Vintage Reviews And Commentary: 1989 Cadillac Sedan DeVille – Be Careful What You Wish For

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My Pop was born in 1927, and like most everyone here at CC, he was a huge car enthusiast from a very early age.  He loved to talk about new cars and share remembrances of his favorite old cars, whether he owned them, rode in them or lusted after them.  Of all the cars he loved, however, there was one make he wanted above all others: Cadillac.  As he built his career, he reached a point where he could afford a Cadillac, but held off getting one, primarily because he didn’t want to look “too flashy” in business.  But when he took an early retirement in 1989, the time was right for indulgence, plus Cadillac had just introduced some much needed enhancements on their FWD C-bodies.  So he finally took the plunge and bought a brand new 1989 Sedan DeVille.  Did good things come to those who wait?

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First, a bit more about the dream.  My Pop was a master storyteller, and I was always thrilled to hear him vividly describe his Cadillac memories.  His infatuation started early, and he enjoyed recounting how excited he would be, even as a little boy, whenever he’d see a Cadillac go by.  He was mesmerized by the supremely elegant Cadillacs of the 1930s, and he pretty much made up his mind right then that they were the best cars in the world.  I can definitely understand how seeing a 1939 Cadillac Sixty Special cruising down St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans could leave that impression.

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Right when he turned 18 in early 1945, Pop shipped off to the Navy and was dispatched to the Pacific.  Luckily for him, WWII was ended soon thereafter, so he did not see the worst of it, but he knew plenty of folks who did, and the experience certainly instilled in him a great patriotism and gratitude for being an American.  Pop would serve again in the Korean War, which though not as clear-cut in victory, certainly reinforced his belief that the U.S. was indeed blessed to be the Land of the Free.  And what American car brand best represented the pinnacle of success, personal expression and free enterprise?  That would be the flagship division of the General Motors, the biggest and best car company in the world!  The fact that GM had also willingly disrupted their business in order to support the war efforts simply added to the Cadillac halo for my Pop, and for many others of his generation.

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So it was no surprise that the glamorous Cadillacs of the 1950s, like the Coupe DeVille, became dream cars for so many Americans, Pop included.  Sure they were brash, but nothing put a finer point (or Dagmar bumper) on highlighting American achievement and affluence.

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Through the 1960s, GM simply refined and improved its winning Cadillac formula.  The dream car of that era which really caught my Pop’s fancy was the the first generation front-drive Eldorado.  As an early 40-something, Pop was a prime target for the car, and sure enough, the sharp, sexy styling really spoke to him.  He wanted an Eldorado something fierce!  He never acted on the impulse though; having a wife and three young kids to take care of, along with a career to nurture (can’t drive a nicer car than the boss!), a Cadillac just wasn’t in the cards for him at the time.

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The next Cadillacs that really pushed Pop’s buttons were the downsized DeVille/Fleetwoods.  He’d been of the mind that the 1970s Cadillacs, like most full-size American cars, had really gotten too bloated.  So the more efficient approach that the 1977 cars ushered-in was right on target for him once again.

My Pop’s mother, who lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, was next door neighbors with the matriarch of the family who owned the local Cadillac franchise.  Each year, Georgia Belle (not kidding about the name!) got a brand new Fleetwood Brougham, always finished in red with red leather inside.  Every time we went to visit my grandmother, I would almost immediately run next door to check out Georgia Belle’s newest Cadillac.  Pop was never far behind me in heading over!  Ever the savvy salesperson, Georgia Belle always let him take the Fleetwood out for a spin.  I know he was so tempted!

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I did my part to fuel his Cadillac lust as well.  My mother had a 1975 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight LS, and my parents typically kept her cars 4-years—long enough to get their money’s worth, but not to the point when wear and tear really took its toll.  So I knew 1979 would be the year we’d get a new car, and I set my 12-year-old focus on trying to convince him that our next car should be a Cadillac.

Each Fall when the new model year cars were introduced, Pop and I would visit all the dealership to check them out and I’d collect brochures.  His favorite stop, naturally, was Ponchartrain Cadillac.  I’ll never forget the Sedan DeVille that they had on the showroom floor, fully loaded including the snazzy Cadillac wire wheel covers.  It was finished in one of the new two-tone combinations that had just become available for 1979: Atlantis Aqua over Biscayne Aqua Firemist.  The exact same color combo was showcased in the 1979 Cadillac brochure, shown on a Coupe DeVille.

