Curbside Classic: 1987 Cadillac Allanté – GM Deadly Sin #36 – Capitulation

This article started out rather differently than how it turned out. Finding GM Deadly Sins during the eighties is like shooting fish in a barrel; they’re everywhere; it’s much harder to find a GM car from that era that isn’t one. Of course, the Allante—which has somehow eluded our barrel so far—certainly qualifies; it was a classic dud during that era where just about everything GM churned out was deadly.

This should have been one of the easier Deadly Sins to write, but about a quarter of the way in, I realized I had gotten it all wrong. No; not about it being a DS and all of its obvious shortcomings. It was something rather different, and much deeper and more pernicious—GM’s cancer had been festering a lot longer before it made itself fully obvious.

Having made the wrong diagnosis, I had to start over.

My first take was the rather obvious one: GM’s decision to commission Pininfarina to design the Allante was the ultimate confirmation that GM Design had finally lost its way under the direction of Irv Rybicki.

Here’s what I had written: Can you imagine Bill Mitchell turning to Batista “Pinin” Farina in 1961 or so to ask if he might be available to design a Cadillac roadster—to be the ultimate image-bearer for Cadillac and GM—because he didn’t feel his staff was up to it?

Heresy!

But was Mitchell’s vaunted GM Design staff up to it? Once I started down the path of digging up examples of what his staff had created in terms of two-seater Cadillac concepts, my premise starting melting, like a clay left out in the rain.

So let’s go back in time and see how Harley Earl and Mitchell actually had envisioned two-seater roadsters and coupes for Cadillac, starting with this 1953 Le Mans. To the best of my knowledge—and limited research time—this is the first relevant Cadillac roadster concept, given that Earl had favored Buick as the brand for his milestone Y-Job and subsequent follow-ups in that realm. But by 1953, that all changed, as sports car fever was now a pandemic, and every division wanted to be a carrier.

Undoubtedly, the Le Mans name was chosen as a tribute to the success of Brigg Cunningham’s Cadillacs at that storied 24 hour race a couple of years earlier. But clearly, the Le Mans concept was more suited to boulevard cruising than a race track. It set the template for many subsequent Cadillac two-seaters: a way to preview upcoming styling trends a year or two before they were adopted by production cars, or to test new ideas for their viability. They likely weren’t actually feelers for a possible Cadillac two-seater, as that space was still being carved out by the new Corvette.

1954 brought the Cadillac El Camino.

Ans the La Espada, the open top version. They’re too big and ponderous, and with those Dagmars in front and big fins in back they look what they essentially were: shortened, cut-down Cadillacs, not a viable high-end roadster or coupe.

It’s clear that Cadillac was not taking the growing market for high end two-seaters seriously. This segment of the market was of course utterly dominated by imports, like this 1954 Ferrari 250 Coupe by Pininfarina.

More importantly, there was the 1954 Mercedes 300 SL, the first of the long line of cars that would come to define the heart of this market for decades to come. Cadillac utterly ignored that inconvenient truth, that the SL was the standard bearer for its brand, and as such a key element to its eventual success in toppling Cadillac’s hegemony in the US premium brand market.

Cadillac never tumbled to the fact that the 300SL was not just a cut down Mercedes sedan; it was a race-bred world-class sports car. That’s what made its reputation. It didn’t matter that subsequent SLs would be more like cut-down sedans than race cars; by that time its image was solidly established.

This key fact is precisely what all the premium sports cars from Europe based their success and brand image on: they were successful in racing, and established a genuine pedigree. This was something that couldn’t be faked, no matter how hard Cadillac might try.

At least Chevrolet got it, thanks to Zora Arkus-Duntov. Before he pushed to make the Corvette a genuinely competitive sports car, it languished and almost got cancelled. The 1953 Corvette suffered from that same cut-down-sedan image, with its standard Powerglide and six. That all changed, and very dramatically after the Corvette went racing and sprouted some genuine creds along with its vastly improved power train and chassis.

whose turn is it to push?

