Mi Curbside Classico: 1991 Cadillac DeVille – Bought New For 154 Million Pesos

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In 1991 México reopened their border to new cars built in the United States and Canada, which meant that beginning that year, Mexican citizens were once again able to buy the very much-missed luxury cars of such grand makes as Cadillac, Lincoln and Imperial–as well as certain other Big Three models previously not sold here because they were either too new or competitors to models already offered here. Of course, they didn’t exactly come cheap.

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During their absence from the market, something of an automotive cold war existed between the Government and the public: The Government had set up a protectionist policy intended to enhance and improve the domestic auto market.  The measure was seen by these “patriots” as something good, because it (presumably) would, at long last, encourage  production of a 100% Mexican-made car. On the other hand, people with enough money to buy cars north of the border tried feverishly to reverse this situation; in many cases, they eagerly paid high taxes (of up to 200% of the car’s value at the level of a Rolls-Royce, high-end Mercedes or Ferrari) to drive the cars they yearned for. And slowly but steadily started a procession of U.S-bought used cars into México.

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To stop this situation, the Government created the Registro Federal de Vehículos (RFV), an office pertaining to the Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público (comparable to the IRS in the U.S.). Its main purpose was to keep an eye on all the cars that were rolling into the country. At entry points 25 kilómeters south of the U.S./Mexican border, this office operated next to the Aduana (Customs) to review the car’s paperwork. If the RFV officials smelled something foul, or thought the driver acted suspiciously, the car was impounded and permanently irretrievable from the pound. It was a highly punished federal crime, and in the ’60s, ’70s, and part of the ’80s the policy was ruthlessly applied, resulting in high fines and even prison for offenders. In some cases, it was only through the very well-known “mordida” (bribe) that you were able to proceed into México with your “auto chueco” (illegal car)–at least until you and it were captured, which could be in any city within the country.

At this point, your car would be impounded again, and forever. It was sold later at a public auction–actually, several years later, during which time it had suffered through a long, weather-beaten agony at the impound yard. These cars were never sold to be driven; on the contrary, their exit was granted subject to the understanding that they would be recycled for use by steel industries and the like. Even so, after the miraculous bribe cast its spell, the officials in charge tended to look the other way. With enough dough, you could get a “driveable” title and not a salvage or reconditioned one.

So the bribe opened the border, and an avalanche of used U.S. and Canadian cars overwhelmed México. The steadily worsening situation finally came to a head in 1990, when the Mexican government tried to mollify the Mexican auto industry, which regarded the influx of these vehicles as a threat grave enough to send the domestic industry into oblivion.

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In 1991 finally came a decree reopening the border; as cited above, it put fresh wind into the sails of an already viciously competitive auto market, but only when it came to new cars: No “pre-owned” or used vehicles were to be imported (there was another decree for used cars, which is another story).

The (new-car) decree worked very well for many people in the country, including my mother, who again decided to buy a car with cachet and a prestigious name. After looking at the prices of Cadillacs, Lincolns and Imperials (the first cars allowed in after being purchased from U.S. dealers), she decided that the Cadillac was the car for her, always bearing in mind that a ’55 Coupé deVille was one of the first vehicles she had, and that our family had always been faithful to GM cars of the ’50s and ’60s. (Remember the ’65 Olds?)

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In that time, only one of the three Chevrolet dealers in Chihuahua was the authorized importer for Cadillacs (as well as Centurys and Cutlasses), which were sold under the bow-tie emblem in México, until 2005, when the fine marque established its own image with a new franchise. (Lincoln, Imperial, Ford and Chrysler dealerships would do likewise.)

I have no recollection of the 1991 peso-dollar rate (about 3,000 to the dollar – Ed.), but I vividly remember that the price of the Cadillac was the astonishing amount of 154 million pesos! (or $51,333 USD; in the U.S. a contemporary deVille sedan listed at $30,445 – Ed.) It’s hard to remember how high inflation was then! For the record, the Lincoln was a 150-million peso affair, and the Imperial an even lower 147-million.

