(first posted 3/31/2016) Most cars are representative of their times. This Cadillac Fleetwood is an example of one that is not. It was built to be nostalgic – to harken back to a time when luxury meant pillowed upholstery and opera lamps, when showrooms brimmed with 2-door cars, when fender skirts and tail fins were commonplace, when the word “Fleetwood” stood for something extra-special, and when Cadillacs were instantly recognizable. Although this Fleetwood Coupe is part of General Motors’ C-body family (which accounted for two-thirds of Cadillac’s production between 1985 and 1993), it is one of the rarest variants. Fewer than a thousand Fleetwood Coupes were made in 1991.
This car represents the waning days of two trends: brougham-style luxury and 2-door sedans. It was a niche vehicle to be sure – designed to appeal to buyers who fondly recalled Cadillac’s glory days. A counterpoint to the division’s earlier attempts at downsizing and modernizing, the Fleetwood epitomized traditional luxury cars. Whether it’s a tragic attempt at nostalgia or a testimonial to luxury done right depends on your point of view. But regardless of one’s viewpoint, the story of how a 2-door brougham came to be produced in the 1990s is an interesting one.
“Fleetwood” is a highly storied name in automotive history – tracing its roots to a coachbuilder that once manufactured bodies for high-end carmakers such as Packard, Lincoln, and Rolls-Royce. The Fleetwood Metal Body Company, located in the Borough of Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, was independent until being purchased by GM’s Fisher Body Division in 1925, and subsequently became fully integrated into GM in 1931.
Fleetwood continued to make custom bodies for Cadillac, like this magnificent 1930 V16 Phaeton. But the Depression killed the high-end and custom market, and Fleetwood came to be known as the top-tier Cadillac range for most of the next 70 years.
Cadillac’s Fleetwood range typically consisted of the 60 Special sedan, which often had a longer wheelbase and body than the DeVille/Series 62, and of course the Series 75 8-passenger sedan and limousine. Somewhat curiously, Cadillac dropped the Fleetwood moniker for the 1954, 1955 and 1956 model years, using only the terms “60 Special” and “75 Limousine.” Perhaps “Fleetwood” was sounding too old-fashioned in the jet-age 1950s? But by 1957, the Fleetwoods were back, in their typical role, except for the ultra-expensive Eldorado Brougham, which now occupied a rung above the Fleetwoods.
The Eldorado Brougham was a short-lived affair, but both of its names would reappear a few years layer. In 1965, the Fleetwood Brougham was an even more luxurious variant of the 60 Special, which soon fell by the wayside. And the Eldorado name reappeared on the 1967 coupe, also as a Fleetwood.
The RWD, C-body Fleetwood Brougham continued as the top-tier full-size Cadillac through 1984, after which things became a bit more confusing. The top C/D-body RWD Cadillacs continued to be named “Fleetwood Brougham,” but there were also Fleetwood versions of the new FWD C-Body that appeared in 1985.
These C-body cars were perhaps the most significant Cadillacs of their time, since they marked the second wave of downsizing for Cadillac’s mainstay offering, as well as the shift to FWD. Despite being 2 feet shorter and 600 lbs. lighter than their predecessors, the new cars offered similar interior space. Combining a contemporary, sharp-edged exterior with a traditional interior, the cars attempted to appeal to Cadillac’s existing customers, while at the same time attracting a new, younger clientele.
Sales were good, but not great. While not catastrophic like the 1986 Seville and Eldorado downsizings, the C-bodies failed to excite many buyers and eventually wound up being a disappointment to GM. They were too bland, too small-looking and not distinguished enough. This sentiment was perhaps epitomized by a 1986 Lincoln television ad, in which Cadillac was pilloried for offering generic cars indistinguishable from other GM offerings.
Both DeVille and the more heavily equipped Fleetwood were offered in coupe versions. In 1985 and ’86, coupes accounted for about one-quarter of DeVille sales, but the market for 2-door cars was quickly collapsing. Just 6 years later, that proportion dropped to under 10%. Fleetwoods saw a similar trend, and in fact, Cadillac did not offer a Fleetwood coupe for 1987 or ’88, due to tepid sales. However, the coupe was reintroduced for 1989.
Facing criticism for its cars being bland and undistinguished, Cadillac resolved to give customers more of what they wanted. So, for 1989, a new DeVille/Fleetwood was introduced that was noticeably longer than the previous model. The redesign provided more “road presence” (i.e., size, and suggestion thereof), a major expectation for Cadillac purchasers of the day. For sedans, overall length increased by 9”, including 3” of added wheelbase. Two-door models, though, retained the former 110.8” wheelbase, while receiving the same front and rear overhang increases as the sedan, resulting in a 6” total lengthening. The outcome was a design that harkened back to earlier Cadillacs, with a long hood and long deck.
