated by then. It was one thing to build it in my mind, but when it came time to actually tally up the cost, buy the permits, hire the workers and start writing all the checks, I relearned the painful lesson that GM eventually tumbled to: trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear can be deadly.

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I should have known too, since I actually test drove one of the first Cimarrons in LA. This was at the TV station I was managing at the time, and we were blessed/cursed with an engineer who was the ultimate GM fanboy. He had been buying GM cars for the organization that owned the station for years, and we were an official fleet buyer. He always custom ordered the cars, and was an expert at putting together the best components and options GM’s very long RPO book offered. He proudly told me about the ’74 Malibu wagons he bought for one of our affiliate organizations, tricked out with 454s and all the best handling, braking and every other conceivable HD or police-duty goody. The fact that the super-Malibus spent their time running errands for a printing press in a little town in upstate New York was irrelevant. He knew that GM could build the finest cars in the world, if you just knew how to order them properly.

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My company car at the time was one of a fleet of four 1980 X-Body Buick Skylarks he had specially ordered, with the V6, HD suspension, and extra wide wheels and tires. We’ll cover the Xs in another CC. But let’s just say it actually wasn’t too bad a ride for the times, especially since I had my pick of them; naturally I chose the best running one (there was lots more production variation then than now).  The gutsy little 2.8 V6 pulled pretty hard considering that it had only some 2,400 lbs to pull. It would outrun a BMW 320i, at least on straight or smooth roads. I’m digressing way too much, but it’s all part of the story, somehow (full story here).

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The two of us spent way too much work time talking cars, and we had been reading the usual build-up in the buff books about the Cimarron. I was pretty dubious from the description, but he was a sucker for every new GM car, and would be for quite a few more yet. I wonder when or what finally burned him. Anyway, he came back all excited one day from lunch, having driven the first Cimarron at the local West LA dealer. He raved about the interior, the BMW-beating handling, and how that little 1.8 liter mill “just revved and revved”. Hard to believe;  but the station was doing pretty well, and I was starting to think about a new company car for myself. Since it was a slow afternoon, I slipped out for a test drive.

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Well, that was my final GM epiphany, and my personal GM Death Watch started right there and then. I had been a confirmed GM man as a boy, but the cracks first appeared in 1970, with the “upsized” ’71 barges that came out that fall. The fact that they appeared a few months after the first Earth Day may have had something to do with it. I just couldn’t see where this trend line was going…and then of course, there was the Vega and its horrible offshoots.

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But I still had some residual respect for the engineering and styling prowess that GM could muster in the seventies, especially in those moments when it all came together just right. I could even still fake some of the old-time GM religion with the X-Bodies, especially since they were still new, and because the Skylarks we had with the HD brakes and big tires didn’t lock up their rear wheels quite as bad as most of them. I already had some nagging doubts when the Cavalier’s new four came with pushrods instead of an OHC. Hello GM! It is 1980, and Hondas purr like sewing machines! But I actually hadn’t driven a Cavalier.

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And now I was sliding into a $13,000 ($31k adjusted) Cavalier. Yes, the seats were trimmed in leather, but the dash and everything about the car screamed Cavalier! Nothing more so than the engine: the little 1.8 liter four was utterly unchanged for its appearance in Cadillac’s first attempt to take on the successful BMW 3 Series. It had all of 88 hp, and it moaned and groaned like a dying dog, as it pushed futilely against the three-speed slush box. It made my $6k Skylark V6 with 110 hp feel like a Jaguar XJ V12 in comparison.

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Yes, as if there was ever any doubt, GM truly jumped the shark with the Cimarron, and it led the way for what was GM’s most disastrous decade ever, the eighties. Only GM could have such utterly outsized hubris to think it could get away with dressing up a Cavalier and pawning it off as a BMW-fighter, without even touching the engine, among other sins. Never mind that the 318i had all of 98 hp itself. But at least it didn’t sound like a kitchen mixer trying to make muesli out of nuts and bolts.

Needless to say, my next company car was not the Cimarron. Or any GM product. And I stopped taking this engineer seriously right then and there, and our afternoon GM chats came to an end. He did go on to “sell” anyone he could on the Pontiac 6000 STE a couple of years later, which redeemed him somewhat.

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Now this particularly colorful Cimarron is one of the later versions, maybe an ’87 or the final year ’88. By then, it had been upgraded with the 2.8 V6 itself, and a new electronic dash to distinguish itself from the lowly Cavalier. But it was all to no avail: the Cimarron was a dud, from the get-go. GM managed to fool some 25k buyers the first year, but sales steadily drooped thereafter. The damage it did to the Cadillac brand was incalculable. But the Cimarron was just one of many wounds of the  ritual suicide Cadillac was putting itself through during those dark days.

Wasting a month drawing dead-end plans for my overpriced Cimarron house and having to re-learn that kids have to find their own passions isn’t the only thing I’ve spent my summer on so far. I’ve had rentals to re-rent, maintenance projects on houses and cars (my ’66 Ford pickup has self-canceling turn signals after 23 years!), numerous hiking trips, trips in the old Dodge camper, kayaking, harvesting a bounteous crop of berries, etc… Then I tweaked my back again (slightly) yesterday, and was very frustrated last night given all the physical work projects I had planned for today. But I woke today realizing two important facts: Despite my innate resistance to it (a combination of cheapness and denial), I can/must/will hire others to do what my inevitably aging body can’t; and I can still sit down and write, especially on a foggy morning.

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The sun will be back tomorrow, and there’s still a lot of fun and (hired) outdoor work to squeeze into the now dying days of summer. Meanwhile, today’s cool fog is a reminder that fall is not far off, and that writing doesn’t need a strong back. Yes, GM made a colossal blunder with the Cimarron, and a somewhat lesser one with the Catera.  And some part of me knew going into my Cimarron house project that I hadn’t really fleshed out all the angles.

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Hey, but at least I pulled the plug and didn’t go bankrupt! A big bowl of GM Schadenfreude is so delicious, especially with home-grown blueberries and strawberries. Yumm! I’ll have to come back for another helping.