Cadillac Of A Lifetime: 1991 Cadillac Brougham — D is for Divine

There have been many, many articles featuring the ’77-’90 B/D bodies on Curbside Classic but here is my COAL:  A ’91 Cadillac Brougham.  This basic body style, with a fairly major revision in 1980, ran from 1977-1992, outlasting communism and Lady Thatcher. 

It was a fresh look, as optimistic as things got in 1977, and a bold and dramatic move away from the ever bulkier and wasteful full-size cars with a new emphasis on quality. The minivan had yet to debut. Honda had just debuted its fledgling Accord and was still largely thought of as a motorcycle company; the Camry didn’t exist; the Chevette had debuted to a lukewarm reception as in 1977 gas had gone back to being relatively cheap; and “import” to most people meant the VW Rabbit.

This Cadillac was the car which meant you had Made It. For at least the first half of this car’s lifespan, a good many Americans, especially older ones, who could afford nicer things, still wanted a Cadillac.

By 1991, America had its confidence back but not in GM. The economy was doing well again after a short recession which left George Bush a one-term president, we had won the Gulf War, and Honda and Toyota had become the top selling car brands in the United States. BMW and Mercedes were contending for top honors in the luxury spot, Honda had debuted its Acura brand to great fanfare, and Toyota and Nissan had started Lexus and Infiniti to varying degrees of success.  Japanese cars were no longer curious tin can penalty boxes.

GM’s new bread and butter cars, the W bodies, were an undisputed flop in the marketplace while the Saturn project burned through money. GM’s luxury cars were confused, dowdy, and the prior Cadillac Eldorados and Sevilles had flopped. What was selling were budget ’80’s holdovers like the Cavalier and Cutlass Ciera and Century and trucks. GM came within a hair’s breadth of bankruptcy and had gone from a nearly 50% market share to 24 odd percent and the board fired CEO Robert Stempel.

Like Divine was a man in drag, the D-body was a Caprice in drag. A few inches extra in wheelbase and a few extra inches in the back, a more formal and upright roofline, extra chrome, some cladding, some extra sound deadening, and you have a Cadillac! It was a formula that GM had been successfully exploiting since the late 60s/early 70s. It worked well on this car—due to the degree of restyling, you’d have to squint to see the Caprice bones.

The D-body got its name when the C-body name was adopted by the new front-wheel-drive cars in ’85. Of course, this car was due to be canceled – why the C-body took the Sedan De Ville name that originally came with this car – but due to continued sales, doubts about the sales of the C-body Cadillacs, and amortized costs, GM kept stamping these things out. But this was a car that GM could, and possibly did, stamp out in its sleep. Perhaps someone was asleep and didn’t know that they were still making these things. It was even marketed as a tow vehicle towards the end of its life.

GM could do a big RWD boat better than anyone else. The Panthers that came out a couple of years after the downsized B-bodies never seemed quite as good in styling, space utilization, or build. I drove Town Cars when I was shopping for a new car in ’01 and I really wanted to like them, but they had a plasticky cheap feeling to them, an agricultural note to the engine, and a lot of the little interior bits were falling off on two year old cars. When my Dad was shopping for a new car in 2011, we looked at a new Marquis as a budget option and the visor mirror cover had shattered. On a new car.

I could not stand the overly busy and gothic styling of the ‘80’s models. Too many windows and lines. The Cadillac always seemed more restrained, simpler, better proportioned, and more elegant in comparison. I do not care for the vinyl padding around the rear quarter windows and would prefer the earlier, cleaner styling, but I’ll take the reliability and durability of fuel injection any day.

This particular car was acquired with a salvage title due to a minor rear end collision which bent the rear bumper and destroyed the bumper fillers which – well, they did what they were engineered to do. Despite all the internet complaints about 5 mph bumpers, in many cases, they saved the car from major and expensive damage. Here’s a bit of free legal advice: in certain states, like Georgia, you can request what is called a ‘cosmetic total’ from your insurance company if you have a low value vehicle in a minor accident. What this means is that the insurance company will not pay beyond the value of the vehicle to have it repaired, but the title will not be branded as salvage.