Early prototypes suggested that GM considered offering fender skirts throughout the DeVille lines, but ultimately only the Fleetwoods gained this styling touch that hadn’t been seen on a Cadillac since 1976. It was the most obvious sign that Cadillac was charting a new (or perhaps old…) direction for this generation of car – ditching the notion of attracting younger, import-oriented buyers to the C-body fold, and instead reinforcing the car’s desirability to an older, more traditional crowd.
For the short term, at least, traditionalism paid off for Cadillac. Fender-skirted Fleetwoods initially proved more popular than Cadillac had predicted (Fleetwood sales averaged between 20%-25% of DeVille sales). Just a few months into their 1989 production run, Cadillac doubled its Fleetwood production in the face of strong demand, and even experienced some dealer shortages.
But while the DeVille and Fleetwood sedans met decisive marketplace approval, the same cannot be said for the coupes. The sun was setting on full-size coupes, and no amount of retrospective sentimentality would bring back buyers by the early 1990s. For 1989, Fleetwood coupe sales totaled 4,108 – or about 13% of Fleetwood production, which totaled over 30,000 units. But both sedan and coupe sales fell for each of the following 3 years. Significantly, the proportion of coupe sales tumbled as well, from that first-year high of 13% to 6% for our featured year of 1991. For 1991, just 894 Fleetwood coupes were produced.
Cadillac billed its Coupe DeVilles and Fleetwood coupes as the only 6-passenger luxury coupes on the market in the early 1990s, which was true, but clearly an uninspiring statistic to buyers. After an even-more-dismal 1992 model year, the Fleetwood coupe was discontinued, while the Coupe DeVille made it through one more year.
Rapidly waning popularity of 2-door cars had much to do with the Fleetwood coupe’s downfall, but the car’s somewhat awkward proportions probably did not help its cause. While the 1989 redesign lengthened both the wheelbase and overhangs on the sedans, the coupes received only the increased overhangs. The design – with long overhangs, an upright greenhouse, and a relatively short wheelbase – looked almost patched together. Fleetwood’s fender skirts and tail fins extending to the rear bumper enhanced the appearance of length as well. As the above comparison illustrates, the 1985-88 coupes presented better proportionality, if not distinctiveness, than the later, elongated models.
While the 1989-92 Fleetwoods appear similar on the outside, 1991 saw major drivetrain enhancements. A new 4.9-liter V-8 replaced the former 4.5-liter engine, bringing with it 200 hp and 275 ft-lbs of torque – respectable output for the early 1990s and a significant improvement over the previous 155 hp power plant. Furthermore, a new 4-speed automatic transmission and more advanced computer controls resulted in improved smoothness.
Few would mistake the Fleetwood’s driving experience for a Lexus, but these enhancements for 1991 now provided these Cadillacs with driveability commensurate with their sticker prices. The Fleetwood could now reach 60 mph in under 9 seconds.
Prices for the 1991 models started at $34,695 – about $4,500 more than the standard Coupe DeVille. For the extra money, buyers received several features that were optional on DeVilles, such as a digital dash, power passenger seat, a padded “formal cabriolet roof” with opera lights, and the “Computer Command Ride” speed-dependent damping system.
Additionally, Fleetwoods carried several unique features unavailable on DeVilles. The dashboard wood was genuine walnut, not plastic woodgrain; upholstery was buttoned, in brougham style; and the alloy wheel designs were unique to the Fleetwoods. And, of course, Fleetwoods sported fender skirts.
This particular car has been clearly well cared-for. Its Medium Garnet Red paint is excellent shape, its roof unfaded, and its Slate Gray leather interior (optional over the standard cloth) has few blemishes.
Even the floor mats are clean, although Cadillac made that job slightly easier by offering reversible mats. An aftermarket stereo appears to be the only non-original component of the car; while Fleetwood buyers could choose from two optional Delco/Bose CD sound systems, most buyers instead opted for the standard cassette unit.
Over the C-body Cadillac’s lifespan, quality and performance kept improving each year, such that these 1991 models had good fit and finish, a powerful engine (among the most powerful FWD cars of its day), and a smooth, more responsive ride. Under the nostalgic appearance was a thoroughly modern car.
But this generation of Fleetwood will likely be remembered as a time capsule. After several mistakes in the mid-1980s, Cadillac felt compelled to return to a tried-and-true formula of traditional luxury, appealing to its core group of older customers and repeat buyers. As a 2-door, our featured car further epitomizes this objective. It’s hard to imagine this formula being put into production by many other brands.
Turning the clock back in such as manner carries benefits as well as pitfalls. Cadillac did recapture some prestige lost due to its late 1980s overly-downsized errors. However, this car attracted few new customers – a significant liability in the increasingly crowded 1990s luxury car market. Eventually, Cadillac’s lineup would bifurcate: contemporary-designed 1992 Seville and Eldorado models chased a slightly younger audience, while a refreshed 1994 DeVille continued to carry traditional luxury qualities.
Photographed in Atlantic City, New Jersey in October, 2015.