Curbside Classic: 1980-1985 Cadillac Seville – GM’s Deadly Sin No. 17 – From Halo To Devil’s Pitchfork

(first posted 3/19/2012)    There were innumerable milestones in GM’s terminal decline, but the Cadillac Seville makes for a very convenient set of markers. In its four incarnations as GM’s most expensive car, the Seville almost perfectly marks the trajectory of its parent company; from the haughty over-reach and cynical pricing of the first one in 1975, when GM’s market share was still around 45%, to the misguided attempts to create a world-class sports sedan of the last.

But it was the second generation that really marked the turning point: the 1980’s were GM’s worst decade ever in terms of market share loss; and the Seville (along with that other DS, the Citation) kicked off that decade from hell in grand style: a near-perfect synthesis of wretched design and ruinous engineering. The halo car was now the devil’s pitchfork car.

A brief recap: it wasn’t bad design that earned the gen 1 Seville its (controversial) DS; it was GM’s cynical pricing that resulted in a somewhat improved Chevy Nova at four times the asking price. That, along with modest performance and quality glitches gave notice that GM was over-reaching dangerously. But its “sheer look” styling was certainly a refreshing break from the seventies bulge-mobiles, even if GM quickly destroyed its equity by conferring it on almost every mid and full-size car the company made within a couple of years.

The gen 1 Seville evoked exclusivity (before its lines were cloned) thanks to its finely chiseled looks, and was perhaps as original as anything that came from Bill Mitchell’s studios. It manages to evoke certain Rolls-Roycian qualities of poise and class without being derivative. Too bad Bill didn’t retire a few years earlier; the 1975 Seville would have made a fine last shot. But then what’s a retirement without a drunken office party and some fun under the drafting tables?

Speaking of drinking, this Cadillac V16 concept was rendered by Cadillac designer Wayne Kady in 1967. OK, I understand that renderings are where ideas are created and fleshed out, but take a close look at the size of the dash and steering wheel. I didn’t realize that Cadillac was proposing to put one of GM’s Detroit Diesel V16s under the hood; or maybe even a GM EMD V16 locomotive engine. GM had such great resources to draw on then; why not put a tug-boat V16 to good use?

Enough of that; it’s good to let our juvenile imaginations loose once in a while, and I would have been proud to come up with something like that in fourth grade. So here is the source of the Seville’s inspired bustle back; well, in America, that is.

Of course the origins are older than that, and obviously Mr. Kady had a certain RR Sedanca DeVille by Hooper in mind (or pinned to his drawing table) when he so lavishly rendered his creative vision for a future replacement of the 1967 Eldorado. His design was not chosen for that, but ironically, Kady did lead the design team for the 1971 Eldorado, another Deadly Sin. Actually, Mr. Kady may well become a DS record holder, since he also gets the credit for the gen3 Seville, along with a few other GM stinkers of the times.

Derivative styling: nothing new (literally). Bill Mitchell cast a wide net in search of ideas to feed his designers. It’s well known that the roof line and other knife-edge details of the handsome 1963 Riviera were also influenced by Hooper as well as other European coachbuilders. But there’s a big difference between synthesizing something original and just grafting on an isolated detail, like that bustleback trunk.

Although Kady’s red V16 design had been turned down earlier, after he became head of Cadillac exterior design in 1974 he lobbied for it again, against the objections of Cadillac GM Ed Kennard. But Bill Mitchell took a shine to it, and with his influence, it was adopted for the 1980 Seville.

At least part of the problem with the 1980 Seville is that its tail was never conceived to be used on a four door sedan. Kady’s V16 coupe concept was not used for the all-new 1979 Eldorado coupe (top), a rather rectilinear design that worked reasonably well enough. In a cost-saving move, the Seville lost its unique body, and was forced to share the Eldorado’s fwd platform and much of its body structure. That alone set up the Seville for its disjointed look: a very rectangular front three-fourths, with an abrupt change to that drooping tail.

What makes the original Hooper RR design work is that the sweep of the front fenders mirrors the sweep of the roof and trunk. All three lines converge at the tail; elegant indeed, if obviously a bit over the top. Kady’s V16 bustleback already looks inorganic and a grafted on. But it was always intended to be a coupe. Oh well, the Eldorado was out the door, so you take what you can get.

casey/artandcolour’s take on a Seville coupe is an improvement, relatively speaking, assuming the bustle-back speaks to you at all. It either does; or doesn’t. The 1980 Seville was a very polarizing design, and it’s pretty obvious what camp I’m in; and I’m unlikely to sway you if you’re in the other. If only certain other aspects of the Seville were merely polarizing, instead of just unmitigated disasters, like its engines. Who out there is a lover of them?

