COAL: 1989 Cadillac Brougham – Chapter 22, Back In A Big Old Cadillac


In the early fall of 2001, I had spent about 4 years driving what had felt like someone else’s car – the 1984 Olds Ninety-Eight Regency coupe.  Life was tolerable and I wasn’t really Jonesing for another car.  This, by the way, was a display of no small amount of personal growth.  It had been a long road from a series of six-month automotive flings to being fine with a boring Oldsmobile that I wasn’t in love with, but which was also not giving me cause to escape from it.

By this time, we had spent maybe 8 years in our present house.  My neighborhood had been built in the late 1950’s.  It was never a high-high end area, but it was the kind of place where lawyers and dentists and small business owners had built their “forever” homes in what were then the outlying suburbs.  When we moved there, the number of octo and nonagenarians who lived nearby was quite high.  Like our next door neighbor who went by Curley.  Yes, he was bald.  Curley had trained as a fighter pilot for WWI, and even in his mid 90’s still took a small plain up to celebrate the anniversary of his first solo flight.  He was a fascinating fellow who spent a short time in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest man to fly a plane.

Another long-timer lived about a quarter mile up the road.  Mr. Patton had been an executive at Western Electric – the place that probably built the telephones we Americans grew up dialing.  I had met him and his wife once or twice over the years at meetings of the neighborhood association, but didn’t really know him well.  Then one day I noticed that he had parked an old dirt-brown Cadillac out front with a “For Sale” sign in the window.  Nope, nope, nope, I smugly thought as I passed it multiple times a day.  I had known a couple of old guys who had owned those Malaise Cadillacs from the first half of the 80’s.  My Olds at least had the hardy 307 instead of the miserable “HT4100” lump under the hood.

But one Saturday afternoon my curiosity got the best of me and I stopped to have a look.  My first shock was that Mr. Patton’s Cadillac was a 1989 model – far newer than I had thought it was.  Mr. Patton saw me looking and walked out.  They had bought it new as Mrs. Patton’s car.  “I switched over to Lincolns, but she always liked Cadillacs” he said.  Sadly, Mrs. Patton had died about six months earlier but he had kept the car, telling me that he kind of liked having it around.  Until it came time to renew the insurance.  Mr. Patton was a practical man and faced the fact that sentimentality can be expensive. “I decided it was time to get rid of it” he said to me.

I knew that this Cadillac was pretty much the mechanical twin to my car, but was a 4 door with leather.  It had about 89k miles and he wanted $5k.  He pointed out the only things wrong with it, telling me that it was probably due for tires soon and that the bumperette at the left rear was bent just a touch after he had accidentally backed into something. It was a really nice car but it didn’t really set my heart aflame either.  It was in really nice condition, but did I really want to spend money to buy a fancier version of a car that 1) I already had and that 2) I wasn’t really in love with?  The color didn’t help make the sale either – this Cadillac took my white car with dark brown interior and sort of stirred them together for a car that was a nondescript tan inside and out.

I will confess that I do miss those comfy leather seats.

“It’s nice, but it’s not much different from what I have, and I don’t really have a need to replace it.  I am sure you won’t have trouble selling.”  It was right after that when he got my attention:  “I am getting tired of dealing with it.  $35oo will buy it.”  A $5,000 Cadillac was interesting.  But a $3,500 Cadillac, now that was something else – let’s call it a serious temptation.  Maybe it might be time for an upgrade after all.  The next day I took Marianne to see it.  She liked the 4 doors and thought it might be a good idea.  Actually, she had never really liked that Oldsmobile so she was probably happy to see it go.  A test drive proved that the transmission shifted right and that the air conditioner blew cold.  With those things satisfied, I shook hands with Mr. Patton and became a Cadillac Man again after a twenty-plus year break.

I still remembered my long-ago experience with the 1963 Fleetwood – an experience where I got two for the price of one: a car and a handy vacuum for my wallet.  My long-deceased car-mentor Howard’s words still rung in my ears: “Never buy an old luxury car.”  But I convinced myself that this one didn’t really qualify.  Wasn’t it the same thing as the Buick and the Oldsmobile I had already experienced?  Wasn’t this one built mostly out of the GM parts bin and not from parts made by little Cadillac elves in the old Cadillac plant on Clark Street?

