This may well be Curbside Classic’s most reviled car. Debuting at a crucial time for General Motors and for domestic manufacturers in general, the Seville bombed. Sales fell 50% after this body style was introduced for 1986, and coming on the heels of several other questionable products, it immediately brought Cadillac’s future into question. Yet, this example seems to have found a loving home. It’s in excellent original condition, so clearly someone out there is a 3rd generation Seville fan. That brings up an interesting question: What is there to love about this car? So let’s cast aside our prejudices momentarily and try to uncover the bright spots on an awfully dark chapter of Cadillac history.
The 1980s represented an odd time for Cadillac. Sales were high, averaging 269,000 units annually, but the future looked bleak and some experts doubted the brand could remain viable. Conventional wisdom said that Cadillac needed to adapt to younger customers’ preferences in order to survive. Coming in the middle of such a pivotal decade, the Seville was a make-or-break car for Cadillac. It broke, badly.
Originally introduced for 1976, Seville was Cadillac’s answer to the curious phenomenon of Americans spending lots of money for compact European luxury cars. Whether this first generation Seville succeeded or not is debatable. Two years into its production run, Cadillac’s General Manager claimed that a third of Seville buyers would otherwise have purchased an import. But ultimately the Seville was too traditional to win over import buyers long-term. Furthermore, with the original Seville based on Chevy’s Nova, GM management regrettably learned that a profitable Cadillac could be pieced together from off-the-shelf corporate components. That perception would come back and haunt the company before long.
The 2nd generation Seville took a different trajectory in 1980, with bustleback styling that mimicked a design trend so old it couldn’t even be called retro. Whomever GM targeted with this design, it certainly wasn’t folks who were shopping for European premium brands, despite this ad that tried vainly to do just that. With imports comprising nearly a third of the US luxury car market when the bustleback Seville was introduced, disregarding import buyers was a glaring oversight.
Seville (known as GM’s K-body), along with the Eldorado, Buick Riviera and Olds Toronado (E-body) was scheduled for a dose of downsizing in the mid-1980s. At one time this made sense, because most industry experts had assumed that big cars were quickly becoming unwanted relics. Instead, big cars came back in vogue rather unexpectedly… particularly for traditional luxury cars.
But downsizing was not the Seville’s main marketplace obstacle. As we will see, this car didn’t exactly chase the its supposedly intended target, the import competition (for which its size was appropriate). Furthermore, a few internal GM developments compounded that miscue.
A 1984 corporate restructuring took away autonomy from GM divisions – all engineering, design and manufacturing responsibilities were placed under new bureaucratic “supergroups.” With Cadillac’s responsibilities subsumed by a “Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac” group, the Cadillac division itself wound up as basically a marketing office. Envisioned as a remedy for redundant bureaucracy, this restructuring instead led to passionless facsimiles of the same concept throughout GM divisions. Seville was a car that needed to be distinctive; instead it became a cookie-cutter mold.
As if an insipid product weren’t bad enough, GM bungled the car’s launch. With much ballyhoo, GM announced that its E/K-body cars would be built a new, high-tech assembly plant in Hamtramck, Michigan. This was no ordinary factory, but a $600 million, 3.3 million sq. ft. cutting-edge facility using the latest in technology and robotics. Unfortunately (though not surprisingly), delays meant that Seville production didn’t get fully ramped up until wintertime, well after the traditional new-car season.
Given that bit of background information, let’s examine the car itself.
Seville was physically smaller than its predecessor – checking in at 16.6” shorter than the bustleback, somewhat narrower, and 400 lbs. lighter. But it wasn’t size that doomed the Seville, but rather styling details. We’re all aware that styling can augment or diminish a car’s actual dimensions; in Seville’s case the boxy, GM-generic design actually made the car look smaller. Coupled with luxury car buyers’ renewed preference for larger, and imposing-looking vehicles, this was disastrous.
It’s hard to imagine just how much styling affected the car’s evidently petite appearance, so let’s compare it to some other members of the Class of ’86. That year saw a bumper crop of new sedans, such as Mercedes-Benz’s W124 and Ford’s Taurus. Our featured Seville was about the same size as both of those cars, though it appears substantially smaller. This design issue has been dealt with in depth in our Deadly Sins article, but a stubby trunk, awkward C-pillar and poorly placed rear wheel well each share a good bit of the blame.
Magnifying this problem was what the Seville did resemble – namely a half dozen cheaper cars in General Motors’ stable, such as this Oldsmobile Calais. A Calais cost one-third as much, but without knowing the brands, who could possibly tell? If ever there was a visual manifestation of GM’s ill-conceived restructuring, this is it.
Interestingly, in 1988 Car and Driver tested a Seville in France, and the car received positive feedback on its appearance. It appears that if not associated with hordes of similar-looking GM-mobiles (unknown in Europe at the time), this didn’t come across as a terrible-looking car.
