Curbside Classic: 1991 Cadillac Sedan de Ville – Save Me!

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(first posted 2/20/2013)   There has been much talk at CC about Cadillac’s multiple problems in the early ’80s–things like the V8-6-4, HT4100, the ’86 Eldo (hmmm…haven’t done one of those yet) and the shrunken 1985 C-body de Ville and Fleetwood. But today, I am here to talk about Caddy’s successes, and how in 1989 they made lemonade out of lemons by deftly restyling a 1985-vintage body. Finally: a Cadillac that didn’t look like a Volvo 740 Brougham!

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At first, the 1985 Coupe de Ville and Sedan de Ville had a rough time. They sold respectably, but their ticking time-bomb HT4100 engine and less-than-prestigious styling (some Caddy buyers may have decided on a RWD Fleetwood Brougham or FWD Park Avenue or Ninety-Eight instead) left a bit to be desired.


The 1985 de Ville/Fleetwood, Electra and Ninety-Eight were a mix of modern, aerodynamic “new luxury” exterior styling and traditional, Broughamy “old luxury” interiors. Some people were not so sure about this mix–least of all Cadillac buyers, who tended to be more traditional than most others.

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Still, you have to give Cadillac credit as they slowly but surely kept improving the de Ville. In its second year of production, the wide rocker moldings from the FWD Fleetwood were added, since the thin chrome trim on the ’85 (see the Coupe two photos up) looked awfully cheap, like a 1985 Calais or Series 62.

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In 1987, composite headlights, an attractive eggcrate grille, and 1.5-inch-longer rear fenders with wraparound tail lamps updated the lines and made them a bit less compact-looking. The best news of all came in 1988, when an honest-to-goodness-reliable 4.5-liter V8 replaced the unloved and unreliable HT4100.

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Then came the 1989 model. Finally, here was a Cadillac that truly looked like a Cadillac! Almost all of the sheetmetal, save the front doors, was new. Period car magazines proclaimed “The fin is back!”, as both the Fleetwood and de Ville got new sheetmetal with a very slight “finlet”, in a nod to the past. Interiors were mostly carryover, although the stitching style of the lush bench seating was a bit more Broughamy. Length increased from the ’88’s 196.5″ to 205.3″, and the wheelbase was stretched by three inches.

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Now these cars, in your author’s humble opinion, had it all, the same great glass area and scads of room (even more now, due to the longer wheelbase) as the 1985-88 models, but with more chrome and better lines. Cadillac owners apparently thought the same, as the new SdV and CdV sold quite well, permanently relegating to the background the RWD Brougham, which remained popular among older Cadillac customers and limousine companies.

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I had an experience with one of these when they were new. My Grandma Ruby got into a minor fender-bender with her ’87 Continental around 1990, and while it was being fixed she was given a new 1990 Sedan de Ville to drive. During my summer vacations in my elementary- and middle-school years, we frequently went to lunch at Bishop’s, followed by a visit to Toys ‘R’ Us for a model car. Then, we would visit Sexton Ford and South Park Lincoln-Mercury, where I would load up on brochures and try to talk Grammy into getting a new Mark VII or Continental (which she never did). I was excited when I heard she was getting a Caddy as a loaner, so of course we had to do lunch while she had it.

It was a beautiful shade of red, with silver-grey lower cladding, wire wheel covers and dove-gray leather–except for the color, it was very much like the one above. I was very impressed, and Grammy seemed to like it too. It may have been the first GM car she’d driven in about 25 years, her last GM car being a ’59 Catalina convertible that was traded in on a new ’65 T-Bird drop-top. My Grandfather had driven Lincoln Continentals and Marks exclusively since his first Mark III. The ’87 Connie, his last car, became my grandmother’s when he passed away in 1989, so it was not likely that she was going to get a Cadillac, no matter how much she might have she liked it!

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She surprised all of us, however, when she bought my Dad’s black-over-tan 1991 Volvo 940SE Turbo when he got a new 850GLT in 1993. I don’t think anyone was expecting that!

