(first posted 2/2/2016) Once upon a time, there was an undisputed King of American luxury automobiles. For much of its history, Cadillac sold far more cars in the U.S. than all other luxury brands combined, while simultaneously serving as a global symbol for American wealth and style. However, in spite of holding such a lofty position at the top of the U.S. luxury car heap, as the 1960s progressed, Cadillac couldn’t help but notice the huge success of the stylish personal luxury cars, with their youthful image and premium price tags. These interlopers couldn’t be allowed to gain too great a foothold in Cadillac territory, so the division responded in a big way for 1967 by dramatically revamping the top-of-the-line Eldorado, transitioning it from a rear-wheel-drive convertible to a new front-wheel-drive personal luxury coupe. Marketplace acceptance of the new Eldorado was immediate and impressive—would the automotive press be as smitten with Motown’s finest?
One of the big questions concerning the Eldorado, at least among car enthusiasts, was how unique it would be, given its close kinship with the recently introduced Oldsmobile Toronado. Motor Trend kicked off their reviews by stating right away that they feared the newest Cadillac might not be much more than a warmed-over Olds.
Driven the way the Eldorado was intended—comfortable cruising versus carving corners—performance was exemplary. The driver needed only to enjoy the myriad convenience features and bask in the quiet, relaxed atmosphere. The Eldorado provided exactly the sort of cocooning experience that had made Cadillac famous. Plus, with a dedicated assembly line, the Eldorado could also boast excellent quality control as befitting Cadillac’s high standards at the time.
One huge weakness was shared between the Eldorado and Toronado: subpar drum brakes as standard equipment. Optional disc brakes could be added to the Eldorado at extra cost, but based on negative feedback regarding the Oldsmobile’s stopping ability, Cadillac should have made superior brakes standard when launching the car. Even lowly Renault saw fit to provide better brakes and tires than Cadillac in 1967! Things were better under-hood: the Cadillac exclusive 429 V8 engine, while down on horsepower compared to the Olds 425 V8 (340hp versus 385hp), still provided ample power and could smoke the front tires with a stomp on the accelerator.
Far more than a Toronado in different garb, Motor Trend felt that the Eldorado came across as a unique car in its own right and was a testament to Cadillac’s stylists and engineers. In its heyday, GM was remarkably adept at adapting components and significantly restyling and repackaging them into unique offerings. It is an old, profitable—and necessary—trick in the car business.
So far in the 21st Century, the VW Group is arguably the leading practitioner of the art of deft platform sharing. Very few people have any clue that a Bentley and a Volkswagen share a platform. Wolfsburg should give thanks to General Motors in the 1960s for showing the way. Like VW Group’s tremendously broad offerings today, GM worked impressive differentiation into products with shared platforms. Back then, the various GM divisions were still pretty clearly focused on their individual missions, and each had a pretty strong sense of their desired customer base.
In the 1960s, there was little doubt as to Cadillac’s position in the car market or in GM’s hierarchy. Styling continuity was a hallmark of the brand, ensuring instant recognition of the cars—including the new Eldorado—from any angle. Engineering excellence was also a given, as Cadillac always needed to boast the latest in comfort and convenience features, along with thoroughly up-to-date engines and transmissions offering smooth, abundant power. The resulting strong resale values made Cadillac a surprisingly good buy, as luxury car buyers knew a good thing when they saw it, and there was no question for these customers that Cadillac was tops.
Even after drinking way too many martinis, no car buyer from the 1960s would have confused a top-of-the-line Cadillac sedan with a top-of-the-line Chevrolet sedan. And no one in their right mind would have ever mistaken a workhorse Chevrolet Suburban for a Cadillac flagship.
What a difference fifty years makes! It was a testament to GM in the 1960s that they understood the value of genuine brand differentiation. At the time, no one at GM, not even the greediest bean counter with no clue about brand equity or engineering excellence, would have dreamed of creating a “Cadillac” by slapping a different grille and taillights on a Chevy and calling it a day. There was too much at stake for the corporation, both in terms of the profits generated by Cadillac as well as the brand’s stellar reputation, to have ever risked doing something so stupid. Too bad the company’s leaders lost sight of that simple fact in the following decades…
GM in the 1960s wasn’t above chasing trends, however. The personal luxury market beckoned and Cadillac wanted a share of the riches that had long been enjoyed by a mere Ford. In the December 1991 issue, Collectible Automobile provided a glimpse back into the Cadillac styling studios as development work was underway on a suitable entrant into the booming personal luxury category sparked by the 4-seat Thunderbird. GM designers attacked the challenge with gusto, developing a uniquely new vehicle for a trendy segment that introduced a fresh, yet still instantly recognizable take on Cadillac’s well-established heritage.
