(first posted in 2010 at TTAC; on 9/6/2012 at CC) In 1977, GM offered the above two vehicles for sale. Squint a bit; can you see a certain fundamental similarity? Yes, the exterior skins and styling are somewhat different, but beneath the vinyl top and some other superficialities, you’ll find a lot in common, as is obviated by their shared basic architecture. They both rode on essentially the same platform/suspension, although the bottom one’s rear wheels were set back three inches to provide a touch more leg room. Both were powered by versions of GM’s fine 350 (5.7-liter) V8 engines; the version in the blue car made 170 hp vs. 180 hp in the green one.
The Chevy Nova (top), with more than a hint of BMW in its styling and underpinnings shared with the Camaro, was perhaps the best handling American sedan of its time. It was priced from $3,500 ($12.5k adjusted). The Seville (bottom), which was aimed at the Mercedes S Class, went out the door for about $14k ($50k adjusted)–or four times as much. Can you tell where this is going?
Admittedly, the Seville had its charms, mainly in the eyes of affluent, middle-aged women who had been hankering for a smaller, easier-to-park Caddy for years. And lest you protest the Seville’s DS categorization, keep in mind that the Cimarron, the universally-acclaimed all-time GM DS turkey, cost less than twice as much as its donor Cavalier. Yes, the Nova-based Seville undoubtedly proved to be among the more profitable vehicles in GM history, but at what cost? It also proved to be one more milestone in Cadillac’s long decline.
The Seville owes its existence to Mercedes, whose (then) superbly crafted and relatively compact sedans were making serious inroads into the American luxury market of the late ’60s and early ’70s. In contrast, the Big Three’s luxury cars had followed a more dubious evolutionary model: cancer. Eventually, their unchecked growth (especially considering the usual one or two persons aboard) reached the inevitable, terminal limit; historically, car-pooling and flashing one’s wealth have been mutually exclusive activities.
Women, who tend to be a bit less obsessed with exaggerated length then men, had been telling Cadillac for years that they’d like a smaller edition. The 1961-1962 Park Avenue with its shortened tail was a minor concession, but women weren’t exactly the decision-makers back then, especially not at GM. Eventually came 1971 Cadillacs that were over-the-top big, and none the better for it; quality was down, and they looked and felt like a tarted up Chevy Caprice. Meanwhile, Mercedes sales boomed. The Cadillac formula was broken, but it would be decades before they actually figured out the new luxury-car paradigm. Did they ever?
The Seville represented the first step in what Cadillac thought was the right direction. And Cadillac was quite clear in that the major driver of the Seville’s existence was Mercedes. Unfortunately for GM, the Seville’s successful first few years sent the wrong signals and only accelerated Cadillac’s demise. That was the bittersweet aspect of cars like the Seville, which helped propel GM’s 1978 sales to an all-time high of 9.66 million with a 46% market share. When women are tearing overpriced Novas out of your hands, it takes a while for that flush of flattery and pride to dissipate…say, about a quarter-century. Pride goeth before the fall.
Could GM have done things differently? They could have looked to Germany, where Opel built their Kapitan-Admiral-Diplomat luxury sedans to compete against the Mercedes S-Class. It would have been a logical starting point. The latest version, which dated back to 1969, had handsome lines (that undoubtedly influenced the Seville), featured a DeDion semi-independent rear suspension, and was built with precision–a bit too much precision, as it turned out.
The inability to maintain Opel’s precise panel gap tolerances in its U.S. factories forced GM to abandon the idea of building it stateside. But who or what to blame for the Nova-based S-Class fighter that was ultimately produced? The GM bean counters, who said it would be cheap and viable to cobble something together from X-body components? Or was it just Detroit’s old and entrenched belief that they alone knew what Americans wanted or deserved?
The Seville did provide a break in GM styling, and it was a breath of fresh air–at least until it became stale. It represented the tight and boxy new design paradigm at GM, and was the standard bearer of their switch from obese-looking seventies’ bulgemobiles to a crisp and very boxy future. Unfortunately, a virtually identical look now graced the entire GM line, especially the A-body intermediates. The rather bracing effect of the Seville’s arrival, in 1975, was short-lived: Within a few years, everything from GM looked like a Seville. No wonder the gen2 Seville was so desperate, and even more toxic.
OK, so the Seville wasn’t exactly a Nova with a squared off roof and gaudy interior. GM’s prodigious engineering talent had worked feverishly to give it the kind of quietness and soft ride appropriate to a Caddy. Indeed, its ride was as smooth and soft as every American luxury car of the time, so long as the pavement stayed smooth and the curves gentle. But the Chevy-to-Caddy transformation had added 1,000 pounds (!) of weight to the Seville, which naturally hampered performance. As averaged from two contemporary road tests, it ambled from 0-to-60 in a leisurely 13.2 seconds, and reached the quarter-mile in 18.3, while turning in mediocre, mid-teens fuel economy–and all against a backdrop of proud GM trumpeting of its new (Bendix) Electronic Fuel Injection! A unit that turned out to be quite troublesome too. The Nova could run rings around the Seville, but did luxury car buyers care about these details? Well, yes and no.
The buyers of Mercedes diesels didn’t; but they were after something else, which they sure as hell didn’t find in the disastrous diesel Seville that appeared in 1978. Buyers of Mercedes were looking for two things: superb quality, and/or the prestige that came along with it, even in a poky 240D. The Seville sold well enough, but just not at the expense of Mercedes. Its size and buyer affluence, especially in California, merely made it the Caddy for latecomers to the M-B/BMW party–and, most likely, to the last of their own.
That Cadillac was clueless about the rise of Mercedes and BMW was evident in the Seville’s interior design and instrument panel. Let’s not waste time analyzing them; it was obvious which one pointed to the future. Cadillac still insisted that it had something unique, or at least distinctly American, to say about the design of luxury-car interiors and instrument panels until finally caving in with a very M-B-inspired look in the gen4 Seville.
There is one good thing to be said about the gen1 Seville: It went only downhill from the start, and its wretched successors will have their own days of reckoning here soon enough. Of course, the Seville also spawned a whole generation of imitators (Lincoln Versailles, Chrysler Fifth Avenue) and custom freaks that blighted the vehicular landscape with garish and kitschy faux-luxury half-padded roofs, crests, and hood ornaments for at least a decade-and-a-half.
Yes, the Seville certainly was a real pioneer. It helped to launch an entire era of tasteless American cars. Or does that give it too much credit? Perhaps we need to come up with a new category: Beyond the Valley of the Deadly Sins?
PS: GM’s Deadly Sins does not mean the specific cars lack redeeming features, or are “deadly” in or of themselves. It is a continuing series of the many steps GM took toward its eventual demise. The Seville may have sold well in its day, but undermined Cadillac’s former position of leadership in the luxury car field, which it soon surrendered to Mercedes and other import brands. The gen1 Seville may have been handsome and rode smoothly, but the expectations of luxury buyers were changing quickly, and the Seville failed to meet them. It was not until the CTS that Cadillac began to fully embrace the changed realities of the luxury car market; about three decades too late. Here is a further explanation of the Purpose and Nature of GM’s Deadly Sins.