Curbside Classic Double Feature: 1991 Cadillac Coupe DeVille and Ford Explorer – Which One Was The “Real” Cadillac?

What could these two very different vehicles from 1991 have in common?  Enough in common to combine them into a CC Double Feature?  More than you might first think, as it turns out.

A Cadillac Coupe DeVille and a Ford Explorer would, at first blush, seem to have virtually nothing in common beyond having four wheels, engines, steel and leather.  Their buyer demographics were completely different and they were designed with two completely different missions.  But despite all of these differences there were some odd similarities.

Let’s look at the obvious.  These two were quite similar in a number of key dimensins:

1991 Coupe DeVille1991 Explorer
Wheelbase110.8 inches111.9 inches
Curb Weight3622 lbs3804 lbs
Length202.6 inches184.3 inches
Width73.4 inches70.2 inches

And then there was this: That these cars marked a sort of tipping point where they began competing with one another.  And in that competition, one would win and the other would lose.  Big.  Let’s explore (sorry) this.

The Cadillac of . . . whatever.  Everyone over the age of sixty has heard the expression.  Which became a bit of a punchline in the movie Get Shorty when a rental clerk explains to the gangster who is getting a minivan instead of the Cadillac he reserved that the Oldsmobile Sillhouette “is the Cadillac of minivans.”

I grew up hearing that expression when it was not a punchline.  When my father was thirty-five he got the car he aspired to – a Lincoln Continental Mark III.  A shiny new Cadillac (or the occasional Lincoln) were what everyone really wanted in the years after WWII, though most folks’ finances made this impossible.

I had grown up knowing that a Cadillac was something special.  I had even owned a worn out 1963 Fleetwood sedan my first year of college and even in that car’s advanced state of age, it reeked of a kind of quality completely foreign to the lesser cars which surrounded me in my middle-class life.

In my own life 1991 marked a serious change in demographics.  Virtually the entire Baby Boom generation was into prime car-buying age and that year found me in my early 30’s and about a year into being a married man.  I was a young attorney and expected that a family would soon be along.

What kind of car did I seek?  My actual driveway was a bit bipolar with a 1988 Honda Accord and a 1966 Plymouth Fury III that was sold that year and replaced by a 1983 Plymouth Colt sedan that I purchased for $700 from my brother in law.

I knew, however, that these cars were a mere waypoint.  Some day I would be able to afford what I wanted and it would be . . . .  Well, I wasn’t sure exactly what it would be.  But I knew two things.  First, I watched several friends go out on large car loans to buy something they really desired.  And as often as not it was a new 1991 Ford Explorer.  What did neither I nor any of my friends desire in the least?  A new Cadillac.

I had spent years watching the cheapening of Cadillac and watched Lincoln come up as a legitimate competitor.  And then came the tectonic shift of the 1985 Cadillac.  Really, that was the best they could do?  It was pathetic.  There was not a lot of sunshine and lollipops surrounding the traditional American big car in the early 80s, but this?  I know I already used the word pathetic, but I am going to use it again.  Because it fits the 1985 Cadillac so well.

All during this twenty year slo-mo train wreck at Cadillac there was Ford.  Ever since the 1965 LTD I had been watching Ford climb its way up the ladder of success – and in the garages of the successful.  Although the cars didn’t always age the way they should have, Ford had begun to play in the big leagues by the mid 80s.  Parked outside of my small law office in 1985, the cars of the other four attorneys consisted of three Cadillacs and one Ford (a brand new Aerostar in its highest trim level).  Within a couple of years it would be zero Cadillacs, two Fords, one Lincoln and one Honda Accord (now driven by one of the former Cadillac guys).

By 1991 the Cadillac was a little better – they had made it a touch bigger, improved the engine and given it some more imposing styling.  But I knew nobody who wanted one.  In fact, the only person I ever actually knew who chose a new Cadillac after maybe 1987 was my next door neighbor Curley – a retired insurance agent who would have been just a touch over 90 years old in 1991.  He still carried the knowledge gained decades earlier that a Cadillac was the best you could buy.  Though he once acknowledged to me in a moment of candor that he had experienced a lot of trouble with this one, which would be his last car.

