Curbside Classic: 1989 Cadillac Fleetwood – Deadly Sin or Greatest Hit?

For quite some time the popular consensus has been Cadillac spent the 1980s squandering their brand equity in the grandest of fashions.  With such product offerings as the not yet ready for primetime V8-6-4, the finicky HT4100, and the badge-engineered Cimarron, their formerly sterling reputation certainly acquired a goodly degree of self-induced tarnish.

With the highly visible use of long dead styling details, this Fleetwood certainly did nothing to eradicate this quick growing cancer of brand diminishment.  Or did it?

One could just as easily make the argument Cadillac hit a major league home run with this series of Fleetwood by tapping into traditional Cadillac strengths such as continuity of styling and unabashed comfort.

It is accurate to state I am rather torn about this Fleetwood.  To determine whether this Fleetwood should be classified as a General Motors Deadly Sin or Greatest Hit let’s gather these various thoughts and discuss them in a somewhat organized fashion.

This Cadillac is as good a representation as any for the concept of cars being a microcosm of the world at large.  As with life itself, this Cadillac has so many various elements to challenge any predetermined mindset.

It’s a Greatest Hit; How Could It Be Anything Else?

Like people, car models can have a bad day or two.  Sure the 1980s saw such things as the downsized 1985 DeVille and the HT4100.  Realizing the error of their ways, in the four model years following the downsized DeVille, Cadillac had been diligently working to overcome their styling and mechanical hiccups, knowing it owed their customer base something better.

One of the seven habits of highly effective people is the ability to learn from mistakes.  Given the changes seen at Cadillac showrooms it was obvious Cadillac had learned a hard lesson.  People were also responding to Cadillac owning their mistakes as sales were rebounding.

When this Fleetwood was introduced for model year 1989, demand quickly outweighed supply.  How often did that happen at GM during the 1980s?  That alone should be an overwhelming indicator of how Cadillac had tapped into a solid stream of market desire.  Such strong desire for any particular model is a rare occurrence and it should be the envy of any automaker.

One of the more obviously contentious pieces about this Fleetwood is going to be the exterior styling.  Okay, that’s fine, fender skirts and quasi-tail fins weren’t the hottest styling trends of the time.  Upon that we could all likely agree.

But think about it.  Cadillac had enough balls to offer something that was highly and memorably divergent from the sterile and homogeneous exteriors being offered by rival luxury manufacturers, primarily those certain two from Germany.  Those at Cadillac knew they were selling cars to the public, not the fickle and prissy automotive reporters at Car & Driver, Motor Trend, and their ilk.  Cadillac was richly embracing their heritage and keeping things traditional.

It seems some, such as said automotive reporters, often derisively scoff at keeping anything traditional in the automotive world, as if doing so is indicative of something undesirable and contagious.  This scoffing also seems to contain condescending insinuations how anybody wishing to maintain some degree of tradition is a luddite, backwards, fearful of change, whatever.

However, as we’ve established, Cadillac had the last laugh.  Customers responded to the daringly unique styling of the Fleetwood.  What’s even better, Cadillac maintained some of the styling elements of the Fleetwood on the next generation DeVille that debuted in 1993.

Remember these?  While we have yet to cover one at CC, the fender skirted look remained.  While it was more in the idiom of the 1960s Cadillac by being incorporated into the fender in lieu of the visible seam, they remained nonetheless.  Thank you, Fleetwood.  Your predictiveness is inspiring.

That alone is proof the market had responded in an affirmative manner.  Had it not done so this styling element would have been unceremoniously jettisoned.

No doubt Cadillac was enduring a few less than stellar years during the 1980s, but who hasn’t?  Hasn’t Honda had that automatic transmission thing?  Didn’t Toyota have that rusting frame fiasco in their pickups?  All makes, regardless of price, have their issues.  Think about it; they all have service departments full of mechanics.  Piling onto somebody having a tough time, such as Cadillac during the 1980s, is such an easy and fun thing to do.

This Fleetwood was a GM Greatest Hit.

It’s Nothing But A Deadly Sin

So what if labeling any car as a GM Deadly Sin is walking a virtual mine field, in which any article containing those two magic words will raise the ire of many?  This Fleetwood is a Deadly Sin if ever there was.  It was like a ball-and-chain affixed to the ankle of General Motors, providing nothing but a dead weight to curtail whatever forward momentum Cadillac may have been generating by 1989.

Let’s not forget the established definition of a Deadly Sin: It is any car that didn’t specifically counter GM’s downward spiral.  This Fleetwood is a poster child for that definition.

This poor Fleetwood has so many styling traits screaming for mercy, where does one start?  This entire series of Fleetwood is ripe for derision, the most obvious of which is those insipid fender skirts.  Cadillac had jettisoned that styling trait in, what, 1976?  That was thirteen years before this Fleetwood was born.  In a sense this Fleetwood is what it would have been like had music group Wild Cherry waited to release Play That Funky Music until 1989.  It wouldn’t quite have fit, would it?  Not quite fitting is the embodiment of this Fleetwood.

If Cadillac was out to alter their self-induced trajectory, this retro-grade mobile wasn’t the mechanism for doing so.  A person would have better luck driving bridge piling with a claw hammer.  What exactly did the Fleetwood contribute in providing General Motors, or even Cadillac, with wider market penetration or in improvement of their financial position?  Selling 30,000 cars in 1989, with volumes dropping precipitously each of the next three years, is not a contribution to either of those metrics in any way, shape, or form.

Cadillac wasn’t wrong to call it “America’s most distinctive full-size luxury car.”  That isn’t a compliment.

Taking the entire 1989 Cadillac line into consideration, this Fleetwood is simply an awkward player in a line that otherwise makes some degree of sense.  Even the antiquated rear-drive Cadillac Brougham, a throwback to 1977, presented itself in a less contrived fashion than does this Fleetwood.  With the various and painfully applied visual doodads, this Fleetwood looks like the girl playing dress-up with her mother’s clothing and makeup.  It isn’t convincing.

What is also not convincing is how the various nuggets of foofaraw on the Fleetwood could add nearly $5,300 over the $24,960 base price of the Sedan DeVille upon which it was based.  Let’s also not forget the Fleetwood Sixty Special whose base price was nearly $4,000 above the Fleetwood’s $30,300 base price.

Let’s think of this another way….the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that $30,300 base price of the Fleetwood equates to $64,200 in August 2019.  That’s on parity with a current CT6; that’s a lot of money for an otherwise dolled up car of lesser value.

Is that any type of enviable business model?

Well, at GM it is.  We ought not forget about the Escalade.  It’s simply a different execution of the same thought process.

The Fleetwood is yet another member of GM’s Deadly Sin parade.

The Conclusion?

Tackiness will always have an audience.  Cadillac simply decided to tap into this market with the Fleetwood.  Was it successful?  That is debatable; while there was no direct follow-up with the next generation of DeVille, some of the (worst) visual elements remained.

At the beginning I said I was torn about this Fleetwood.  I’m still torn but I will say this….

This Fleetwood is like a train wreck.  It’s a disgusting mess but I can’t help but view it with a cocktail of incredulity and admiration.  Perhaps it helps if one isn’t so cursed as being able to see both sides of most situations.

Found August 2019 in Jefferson City, Missouri