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Changes to the Sedan de Ville and its Coupe sibling were gradual. A driver’s-side airbag was added in 1990, and the 155-hp 4.5-liter V8 was replaced in 1991 with an updated 4.9-liter engine with 200 hp–a healthy bump, to be sure. The ’91s also got redesigned alloy wheels and a domed hood with a larger, more imposing grille to go with the new engine. The nose job ever so slightly increased overall length, to 205.6″ on sedans and 202.6″ on coupes.

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The 1992 and 1993 models were largely unchanged, though the grille inserts on ’93s were changed from chrome to black. These cars were the last of the “real” Sedan de Villes; the redesigned 1994 model would be based largely on the 1992 Seville, although with more appropriate and sedate styling than the “greyhound” 1992-97 Sevilles. The Coupe de Ville (and perhaps the coolest-ever car name) also disappeared after ’93, never to return.

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Our featured navy blue example is in fine shape, and obviously has been well-tended-to for many years. Even the driver’s side armrest, a notorious wear point on these cars, was unblemished. The leather was as new, and even the leather steering wheel wrap was not bad. My only concern was whether the digital dash still worked. Even if it didn’t, I imagine swapping the cluster for an analog version would not be too tough.

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I spotted this clean example in front of a local auto recycling company in Milan. Occasionally, they get cars too nice to part out and they’ll try to sell them complete. Several years ago there was a clean, navy blue 1990 Buick Electra (yes, an Electra–not a Park Avenue) with factory alloys out front. It would have made a nice car, but there were no takers. I saw it about six months later in the yard. That was a shame, so I hope someone buys this Caddy. It’s way too nice for parts fodder, and it even has a rare factory Astroroof!

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What I really appreciate on this one is the lack of, uh, traditional Cadillac dealer-installed items. You know, the fake landau tops, fake convertible tops, “classic” grilles and the like. The only slight demerit was the gold emblems, which seem to tarnish at ten times the speed of the factory chrome emblems. Actually, these don’t look too bad.

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I must confess to taking a page from Laurence Jones’s photography manual by shooting this car in the late afternoon. He’s right, you can really get a nice color range with the sun lower in the sky! I really, really wanted to get this car for myself. Save for the gold package, it is exactly what I would have ordered new in 1991 if I had 1) won the lottery, and 2) not been eleven years old.

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I have been trying to find a nice SdV and CdV of this era for a long time, as I have a real appreciation for them. There are plenty running around, but most have had the bark beat off them. Back in the late ’90s, when I feared my folks were going to put me into a dorm at school, I looked at several of these cars and even test-drove a couple, because there was no way I was going to put my pristine ’91 Volvo 940SE in a campus parking lot to be dinged, dented, vomited on, etc.

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Fortunately, that did not come to pass; the Volvo stayed in the garage, and I stayed at home. No cracker-box dorm room for me! But at least I got to drive several of these cars when they were still relatively new. With one exception, they were torquey, comfortable cars. Everything about them said “I am a luxury car.” My favorite one was a gunmetal-gray ’93 with the lacy-spoke alloys, steel top and lovely burgundy leather interior.

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The exception to which I alluded is a ’93 SdV, in metallic beige Light Driftwood with light tan leather and dark brown “carriage roof.” It was absolutely mint, and it drove great on my solo five-minute test drive. But two blocks shy of the dealership, it stalled and wouldn’t restart.

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I actually attempted to push it, but the Caddy did NOT want to be pushed. Fortunately, I was in a residential area where it was not blocking traffic, so I locked it, walked back to the showroom, gave the salesman the key and bid him good day. I never heard from him again.

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This one was beautiful in Black Sapphire with navy leather. And look, it even has a trailer hitch, though I’m not sure if you should pull a ’78 Malibu with it. If I had a full-time job, I’d have made a serious bid for this one: Classic Cadillac styling, reliable powertrain (no Northstar for me, thanks) and a luxy interior that only a vintage Caddy, Lincoln or Chrysler New Yorker can provide. Hope someone saves this guy!

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