Curbside Classic: 1986 Cadillac Eldorado – A Swing And A Miss

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(first posted 5/20/2013)     I have freely admitted to liking pretty much every Cadillac ever built. That said, there are some Caddys even I have a hard time loving. Case in point: The 1986 Eldorado. OK–first of all, if you haven’t read my ’83 Eldo CC, check it out (here) and then come back. Dum de dum…OK, are you back? Now, isn’t that a beautiful car? Yes, it is! So while keeping that lovely E-body in your head, imagine walking into your Caddy dealer in October of 1985 and seeing one of these...things…sitting in the showroom. Great Caesar’s ghost! What happened?

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The 1979-85 Eldorado was perhaps the best Eldo since the original FWD 1967-70 model. Indeed, it was meant to recall the ’67, albeit with a much more squared-off C-pillar. And just what was going through the minds of the Cadillac designers who gave us the 1986 Eldorado?

In a word, fear. Fear of CAFE, fear of changing consumer tastes…but mostly fear of gas prices and six-bucks-a-gallon fuel. As at the other GM divisions, the forecast at Cadillac was that gas prices would spike and never come down. In such a scenario, gunboats like the Coupe deVille and Fleetwood Brougham would sell about as well as T-bone steaks at a vegetarian restaurant.

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So Cadillac shrunk most of their lineup, which resulted in tiny 1985 C-body deVilles and Fleetwoods, and even tinier 1986 Eldos and Sevilles: Honey, I shrunk the Cadillacs! Only the D-body Fleetwood Brougham escaped the carnage.

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Bill Mitchell once said, famously, that downsizing a luxury car is like tailoring a dwarf–and his reference was to the 1977 C-bodies and ’79 E-bodies and not this kinda-sorta Eldo. I can understand why they did what they did, but try explaining it to the wealthy customers who still wanted their old-style Cadillacs. I can imagine some Texas millionaire (J.R. Ewing?) walking into a Houston or Dallas Cadillac dealer: “What the hell is this?” “It’s the new Eldorado, sir.” “No it ain’t! It looks like something a REAL Eldorado chewed up an’ spit out!”

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I will say one thing: The interiors were every bit as nice as before–and much less Broughamy. Yes, faux-wood had been replaced by silver trim (at least on non-Biarritz models), but lush leather and every expected Cadillac creature comfort remained luxuriously in place. There were new gadgets as well, including a Driver Information Center that displayed the  date, time, outside temperature and fuel economy.

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Like the C-body deVilles and Fleetwood, the new Eldo offered interior room quite comparable to that of its predecessor. Another interesting new feature was Retained Accessory Power, which allowed the driver to operate the windows, windshield wipers, radio and power sunroof for up to 10 minutes after shutting off the ignition. While commonplace on modern cars, it was pretty cutting-edge in 1986.

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Perhaps part of the problem was that this Eldorado was too small and modern for Cadillac’s traditional customers, yet too Broughamy to attract new, import-loving buyers. It was the worst of both worlds–and it certainly didn’t help that a year earlier, the N-body Grand Am, Calais and Somerset had appeared. Despite the Eldo (and Toro and Riv) being larger than the N-bodies, their resemblance to them was all too obvious.

And while the standard Eldorado may have been a little stark, the Biarritz–with its Landau top, wire wheel covers and extra chrome–looked like a cartoon Cadillac. “The new Eldorette Brougham! Half the size of our full-size Eldorado, but with all the luxury. Buy one for the Missus today!” And if that wasn’t enough, all 1986-87 Eldorados had the Self-Destruct 4.1-liter V8 with a special Cadillac innovation: Always Fail™ head gaskets. Oh joy.

It also didn’t help that most buyers of the mini-Biarritz usually went with the fake continental kit, Huggy Bear grille, gold package and wire wheels. Ugh–please give me a dark-red Brougham d’Elegance instead.

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Naturally, the anticipated gas crisis never occurred. Big cars came back in a big way, leaving Cadillac stuck with a couple of turkeys. Sure, while they rode nicely, had nice interiors and were MUCH better handlers than previous Eldorados, they were severely lacking Cadillac style.

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If Cadillac had had enough time, the 1986 Eldo might have looked like this–but when it was being designed in 1982-83, who knew that gas prices were going to settle down?

Fortunately, Cadillac rushed a stretched model with nicer trim (and even little fins) into production for 1988. Best of all, they also replaced the 4.1-liter V8 with the much more reliable 4.5-liter V8. They were much more palatable cars overall, and I really like them.

I personally have driven both a Garnet Red ’89 Eldorado (pictured above is the very car I test-drove), and a Polo Green ’91 Seville. Both were very, very pleasant, comfortable cars with nice handling, and the 1992 Eldorado would be even better. Still, the 1986-87 Eldo is most likely my least-favorite Cadillac. I would rather have even a 1986-88 Cimarron than one of these–at least they weren’t quite so obviously shrunken, and the 2.8-liter V6 could be fun. But if I were to run across a 1990 or ’91 Eldo–in midnight blue or garnet red, and with the 4.9-liter V8–I might have to have it for my very own. Luxy little rocket ships, those Eldos were! Well, except from 1986-1987.

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