Curbside Classic has a very loyal following, where we like to describe old cars and then discuss our memories of them. But what would it be like to actually have a really long, challenging drive in a true classic? Well, last weekend I had this exact opportunity.
Our subject here is a 1978 Cadillac Sedan DeVille. In my opinion, the 1977-1979 C Body Cadillac is the last of the Great Cadillac cars: one that is equipped with a real Cadillac V-8 (425 cubic inches/7 liters) and the venerable Turbo-Hydramatic 400. This was the last of the great Cadillac V-8’s that originated in 1949. It was the last Caddy in decade to have power commensurate to its status, power that came from a real, honest to goodness Caddy engine. This particular car is a survivor with 90,000 original kilometers on it. It was purchased at an estate sale in Victoria, British Columbia, in 2004, for all of $1000. People didn’t see it for what it was at the time, but I certainly did. I knew my friend was looking for one, so when it became available, he snapped it up. He then promptly jumped in it and drove it straight to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a drive of almost 1800 km. It took him eighteen hours.
Fast forward to 2013: my friend is going to relocate to Victoria and he needed to move some cars. His daily driver is a 2001 Acura TL, while the Caddy is a weekend hobby kind of thing. He also has a 1979 Continental MKV with a 400 hp engine under the hood, but that is for another story. Our subject car is all original, even the paint. When the car was returned in Saskatoon in 2004, it had all the ball joints replaced, as well as many other front end pieces, mostly because they were cracked with age. This is no problem, because all the parts are the same as a B-body, and thus cheap and available. A new set of Cooper whitewalls an a wheel alignment later, the Grand Lady was ready for her ordeal.
Day 1: My friend is a flatlander and not at all comfortable driving in the mountains of British Columbia, so we agreed he’s do the Saskatchewan and Alberta legs, and I would do British Columbia. Leaving Saskatoon on Saturday morning, the weather was foul. It’s been a wet and windy summer on the prairie and that day was no exception. There was a stiff cross wind; I was following in the Acura and barely felt it, but my friend was having a helluva time keeping the Grand Lady straight on the straight road. The Old Girl has aerodynamics somewhere between that of a brick and a barn door. Once the wind subsided, it was much better. The car, by today’s standards, has prodigious thirst; it was at one quarter a tank while he Acura was still well above half, in a much smaller tank. Consumption came to 20 L/100 km (11.76 mpg), at 100 km/h. The Acura, for comparison, did 8.1 (29 mpg) on the whole trip. Clearly, we have come a long way in fuel efficiency! We drove for almost seven hours that day and got a hotel in downtown Calgary, the centre of Canada’s oil industry. I felt fine but my friend was beat, so we headed off to the spa, and then dinner. The next day, I found out why he was so beat….
Day 2: It was the Sunday before Labor Day and it seemed half of the City of Calgary was heading to Banff. No surprise, really, since Banff is truly gorgeous. It was slow going for the first couple of hours but at least the traffic flowed. When we got to Field, British Columbia, we stopped at a funky little diner for lunch. The Caddy was moored across the street and immediately attracted a group of German tourists. I went out and did my best to describe the Grand Lady in my university German. What was really surprising was they were aware of the historical significance of the car because of its seven litre engine. We stopped to fill up the tank yet again since there is no gasoline between Field and Revelstoke. This would be a real test of the Grand Lady and in an environment for which she was never intended: twisty, windy, narrow alpine roads. And how did she do?
Surprisingly well for the Grande Dame she is. The first thing I noticed was she was a little low on power. This was not a shock as the car had been driven maybe 2000 km in nine years. The old GM bead style catalytic converters are known for plugging up when they sit a long time. Prairie drivers often suffer from a condition I call stomp-a-phobia, a fear of standing on the gas pedal. Of course, being an experienced mountain driver, I do not carry this fear and I immediately started gunning it any chance I got, to burn out all the crud accumulated over the years.
The transition from an Acura TL to a 1978 Cadillac is not that easy; there are 23 years between the cars and both were built for very different audiences. The main thing to get used to was the Grand Lady’s steering. Although it has real road feel, it is classic “one finger” power steering. The ratio is in fact quite fast but there is no resistance on the wheel as you enter a curve. For the first 50 km or so, I was dialing in too much steering input and then having to correct the line. This would send the soft suspension into gyrations that took an uncomfortably long time to settle down.