This did not happen, so I had to take it to a salvage vehicle repair shop, get another bumper, fillers, etc. The cruise doesn’t work and I need to have that repaired. In addition to pioneering biodegradable plastics in the fillers, GM managed to invent some sort of UV reactive electroluminescent lamps, so after the opera lamps are exposed to enough UV, they degrade and no longer function, so I would like to have that done.  Now with this particular car, it sat for a while so the valve seals are bad and it drinks a good bit of oil, and I’m questioning whether to have new heads or go ahead and drop an LS 6.0 in it.

You really cannot use the letters B and D without S and M so here is at least the S part. GM abused this car severely over its life by putting every one of its absolute worst engines in it. Somewhere out there, there must be a prototype into which they stuck a Vega engine. It started with the 425, which was de-bored to the decent if slightly inadequate 368. Then came the Oldsmobile diesel, and the V8-6-4 (which was actually a fine engine but for the flaky technology and negligible improvement in fuel economy). Also available was a 4.1 liter version of the Buick 3.8 V6, which in normally aspirated form was barely enough to motivate a 1000-pound lighter G-body.

Next was the “Hand-Tighten” 4100 V8, which developed LESS power than Buick’s 3.8 v6, then the Olds 307, which was slow and still carbureted when Ford had put fuel injection on its cars starting in ’81! Finally came the best engines, the Chevy 305 and 350 which were TBI. It’s not fast, but 170 hp in a 4300 lb car is a vast improvement over the 140 hp afforded by the carbureted Olds 307. Due to the horrible engines GM inflicted on these cars over the years, a lot of sales were lost to the Town Car, its only real competitor for the latter part of its life.

It’s not as boaty as perhaps its predecessors and does have some handling, although it suffers from the cheap off-brand tires that are on it – you try finding whitewalls in 2017! Despite the cheap tires you can plant it swiftly and accurately, with a fair amount of roll. It will do like those police cruisers although somewhat reluctantly.

What is it actually like?  It’s not quite as roomy inside as one might expect from the seemingly vast exterior, but considerably roomier than the midsize cars just below this, the FWD A cars and RWD G cars. Most of the exterior is front and rear overhang, and most of the front overhang is empty space, designed for larger engines never installed in this car. It’s a little bigger than a housemate’s Avalon inside and has lots of stretch out comfort. The trunk is quite large but a lot of it is taken up by the spare: the formal roofline means that the trunk opening is very large and you can fit a lot in the trunk.

A 4300 lb car seemed vast around the midlife of this car, when midsize fwd cars were around 3000 lbs; in today’s world of 5000+ lb crossovers and minivans, it isn’t as heavy. 1991 was the beginning of the end for colour keyed interiors, and it’s a lovely ocean of blue vinyl and leather and fake wood with chrome accents and real metal parts.

There are lots of courtesy lamps and a general feeling of richness. I don’t know if it has build quality, I’m not sure what that is, although there are a bunch of shims used to make sure the doors fit somewhere close to the body, which I’ll wager you won’t find on any Lexus ever.  One of the best things about this car is that the seat cushions in front stretch all the way to the backs of my thighs, which is fantastic for that all day travel.  The seats may not look like much, but they are supportive and comfortable.  There’s carpet at the bottom of the doors (when did that go away?) The entire car is made out of large hunks of cast iron. The door handles are metal, and not cheap pot metal, the entire door is weighty and substantial. The car has, after 26 years, many rattles and squeaks exacerbated by probably dead shocks, but it feels like it will go forever.

And it will. This particular example has now racked up 35K + miles in the year I have been driving it since the Caravan got T-boned. The previous one, given to a housemate, is now on something approaching 300K and still is going.  Curiously, although the Buick Grand National is roughly coeval with this car, being birthed in ’78, this car seems like an even more ancient throwback, a real dinosaur.

The whale-bodied Fleetwood Brougham that succeeded this generation never earned any real acceptance in the marketplace, due to looks, a cheaper and more plasticky interior, CAFE standards, an aging customer base, and a short run; ETCs and XTSs and ATSs despite technical ability do not seem to have the poise and swagger really needed for a Cadillac.  This is still a large, ostentatious, well chromed, well proportioned, automobile. Someone once said of a Saturn that it wasn’t a real car as you couldn’t imagine John Wayne driving a Saturn. You can imagine John Wayne, although I prefer to imagine James Mason, driving this car.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1990 Cadillac Brougham d’Elegance – Too Much Lipstick?

In-Motion Classic: 1987 Cadillac Brougham – Vintage Things