This was another car that left me with mixed feelings.  The leather was really nice – the look, the feel and the smell.  At 12 years old the car was still new enough to be marginally respectable.  My children thought it was the greatest car ever.  But it was a lot like the Oldsmobile in that it just wasn’t what I loved.  Also, it was hard to forget my old black Fleetwood, which constantly reminded me of how Cadillac had come down in the world in the intervening years.  Maybe that was why those wreaths and crests were plastered everywhere around the inside – to remind you that you were indeed in a Cadillac.  At least Cadillac was still using what appeared to be the same outside door handles.

It is also funny how two cars with similar powertrains and bodies could have such different personalities.  The Cadillac did not require premium fuel and did not suffer the electrical issues that had plagued the Oldsmobile.  However, this car had a minor but persistent powertrain vibration that the Olds never had.  But it wasn’t anything bad enough to turn my mechanic loose on.  And there was that auto temp control again.  The Cadillac used a more complex system than the Olds.  But where the a/c worked fine, sometimes heat would only blow with the “defrost” button pushed. Which led to some cold feet from time to time on random days when the system was being stubborn.  I will admit to some surprise that the automatic air-leveling rear suspension never gave me any trouble.

Then there was that dashboard.  In the summer of 1978 I took a job at a good sized funeral home.  Between the 1977 and 78 hearses (two of each) and a ’77 Fleetwood sedan, I spent a lot of time staring at that dashboard.  I had found it one of the least attractive dashes I could remember, big and flat with that odd bulging center section and the little toy-sized speedometer.  I had figured then that GM would re-design it in the coming years.  But they never did.  25 years later I was still staring at the same dash design.  Really Cadillac?

This car hit the peak of our kids’ grade school/middle school years, and I have a lot of pleasant memories of shuttling kids to games and activities.  There is nothing like listening to two or three 6th graders in the back seat talking to each other about the things 6th graders talk about (somehow oblivious to the fact that I was hearing every word).  We were past the kiddie seat years and the Cadillac was now just as convenient as the Ford van for when fewer than all five of us needed to go someplace.  People would ask me if it got bad gas mileage and I would reply that it was our family’s economy car – it really did get better mileage than the Club Wagon did, and I never had any hesitation driving it long distances.

Where the Club Wagon had one of the weaker air conditioning systems I had ever owned, the system in the Cadillac was one of the best I ever had.  Marianne has never been a hot weather girl and there is no better car in her book than one with really good aircon.  Our hot weather routine continued, where it would be explained to me that I would have the Club Wagon for the day so she could drive a cool car for her carpooling route.  It was a small price to pay for marital bliss.  Unfortunately, the Cadillac squandered it’s one real selling point for Marianne when, in its 4th year with us, the compressor started cutting out at idle, making the a/c no better than the van’s in hot city traffic.  The cause eluded my mechanic – or maybe he was just getting sick of working on my old cars.

When I had been young I had worked hard to push almost all of my cars to their top speed.  I wised up as I aged, but this Cadillac saw that skillset dusted off.  Marianne and I had been in northwest Ohio for a relative’s funeral.  We had taken the Cadillac because is there any occasion better suited for such a car?  I had not realized it but Marianne had been in increasing pain as the day went on.  At the cemetery there was no hiding it any longer, and she told me that she was sure she had a kidney stone.  I asked if she needed to go to a local hospital.  Her reply was to “Get. Home. Now.”

The longer we went the worse she got.  We were on State Road 67, a two lane highway between Celina, Ohio and Portland, Indiana.  I cannot tell you how fast we were going because the numbers on the speedometer stopped at 85.  I reverted to my flying days with my eyes sweeping the view ahead in four quadrants, looking for any movement or threat.  The weather was clear, the sun was behind me and there was very little traffic.  I recognized an oncoming car as a Crown Victoria.  With a black grille.  Shit.  I was probably 100 yards to his rear by the time he flicked on his lights and turned around, but by then I was already slowing down and pulling over.  When the cop got to my open window, Marianne was in unmistakable agony.  I was told where the hospital was in Portland, told to slow down, and was back on my way.  We did spend a few hours in that ER before resuming our trip home.

My oldest, in 8th Grade. He is a Dominican Catholic priest now.