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My Pop and I spent a lot of time examining every inch of that DeVille, inside and out.  I could tell by the look on his face that he was smitten, and frankly so was I.  The interior was finished in Antique Dark Aqua leather, once again just like the catalog shot.  While the color would send today’s yuppies screaming to the safety of black, gray or beige, I remember it being really unique and luxurious.   So at the ripe young age of 12, I developed a big case of Cadillac lust too.  I reasoned, pleaded and even begged my parents to get that two-tone ’79 Sedan DeVille, including leaving the brochure, opened to the resplendent Aqua Coupe DeVille spread, in convenient locations all around the house where they were sure to see it.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.  Pop reasoned that a Cadillac was “too much” for a family car, and my mother was perfectly content to get another Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight—baseline LS trim, of course (no pillow-tufted Regency wonders for us), in brown/beige top with brown vinyl inside.  Well, at least it had the 403!

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Unfortunately, the 1980s were very unkind to Cadillac.  While 1980 ushered in a handsome facelift for the DeVille/Fleetwood, engine displacement shrank and performance weakened.  Dismal diesels were also on offer.  The bizarre bustleback Seville arrived.  1981 was even worse, with the treacherous V8-6-4 engine that simply wasn’t ready for prime time.  However, that motor looked like a gem compared to the anemic, unreliable HT4100 that arrived for 1982.  In the span of just a few years, Cadillacs went from offering their traditional ample, smooth power into being dramatically underpowered and horrifically trouble prone.  The American Standard of the World was tarnishing badly.

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Pop and I hoped the dark days for Cadillac would soon be over.  The DeVille/Fleetwood was due to be downsized again, and we kept our fingers crossed that a modern, handsome, technically sophisticated Cadillac would return the brand to a leadership position.  But then we saw the new 1985 cars…  The stumpy shape, awkwardly plastered with traditional Cadillac styling cues, was an embarrassment, while performance and handling were far from world class.  Every last vestige of Cadillac lust was lost.  These were dark times at Cadillac dealerships and in Georgia Belle’s driveway.

The market’s reaction to the new Cadillacs was as bad as ours.  Press coverage wasn’t especially flattering, word of mouth was tepid, and sales were unimpressive for an all-new design in a hot market.  At least Cadillac realized that they needed to do something to regain momentum quickly.  So for 1989 they applied an old-school trick: lengthening the car and moving the tail lights into vertical pods at the ends of the rear fenders—almost like vestigial fins harkening back to the Cadillacs of yore.  Engine displacement was also increased from 4.1 liters to 4.5, giving a reasonable boost to off-the-line responsiveness.

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The buff books, at this point, were not particularly enthused about any of the Cadillac C-bodies.  The Seville STS and the Allanté were really the only Cadillacs that got much coverage in the enthusiast press.  Motor Trend did offer a quick blurb on Cadillac highlights for ’89, including the freshening of the DeVille/Fleetwood.


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Consumer Guide Auto Series also did not bother with a more comprehensive review of the revamped Cadillac C-bodies in their 1989 Auto Test, but they did provide highlights and prices for the DeVille/Fleetwood in Auto ’89.  CG lauded the changes, basically noting that the car now looked more like a traditional Cadillac while offering ample roominess, traditional luxury and reasonably lively performance.

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The longest article on the 1989 Cadillac C-body that I am aware of was in Vanity Fair Magazine, of all places, in May 1989.  That month’s “Cars” column featured broadcaster and producer Linda Ellerbee, who was noted for her stints on NBC News, ABC’s Good Morning America and for her own productions.  The shtick of the article was to take a New York/Los Angeles jet-setter and plop her behind the wheel of a new Cadillac.

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Cadillac willingly obliged, providing two different cars for Ellerbee to drive, one in Los Angeles and one in New York.  Both were top-of-the-line Fleetwood Sixty Specials equipped with the unusual and very complicated 22-way-powered seats, styled by Giorgio Giugiaro and finished in Italian leather.

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Ellerbee was a journalist, not a car enthusiast, but her comments–while clueless in many ways (though probably typical of average consumers)–offered some interesting insights into the challenges and promise of the Cadillac brand.

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So maybe Cadillac really was getting closer to regaining some appeal with 40-somethings as being a (slightly) desirable luxury car…  Ellerbee found it better than expected, though still not necessarily right for her.  While Cadillac still trailed European competitors, there’s no question it had a unique vibe and did a lot of things well.  Ellerbee could see why her mother had always wanted one.

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Perhaps all would be right in the world after all!  Cadillacs were starting to look like Cadillacs again, and they could accelerate out of their own way, just like they had in the good old days.  When he saw the new 1989s, Pop suddenly renewed his interest in Cadillacs and decided he liked the changes.  He did have an ulterior motive: he was planning to retire on his 62nd birthday, and as a reward he wanted to finally get the car of his dreams.

He did a little bit of shopping—we were sure to check out Lincoln, which was another of his all-time favorite brands.  He really liked the Mark VII, but did not want a 2-door (unlike my mother who had insisted on a 2-door in 1988 and got a Buick Regal, a problem-plagued car chronicled here).  The Town Car seemed too big and very dated by 1989, while the new Continental felt underpowered.  But it didn’t matter anyway.  There was only one car that would do.

