(first posted 6/4/2015) Welcome to Part 3 of the series called “Too Big Even For America”, where we explore cars that went out of their way to demonstrate that bigger is not always better.
Although the 233.7″ long Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special Talisman was in fact not Cadillac’s biggest vehicle at the time (the Fleetwoood 75 limousine trumped it by being the longest production vehicle full stop.) it was their biggest sedan. And with its seating for only four passengers, it undoubtedly had the worst passenger-to-length ratio ever for a four door sedan.
The Talisman is a fitting symbol for a generation of GM cars that overshot the mark, and the marketplace. With its 130″ wheelbase, it topped the range of huge GM full-sized cars first introduced in 1971, all of which were just plain too big. These cars were the last gasp of the outdated “big is better” mantra. GM tried to outgun the competition with an arms race that had been building ever since it trimmed its big cars in 1961, and the Cadillac Sixty Special was Big Bertha. Or just the bomb. Unfortunately, it rather blew up in GM’s face, thanks to bad timing. And inevitability.
GM had gone down this road once before in the 1950s, which culminated in 1959. That was the year the Buick Electra earned the suffix “225” thanks to its length in inches. But by the late 50s Americans had let it be known that mere length alone was not the only or primary means of expressing satisfaction with their cars; the European imports had increasingly shown that size wasn’t everything. And GM got the message, for a while.
The 1961 Electra 225 now was a good half foot short of its number, and looked like it had spent a month at the fat farm toning up. But like so many dieters, GM’s cars started swelling again. In the early 1970’s America was still rolling in the tail-end of the boom that started during the post war. The word was prosperity and it was supposed to never end. And GM’s cars kept getting bigger and bigger, and the competition kept right up. Then in 1971 it all began to crumble.
It was a combination of factors. A new generation was coming into their car buying years, and very few were looking at full size cars anymore. They’d rather stuff themselves into a VW than a big American tank. The Big Three thought they got the message and decided to give them an even bigger challenge: small cars that were even more cramped than a Beetle: the Pinto, Vega and Gremlin. Or at least they seemed that way.
Economics were also a factor. America’s “Exceptional Period” was ending, along with the dollar being tied to the gold standard. The Bretton Woods system of fixed currency prices was crumbling, especially with America’s higher inflation. The United States needed the dollar to become a Fiat Currency (insert unreliability joke here). This, along with other factors, affected the global economy in such a way that in 1973 the stock market began a long and steep decline which combined with the 1973 oil crisis to cause what could be called, in layman’s terms, a screwed up economy.
So what did Cadillac released in this troubled time? Why, a new options pack that would turn your new Caddy into the most opulent non-limousine Cadillac ever available of course! The base $9,537 ($45,769.67 in today’s money, about the same price of the currrent XTS) Series Sixty Fleetwood Brougham was already extremely large and decadent.
Now take that and add $1800 ($8,638) to distinguish yourself from those commoners with the paltry $750 Brougham d’Elegance pack or worse, no pack at all, and presto! You have the Fleetwood Talisman. Not Brougham Talisman; Brougham is such a middle-class name. You can get a Ford Brougham, you can’t get a Ford Talisman.
Enough ‘70s snobbishness; what did the Talisman pack actually gave you? Less practicality for one. It wasn’t any longer than the ordinary model (thankfully) and the rear lost a seat and gained a huge center console, a Medici crushed velour interior and deep plush carpet on anything not covered by it, an illuminated vanity interior and a front console substantial enough that it could fit a writing pad. Outside, an elk-grain vinyl roof, a special hood crest and badging complimented the look.
I’m sure in the 1970s that interior must’ve looked just the business and being the last word in traditional American luxury for old-money. A cushy palace where everything, everyone and their problems disappeared into a fluffy velour cloud while the 8.2-liter V8 and the Turbo-Hydramatic got you where you wanted in absolute comfort. Unfortunately for me, who despite loving Broughams has nothing but contempt for the feel of velour, it looks more like a torture chamber.
A very cushy Medici crushed-velour torture chamber mind but a torture chamber nonetheless. The Sixty Special was never a petite car, starting at a stately 228.8 inches when released in 1971, but it grew slightly in 1972 and bumper regulations made it reach 233.7 inches in 1974, nearly 10 inches longer than a current Cadillac Escalade ESV. The Escalade is wider and, unsurprisingly, taller.
In late 1973 and 1974, images like the one you see above were becoming altogether more common by the day. Panic, gas shortages, and the slowing economy had people second-guessing if they really needed that full-sized sedan. General Motors was already hard at work planning and designing their new downsized lineup by this time, knowing full well that the unchecked growth of past years was quickly becoming unsustainable. But until that was done they’d have to make do with what they had on showrooms, unfit for the new rules of the game as it was. The economy also made people question if they really should splurge on a Cadillac, let alone a fully-equipped one, when a Buick or Oldsmobile would do for less money.
The Talisman survived, but with a very low take rate and not in the form it started out as. The 1975 version ditched the ridiculous two-only rear seating in favor of a fold-up arm rest that could accommodate three, four, or five in a pinch. It was a rather silly idea in the first place; you never know who (or how many) might want to jump in the back of a big Caddy, or what might want to transpire there. And by 1976, the Talisman was just an interior trim option.
A not insignificant percentage of Cadillac owners had been complaining about the excessive length of their cars since the 50s. The response was…to crudely shorten the rear end, resulting in “short deck” models sold in 1961-1963. It may have made a few owners of old and short garages happy, but it didn’t really solve the problem.
The 1976 Seville did. It may not have knocked out Mercedes but it finally broke the “bigger is better” mold at Cadillac, and showed the way forward; a trim new “international” size, and a preview of what just about every GM full and mid-sized car would look like for a very long time. The Seville was obviously started before the energy crisis, but its arrival in the spring of 1975 was welcome, even if the gas lines were already a thing of the past. The fact that the Seville was the most expensive Cadillac was obviously another repudiation of the Talisman.
The Talisman limped along until 1977, when GM’s downsized full-sizers arrived in the showrooms. Of course the new models weren’t any cheaper, but they were back to sizes and weights that you and I would consider reasonable (221″ length, or almost exactly the same as the 1961 Fleetwood).
Binge dieting can be as destructive as binge eating, and Cadillac was clearly afflicted with both symptoms. The second round of downsizing resulted in FWD deVilles that now seemed barely bigger than some really small cars. That didn’t work out so well.
To give the poorly-received FWD 1985 Cadillac a bit of badly needed gravitas, in 1987 the standard FWD C-Body DeVille got a five-inch wheelbase stretch and a revival of the Sixty Special name plate, presumably to try and get some of the traditional Cadillac Brougham buyers into the new C-Body. Naturally, it was considerably more expensive than a proper Fleetwood of the time at $34,850 ($72,583).
GM should have known better by the late sixties that change was in the wind, and blowing stronger than ever. But they plowed ahead and built the biggest cars ever, which once again were slapped down by a combination of changing values, the rise of imports, gas prices, the economy, and just the obvious realization that cars could only get so big. Never mind the public ridicule.
All of these factors—except for gas prices—had been very much a factor in the late 50s and the reason why the ’61s were downsized. But GM execs had a bad habit of forgetting its lessons, or were just too isolated on the 14th floor. And remarkably enough, they still didn’t get it again some years later, as we’ll see next time, where we’ll examine the poster child of big-car hate. Will it be the last?