Curbside Classic: 1976 Cadillac Sedan DeVille – Refusing To Go Gently Into The Night

(first posted 12/13/2017)          I have been on a streak recently.  Regular readers know that I have developed some strong opinions over the years about the cars that were common in my youth.  There are those for which I have an irrational love, such as the Studebakers of the 1960s (or the slightly more rational love of the C-body Mopar).  There have been others that have been a challenge for me (he said with more than a touch of understatement).  Like this one.  And they seem to be plopping themselves squarely in my path so that they are impossible to ignore.

As I have either gotten older (or mellowed, take your pick) I have cooled a bit in my distaste for the big General Motors B and C body cars that filled showrooms from 1971 through 1976.  At the time these were new I simply hated them.  Hate is a word that is thrown around quite casually, but I really did hate them with the zeal that only an opinionated teenager can muster.

I had grown up around GM cars of the 1960s which had all been quite good.  Every single one I can recall had been well built, well trimmed for its segment and elegantly styled.  I hated these ’70s Cadillacs for the way they failed to keep up the standards of what a Cadillac should be, and hated the “hey everyone, look at me in a Cadillac” attitude that I attributed to their owners.

There was just that built-in Cadillac snobbery by which it could claim to still be “The Standard Of The World” even though that title could no longer be fairly claimed.  Just like a person can be good at what he does while still being a jerk, that is how I perceived these Cadillacs.  Who bought these because of the way they handled or because of how they drove?  Pretty much nobody.  People bought them to showboat to the neighbors about how successful they were or out of some slavish, ill-informed belief that “Cadillacs are the best car you can buy”.  Which is why the sum total of skills that most Cadillac salesmen needed in the ’70s was “So what color this time, Frank?”  And this is why I couldn’t stand Cadillacs.

The final Imperial was more beautiful and the big Lincoln did a much better job of the kind of understated luxury that I considered more fitting for those who could afford them.  Isn’t it funny how we can fall into the trap of passing judgment on how others spend their automotive dollars?  But passing judgment is what teenagers are good at, so that was what I did.

You all know that most of my distaste for these had to do with their flimsy, juddery structure and their cheaply done interiors.  It also bothered me that people still bought them in droves, oblivious to their glaring flaws.  I still carry lingering shadows of these opinions, although these things are no longer the automatic disqualifiers that they once were.  I have come to admit that from a mechanical standpoint these old GM sleds had a lot to recommend them.  And none of these barges had more going for it below decks in the engine room than the Cadillac.

There have been lots who have admitted to not really liking these cars, which would have provided me with some solace had I been able to hear these opinions then.  But I sense that most others have joined me in coming around in more recent times.  In the ’70s, however, I felt like a lonely voice in the wilderness as these cars sold and sold and sold.

For a couple of summers I worked for a funeral home in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  It was a big place and had a large fleet of vehicles.  Aside from the obvious funeral coaches (all Cadillacs), there were limos, trucks and sedans.  Most of the sedans were Buicks and Cadillacs and I got the full exposure to both sides of the great 1977 divide.  There was a 1977 Fleetwood and a 1977 LeSabre (with the most underpowered V6 engine I had ever experienced in a big car) that faced off in the fleet against a 1976 Fleetwood and a 1976 Electra.  I got a lot of wheeltime in all of these and developed a pretty good sense of what they did (and did not do) well.

Although the pair of ’77s drove better I preferred driving the ’76s.  I didn’t like them (for the reasons stated above) but there was a certain presence to them that the newer downsized cars could never match.  They did what big GM cars had always done and done well – comfortably and reliably ferry its driver and passengers to wherever they needed to go, and stylishly.

The ’76 Fleetwood was my favorite of the batch (funny as that may sound coming from me), a silver car with a black vinyl roof and white leather interior.  Yes, I griped about its failings (finding it far inferior to the ’78 Lincoln Town Coupe that my father drove) but there was something about the car’s underlying competence that made me feel a little bad about ragging on it all the time.  And I will admit it – I felt like a bit of a swell behind the wheel.  “Look at me everybody, I’m in a Cadillac!”

Time passed, I finished college and law school and went on with life with nary a ’76 Cadillac in my path.  Until this past summer.  The car showed up in the driveway of a house in my neighborhood.  It was a beautiful car from the street, but I didn’t try to investigate further.  It was probably just someone visiting.  Besides, I didn’t know these people and . . . it was a ’76 Cadillac.

Fate, however, was not content to leave this situation alone.  I was backing out of my driveway on the way to work one morning when the big green Caddy floated its way up my street.  I followed behind, wondering if I would ever catch the owner stopped somewhere.  He turned into a shopping center, which got my hopes up.  Then he headed for another exit.  Just as I was preparing to disengage and get to work he pulled into a gas station across the street (a gas station – of course!) and I followed.  And there ensued a delightful conversation that took way too long and resulted in some pictures that you see here.

The owner is a self-employed fellow with a young family.  He likes old cars but wanted something fairly safe for carting his family around.  Yes, he bought this big boy to drive.  It was a basically nice car that he bought online and he has done a few things to make it a little more suitable for normal use, like some upholstery work and a little paint touchup here and there.  And those always-necessary plastic bumper extensions.  But that big 500 cid (8.2 L) Cadillac V8 and the Turbo Hydramatic 400 through which it sends its prodigious torque just do their thing without pique or drama.  Which is sort of what Cadillacs are supposed to do.

When I asked what kind of gas mileage he gets out of the big beast (we were in a gas station after all) he just gave me a big ol’ smile and shrugged his shoulders.  He is right, of course – it just doesn’t matter.  Gas prices are low and if a guy wants to drive something with this kind of presence, you just have to be prepared to suck it up and feed the beast.

Once a fellow gets to a certain age he has seen many a car go through the full life cycle.  They begin fresh and shiny in their showrooms, then become the proud possessions of their affluent first owners.  Some are kept for a long time but most are traded on another after a few years and the cars become middle-aged appliances that have lost a little of their cachet.  Eventually they become cheap beaters in poor neighborhoods that are depended on for getting their owners through to the next paycheck.  At least until that big expense hits, then off to the salvage yard.  Those Cadillac crests did not grant an exemption to the normal rules of automotive entropy, resulting in their becoming fairly scarce after the mid ’80s and all but extinct a decade later.  And then there are the outliers like this one.

After forty years or more it becomes apparent which of those shiny new prestige cars is still capable of doing what it was designed to do, day in and day out, as regular everyday transportation.  Every day in 2017 that 500 cubic inch pile of cast iron goodness fires right up and salutes, ready for duty.  It then gets to work, blowing unending torque in its wake, torque ably passed along to the pavement through some equally tough downstream components.

When these were new, I hated them because I considered them all flash with little substance.  But time has shown me that substance was what these Caddies did really well over the long haul.  This big old Cadillac has proven that as a comfortable way to get from here to there and back again, it still has the stuff.  Which it continues to garnish with some style for good measure.

Further reading:

1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham – Brendan Saur

1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham – Joseph Dennis