Curbside Classic: 1987 Cadillac Allante – GM Deadly Sin #37 – Capitulation


After a brief stint at Buick, where he managed to paste a vestigial bustle-back on the 1974 Buick Riviera, Wayne Kady found himself back at Cadillac as Chief of Exterior Design, a position he held through 1988. Undoubtedly the car he’s most proud of during his tenure there would have to his 1980 Seville, the culmination of all his boyish doodlings, even if they had to be butchered down into the context of a real functioning sedan.

If graphed in a line, Cadillac’s market share drop during the eighties looked very much like the back end of the Seville.

That was only accelerated by the 1986 E-Body Eldorado and Seville, shrunken-head versions of their predecessors. Cadillac’s image, or what was left of it, was shriveling up as fastas their cars. And as is invariably the case, desperation leads to bold gambles. Sometimes those work, like Ford’s 1986 Taurus, thanks to a genuine vision as well as competent management.

All too often, though, it’s just a crap shoot. In the case of GM and the Allante, the element of hubris hovered over that decision. Despite the implosion of its market share and profits, GM was still convinced that it had the answers. We just need us a Mercedes SL-fighter! A veritable standard-bearer; one that will restore the once-brilliant luster of the now tarnished brand.

Just exactly what the process was that led to Pininfarina being given the job to both design and build the messiah-mobile is a good question.

An obvious and pragmatic solution would have been to just shorten an Eldorado and cut off its roof, as I have done here so crudely using the digital version of a Sawzall.

Presumably even Irv Rybicki and the GM brass must have seen that although some parts of the country might have been thrilled with a factory Eldorado Roadster, the coasts were a different matter. It needed to be, um, better than that, better than anything Wayne Kady and his merry band of box makers could conjure up. The sixties were over; those V16 dream monsters were never going to be built, and the downsized eighties just didn’t inspire anything. He retired none too soon in 1988.


Of course it wasn’t the first time Pininfarina was tasked with a Cadillac job; they were contracted to build the limited production 1959 and 1960 (above) Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, because they could do so significantly cheaper than it had been costing Cadillac to hand build the ’57-’58 Brougham in its own shops.

In order to curry favor with GM and in hopes of keeping the contract going, Pininfarina built several Cadillac concepts during these years, including this 1958 Skylight.

And the lovely 1961 Jacqueline coupe. Not the kind of thing to inspire Mr. Kady, though; the hoods are way to short. With a bit of squinting, one can see some of the Jacqueline’s DNA in the Allante.  Squint harder.

So it came to pass that Pininfarina was given the job of designing Cadillac’s image saver. There’s only one word that come to mind: Capitulation.

GM threw in the towel on its alleged design prowess. Under Harley Earl, GM had created the first in-house design studio, and expanded it to become by far the most complete and professional department of its kind; and in doing so, created the template that car companies would imitate for decades to come. Before the creation of what became GM Design, all manufacturers hired out the job of styling there cars, with very few exceptions. This is precisely how Pininfarina became so successful, and became the designer for so many companies.

Ironically, Pininfarina’s design business eventually went into decline precisely because other manufacturers increasingly adopted the GM model, by creating their own in-house design studios. Yet here was the first and biggest one in the world asking to be bailed out by Pininfarina.

And what of the result, stylistically? Eh; not bad, depending on the angle, but certainly far from brilliant or exciting. But don’t blame Pininfarina, given what they had to work with. Obviously they were constrained inasmuch as the Allante was essentially an Eldorado Roadster under its Italian suit. And of course it had to have a Cadillac grille. And I’m sure there were many other requirements. Clearly it had to look like a Cadillac, for better or for worse.

Its weakest angle is in profile. There’s way too much clearance between the undersized tires and the fender openings, a stylistic GM DS seen on all of their designs from this period. But most significantly, it’s the cab-forward stance that kills it, inherited from the space-saving FWD Eldorado and Seville. It looks too much like it was: weak, effete, undynamic. The 1965 Mustang lesson had been forgotten.

That point was brought home forcefully by Mercedes’ new SL generation (bottom), that appeared in 1989. While the Allante may have looked at least more contemporary against the aged R107 SL, once the new R129 SL arrived, it was game-over for the Allante.

The issue of way too much clearance in the wheel wells is painfully obvious here. Botched details like this are deadly. It makes it look like its sitting on a J-car chassis. Prestige? Image? Dynamic? Nada.

The Allante came out of the gate in 1987 handicapped by perceived shortcomings of its 4.1 L V8, even if it did have its power upped to 170 hp. That wasn’t really all that bad, but first impressions are lasting ones; a more powerful engine  from the get-go might have helped some, possibly. That was alleviated in 1989 by the larger 200 hp 4.5 L V8, but by that time it was all just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Did PF have anything to do with the interior?

The dash exudes GM, with its 1980’s high-tech ambitions. No knobs or manual controls. Lots of buttons to push, though.

Everyone knows this by now, but just in case, Allante bodies were built by PF in Italy and air shipped to Detroit on specially-equipped 747s, for final assembly.

The Allante came well equipped, including a removable hardtop, and was priced at a fairly lofty $54,700  ($125k in 2020 dollars). The market did not respond as GM would have liked: sales were well below expectations.

For 1990, GM cut the price by 10%, reducing some standard content like the removable hardtop. Obviously that did not stimulate sales. 1993 got a final year boost, presumably from the new Northstar V8, which bumped power by some 50%, to 295 hp.

But that wasn’t enough to save the Allante, and production ended at the end of that model year. Clearly the Allante was neither a profit maker nor an effective halo car for Cadillac.

Cadillac gave the roadster/SL market another shot, with the 2004 XLR. This time it was Corvette based, so the stance, proportions and performance were not the issue. But it was even more of a dud than the Allante, selling at less than half of GM’s projections. In its final model year, 2009, al of 787 were sold, with some unsold leftovers were still being sold as late as 2011.

Despite the Pininfarina name, in the end, the Allante came off like what it really was: another half-assed attempt by GM to add some cachet to its intrinsically boring look-alike boxy FWD architecture. Too bad the Celebrity isn’t turned the other direction, as their all-too similar corporate front ends would make a fitting pairing.

It’s hard hide pedestrian underpinnings or escape history. Cadillac was clueless about two-seaters, going way back. Pininfarina’s attempt to dress up an utterly unambitious FWD passenger car platform was a fool’s errand. At least they made some money on the deal.


All of the GM Deadly Sins Are Here

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