Ford was not the only one thinking about a 4-door personal luxury car in the 1960s. These 4-door Eldorado concepts were very sleek, but were rejected likely because 2-door coupes were seen as the real style leaders at the time. Also, the 4-door Eldorado Brougham may have been an early inspiration, but that money-losing venture was likely a turn-off to top GM brass in the Finance Department. Nonetheless, Pininfarina—the Italian design house responsible for the later Eldorado Broughams as well as Cadillac show cars—was still in the mix for the Eldorado, as some of their work appeared for design review in the styling studios.
Some of the most extreme styling concepts centered on housing huge V12 or V16 power plants. These massive engines hearkened back to Cadillac’s flagship cars from the 1930s, and showed the importance placed on smoothness, power, bragging rights and uniqueness as Cadillac hallmarks. Since Cadillac’s V8s, particularly the 472 cubic-inch V8 introduced for 1968, were already plenty powerful and fully suitable for a flagship, these ideas never got out of the design phase. But at least the designers were striving to create genuine, memorable Cadillacs.
Note to GM: despite all the corporate bragging about the new Cadillac CTS-V and its raucous heart, the harsh reality is that the Corvette engine is really best suited for Chevrolet’s halo sports car. Cadillac deserves better. Shouldn’t Cadillac have a powertrain that defines the absolute forefront of modern technology? A unique-to-Cadillac motor so impressive that it would be capable of luring buyers from today’s leading luxury brands like Tesla, Mercedes, BMW and Porsche. How about an incredibly smooth, quiet, tremendously powerful and surprisingly efficient gas-electric hybrid? Anyone?…. Anyone?….. Bueller?….
Ironically, the Eldorado might have impacted the Thunderbird right back. Before he departed his top-level GM post for the presidency of Ford, Bunkie Knudsen would have likely been familiar with these rather wild Eldorado concepts. Upon his arrival at the Blue Oval, Knudsen demanded ridiculously pointed prows on Ford production models for 1970, with the Thunderbird (and Mercury Montego) gaining an extreme “Bunkie’s beak” possibly derived from earlier GM styling studies like these. Though some sources claim that Knudsen was just knocking off Pontiac designs, it is hard to look at these Eldorado concepts and not see another source of inspiration for the short-lived schnozzes at Ford.
Thankfully “vent-mania” was cleaned up before the ’67 Eldorado went into production. Otherwise, this design shows the excellent proportions and dashing elegance that make this one of the best GM designs from the 1960s. It looked fantastic then and is still a masterpiece when seen in person today, as evidenced by this sleek Sable Black specimen and this fashionable Pinecrest Green example.
Style really was the key to the new Eldorado. Where it came up lacking, at least according to Car and Driver, was in substance. In fact, that was a charge they would level at the entire personal luxury category, To make their point, C&D ran a comparison test of the new Cadillac against the revamped Thunderbird Landau with its new 4-door body style.
Part of Car and Driver’s disappointment stemmed from the failure of both the 1967 Eldorado and Thunderbird to live up to their potential. While the designs could have combined style and driving enjoyment in equal measures, these personal luxury cars came across as just two more big American sedans, looks aside. C&D also lamented how the Buick Riviera, which had initially done a good job of combining ride, handling and comfort with sexy styling, had morphed into a flabbier, less special car. However, in upscale America in the 1960s, it seemed “bigger was better” and so domestic automakers just followed the market, much to C&D’s chagrin.
Interestingly, Car and Driver gave Ford the nod for innovation in the segment, thanks to the 4-door configuration. It was a good idea, though it wouldn’t be until after the start of the 21st Century that 4-door “coupes” would really gain any sort of sales traction. As for the Eldorado, C&D’s editors still saw too much Toronado to be particularly impressed about the novelty of the Cadillac.
Another area where the T-Bird trounced the Eldorado was in braking. It was embarrassing that the less expensive Ford came with disc brakes as standard while the Eldorado did not. The Cadillac’s standard drum brakes were dubbed as “treacherous” and the company was rightfully dinged (and repeatedly—it was the common complaint in the buff books) for offering discs only as an option, which C&D felt would be easily overlooked by most of the clueless “style-over-substance” buyers in the segment.
One point in Cadillac’s favor was C&D’s assessment that the Eldorado’s quality was as good as anything coming from Stuttgart (Mercedes-Benz) or Crewe (Rolls-Royce). It’s a sad reminder of a time when Cadillac was on par with the best in the world, before cost cutting crept into the mix and the quality of materials and workmanship took a nosedive. In fact, as the 1960s ended Cadillac was quietly dropping the super high quality materials like real wood trim. It was the start of an ominous trend as Cadillac components would get progressively cheaper and tackier in the coming years.
One other tidbit of information: I had no idea what was meant by “Metrecal-for-lunch bunch.” Turns out, Metrecal was a diet food, like an early version of a Slim Fast shake, which was quite popular in the 1960s. And I’d always assumed this crowd was having martinis at lunch…
Other than its atrocious braking performance, the Eldorado outscored the Ford on most measures of performance, comfort and build quality, as well it should have, given the whopping $3,050 ($21,644 adjusted) price differential between the cars. In that regard, the comparison was unfair, since the price put the cars in two very different market segments in spite of being similar conceptually. FoMoCo would soon address that gap: Lee Iacocca was already licking his chops with the potential of the Thunderbird platform for a much more upscale offering. The Lincoln Continental Mark III would soon arrive, providing a true rival for the Eldorado and kicking off the first of many “King of the Hill” comparison articles on the two expensive personal luxury coupes.