For some reason lost in the haze of diesel smoke, the 1980 Seville’s standard engine was the disastrous Olds 350 (5.7 L) diesel V8. To the best of my memory, the Seville was the only GM car thus cursed. One had to get an optional Olds 350 (160 hp) or the Cadillac 368 (oddly with only 145 hp) to avoid the 350 diesel’s self-destructive ways.

No need to rag on about it endlessly, but GM took shortcuts in its conversion from gasoline to diesel, and the result was that this engine single-handedly killed the Great American Diesel Epoch. Americans tend to be a forgiving folk, but then GM never really apologized, did they?

Perhaps Cadillac wanted to emulate the success of Mercedes’ 300 SD, realistically its main competitor. A tough act to follow though: the little MB three-liter turbo-diesel cranked out 120 hp, compared to 105 hp for the almost twice as large Olds 5.7. And these Mercedes diesels are famously durable, as we all well know in Eugene, given how many there are here still clattering away. I’ve been desperate but unsuccessful at finding any Olds 350 diesel powered car, despite the huge number built.

But in 1981, the W126 300 SD was hot stuff; thanks to its aerodynamic body it could hit 110 mph, and cruise effortlessly at ninety plus. Well, we could do a styling comparison between these two, but why bother? The Mercedes vs. Cadillac factions are deeply entrenched.

Back to the Seville’s engine travails. In 1981, things only got worse; much worse, actually. The gasoline Olds 350 was gone, and the Cadillac 368 V8 now sported the legendary V8-6-4 cylinder de-activation system. Two of the biggest engine lemons in one car; what a distinction.

Thankfully, Cadillac hedged their bets on a third engine choice, but it was hardly lemonade: the Buick V6 was now available too. Slightly enlarged to 4.1 liters and brimming with 125 hp, it hardly provided the kind of luxurious motoring Cadillac had always stood for. Given that the Seville weighed 4000 lbs, power-to-weight ratios for the diesel and V6 were back to what was common in the thirties or forties. Progress! At least the Buick V6 was likely to keep making some (slow) forward progress in a Seville, unlike its two V8 stablemates.

But hope springs eternal (until all the customers are gone), and in 1982, the Cadillac’s all-new 4.1 liter aluminum HT4100 V8 appeared. What excitement in the land; it was only the third all-new Cadillac ohv V8, following its proud predecessors of 1949 and 1968. But the great hopes were dashed as quickly as the following all-too inevitably happened: “failure of the intake manifold gasket due to scrubbing of the bi-metal interface, aluminum oil pump failure, cam bearing displacement, weak aluminum block castings and bolts pulling the aluminum threads from the block.” (from wiki).

The fact that this wonder of GM high technology made all of 125 hp, the same as the venerable Buick V6, only adds to the aura of utter failure that quickly consumed this little pile of aluminum. Even Mercedes’ notoriously weak-chested 3.8 L V8 managed 155 hp, and a BMW 733i churned out 181 hp from 3.3 liters. Oh well. Americans are a forgiving folk, right?

No wonder the Seville was a sales disappointment, selling at 40 to 50% lower levels than its predecessor. And the Seville’s demographic skewed the wrong way too. The Seville was supposed to bring in younger affluent buyers to augment Cadillac’s blue-hairs. Instead, the Seville’s median buyer was sixty, four years older than the Cadillac median buyer. More salt in the wounds, which were bleeding red ink. A remarkable investment, though; at least until it’s time to trade it in. Remarkable depreciation.

But there were compensations for the $60k (adjusted) that Seville owners paid: the finest space-age “woods”, tastefully tailored seats, high quality instrument panel components, and elegant timeless design of the highest international caliber; all designed to effectively woo the import buyer back to mother GM’s arms. Never mind the quality of how they were all lovingly assembled. Nothing less would do for Cadillac’s flagship luxury car.

Pity the poor souls who were suckered into buying those German taxi-cab Mercedes, with their penalty-box interiors. Crude, harsh and tasteless. Amazing what folks will endure just to try to stand out from the masses.

For six long years, Cadillac kept churning out these Sevilles, watching its market share decline like the slope of its “slantback” tail. If there’s any consolation in them, it’s that their gen 3 successor was an even bigger bust. And unlike that wart of a car, the slantbacks at least offer us…a hearty laugh. That’s good for the soul, even if it’s going straight to hell.

And here’s just the ride to take it there.