So, the Seville was poorly styled… but there’s more. Just what was this car supposed to be? A challenger to the Europeans who were eating Cadillac’s lunch in the mid-1980s, or yet another example of a traditional luxury car? It’s unclear if anyone at GM asked that question – or if they did ask, they certainly didn’t pick one answer and run with it. While appropriately sized to be a Eurocompetitor, this was an overtly traditional luxury car, with all the broughamy trimmings common in 1980s Cadillacs. That was a poor combination; the blend of a modest size and fantastic broughaminess answered a question that no one ever asked.
Already burdened with an unimpressive design and an unfocused personality, Seville was saddled with another obstacle: cheapness. Yes, the most expensive car in Cadillac’s line was too cheap to be taken seriously. 1987 Cadillacs carried base prices between $21,316 and $26,326 (for the Seville), meaning that even well-optioned examples stayed in the $20,000 range – or around the selling price of a typical Mercedes 190E. Another angle is that the Seville was priced closer to a Buick LeSabre than a 300E. The entire Cadillac range could probably have been classified as “near luxury” rather than luxury, if not for historical inertia.
Cadillac dealers didn’t help the brand’s image much. Many Cadillacs were festooned with add-ons such as this oversized grille and partial fabric roof that only accentuated Cadillac’s increasingly tacky nature. Though cheap-looking, this stuff generated huge profits for dealers, and therefore multiplied like a virus. In some parts of the US, it was unusual to see Cadillacs without this kind of paraphernalia.
Aftermarket firms such as Maryland-based E&G Classics (the originators of our featured car’s roof and grille) sold their products to dealers, who in turn charged customers hundreds, or even thousands of dollars for such accessories. GM should have put a stop to such nonsense… these decorative packages likely damaged Cadillac’s reputation as much as anything else – reinforcing the notion that Cadillac was quickly descending into obsolescence. After all, did anyone born after 1940 actually like this stuff?
Glancing at 1980s Cadillac division sales, things look superficially good. Selling more than a quarter-million cars annually during the decade, Cadillac’s production output generally rose throughout the period. But trouble lurked in the form of an aging customer base. “Traditional” DeVilles, Fleetwoods and Broughams comprised 60% of Cadillac production in 1980, and 80% by ’89. By mid-decade, the average age of B- and C-body customers was 60, and the rest of the model lineup wasn’t much younger (50 and 54 for Eldorado and Seville, respectively). While older folks bought a lot of cars in the 1980s, relying exclusively on the Greatest Generation was an obvious demographic trap. But it was a trap that Cadillac lazily fell into – intoxicated by easy sales.
Buoyed by a strong economy, the US luxury car market boomed in the 1980s, but Cadillac was increasingly shut out of the party. Though Cadillac sales increased numerically, its share of the US luxury car market plummeted – from 28% to 22% by decade’s end. Meanwhile, import brands’ proportion of the luxury market soared from 31% to over 38%. Industry experts became sour about Cadillac’s future. The brand’s offerings continued to ignore the European threat, and Cadillac’s main response to that threat – the J-car Cimarron – seemed like a bad joke.
Business-related articles about Cadillac from the 1980s mentioned how the division needed to attract younger customers without alienating its older, loyal customer base. In retrospect, the way out of this dilemma appears obvious. With the Seville being updated for 1986, why not make it appeal to baby boomers (then in their 30s)… customers who were scooping up Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs instead? With the DeVille and Brougham lines fulfilling the traditional end of the market, Cadillac could use Seville and Eldorado to explore some new concepts, and Cadillac’s model range was certainly big enough to accommodate various tastes. If only that had really happened.
Now we can circle back to the love that this particular car has apparently received. And that begs the question: What did GM get right with this car? Of course, we can’t get too exuberant here, because each of these positives is more than counterbalanced by negatives, but nonetheless:
The Size Was Right. It’s easy to consider the Seville a victim of excessive downsizing for the simple fact that this car was smaller than the ’85 models, and sales immediately tanked. Yet the size of this car was wholly in line with imported premium sedans. If only the design was as decent as the dimensions, Seville might have stood a chance.
Equipped Correctly, This was a Good-Driving Car. Seville’s suspension was tauter and more “European” in feel than most Cadillacs. Obviously, that’s not a very high bar to conquer, but in terms of handling, Sevilles (with MacPherson struts up front and automatic load levelling air struts in back) lacked the blatantly barge-like feel of other Cadillacs. Interestingly, the option list contained a $130 Touring Suspension, which made a substantial improvement over the base setup– reviews of early touring-equipped Sevilles were quite favorable. The touring suspension showed that GM had the wherewithal to create a car appealing to that critical demographic of 30-50-year old import buyers, but again, the end product wound up being muddled and unfocused. That touring suspension should have been standard.