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Just after his birthday, freshly retired with his company car turned-in, my Pop indulged in his biggest automotive dream and took delivery of a new Cadillac Sedan DeVille.  It was Black Sapphire with Dark Blue leather inside, and was pretty fully loaded, including digital instruments, Delco/Bose Gold Series Stereo/Cassette, ABS and alloy wheels.  Based on Consumer Guide’s prices for the 1989 DeVille, I’d estimate the car stickered for $29,974 ($58,265 adjusted).  While no where near Mercedes-Benz territory, this was the most Pop had ever spent for a car, and he was filled with high expectations for the best automotive experience ever, a lifetime of longing fulfilled.

Whoops.

In the span of 18 months that Sedan DeVille annihilated decades of goodwill toward Cadillac and was the final nail in the coffin that ended my family’s loyal and constant ownership of GM products—none of us have bought anything from The General since 1989.

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Driving home for the first time from the dealer, the Check Engine light came on.  It was a terrible omen to say the least.  And that was one of the DeVille’s better days…  Engine and electrical issues were frequent, build quality was subpar, and though they superficially looked nice, interior materials were low-grade.  Based on Pop’s car, I cannot fathom how Cadillac earned a 4th place score in the JD Power quality index as reported by Consumer Guide.

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Not that the driving experience itself was that impressive either: compared to the 1987 Pontiac Bonneville SE that had been my father’s last company car, the Cadillac was mushy and floaty.  It would lurch back on the rear suspension under normal acceleration, and the nose would dip alarmingly on moderate braking.

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Compared with the Bonneville’s clean and handsome instrument panel, the Cadillac’s dated digital displays, shiny plastic with mock stitching and little strips of fake wood seemed cheap and down-market (plus the fake wood starting coming off within months, something that was never an issue on the Pontiac).  Likewise, the Pontiac’s bucket seats were far more supportive than the squishy divided bench in the Caddy.  Plus the Cadillac’s leather was incredibly poor quality—within 9 months it was badly creased and wrinkled, with noticeable areas where the dark blue dye had worn-off.

But it was a Cadillac right?  The best that GM offered…  Like the characters in the children’s fable The Emperor’s New Clothes, Pop initially decided to pretend he loved the Cadillac aura—secretly thinking that maybe he was just missing something.  Surely everyone else would see it as a wonderful new Cadillac…

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But Pop’s Sedan DeVille did its best to desecrate Cadillac’s name wherever it went.  One of the first big embarrassments occurred when he’d had the DeVille for just a few weeks.  Pop and my mother had made plans for a nice dinner in French Quarter with another couple.  Pop was very proud to drive everyone in the new Cadillac, and parked, as always, at the garage in the Royal Orleans Hotel, where the valets would drive it up the narrow ramps and pack it in the tight confines of the multi-story garage.

So the story goes: the fancy dinner was wonderful, and everyone was in a great mood back at the Royal Orleans waiting for the car to come down.  And waiting.  And waiting.  Finally, the flustered valet came running over, sweating, and apologetically said “sir, I’m afraid I can’t start your car.”  Pop wound up going up into the garage with the valet to try to start the car, but his luck was no better: the DeVille would not turn over.  My parents and their friends wound up taking a cab back home.  The poor valets had to push the dead Cadillac back and forth for the rest of the night so they could get other cars out of the garage.  And the next day, the tow truck operator took hours and hours trying to extract the DeVille from the narrow garage confines without damaging it.

The dealer said it was an electronic control module and promised it was fixed.  Yeah, right…

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On an annoyingly regular basis, without rhyme or reason, the engine would fail to start.  Sometimes, it would ultimately fire up after several tries, sometimes it wouldn’t.  Worse, sometimes it would just stop running while out driving.  Usually it did that at stoplights, often restarting but occasionally not.  Over and over, the Cadillac would get towed back to the dealer, who kept replacing parts but could never fully identify or rectify the problem.  One time the DeVille even stalled while traveling at highway speeds on I-10—Pop was able to wrestle it over to the shoulder and get it running again, but he was furious to say the least.

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Fury travelled with that car.  In the summer of 1989, my parents took the Cadillac to Seagrove Beach, a very small town on the Gulf Coast of Florida, for a week-long vacation.  After a 6-hour drive on a Saturday, they were getting settled in and Pop went to get the luggage out of the trunk.

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But it wouldn’t open.  He tried the remote release, he tried the key.  Nothing.  The trunk was latched tight, and other than a crowbar, there was no way in.  Every single piece of their luggage, as well as my mother’s purse, was trapped inside the trunk.

