Curbside Classic: 1988 Cadillac Coupe de Ville – How Not To Downsize A Luxury Car

(first posted 2/21/2014)    The 1980s were not kind to Cadillac. While in the 1960s they could do no wrong, in the 1980s it seemed they couldn’t do anything right. The shrunken new-for-1985 models were perhaps rock bottom for Cadillac.

Cadillac was a powerhouse in the 1950s and 1960s. They consistently outsold both Lincoln and Imperial and were, it seemed, in a class of their own. It could be said they were a victim of their own success, as the cars started to become less special as Cadillac chased ever higher profits and vehicle output. Starting in about 1969, Cadillac started skimping on interior materials. What had been chrome plated hardware was replaced with flash-plated plastic. Real wood trim on the Fleetwoods was replaced with the soon-to-be ubiquitous wood-grained vinyl. Starting in 1971, the C-body Cadillacs had even more in common with their B-body corporate cousins, while the Chevrolets became even more Cadillac-like, particularly the Caprice. This was all small potatoes compared to the missteps of the 1980s.

1980 would be the last time for several years that you could purchase a Cadillac and not have major issues. The 368 CID V8 was robust and powerful, and the new styling of the ’80 Cadillacs was quite attractive. In 1981, the ill-fated V-8-6-4 was introduced. It was a good idea, and today is used successfully on many vehicles such as the Chrysler 300, but in the early Eighties the technology was in its infancy and the cylinder displacement module was nothing but trouble. It could be disconnected, but the folks who were buying new Cadillacs were not happy with this solution and Cadillac’s reputation suffered.

1982 was even worse. The new aluminum block HT4100 was introduced that year, replacing the 368. Basically, it was a slow, unreliable piece of junk. At least the car’s styling was still attractive as it sat at the curb with its hood open. The Cimarron also came out for ’82, and the less said about that thinly-disguised Cavalier with a leather interior, the better. The 1982-1984 de Villes and Fleetwoods were not reliable vehicles with their 4.1L ‘hand tighten’ engines, but at least they looked imposing and were clearly Cadillacs. That would change for 1985.

Here is a 1984 Coupe de Ville. Still nice-looking, yes? As long as you traded it in before the warranty was up, you could probably enjoy this car, albeit with more than a few dealer visits in all likelihood.

This is a 1985 Coupe de Ville. Not so impressive, eh?

my Caddy is (barely) bigger than your Tercel!

They were introduced as early ’85s in March of 1984 and although they had more space and were perhaps more driver-oriented, most people had a hard time taking them seriously as Cadillacs. With the exception of the Fleetwood Brougham, all de Villes and Fleetwoods rode a much-reduced C-body platform, shared with the Buick Electra and Olds Ninety Eight.  While the Cadillac had an exclusive V8, it wore the new design the least successfully.

The Electra looked the best in my opinion, with the Olds in second place. They also had the benefit of a reliable 3.8L V6, instead of the self-destructing Cadillac engine. If you had to have a GM luxury car in 1985 the Buick and Olds were safer bets, and a real full-size Delta 88, LeSabre, Parisienne or Caprice might have been an even better choice.

1985 de Villes and Fleetwoods were now front wheel drive with a transversely-mounted version of the 4.1L V8, with a 4.3L diesel V6 as a no-charge option. The 4.1 produced 130 hp at 4200 rpm and 200 lb/ft of torque. Confusingly, Fleetwoods used the new body, while Fleetwood Broughams used the 1984 full-size platform. In GM’s defense, during the early ’80s most people thought gas prices were going to go through the roof. After the second gas crisis in 1979, gas was expected to hit $2 a gallon in a few years, so GM designers had to adapt Cadillac styling cues onto a much smaller platform. These shrunken Cadillacs were the result.

Not much changed for 1986. The de Villes got the wider chrome rocker moldings used on the Fleetwood, but that was about it. 1987 brought composite headlights, a new eggcrate grille, and slightly extended rear quarter panels with new taillights.

The big news for 1988 was a new engine, the 4.5L V8. This engine finally replaced the boat-anchor 4.1 and was much more reliable. Cadillac offered a new six-year, 60,000 mile powertrain warranty to back it up. The 155 hp, 273 CID V8 had digital fuel injection and was mated to a four speed automatic with electronic overdrive.

Both Coupe and Sedan de Villes continued to be offered. The full cabriolet roof, first offered in 1987, was still available. It actually did look like a convertible, as long as you were nearsighted enough to not notice the cut lines for the faired-in doors. You could also get a formal cabriolet roof in vinyl with opera lamps on the Coupe, or the standard painted steel roof – probably the least common choice. After all, this was a Cadillac, and lots of exterior gingerbread was the order of the day. Let us not discuss the horrid dealer installed grilles or fake continental kits that graced many of these Caddys.

Other than the engine, the 1988 models stood pat for the most part. Finally, Cadillac had a decent engine in their volume line, although the cars themselves still looked an awful lot like a Volvo 740 with a Brougham package.

That would change for 1989, when Cadillac finally restored the full size proportions, at least a little bit. The 1989s marked a slow return to what Cadillac stood for, and the Nineties would be kinder to the marque.

I ran across this ’88 Coupe while shopping for new batteries for my camera. I knew it was a 1988 as soon as I saw the 4.5 Liter V8 badge on the back, the only way to tell an ’87 from an ’88. That engine is probably the reason this car is still on the road.

It was in really nice shape. There was no rust and even the driver’s seat was not worn out. I do see these cars from time to time, but they are usually in pretty sorry shape. This one is identical to the Coupe de Ville in the 1988 Cadillac brochure. Someone must have looked at the brochure at the dealership and said “I want one just like that!”

Cadillac stumbled badly in the Eighties, and though there would be trouble with the Northstar later on, Cadillac gradually returned to health. The current CTS and XTS, while not as great as the 1960s Cadillacs, are nice cars. Hopefully they’ve learned their lesson, and hopefully Cadillac’s darkest days are behind them. After the 1985 de Villes, there was nowhere to go but up.