(first posted 3/8/2016) For anyone who knows their Cadillac history, I don’t need to emphasize that the 1980s were not a good time for the luxury marque. Between the controversial “bustle-back” styling of the 1980 Seville, some self-destructing V8 engines, the J-car Cimarron, and the crop of downsized, generic-looking 1985/1986 models, it appeared Cadillac was delivering one misfire after another.
It wasn’t that Cadillac didn’t mean well, as it had the right intent with more economical engines, greater space efficient designs, and vehicles that explored new corners of the market. Yet Cadillac’s execution of these ideas was totally off, leading many to feel that Cadillac was completely out of touch with the public, and not look back as they effortlessly spent thousands more for a European luxury car.
But then in 1987 came a beacon of hope for the ailing American luxury brand. It was clear that the growing population of younger, affluent, and typically urban professionals did not see the undeniably soft, cushy, and overwrought Cadillac as the appealing status symbol it once was. Instead, this important demographic was flocking to brands such as BMW, Jaguar, and chiefly, Mercedes-Benz.
Cadillac’s first attempt at gaining the attention of these buyers with the compact, entry-level and ill-executed Cimarron was a catastrophic blowup in its face. For its second attempt at creating a European-inspired car, Cadillac turned to the complete opposite end of the luxury market, creating a high-priced, low-volume halo car, meant at enhancing Cadillac’s image and showing that it wasn’t stuck in the past.
Development on what would become the Allanté (internally codenamed “Callisto”) began in 1982. Almost from the start, partnering with a European firm was the plan, as Cadillac general manager Bob Burger believed (and rightfully so) that significant European involvement was required to give the vehicle the very non-traditional European appeal Cadillac was aiming for. The famed Italian coach builder Pininfarina was chosen, and contracted for designing, engineering, and manufacturing the body of the Allanté.
This decision naturally caused some anger from many within GM, most notably Fisher Body and GM Design. In a move of defiance, Cadillac’s well-known Chief Designer, Wayne Kady, had his team even go ahead with their own design for the Allanté, a design which ultimately was not used.
The multi-step assembly process began with the frame, engine compartment, and major electronics all being flown from the U.S. to Italy. After the completed body shell and interior were constructed in at Pininfarina’s plant near Turin, they were flown back across the Atlantic aboard special Alitalia and Lufthansa Boeing 747s, 56 units per flight. After reaching Cadillac’s Detroit/Hamtramck assembly plant, the remaining chassis components and engines were installed, completing the so-called “9,000 mile assembly line”.
In addition to the obvious geographical component, other complexities naturally arose throughout the Allanté’s development and ongoing production. The sheer culture clash between American and Italian was a major hurdle to overcome, particularly in the area of quality control. More extensive training of Pininfarina employees and major improvements to its facilities, things originally unanticipated, were implemented to ensure fit and finish were up to the standards Cadillac had for the Allanté.
The Allanté also contained largest amount of electronic systems in GM vehicle ever produced up until that time. In true ’80s cutting-edge, the Allanté offered a comprehensive multi-color LCD instrument cluster, with speedometer and tachometer simulating analogue gauges. Oil pressure, coolant temperature, and fuel level were displayed to the side as bar graphs, with separate digital readouts for odometer and redundant speedometer. Beginning in 1988, a traditional, fully-analogue gauge cluster was available for no extra cost.
LCD dot matrix readouts were also used for the automatic climate control, 75-message capable driver information system, and the standard Delco/Bose symphony sound system. The car’s special Italian leather Recaro bucket seats included 10-way power adjustments, plus two-position memory for the driver, courtesy of very-80s individual buttons. Every Allanté also featured a standard theft-deterrent system wired into the car’s board computer system. When activated, it triggered the horn, lights to flash, and immobilized the starter and fuel delivery system.
To minimize glitches and enhance the reliability of these complex electronics, the Allanté was the first GM vehicle featuring multiplex wiring. Multiplex wiring limited any malfunctions from affecting other electronics, and through the board computer, sent signals to other systems to take over if possible. For example, if the right low-beam were to go out, the right parking lamp would illuminate for compensation.
