(first posted 11/17/2015) “You won’t believe what I just saw!” I exclaimed to my father, who never shared my exuberance and passion for all things automotive. “What was it?” he asked. “In a field not far from here, I spotted a 1986-87 Cadillac Eldorado, with the rare touring suspension option, no less!” “So do you want to drive it?” he asked me. “Well, it has the unreliable HT-4100 engine and it’s pretty much engulfed by grass, so I doubt it runs.” He paused. “Is it worth anything?” he asked. “Well, nobody seemed to think so at the time – sales fell 70% in 1986 with the new model – and it’s certainly not a collectible now. But still, wow!” Anyone else might have been puzzled to see someone so excited about an abandoned and worthless car, but my friends and family know me too well.
No downsized Cadillac of the mid-1980s fell from grace harder than the Eldorado. Contrary to popular belief, the downsized 1985 DeVille and Fleetwood were quite strong sellers. Seville sales had plummeted with its 1986 redesign, but nowhere near the whopping 72% decline of the Eldorado. Lighter, more efficient and better-handling, the Eldorado was advertised as having “driver-oriented engineering… that brings the road alive”. But no downsized Cadillac suffered more aesthetically in its redesign than the Eldorado. Sales plummeted 72% almost entirely because of the way it looked.
The personal luxury coupe market was a very style-conscious one. The 1979-85 Eldorado had been a strong seller largely on the backs of its stately and elegant lines. The 1986 Eldorado, 16.3 inches shorter, had been a victim of GM Design chief Irv Rybicki’s edict to only offer conservatively-styled vehicles with formal rooflines. Rybicki had reasoned consumers would already be rattled by the smaller dimensions and engines of downsized vehicles, and there was no point in scaring them further with radically different styling. In contrast, Ford had taken the design lead and offered highly fashionable, aerodynamic designs like the Thunderbird, Taurus and Mark VII.
General Motors – and let’s get real here, it was GM HQ in charge as Cadillac had little divisional autonomy by this point – had anticipated a decade of ever-rising fuel prices and reacted accordingly. They had served up the most compact, efficient, best-handling Cadillacs yet, but hadn’t thought of a consistent way to package and market them. If the Eldorado really did offer a “tenacious suspension” and “exhilarating performance”, if it really was a “driver’s car” as Cadillac literature said, why not go all-in? Traditional Eldorado consumers were already going to be scared off, so why not forge a new path with a new and cohesive brand identity that held ‘excellent driving dynamics’ as one of its core tenets? And while they were at it, why not offer exciting new styling?
Instead, GM tried to have it both ways and failed. The old buyers were scared off by the new, compact Eldorado and any prospective new buyers would have balked at the thought of trading in their German luxury car for a Caddy, no matter how loud GM shouted it was a driver’s car. It’s a shame because the all-independent suspension, which included a Corvette-style fiberglass transverse rear leaf spring and air-inflated struts, made even the base Eldorado handle better than the outgoing Touring Coupe. There was still one major kink in the Eldo’s mechanicals, however, and it bore the name HT-4100.
Both unreliable and slow, the HT-4100 was at least smooth and exclusive to the Cadillac range. But even in an Eldorado weighing just 3360 pounds (over 300 lbs less than the ’85), 0-60 was accomplished in a mediocre 12.5 seconds as the V8 had only 130 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. Despite the boasts of athleticism and driving excitement, the Eldo also lacked an available manual transmission. The instruments were also electronic instead of the more desirable full analog instrumentation used by the Germans.
The featured car is a 1986-87 model with the optional touring suspension package. The engine was untouched, but the suspension was beefed up with a rear stabilizer bar and stiffer front stabilizer bar. The $155 package also included Goodyear Eagle GT high-performance P215/6OR15 tires and alloy wheels, albeit no other visual changes bar this badge.
For a much loftier $3,095 ($3,495 with leather), an Eldorado buyer could select the Biarritz package. Unlike most “driver’s cars”, the Biarritz package had a lot of gingerbread including a cabriolet vinyl roof, opera lamps, two-tone paint, walnut interior trim and wider bodyside moldings. On such a smaller and more nondescript coupe than its predecessor, especially one with purportedly sporting pretensions, the Biarritz package seemed just a tad daft. More appropriate options included illuminated entry, automatic headlamps (Cadillac’s “Twilight Sentinel”) and power seats.
For 1987, Eldorado had some minor tweaks including 12 new exterior colors. But production slumped further, from 21,345 to 17,775 units. GM saw how badly the Eldorado was haemorrhaging sales and rushed a refresh, which arrived for 1988 (pictured). A three-inch longer rear end, power dome hood and overall crisper lines helped return some degree of presence to the Eldorado’s styling.
Performance was also much improved with the arrival of a bored-out version of the HT-4100, now displacing 4.5 liters and boasting superior reliability. Thanks to 25 extra horses, the 0-60 sprint was now accomplished in under 10 seconds. Immediately, sales increased to 33,210 units. Unfortunately, it was a brief uptick and sales would continue to fall for the rest of this generation’s run despite even more powerful V8 engines and a new Touring Coupe model. The Touring Coupe even included visual enhancements as well as the mechanical enhancements of the touring suspension option.
But any efforts to chase BMW 6-Series buyers with a tuned Eldorado were always going to be hamstrung by the presence of padded cabriolet roofed Eldorado Biarritzs and Coupe de Villes in the showroom. To GM’s credit, they managed to improve the Eldorado each year and, despite the less “pure” front-wheel-drive layout that was shunned by the Germans, the coupe could be equipped to handle and ride quite confidently and comfortably. Sadly, Cadillac would take another twenty or so years to pick a cohesive brand identity and stick with it.
While the 1988 and up Eldorados were much improved, these early models were just too flawed to be seriously considered by most luxury car buyers. The styling was too derivative and eerily reminiscent of the much cheaper N-Body compacts (although it is better in person). The exclusive engine was also little reason to pick the Eldo over its E-Body stablemates, which were both cheaper and quicker. Then there was the Lincoln Mark VII, a car at the same price point but with a more powerful engine and much more regal styling.
Had I encountered the featured Eldorado in America, I would have still been excited to see it. With their low production volumes and questionable engine, there aren’t exactly scores of these around. But I would have been excited to see it because I was looking at a misbegotten failure of a Cadillac, a car deservedly rare. However, a 1988 Eldorado sighting would elicit a different reaction: excitement at seeing a rare car, but also the pleasure of seeing a rather aesthetically pleasing one. I can only imagine how shoppers felt walking into a Cadillac showroom in 1986 and what their reactions must have been. That’s why so few drove a new Eldorado out.