Car and Driver was right about how well Cadillac would hit its target market with the Eldorado. First year sales soared above the 15,000 projected units to reach a total of 17,930. Without a doubt, the newest Cadillac was successful and highly coveted. Road Test Magazine noted the first year results as they tested a 1968 Eldorado to see if it was, in fact, as good as its popularity and reputation suggested.
In many ways, the Cadillac brand was intertwined with the American dream. It was the quintesssential “show you have it made” car, whether you were a movie star or a working class couple. While some people disdained that aspect of the brand, it was embraced by many others, and embodied the uniquely American notion of “work hard and you too can have a Cadillac.” The reward didn’t come cheap either: most Eldorados sold for around $8,900, or almost $61,000 adjusted. Even the slow selling “price leader” Calais started at just over $6,000 ($41,000 adjusted), so there really was no such thing as an “entry level” Cadillac competing on price with “lesser” cars. It’s also important to note that in the late 1960s, Cadillac prices were comparable with, or in some cases higher than Mercedes-Benz prices, 600 series excepted.
This pricing power was also enormously beneficial to GM. As Roy Schneider notes in his book Cadillacs of the Sixties, for the 4 years that the first generation FWD Eldorado was on the market, the car generated well over half a billion dollars in revenue (about $3.5 billion today). Although no breakdown on profits is available, there’s little doubt this Cadillac was also a generous contributor to GM’s bottom line. No wonder Schneider wrote that these new personal luxury coupe sales represented “a bonanza worthy of the name ‘Eldorado’.”
While Car and Driver targeted Euro-centric readers who put a very high value on handling prowess, Road Test arguably provided a more accurate view into the psyche of the average American. As such, when RT’s editors noted that the Eldorado felt different than the Toronado, and that it performed very well, they were simply sharing in the same assessment that most U.S. drivers would actually make. Granted, Road Test’s 1968 test car was fitted with the more powerful new 472,V8 and it also had disc brakes, which Cadillac finally made standard for the Eldorado’s 2nd year.
What Road Test clearly understood was the power of the Cadillac’s image. When Cadillac said it was targeting “enthusiasts,” what they really meant was that they were targeting someone who simply wanted to look “younger and hipper” than the average Cadillac buyer. If bystanders presumed that the Eldorado owner was an “enthusiast” driver, then the mission was accomplished.
Perception is reality, and it’s still true today. The Tesla Model S is a good case in point. Based on what I’ve observed, many Teslas are gobbled up by gluttonous consumers with colossal carbon footprints. But “green” and “high tech” are the new status symbols, and the Tesla presses all the current egotistical hot buttons: “I’m very tech savvy and very important and very busy but I’m still doing my part to save the planet!” The fact that a Nissan Leaf or Toyota Prius—or better yet a Honda Fit—are more ecologically sound choices doesn’t matter one bit. Luxury customers don’t want to suffer as they show off their credentials. Cadillac used to get that in spades.
In fact, so profound was the cultural impact of GM’s prestige division that it even coined a lasting expression: “the Cadillac of __________” meant that the item referenced should be considered the “best.” While the brand ultimately lost its luster and the saying descended into satire (witness the Oldsmobile Silhouette “Cadillac of minivans” in the movie Get Shorty), for many years to be called “the Cadillac of something” was a genuine compliment, and GM happily basked in the glory. As well they should, since for much of the 20th Century, GM’s flagship cars were ideally suited for U.S. driving conditions and aspirational American tastes.
Those days of Cadillac’s leadership are long gone. Other automotive brands have now firmly captured the imaginations of luxury vehicle buyers as well as the general public. However, there are some people (me included) who would love to see a genuine Cadillac comeback.
Could there be a Return of the King? Not with pimped Suburbans or wannabe 3 Series fighters. Not with utterly forgettable series nomenclature like Q50, Q60, Q70, QX80—oops, sorry that’s Inifiniti’s new naming protocol—Cadillac’s new names will be scintillating superstars like CT4, CT5 and the flagship CT6 (thanks Johan de Nysschen!).
Cadillac needs to forget chasing the Germans and focus instead on leading the market with new, bold expressions of luxury. Cadillac needs to ditch “international” alphanumeric gobbledygook and regain its heritage with unforgettable names attached to equally memorable vehicles. Focus groups won’t lead to greatness; only an audacious bet on what will truly tempt status-obsessed luxury buyers. Cadillac needs to return to the City of Gold. Come on Cadillac; it’s not a mirage, it’s an Eldorado! Only then can we once again shout: “long live the King!”