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Nor could Cadillac Roadside Assistance help.  After all, it was Saturday night and the nearest Cadillac dealer was closed for the weekend, so nothing was getting out of that trunk.  My parents had to go to drive to a Five-and-Dime in a town 45 minutes away to get toothbrushes and some clothes to tide them over.  On Monday, Pop wasted the day going to another Florida Panhandle town, over an hour away, that had a Cadillac dealer.  Of course, the dealer needed the entire day to fix the trunk latch mechanism, which had inexplicably failed.  Great start to the vacation, thanks Cadillac!

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While the trunk wouldn’t open at all on their vacation, the driver’s window would open all by itself.  It just randomly went into the “express-down” mode, sometimes when the car was moving, sometimes when it was stopped.  The dealer never could figure that one out, though they accused Pop of somehow hitting the power window switch.  Needless to say, that explanation did not go over well with my father at all! Plus, at this point, his relations with the dealer were getting pretty testy.  They kept saying the car was fixed, or that they couldn’t identify or replicate the problem.  The Sedan DeVille clearly wasn’t right, and my father had started Lemon Law proceedings.

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Then the Perfect Storm hit.  Pop had been doing some consulting work, and had gone to a lunch across Lake Ponchartrain.  It was October 1990, and he headed back to New Orleans via the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway Bridge, which runs 26 miles over open water, making it the longest continuous bridge in the world.  South Louisiana is famous for severe thunderstorms, with torrential rain, heavy lightening and thunder, and that was exactly what cropped up as Pop made his return trip across the Causeway.

Around mid-span, the DeVille’s engine suddenly decided to quit. At exactly the same moment the “express-down” feature on the driver’s window decided to activate. The car turned off and stayed off.  The window went down and stayed down.  The rain kept pouring down, flooding in through the Cadillac’s open window and drenching my father (he even moved to the passenger side, but the rain was coming down so hard he still couldn’t avoid the water).  This was in the days before cell phones were prevalent, so there was nothing Pop could do except wait, praying that no one would crash into the Cadillac as it sat immobilized on the side of the Causeway in the driving rain.

Finally a Good Samaritan pulled over and rescued Pop, and got him to a gas station in Metairie where he could call for help.  He’d left the keys in the car, so he had the Cadillac dealer just go haul it off the bridge, while my mother came to get him and bring him home.

This time, the dealer was more apologetic, and said that maybe it was time to swap the DeVille for a new Cadillac.  Pop, who was not one to use bad language, replied—and I have this on good authority from my mother—that he “would never drive a f___ing Cadillac again.”  He told the dealer the amount he wanted for the car, asked that they look inside for any personal items, and instructed them to bring the check to our house, where he’d hand over the title and the other set of keys.  Knowing that it likely wasn’t worth the fight, the dealer simply obliged and the transfer was done.  With that, Pop’s Cadillac dream, which had turned out to be a nightmare, was over.

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So what to get next?  Pop called both me and my brother to get our thoughts.  Both of us drove Hondas at the time, so we each answered “get a Honda!”  We never actually thought he would.  I hoped he’d try out the new Acura Legend Sedan, and I figured he’d go give Lincoln another look.  Needless to say, I was pretty surprised when he called the next day to say he’d just gotten a new 1991 Honda Accord SE, in Solaris Silver with a black leather interior.

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Surely it was a huge let-down moving from a V8-powered full-size luxury car to an I4-powered compact, right?  Wrong!  While Cadillac had used an OHV 4.5 Liter V8 to produce 155 horsepower and 240 lbs.-ft. of torque, Honda squeezed 140 horsepower and 142 lbs.-ft. of torque from a SOHC 2.2 Liter 4-cylinder.  The Accord felt as quick as the DeVille (no doubt helped by the lighter weight), while delivering significantly better gas mileage.

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The interior was very comfortable, reasonably roomy and luxuriously trimmed in high-grade leather.  Many of the same luxury features found on the Cadillac were standard on the Accord SE, along with some items Pop’s DeVille didn’t have, like the power moonroof.  Pricewise, the Accord SE had an MSRP of $19,895 ($35,209 adjusted) that was about 1/3 less than the DeVille.  The whole car was impeccably built, tight and solid.  In short, the Honda was everything the Cadillac was not.

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To say he loved the Accord was an understatement!  He was thrilled with it, and often said it might just be his favorite of all the cars he’d owned—though in truth I know that honor went to the Sunlight Yellow 1964 ½ Mustang with the 289 V8 that he’d adored in the mid-1960s.  But this Honda certainly brought back some automotive magic, and Pop loved the nimble handling, zippy performance, well-tuned ride and contemporary feel.  The highest compliment he paid the Accord was that it made him feel years younger.

So after a lifetime of Cadillac cravings, Pop discovered happiness in a Honda.  In the immortal words of the Rolling Stones:

You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometime

You just might find

You get what you need!