Cohort Classic: 1986 Cadillac Eldorado – Reaching the US Mainland; Pointless Detours And Dubious Decisions

A lot of memories, with a bit of Cadillac thrown in.

In December of 1987 my Mom, Brother, and I were to reach the US mainland for the first time, after four days of bus riding through Guatemala and Mexico. The destination for our most unlikely trip was the city of New Orleans, and it was during our brief stay in the Big Easy that I enjoyed my only ride in a Cadillac ever. It was a nicely appointed ’86 Eldorado with a mauvish Quartz Firemist finish and chrome with gold accents. Not too different from this ’88 captured by canadiancatgreen at the Cohort.

If this whole setup sounds convoluted to you, it was. For starters, you’ll notice I’m taking some pains to mention ‘US mainland.’ With us being Puerto Ricans, we always considered ourselves Americans. One could start splitting hairs about how American Puerto Rico really is, but for all effects and purposes, it’s a US territory. Even the pro-independence movement admits it so; if not, why would they be fighting for independence?

But that doesn’t take away that the relationship between the US and Puerto Rico is a peculiar one. Through my time in the US, few Americans knew the island was a US territory. Then, while the island enjoys many of the material goods that come from being part of the US, it’s culturally very different. And with a half-ocean distance between the two places, it’s kind of hard to imagine what life in the ‘real’ USA is like.

Needless to say, the move to the US was a big deal for all of us. After living eleven years in El Salvador, we were not only going back to US land but to the MAINLAND. The equivalent of a Londinium resident reaching Rome back in 50AD.

How said trip came about was part of a cockamamie plan of Mom’s. With El Salvador going through a Civil War, she had long yearned to return to Puerto Rico. But moves aren’t easy, especially from nation to nation. Besides daunting aspects like getting a job, housing, etc. there was one formidable obstacle: her deep-seated dread of flying. A kind of difficult-to-avoid reality when returning to an island.

Instead of the obligatory flight, a far-fetched plot of moving to New Orleans was hatched. A relative of a friend of a Salvadorian friend (try to follow that) was to help us while Mom settled into a new life. Notice, we had never met these Salvadorians who were to accommodate us in New Orleans. It was all done through intermediaries and it all sounded beyond dubious. But who were we to argue with her? Dissent was near treason in her mind. And also, we were Catholics. Pointless penance was part of our existence.

The Guatemala – Mexico border.


So off we went. After 4 days of bus travel through nations not known for their safety, we reached our destination, the good ol’ USA. It was quite an adventure, and at some point, I’ll have to share it. But since there are no Cadillacs on that ride, we’ll skip that part of the ordeal.

I believe this next bit of the plot is the easiest to predict. A tired but undaunted Mom took us to meet the Salvadorian family that was supposed to ‘help us’ in New Orleans. Throughout the meeting, they couldn’t shake the startled look from their faces, even if remaining amiable all the way. They were obviously very hesitant to get involved with us. Whoever Mom talked to back in El Salvador, overestimated the willingness of their New Orleans relatives.

While Mom was disappointed, the Salvadorians made some obvious points: Mom’s English was limited, and she was an older woman with two jobless teens in a city she didn’t know. So, why not just go back to Puerto Rico?

I often read about how charming New Orleans is. Its rich history appears often in some of my hobbies, like my liking for early jazz. The trouble is, I never got to see any of that ‘loveliness’ or history. Instead, after our impromptu meeting the Salvadorian family took us to a basic motel and left us there for good. To this day, the 4 corners around that motel are all I know of the Big Easy. Granted, I got to know those corners very well. But that serves as poor compensation, and the gray images of the 7-Eleven we frequented work rather poorly when reading Anne Rice.

Between the idle hours in our room and going to the gas station to grab sandwiches, there was little to do. From time to time, to spice things up, we would just step out to the hallway and stare at the street. In one of those, a first culture shock. Across the street, a ’70s El Camino stopped in a parking lot. The driver, a tall thin white guy, stepped out of the vehicle and walked away, completely barefoot. This is where I must have thought something like: ‘Gosh, these Americans are crazy!’  But I shouldn’t say much. In time, I realized Puerto Ricans aren’t much normal either.

While Mom mulled her non-options for a few days, our pointless wandering in the hallways caught the attention of a retired American. Yes, the friendly retired American. An unavoidable character in stories such as these. We were actually familiar with him, as we had often seen him seated in the motel’s lobby while reading the daily newspaper. I remember rather clearly the light beige beret over his scalp, the pair of square silver glasses over his nose, and his thin gray-haired mustache.

Either we looked like lost puppies, or boredom played a factor at that point. Whatever the reason, one morning, the retired gentleman struck a short amicable chat with us. Coming from Central America, Americans came across as nonsensical and direct in their speech. That said, his words may have been brief, but they were nonetheless friendly and welcoming. Having little to do himself, he offered to take us to lunch at a nearby Popeyes.