It had a V-8. American luxury cars should have V-8s, and the Seville delivered. Well, sort of. While a V-8 was indeed standard, Cadillac’s transverse-mounted 4.1L “HT 4100” engine was troublesome, prone to head gasket failures, and was also anemic. Delivering just 130 hp, the 4100 pulled the FWD Seville to 60 mph in a soporific 12 seconds. By comparison, V-6 equipped Buicks and Oldsmobiles were quicker.
Build Quality Was Good: Once the Seville’s new assembly plant was fully operational, build quality was above average for GM products. GM faced a bumpy ride getting the highly automated plant up to speed, but ultimately these cars were solidly built.
So there were some glimmers of hope in the Seville, though one needs to squint through a haze of doom to see them. It’s possible to see how a customer interested in a moderate-size traditional luxury car… a customer not interested in power, handling, or refinement… might purchase a car like this, and keep it for a long time. But there weren’t many such people, as sales figures attest.
While production of the 2nd generation (bustleback) Seville averaged 33,000 units annually – and approached 40,000 in its final two years – consumer interest in the 3rd generation cars nosedived. Only 19,098 rolled off the production line for its introductory year, and by the summer of 1986, GM was already offering a $1,500 rebate on Seville. Despite those rebates and low-for-the-era 2.9% financing, sales fell even further for 1987 (to 18,578) when our featured car was made.
Our featured car itself is a standard Seville, not the costlier Elegante model that added two-tone paint, upgraded interior trim, additional power seat adjustments, cushier carpeting and so on. This car did come with some significant options, such as leather seats, wire wheel covers, and a Delco/Bose “Symphony Sound System” that carried a retail price of $905. Seville also offered an optional cellular telephone for $2,850 (!), though the original owner of this car chose not to splurge for that.
The highlight of Seville’s interior was the genuine walnut trim used on the dash, steering wheel and console (Elegantes also had wood on the doors). This was tastefully done, and one of the best applications of wood interior trim of its era. With the exception of standard bucket seats, which seem oddly out of place, this was a strictly traditional American luxury interior – digital instruments with few readouts, a fiddly 18-button driver command center, and so on. If potential Mercedes or BMW shoppers got close enough to a Seville to peer inside, they would probably turn away before even opening the door.
To yield more room, GM created exceptionally thin seat backs on these cars. While that undoubtedly did free up some rear seat room, the seats look flimsy and uncomfortable, which certainly wasn’t a selling point.
The rear area benefited from those thin front seats. Two adults could fit back there comfortably – three in a pinch – and dimensionally this was on par with other cars of its day (though Seville did provide less legroom than other Cadillacs).
By the time our featured car was produced for the 1987 model year, its faults were well known. And in what some may call tragic GM fashion, many of those faults were addressed in later years – which of course wound up being too late to do much good.
This car’s introductory year went poorly enough that GM rushed an “emergency restyling” of both the Eldorado and Seville to make them somewhat more palatable for consumers. These styling refinements, appearing for 1988, were more noticeable on Eldorado, which received rear fender extensions, though the ’88 Seville also featured a bolder grille and “power dome” hood. Cadillac also addressed Seville’s lack of power by boring out the engine to 4.5L, providing some overdue muscle. (Remember how Cadillac gained back some engineering authority? They did good things with it.)
Further improvements came later in 1988 when Cadillac introduced the Seville STS. A bonafide sports sedan, STS came equipped with a touring suspension, antilock brakes, other performance enhancements, a unique four-seat interior, as well as visual differentiation in the form of unique wheels and monochrome trim. This is the Seville that should have come out for 1986. It could accelerate to 60 mph in under 10 seconds, could take curves without feeling like it’s capsizing, and benefited from the design modifications that were ridiculous to have excluded from the beginning. Finally, at $35,000 it was in the price range where Cadillac’s flagship should have been all along.
The STS wasn’t radically different from our featured ’87, and it didn’t contain anything that GM wasn’t capable of producing two years earlier. If GM had put just a little more effort into this car’s development – if Cadillac had retained its autonomy and earnestly chased a younger demographic – then Seville could have provided both a sales and an image boost to its manufacturer. Instead, it wound up being a textbook example of corporate mismanagement.
One estimate placed GM’s financial loss due to the C/K-body debacle at $500 million annually – certainly mindboggling, but greater losses came from unquantifiable measurements. Cadillac’s brand image suffered immeasurably, and at a critical point when the luxury car market was growing and evolving.
The love that this car has received illustrates that even a product as reviled as the 3rd generation Seville can have some bright spots. In the Seville’s case, with some more forethought, GM could have turned this into a much-loved car. In any event, I hope this example continues to enjoy the love it has found over the past several decades.
Photographed in Falls Church, Virginia in September 2018.
1986-91 Cadillac Seville: GM’s Deadly Sin #21 Paul Niedermeyer
1988-91 Cadillac Seville STS: Cadillac Shows They Get It… Kind Of William Stopford