(first posted 7/4/2011) I would be willing to bet that there is no car that General Motors made more money on than this generation of Cadillac. For those under about the age of 40, when someone says Cadillac, this is the car that comes to mind. It should, because this was in constant production for about 16 years and in virtually this exact flavor for about 13. Nobody planned for this car to be around for so long, but just like the great old Vaudeville performers, the car kept coming out for one encore after another before finally leaving the stage.
The new downsized Cadillac came out as a 1977 model and was a huge improvement over the oversized jelly-bodied 71-76 model. The car lost about 1000 pounds but was still powered by a 425 cubic inch version of the great Cadillac V8. Unlike its predecessor, this car felt tight and solid and made of some better materials. Its smaller size may have alienated some traditionalists (I have long maintained that the smaller size of the 77-79 Cadillac was partly responsible for booming sales of the final big Lincolns during those years), but the car had a lot of engine for its size and was mighty quick.
The car got its first (and only) significant restyle in 1980. Much more than the original 1977 version, this car captured the essence of Cadillac. The only real changes that this car would see from here on out were under the hood. From 1980-85 Cadillac played an unending game of musical engines with the 368 (a smaller version of the Cadillac 425 for 1980), the V8-6-4 (a 368 with variable displacement), a 4.1 Liter Buick V6 (believe it or not), the HT4100 (a 4.1 liter V8 designed for front drive applications), the Oldsmobile 5.7 diesel, and maybe one or two others. These were cars that were bought in spite of their engines, not because of them, and the 1980-85 models are not often seen these days, although they sold fairly well when they were new.
When Cadillac brought out the disastrous 85 front drive models, this car continued in 85-86 as the Fleetwood Brougham (not to be confused with the front drive Fleetwood). It was evidently still too confusing, because in 1987, the car became simply the Cadillac Brougham. All of this confusion came about because this car was simply not expected to survive the new front drive replacement. But in what became a Detroit ritual, surging sales for the big now-ancient rear drive V8 sedans would lead to one stay of execution after another.
In 1986, GM finally hit the balance between fuel mileage (to satisfy the CAFE regs) and power (to satisfy complaining customers) when it grabbed the Oldsmobile 307 off the shelf to bolt into these cars. This is the engine that had powered the final rear drive Oldsmobiles and Buicks, and solved everything that was really wrong with the cars. Okay, reintroducing the 425 would have REALLY solved the power problem, but this was simply impossible with CAFE-imposed fuel economy constraints that existed at the time. With sticker prices well north of $30K, GM’s profit margin must have been huge.
The big Cadillac made it through the 89 models with virtually nothing but periodic grille changes (which were themselves little more than re-using grilles from the early 80s either in whole or with minor revisions. Some moderate trim changes for 90-92 filled out the run of these classic Cadillacs, when they were replaced by the 93-96 Roadmaster-based Fleetwood, the last of the big rear drive Caddies.
If ever there was a car that a company could have continued almost indefinitely (Checker or Avanti-style), it was this generation of Cadillac. Although the 1987 version sold about 65,000 units, it seemed to drop about 10-15,000 per year thereafter, settling under 14,000 for 1992. The final series saw an uptick into the 30K unit territory before dropping back to 1992 levels by the end of the 1996 model run. It is my opinion that GM would have been ahead to simply continue the original car (perhaps going back to the styling of the pre-1990 version, but with the more powerful Chevy 5.7 of the later cars. (So, is it Chevrollac and Oldsmollac, or Cadrolet and Cadsmobile?) Really, what would be wrong with 10-15,000 annual units of pure profit at $40 thousand a pop? A new dashboard with some airbags (even the Crown Victoria got a new dash with air bags in 1991) and these cars could sell in small but steady numbers yet.
This Cadillac was the last of the kind of passenger car that GM was uniquely good at. The cars were structurally tight and solid, virtually impervious to rust-through even in our midwestern climate, and insanely durable. In this part of the country, there are still a lot of these out on the streets. Some are the blinged-out customs of enthusiastic kids, others are like this, nice originals that have been lovingly cared for by owners who knew that they would never see another Cadillac like these.
OK, I actually have one complaint with these cars. Why could none of them ever hold a shine on the hood? I once read that GM used aluminum hoods do keep down weight, and surmised that the heat transfer characteristics of that alloy wreaked havoc on the paint finishes. Maybe someone else can say for sure, but my own 89 always had a poor finish on the hood while the fender tops shined like crazy. Ditto an 84 Olds Ninety Eight and an 84 LeSabre. Copper, white and navy blue, respectively, it made no difference. Can anyone shed light on this mystery?
To me, this period of Cadillac marked the first time since maybe 1960 that Cadillac built a better car than Lincoln. The Town Cars of the late 80s may have had their charms, but they did not say “Lincoln” the way these big Broughams said “Cadillac”. These were clearly not the quality of the Cadillacs I grew up seeing in the 60s (I once owned a 63 Fleetwood and know the difference), but those days were gone after about 1970, never to return. If you get a chance to ride in one of these, take it. Enjoy those soft crushed velour (or leather if you’re lucky) seats and the view of that Cadillac hood ornament standing tall and proud waaaaay out there. Or better yet, take the back seat and just enjoy the ride.