All in all, the Cadillac was a good steed for the 4 years I had it.  I recall having to replace a wiper switch – which was still available at a local dealer’s parts counter (although with a light bulb that lit with a different hue from the rest of the backlit controls).  But age was starting to catch up with it with little things started to go wrong here and there.  Nothing catastrophic, but things like a water leak in the trunk and the need to wire the plastic grille into place after the mounting tabs got brittle and broke.  And this car shared one quirk that also affected the navy blue Buick and the white Olds – the paint on the hood suffered from minute checking or cracking, which made it difficult to keep a good shine on it.  It wasn’t just sun exposure and fragile lacquer paint, because the fender tops and header panels that surrounded the hood on all three cars shined like mad.

But that paint also made me a little money.  We were getting breakfast one Sunday when a guy came into the restaurant asking if anyone owned a tan Cadillac.  A woman had scuffed the left rear quarter panel with the rubber strip on her bumper as she parked her car, and this guy was a witness who wasn’t going to let her get by with it.  The metal wasn’t dented or creased, but the paint got a little friction burn.  I got her insurance information and decided to get a couple of estimates.  The prices came back crazy-high because almost nobody was spraying old-style single-stage lacquer any more by then, and I had to go to a guy who did restorations.  I got a check from the insurance company for far more than it should have been – over $1,000, as I recall.  When I suggested making an appointment at the body shop, the finance committee at my house quickly vetoed that suggestion.  “You are not putting that kind of money into this car.”  I buffed the area out as best I could and was happy that my cost of ownership had dropped fairly substantially due to a flaw that most people would never notice.

In the late spring of 2005 a situation presented itself and I knew that my next car was on deck.  But for reasons to be set out in a future chapter, it was going to be a few months before that next car became available.  It was then that the Cadillac’s fate was sealed and I lost any desire to spend money on it unless absolutely necessary.  The transmission was beginning to behave oddly, upshifting really early, but only when warmed up and on hot days.  It was my suspicion that the car needed a radiator because those symptoms all pointed towards a transmission cooling problem.  But it was only a suspicion because unlike my ’63 there was no temp gauge.  But by this time the Cadillac was a 16  year old car with probably 130k on the odometer and I was ready to move on.

My middle son on the way home from a 6th grade basketball game. He just got married and writes for an education content company.

I had a little more trouble selling it than I had expected to.  During my 4 years with the car, I had received almost constant offers to buy it.  This was a car that was very popular among young guys and I lost count of the number of guys working at a fast food drive through or at a car wash who asked me if it was for sale.  I remember one older guy admiring it when I was putting change in a downtown parking meter, telling me to be careful because “some of them young bloods will hurt you for a car like this.” But when I put some “For Sale” signs in the windows, I got no offers and had to resort to a advertising it.

My daughter as a 4th grade cheerleader.  She just got married too and works in the office for a nonprofit.

This Cadillac was a lot like the Oldsmobile before it – a good, serviceable car that mostly did its job without drama, but without creating any joy either.  But at least it did so whilst swaddling me in leather and brandishing a Cadillac crest at the end of the hood to make me feel like a   capitalist fat cat.  Thinking back, my recent history had evolved from getting rid of cars because I had fallen in love with something else to keeping them until there was a reason to move on.  It occurs to me that the only cars I could recall being eager to move on from were the kinds of cars I had traditionally loved the most – the navy blue Crown Vic, the Oldsmobile and this one.

There have been some spirited debates among we here at CC about the effects of CAFE on big American cars.  There is the argument that this segment was dying for other reasons, and there is certainly data to support that view.  BUT – there is another data point.  I may be an outlier, but the large American car had no bigger fan than yours truly.  Most of my favorite cars had been the big American sleds of yore.  But I had given the last examples of the genre a more than fair chance to win my love – and they failed.  These cars were underpowered to start with and geared in a way to make the situation worse.  There was zero incentive for US manufacturers to invest in these designs, and they let them rot on the vines after 1979 or 1980.  If a big-car fanboy like me could not gin up enthusiasm for one of these, how could anyone else be expected to?  I had, by now, spent ten years behind the wheels of three of the best examples offered.  I don’t miss any of them.

But my next car would be an improvement – finally I would be back behind the wheel of something I was enthusiastic about.