After being in El Salvador for a whole decade, let’s just say that I wasn’t quite up to date with automotive news. As the retired gent drove towards the lobby to pick us up, I had no idea, whatsoever, of what kind of make his cute little car was. It looked pretty neat, low to the ground, and sort of fancy with its mauvish metallic color accented with chrome and gold detailing. A new auto experience? By all means!

I boarded the passenger seat while Mom and Brother rode in the back. Up front, the Cadillac logo solved the mystery for me. The car was a Cadillac?

The interior was pretty sharp, with nice appointments and a comfortable seat; although the dashboard had a curious mix of dated and futuristic themes. As we drove toward Popeyes, the retired American pointed to the car’s console (which was kind of large and a bit intrusive), where a gold-plated plaque resided near the radio. The Caddy was a gift to his wife, with her name lovingly emblazoned on the plaque.

  • She never leaves the hotel room. We always come to these vacations, but she always stays in the room.

He shrugged his shoulders as he finished the sentence. Meanwhile, I kept studying the little details of the interior, which I found rather fascinating and somewhat perplexing. The cabin was airy, but a bit snug; one felt as if traveling in some kind of space pod over the road. The ride was nice, however, with the little car gliding over the streets, and with none of the boat-like feel I would later associate with earlier ’80s GM cars. In all, it was a nice environment to be in; and in retrospect, the cute little Eldo had only one fatal flaw.

My Mom’s questionable plans were certainly the result of unwanted circumstances, which was more or less also true with GM’s shrunken E-Bodies of 1986. You sort of know what they were trying to do, but can’t make heads or tails of how they reached their decisions. Later interviews confirm such feelings. At least in the case of the Eldo’s sibling, the Riviera, Buick’s head of design Bill Porter resumed “We had a terrible time coming up with a theme for that car… There was some psychological vacuum that foiled us in some strange way… We never did hit it, and there was nothing we could do about it.”

If my Mom had an unfounded fear of flying, I can only guess that GM’s stylists had a deeply ingrained panic about small cars. Or the government. But small they were going to be, as Bill Porter reminisced;

“During development, GM President Jim McDonald came into my studio and looked at the car… He wasn’t a car guy, so he didn’t see how wrong it was from a size perspective. Irv Rybicki came in and said ‘You know, there’s nothing wrong with this car that another twelve inches couldn’t cure.’ And McDonald turned to me and said ‘I just came from Washington. Do not add one millimeter of length to this car.'”

If one sticks by that testimony, sounds like there was panic of all sorts around the E-Bodies.

Cohort image by William Rubano.


We rode to Popeyes a few more times in the next few days with our newfound host, and I got fairly acquainted with the little Eldorado. My liking for it didn’t diminish, even if I found it a little odd. As I said, there was only one fatal flaw with the model, and it regards its intended mission; the car never struck me as a luxury vehicle.

The little Caddy just lacked the presence of a luxury ride, and it didn’t offer the right attributes to redefine the segment. Talking about which, the Acura Legend was released in ’86, and the Japanese newcomer was outselling the E-Bodies by ’87 (by model, not total). With awfully similar dimensions, the Legend looked like the future and it spoke to a new generation. Lexus was just around the corner, and buyers would shift largely to these new players and the established Germans.

Cohort image by William Rubano.


We spent about a week in that little gray motel, with the retired American giving us essential guidance during our brief mainland escapade. After a couple of days of being acquainted, he took us to meet his wife, who indeed existed and never left the room. I guess buying a few souvenirs in a hotel’s lobby makes for the whole experience to some.

Eventually, Mom came to the only obvious conclusion and bought tickets to Puerto Rico. I don’t exactly recall how we reached the airport, but I believe the motel’s management arranged for a shuttle to take us. And if you wonder how Mom found the will to board that flight, I do remember she was quite drugged by the time the plane took off (No alcohol, no illegal drugs. Just lots of over-the-counter tranquilizers).

We got a nice personal business card as a souvenir from our American hosts, but we never got back in touch with them ever after. They did leave the right kind of impression though, and I remember them fondly to this day. Such was not the case for the ’86 E-Bodies, which left a different kind of impression; but as my Mom’s experience proved, confused planning makes for unsatisfying endings.


Further reading:

Curbside Classic: 1986 Buick Riviera – GM’s Deadly Sin #1

Curbside Classic: 1986-1991 Cadillac Seville, GM’s Deadly Sin #21 – And To Think I Briefly Had One

Cohort Pic(k) Of The Day: 1986 Cadillac Eldorado, GM’s Deadly Sin #38 – How To Downsize Oneself Out Of The Business