It’s not technically a Cadillac, but this 1955 La Salle concept shows how out of touch not only GM design was, but their engineering too. Its styling is provincial, at best; better suited to a carnival kiddie ride than something to even ponder putting up against the Europeans.

The fact that it was “FWD” without a functioning FWD drive train suggests that maybe GM did have the kiddie market in mind. It would have made a great pedal car.

And then there’s Harley Earl’s final blowout to the genre, the Cyclone XP-74. You like Dagmars? We got them; and then some.

Time to move on to the Bill Mitchell era, which I thought might yield some more promising concepts, renderings or models. It would seem rather obvious that the market for high-end two-passenger convertibles and coupes was growing steadily. The Corvette and its various concept offshoots was certainly getting a lot of attention by Bill, but what about Cadillac? Why not a high end roadster or coupe, to do battle against the “pagoda” SL as well as the various Maseratis, Ferraris, and such? Certainly they must have been pondering the growth of that market.

Here’s what my search for “two passenger Cadillac concepts 1960” turned up:

A two passenger coupe model from 1961. Pininfarina would undoubtedly approve. Such exquisite proportions!

This is apparently the first of a number of long nose concepts that came out of the Cadillac Studios in the sixties. And if I had to guess, it’s almost certainly the first of a long series of models and renderings created by Wayne Kady, who started his career at Cadillac in 1961, before moving on to Buick in the seventies. The recurring theme will be painfully obvious.

 

Ah yes; classic Kady, from 1963. I suppose this doesn’t really belong here since it appears to be a 2+2 or such, but it’s an insight into what was driving Cadillac styling in the sixties: Oblivious, to reality as well as the competition that was steadily eroding Cadillac’s image.

This one also from 1963 looks to be a two-seater, for what it’s worth.

Here’s another one, also attributed to Kady in 1963, has all the hallmarks of a roadster. Not a very realistic one, but then who cares? Cadillac was riding high in 1963, and who gave a damn what those guys in Italy or Germany are doing?

Actually, both Earl and Mitchell did, and they regularly traveled there and bought one or two of the best from the carrozzerias back to display in the lobby of the design Center, to stimulate their creative juices. Maybe Kady used the back door?

This one, also by Kady, got an official number, XP-840 (1965). Kady’s work invariably strikes me as if he were a sixth grader, who somehow got a job at GM Design and was told to just keep doodling away.

And his style, such as it was, continued to evolve, but only in the direction of ever-more outlandish.

It seems to have peaked in 1967, when this completely absurd V16 roadster rendering was made. Ah yes; now we’re really on a roll; something locomotive-sized with which to steam roll those pesky I-talians!

The Italians and other European designers did not indulge themselves in such outlandish child’s play. From the first sketch of a new car, it was always with the expectation that it was going to be built and functional as a car, even if it was a one-off.

My Google search for “Cadillac two-seat concepts 1970s” came up with nothing. Really? This was the decade of the Mercedes SL, when it steadily ingratiated itself with ever-more Americans looking for something with more style, image and panache than a…bloated 1975 Coupe De Ville. And if they couldn’t afford an SL, a 240D would do surprisingly well as an image-boosting alternative. Performance and doodads were not the criteria; the three-pointed star on the hood was the only one that really counted when you pulled up to the valet parking at the country club, restaurant, or in your driveway.

If you can find some evidence that Cadillac was taking this threat seriously in the seventies, in the form of concepts or renderings or such, I’d love to see it.

Meanwhile, others were stepping into the breach, resulting in a rash Seville roadsters. Even GM wouldn’t have done this, but one does wonder if the growing interest in these was noticed back in Detroit? Surely they couldn’t have not; they were too painfully unavoidable.

And then came the eighties, Cadillac’s—and GM’s—decade from hell.

 

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