Into this pair of slow trends – a waxing Ford and a waning Cadillac, came a fastball smacked hard, right up the middle.  The batter was Ford and the result was a home run called the Explorer, the first wildly popular SUV.

I will admit it – in 1991 I wanted an Explorer.  Although I considered it a little small for my tastes, the Cadillac was too.  Anyone within twenty years of my age group had to acknowledge that the Explorer was something special.  The Mustang, LTD and Granada had been warm-ups.  The Explorer became the new “it” car.

A Motor Trend test from 1991 noted that the Explorer was selling at double the rate of the Cherokee or the Blazer, and had become the first SUV to crack the top ten in popularity.  I don’t suppose that any of us who were around at the time really understood what was happening.  The Explorer was leading the way to a world where the SUV was the new Cadillac, while the real Cadillac was becoming irrelevant.

At first look, the Cadillac and the Explorer were still playing in two different leagues.  The Coupe DeVille’s MSRP was $30,205 while that of the Explorer was $16,511 (all according to the good folks at NADA).  But in the real world the differences were not that stark.  The Eddie Bauer Explorer (the version everyone wanted) that was Motor Trend’s test vehicle stickered at $21,566.

And then we get to actual transaction prices.  The Explorer was such a hot commodity that anyone was lucky to get out of a showroom paying sticker.  By the time extra “packages” like rustproofing and paint sealant were added to the Ford (not to mention the “additional dealer profit” line item), who doubts that a Cadillac could have been yours for about the same monthly payment?  Not that it really mattered – because who wanted a Coupe DeVille in 1991?

Even their advertising showed the contrast in these cars.  The Cadillac is all left-brain, working to sell you on the car and what a smart buy it would be.  The Ford?

The soft shot of a family at sunset and the line “Your Explorer Is Ready” shows an advertiser who knows that the sale has already been made in your mind.  Go back and look at advertising for the Ford LTD and the Cadillac in 1965 and see what a 180 degree spin in advertising looks like.

This juxtaposition never occurred to me on that June day in 2011 when I shot both of these cars within moments of each other as I walked towards the front door of my local Sam’s Club.  I was still a CC baby and was shooting anything that I found even mildly unusual.

I recall shooting the Explorer because even then the original was becoming scarce in my area.  My mechanic called them “Exploders” because they seemed to follow in the tradition of so many Fords – vehicles that looked great when new but did not always age as gracefully as their buyers might have hoped.  But even beyond some of their mechanical weaknesses, these things were the biggest rustbuckets I had seen in many a year with their magically disappearing rocker panels.

The Coupe DeVille?  Because who in the hell still drove Coupe DeVilles?  It was, of course, in a handicap space.  And was in pretty nice condition.  Because Cadillac buyers were (certainly by then) elderly folks who had learned growing up in the Depression that you had to take good care of your stuff.

Cadillac would try to redeem the DeVille a bit with the generation that followed, but it never really got the kind of traction that GM expected.  The Explorer continued its amazing growth, followed by a long string of SUVs that went higher and higher upmarket.  And these affluent Boomers even occasionally chose a Cadillac.  Not a DeVille, of course, but an Escalade.

Now I have no idea if either of these disparate aspirational vehicles is actually a 1991 model.  I can’t be far off, so work with me here.  But I do know this – if I, at my present age, was plopped back into 1991 and thus had the choice to buy one of these new I would still not choose the Cadillac.

I came up with one final similarity. Cadillac, the man who served as namesake for the car, was an explorer.  And in 1991 the Ford Explorer became the Cadillac of SUVs, if not an actual replacement for Cadillac itself as the vehicle of choice for the well-heeled craver of social acceptance.

Further Reading:

1991 Cadillac Fleetwood Coupe (Eric 703)

1991 Cadillac Sedan DeVille (Laurence Jones)

1992 Ford Explorer (Brendan Saur)