However, I soon got the hang of it and, believe it or not, I made that Grand Lady dance going up Roger’s Pass! I was actually passing cars, mostly flatlanders, and left my buddy a good ten minutes behind. The secret is getting the line set and then sticking to it, unflinchingly. The basic DNA in the chassis of these cars was really good and the Grand Lady had no trouble keeping up with traffic, although the Quadrajet wide open for two hours drained the tank in no time. When we arrived at Revelstoke, we finally hit a Chevron station. I told my friend to stop buying gas with ethanol in it and go for the good stuff: Chevron 94 octane, sans deathanol. The improvement was instantly noticed.
From Revelstoke to Kamloops, she ran better and better. Power increased and the engine became even smoother. On the straight stretches just before Kamloops, I buried the speedometer, which isn’t that much of an accomplishment since it only goes to 140 km/h. Still, the Grand Lady took all I threw at her, and came out a much more fit lady because of it. The downside is old cars like this are not as easy to drive as the newer cars to which I have become accustomed. To keep it on the road, constant diligence is needed. The steering, although fine for its day, does not communicate what is going on well, so you need to watch your line all the time and that is fatiguing.
Every great car as some downside and on these old Caddies, it’s the brakes. The car simply doesn’t have enough brake area and uses the same rotors and drums as the B-body but with at least an extra 250 kg of road hugging weight. These brakes were marginal in 1978 and they are inadequate today. On steep grades, shifting down to D2 helped a lot but failing to do so would have easily smoked the brakes out. I do realize that this car was never designed for this kind of driving, so I respect that the quality of this car actually allowed her to make the trip and survive me driving her.
Arriving at the hotel in Kamloops, I was exhausted. Driving a 35 year old Cadillac over Roger’s Pass is not the easiest task, so it was a spa, dinner and off the bed. I had to be back in Vancouver late Monday night and I wasn’t going to miss that.
We got out to the cars at 10:30 am and the Grand Lady had a flat battery for some reason. No problem, we had jumper cables in the Acura for just this eventuality. The road out of Kamloops is very hilly, the notorious Coquihalla Highway, or “The Destroyer” as it is commonly known. Or course, now with 100% Chevron 94 in the tank, I put the pedal to the metal the whole way up. Foot to the floor, the Grand Lady could hold 110 km/h, fast for its day on these kind of grades. At the summit, she was running very nicely indeed. It seems I had unplugged the catcon as it was breathing much better.
Since I had to be back in Vancouver for a business meeting Monday night at 8:30 pm, time was of the essence. We left Kamloops at 10:30 and made it to BC Ferries Tsawwassen at 2:10 pm, very good time. The last part of the drive was mostly city surface streets and that is where the Grand Lady really showed her talent: she is a first class wafter. At speeds from 50-80 km/h, she just floats along in a serene, regal fashion. I can just imagine an old lady in a beehive hairdo wafting along in the Grand Lady. After arriving on Vancouver Island, I floored it at a stop light and she hustled right nicely indeed.
Epilog: So what is it like driving a 35 year old Cadillac across the Rocky Mountains? Well, it’s kind of like trying to tango with an elephant. It can be done but you’d better know exactly what you are doing. A less experienced driver would have found it challenging because I found it challenging! Only two weeks before I drove my own Acura from Banff to Vancouver in one shot and came out of it feeling quite fine and while I love the Grand Lady for what she is and represents, she’s a lot harder to drive. Four hours behind the wheel and I was exhausted. Things have really changed in auto design, all for the better.
The Grand Lady is back at her birthplace and Victoria will suit her perfectly. She will be taken out on the odd Sunday drive, perhaps attend a wedding or two and be pampered for many years to come. I really enjoyed the chance to really drive some automotive history and the fact she held up so well shows how good GM’s basic engineering was at that time. As a daily driver, I would prefer something more modern, with better brakes and fuel consumption. But for a weekend car, the Grand Lady is really an imposing piece of art, a symbol of a past era that will never return.