Initially, the Allanté’s only extra-cost option was a cellular mobile phone, concealed in the center glove box. This phone could be used while plugged into to vehicle, as well as cordless while outside the vehicle. It also featured a hands-free phone function, which similar to bluetooth technology on modern cars, was wired into the car’s front audio speakers and made use of a hidden microphone to receive the driver’s voice.
At the start of production, all Allantés featured both a manually operated soft top, as well as a removable aluminum hard top, weighing approximately 60 pounds. Both featured glass rear quarter windows and heated glass rear windshields. In 1990, the hardtop roof was removed from the list of standard features, lowering the Allanté’s base price by several thousand dollars. The soft top also gained a power latching mechanism in 1991, though unlike its main competitor, the Mercedes-Benz SL, a fully power operated convertible top never made it to production.
Initially powering the Allanté was Cadillac’s rather notorious 4.1L HT-4100 V8. With the addition of multiport fuel injection, roller rocker arms, and a redesigned camshaft profile, it was good for 170 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque; substantial increases over the existing HT-4100. In 1989, this engine was replaced by a larger 4.5L V8, now producing 200 horsepower and a hefty 270 pound-feet of torque.
A nod to its positioning as a grand tourer, the only transmission available was a 4-speed automatic, in the form of the Turbo-Hydramatic 4T60. This was the same automatic found in the front-wheel drive C- and H-bodies, although for the Allanté it was electronically controlled, resulting in the F-7 designation.
As for performance itself, the Allanté was no track-ready 911 Carrera, but handling for this grand tourer was generally cited as a good, particularly for a V8-powered front-wheel drive convertible. Contemporary reviewers also gave the Allanté strong remarks for its favorable balance between road feel and comfort, and its plentiful power, particularly in later versions.
Cadillac saved the biggest changes for 1993, giving the car a significant refresh for what proved to be its final season.
The Allanté continued using the 4.5L HT-4100 through the 1992 model year, upon which it became the first Cadillac equipped with the new “Northstar System”. Highlighted by a highly-advanced 4.6L V8 featuring dual overhead camshafts, 4-valves per cylinder, and all aluminum construction, the Northstar System also encompassed a sophisticated active damper management suspension system, speed variable-assist power steering, traction control, and four-wheel disc Bosch anti-lock brakes. With the Northstar V8, power was up significantly in the Allanté, now to 295 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque. A new four-speed automatic transmission was also added to handle the increased torque.
Visually, all Allantés now featured thin chrome lower bodyside trim. Previously, this trim could have also been red or black, depending on body color. The fixed front quarter windows were also eliminated, making for a smoother if not slightly less distinctive appearance. The Allanté was also given a larger, more aggressive front air dam, and chrome cast aluminum wheels (which this featured Polo Green car does not wear) were a new option for extra flash.
Inside, the Recaro sport seats were replaced by more familiar and less costly Lear-designed 8-way power buckets. With a less exciting design and duller upholstery colors, limited to either taupe and black, the ’93’s Lear seats didn’t give off the same sporty flair as the original Recaros. The LCD digital dash was now an extra cost option, as was the removable hardtop. At nearly 4,700 units, 1993 Allanté sales jumped nearly 60% over the previous year, resulting in the car’s best sales year ever. The last Allanté was completed in July 1993, with total production at 21,430 units.
Although the Allanté never ended up being the game changer Cadillac had hoped for, in retrospect, it was a successful experimental car for Cadillac, showing that the brand could offer a pretty decent car that wasn’t a road-isolating chamber topped with a vinyl roof and wire wheels. Along with the new Eldorado and Seville that joined it in 1992, the Allanté was Cadillac’s gateway into producing vehicles that could actually compete toe-to-toe with European rivals.
Moreover, a quarter-century later, the Allanté has aged remarkably well, chiefly as a testament to its clean lines and understated, elegant design language. Although the Allanté never lived up to Cadillac’s sales expectations and was likely purchased by seasoned Cadillac owners instead of Mercedes-Benz prospects, it deserves recognition where earned. As Cadillac’s first legitimate attempt, and nonetheless a moderately successful one, at producing a serious contender in luxury and performance on a global scale, the Allanté’s spirit can be found in the ATS and CTS today.