After seeing the offerings at the showroom, signing the paperwork and waiting almost four weeks for the car to be delivered, it arrived home–but what arrived was completely different than what we expected. It was a Phaeton edition fitted out by some U.S. dealership, so we were told, and there would be no more questions about it. The roof had disappeared under a padded canvas cover that vaguely resembled a convertible top; the moldings, Vs and crests changed from chrome to gold-tone, and there were rear-fender skirts that made it look as old as the ’55 that had been our family’s car for almost two decades.

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As expected, the car came with all the standard equipment found on 1991 Cadillacs, but certain amenities were not included with cars to be sold in México due to prevailing customs regulations. For example, the keyless entry system, illuminated entry system, Astro-roof with express-open, the garage door opener and the CCDR system were left out because the extra equipment would skyrocket the price under the high import taxes being assessed by the Mexican government. Also, Fleetwoods and Fleetwood Broughams were out of the question for the Mexican market–another Customs “idea.” In any case, the car we got still had many other qualities and options that provided the comfortable and easy ride expected from a Cadillac.

Currently, the car has traveled only a little more than 95,549 kilómeters (60,000 miles). It spends most of the time parked beneath a tin roof covering an open-patio area of the house. Some of its roof stitches are missing, but that doesn’t blemish the overall appearance of the car. The only missing part is the left C-pillar crest–it was blown away in the washing tunnel some years ago, and I haven’t been able to find another one.

Unlike other Cadillacs of its vintage still running around Chihuahua, this Sedan deVille attracts lots of attention from other drivers. Each liter of gas yields 6.4 kilometers p/L in city driving (15 mpg), while on the highway the figure is almost 15 kilometers p/L (34.6 mpg)–even using the Cruise Control, that’s a surprisingly high figure for a car of this size, weight and age. The soft ride and absence of interior noise often make me think I’m driving a Rolls or a Bentley, although I’ve never even seen either one in person!

Again and again I find myself flattered by the questions from passersby, which I sense express their inner yearning to possess one of these wonderful (to me) works of art. Once I checked at the local motor vehicle department and their officials told me that registrations for its three-model-year run (1991-1993) total scarcely 60 units! So, if I were to follow U.S. guidelines for collectible vehicles, it would be a collector’s car, no doubt.

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But life can’t go well forever. One thing that made me think seriously about getting rid of the car four years ago was the violent situation in Chihuahua at the time. I was stopped at an intersection, waiting for the green light, when a car approached from the right side. The driver asked how much I wanted for the Cadillac. I said it wasn’t for sale, but he wouldn’t give up. The green light came on and I started on my way, but four or five blocks ahead he stopped next to me once again, asking the same question and getting the same answer. From that moment on he followed me insistently, until I finally hailed a police car and asked for help. To this day, I don’t know what the intentions of that man were, but I didn’t want to take the risk of facing a .9 millimeter gun placed between eyebrow and ear! Later that day, I was told by the authorities to either get rid of the car or put it in storage until things calmed down. I really felt like prey for poachers, and the feeling was awful–but not anymore, since the city is no longer as violent as it was before.

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On one day, two years ago, a man was waiting for me outside the office. He said he’d been waiting for two hours to see whose car it was, because he wanted himself and his bride to be driven off to church in it. He convinced me to do this service for him and his future wife, and after thinking over it for several days I did it gladly. He told me that it would be very nice to start their new life aboard a Cadillac, since he was sure his last trip would be in another Cadillac!

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Since then, I’ve provided such a service to many other couples, two or three times per month, on every other weekend. This car knows how to earn its gas!

To a previous point: On January 1, 1993, the peso was re-evaluated, after which its value lost three zeros–dropping the possible resale value of the car down to 120,000 pesos from the usual 120-million range. On paper, that’s a huge difference, and why cars in this price range were seen as bad investments in their day–and probably why after their first two years here, sales of these luxury cars tapered off.

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