US automakers have from time to time foisted models upon the market that were outrageously expensive in their day, like the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham and the Continental Mark II. But adjusted for inflation in absolute dollars, what were the most expensive cars that Detroit ever tried to sell? Let’s take a look.
Because of the large number of vehicles, I’ve decided to break this down into a series of posts, looking at each of the Detroit Big 3. We’ll kick things off by looking at GM first.
Note that, for a variety of reasons, it is tricky doing price comparisons across multiple decades (although that is not going to stop me from trying). For starters, the CPI (which most inflation calculators use) only measures the change in the price of goods and services. The CPI does not take into account the affordability of said goods and services due to changes in real income, which goes up and down, but has generally increased over the past 100 years (especially during the immediate post-war years).
Also, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list (yes, I know you can option a dually pickup to over $100K), but rather a collection of the most interesting expensive vehicles, and how their prices compare over time.
So without further ado, here are some of the most expensive GM cars, sorted by adjusted (2021) price in increasing order.
1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham – $13,078 ($125,285 adjusted)
The 1957-58 Eldorado Brougham (a car that has never gotten proper Curbside treatment) was the first of Cadillac’s many post-war attempts to reclaim their pre-war “Standard of the World” mantle, a success they were never quite able to recapture.
The Eldorado Brougham included many innovations, some genuine (quad headlights, self-leveling pneumatic suspension, power seats with two-position memory), but many of which were frivolous in true Cadillac fashion (Perfume atomizer, cigarette case, and magnetic-based drinking glasses).
The Eldorado Brougham is the car I first thought of when researching this piece. Surely it must most be the most expensive car GM has ever sold (when adjusted for inflation), or so I thought. But inflation is a tricky beast, so it ended up near the back of the list.
1991 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 – $64,138 ($127,944 adjusted)
The “King of the Hill” Corvette ZR-1 launched in 1990 as a $27,016 option on top of the base $31,979 Corvette. The price of the ZR-1 option package jumped to $31,683 in 1991, where it stayed for the next several years, making the 1991 ZR-1 the most expensive of the C4 ZR-1 run in absolute dollars, and the price I used for this list.
2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 – $120,900 ($128,485 adjusted)
Honestly, I kind of missed this car when it came out, although looking at the pictures, I’m not sure how. The C7 ZR1 was only sold for one year (2019), which would be the final year of C7 production. By this time, everyone was focusing on the impending mid-engine C8 Corvette and some new virus coming out of Wuhan, so I guess it is understandable that this might have gotten overlooked.
Oh, and if you haven’t set foot in a car dealership recently, car prices are going up. Way up. So much so that the inflation-adjusted price of a 2019 ZR1 notched a nearly $8,000 increase in just two years.
1987 Cadillac Allanté – $54,700 ($129,621 adjusted)
The Cadillac Allanté, produced from 1987 through 1993, was Cadillac’s first attempt to take on the legendary Mercedes Benz SL roadster that Cadillac. On paper, the Allanté had many of the goods to compete with the SL: A roadster body style with a removable aluminum hardtop, V8 power, and a coachbuilt Italian body designed and built by Pininfarina.
However, as was the case with many GM products of the time, a good idea was ruined by poor execution. For starters, the wrong wheels were driven (the front), compared to the competition. The digital gauge cluster was hard to see in the sunlight with the top down. The OHV HT-4100 V8 was weak, trouble-prone, and considered less sophisticated than its OHC competitors. And the high selling price (dictated in part by the expensive 747-based transport process of the bodies from Turin to Hamtramck) was a stretch for the Cadillac brand, which didn’t carry the prestige of Mercedes or Jaguar, the two main bogeys.
In true GM style, Cadillac would address many of these deficiencies over the course of the production run, replacing the digital gauges with conventional dials in 1990, making some previously standard equipment like the removable hardtop optional in order to drop the base price, and dropping in a Northstar V8 in the final year in 1993. But by then, the damage had been done.
I chose the inaugural 1987 model for this list since its $54,700 base price base is the highest of all the model years when adjusted to 2021 dollars ($129,621).
2011 Corvette ZR1 – $110,300 ($133,228 adjusted)
The C6 ZR1 lost the hyphen from the C4 ZR-1, but gained extensive carbon fiber bodywork, complete with a cool window in the hood allowing you to view the intake of the engine below. It is also the first factory-produced Corvette capable of exceeding 200 mph.
And no, it is not your imagination – cars are really getting more expensive. That is why all of the remaining cars on this list (save for one notable exception) are from the 21st century. Even with the benefit of decades of inflation, prices of older cars can’t seem to keep up with the expanding capability and safety of modern cars.
2006 Cadillac XLR-V – $110,000 ($146,882 adjusted)
Not surprisingly, many of the cars on this list are either a Cadillac or a Corvette derivative – But the XLR-V is the only one on this list that is both. After the Allanté, the XLR was Cadillac’s second (and final) attempt to take on Mercedes Benz SL-class. They took to heart many of the lessons learned from the Allanté fiasco and decided this time to rebody the C6 Corvette with a retractable roof and a Northstar V8. Now Cadillac had a proper rear-wheel-drive roadster with the soul of a sports car. Better yet, it could be produced in Bowling Green alongside the Corvette, so no expensive air freight assembly line.
Like most Cadillacs, there was a high-performance (and for our purposes, high-cost) V-Series version of the XLR, which used a supercharged Northstar V8 engine producing 443 hp and 414 lb-ft. of torque. Alas, one of the lessons Cadillac didn’t learn from the Allanté was the need for aggressive pricing. The XLR-V commanded a princely $110,000 in 2006 ($146,882 in 2021), within striking distance of a contemporary (and far more desirable) SL55 AMG and easily propelling it near the head of the class of GM’s most expensive vehicles of all time.
1931 Cadillac V-16 Panel Brougham Town Car $9,200 ($164,447 adjusted)
It is very difficult to pin a contemporary price to the legendary V-16 Cadillacs of the 1930s. They were produced in small numbers, usually custom ordered, largely hand-made, and in many cases were bodied with a custom coach-built body after leaving the factory. Fewer than 4,000 were produced between 1930 and 1940, so they barely qualify as mass-produced.
From what I’ve been able to determine, prices for V-16 Cadillacs started out at $5,250 ($93,842 adjusted) and topped out at $9,200 ($164,447.58) for a Fleetwood-bodied Panel Brougham Town Car. But really, the sky was the limit depending on how much customization you wanted.
As I mentioned earlier, the CPI doesn’t take into account affordability, which decreases substantially prior to WWII. With that taken into account, the V-16 Cadillacs would easily be the most expensive cars GM ever made.
2006 Hummer H1 Alpha – $128,374 ($173,009 adjusted)
OK, this one is a bit of a cheat, as technically the Hummer H1 was designed and engineered by AM General. Still, the H1 Alpha was sold, serviced, and warranted through GM dealerships, and GM provided much of the engineering support for the improvements in the Alpha model. With a base price of $128,374 in 2006 ($173,009 in 2021), this is easily the most expensive vehicle GM has ever sold, in absolute dollars.