Once upon a time, there was a luxury car brand with an almost magical ability to spin profits for its maker. Cadillac, the flagship division of General Motors, had clearly mastered the formula for appealing to wealthy Americans (and those wanting to appear wealthy) in the 1960s. Like clockwork for 1969, Cadillac refreshed its core Calais/DeVille/Fleetwood with “better-than-ever” benefits to keep buyers coming back for more. So, let’s turn to Road Test Magazine from May 1969 to get behind the wheel of a Coupe DeVille to see Cadillac’s alchemy up close.
One major driver for Cadillac’s success was the brand’s gold-plated image. Carefully cultivated through the years, Cadillac was positioned as the “ultimate” in American cars. Luxury buyers knew exactly what they were getting with a Cadillac, as did the “onlookers” who those buyers were seeking to impress. Styling continuity between generations was assured—always fresh, always flashy, always unmistakably “Cadillac.” Bragging rights were further bolstered with the latest in comfort and convenience features, motivated by smooth, strong powertrains. The cars were showboats of the first order.
Road Test was quite correct to point out that people either loved or loathed Cadillac. Such a flamboyant display of wealth was certainly not to everyone’s taste. But the brand was inextricably woven into the U.S. cultural fabric for good or bad, and it inspired passionate feelings on both sides: either as the embodiment of the American Dream or the caricature of the fat, vulgar American. And in some cases, those worlds could even collide: no doubt more than a few young countercultural “revolutionaries” from the Age of Aquarius had a Caddy-driving Daddy quietly paying the bills—after all, it’s so much easier to rage against the Bourgeoisie when you don’t (have to) care about money….
Look closely at the pictures of the Coupe DeVille and you can see that the car sports curb feelers on the right-hand side. It was indeed a big beast, so canny dealer add-ons to “assist” parking were probably an easy sell.
Despite the car’s bulk, the Cadillac was surprisingly spritely. It was no race car, but offered exactly the sort of easy, abundant power a Cadillac owner would demand. Plus, owners had the benefit of being able to brag about driving the car with the biggest engine offered in the American market.
Unsurprisingly, the Caddy was not a good handler. It was a lavish straight-line cruiser, optimized for quiet, roomy comfort and not agility. Which, of course, was precisely what the bulk of American luxury car buyers wanted—the allure of European-style driving dynamics was still in its infancy at the time, appealing only to the select few members of the automotive cognoscenti.
Of course, one of the Cadillac’s biggest fortes was comfort and convenience. Anything that could be power-operated was (either standard or as an option), with available “set-and-forget” climate control and state-of-the-art (for the time) sound systems. The Cadillac was comfortable, smooth, easy, pampering—plush and posh when those attributes were viewed as the ultimate in automotive luxury by the vast majority of U.S. buyers.
This Road Test Magazine article was quite sparse on data, offering limited information on specifications and test results, plus no detail on pricing. However, based on descriptions in the copy along with the photos, the optional equipment list for the test car could be pretty accurately determined, along with an estimate of the list price from period price guides. And that number?
|1969 $||Adjusted $|
|Dual Comfort Seat||105.25||741.00|
|Power Seat Adjuster (Driver)||89.50||630.00|
|Power Seat Adjuster (Front Passenger)||115.80||815.00|
|Power Door Locks||68.45||482.00|
|Power Trunk Release||52.65||371.00|
|Rear Window Defogger||26.35||185.00|
|Guidematic Headlamp Control||50.55||356.00|
|AM/FM Stereo Radio||288.40||2,030.00|
|Automatic Climate Control||515.75||3,630.00|
|Soft Ray Tinted Glass||52.65||371.00|
|White Wall Tires||56.85||400.00|
The hefty option load on the test DeVille would have been pretty typical. After all, if you were going to splurge for a Caddy, why not get all the bells and whistles? Which was music to the ears of GM’s financial types. Plus, the music turned into a symphony when Cadillac’s sales volume was taken into account.
|Calais||DeVille||Fleetwood (including Limo)||Eldorado|
As an added delight for GM bean counters, the slowest selling models happened to the be the cheapest. The tremendous bulk of sales were the juicy-margined “mid-range” DeVille hardtops, with healthy additional business in the top-of-the-line Fleetwood and Eldorado models. And it’s hard to overstate the luxury market dominance these sales represented.
For 1969, Cadillac single-handedly outsold every other luxury make in the U.S.—imported and domestic—combined! That Cadillac Goose was hatching quite a lot of golden eggs….
Though Road Test only offered black-and-white photos in the article, the copy mentioned that the test Coupe DeVille was gold. Based on a little sleuthing, the images can be “colorized.” The test car was most likely painted Shalimar Gold, just like this well-preserved example.
Shalimar Gold was one of 21 Cadillac exterior colors on offer for the year, including 5 extra-cost Firemist colors, which would have added $132 ($929 adjusted) to the price. I’m guessing that the gold on Road Test’s Coupe DeVille was the “standard” Shalimar Gold rather than the extra cost Chalice Gold Firemist, since the latter color was deeper and would have looked darker in the black-and-white photographs.
Adding evidence to my theory is data on the take rate for Cadillac colors in 1969. Based on information provided in Cadillac Dealer Sales Guides and Data Books for 1969 and 1970, the chart above illustrates the popularity of each color available on the 1969 DeVille models (excluding the DeVille convertible). Shalimar Gold ranked at number one, with the light Palmetto Green coming in second—a far cry from today’s #1 Black, #2 Gray on luxury cars. Chalice Gold Firemist was only found on 3.3% of closed-roof DeVilles, though the extra-cost color was more popular on the pricier Fleetwood (8.1% of production) and Eldorado (9.6% of production). It was a golden age for Cadillac!
Inside, Road Test’s Coupe DeVille featured “Dardanelle” cloth in Medium Gold with Antique Medium Gold leather bolsters, one of 17 available interior trim choices (2 different cloth designs–Dardanelle or Delphine–plus all-leather options) in a broad array of colors: Black, White, Dark Blue, Medium Aqua, Dark Green, Light Flax, Medium Gold, Dark Cordovan, Dark Mauve, Medium Red. The Medium Gold Dardanelle cloth can be seen in all its full-color glory in the picture above, from a ’69 Sedan DeVille. Ever so Sixties!
With 2018 tastes and sensibilities, we may look back on the 1969 DeVille and scoff: that size, that appalling handling, that inefficient V8 engine, those “old-school” colors and interiors—but Cadillac was absolutely on-target for the high-end tastes of the time. It really wasn’t until the 1980s that Cadillac totally lost its fashion sense by continuing with the styles of the 1970s long after they fell out of favor, thus becoming an “old person’s car.” Adding salt to the wound were dreadful engines, cheapened materials and poor reliability, with correspondingly poor resale value—thus negating basically all the reasons buyers once flocked to Cadillac dealerships with a checkbook in hand. People can’t show off with a loser.
The dictionary defines the Golden Goose as “a continuing source of wealth or profit that may be exhausted if it is misused.” One of General Motors biggest gaffes ever was allowing Cadillac to become irrelevant and undesirable (be sure to peruse the many CC Deadly Sin posts chronicling some of Cadillac’s most disgraceful missteps). Once a luxury brand loses its image, it’s game over. Compounding the problem is the fact that Cadillac still can’t seem to even grasp the reasons buyers once aspired to own its cars (hint: no one ever bought a Cadillac because they thought it was a German sport sedan).
Ironically, one brand today that arguably comes close to matching what Cadillac represented in its heyday hails from an Indian conglomerate by way of England: Land Rover/Range Rover. Like the 1960s Cadillacs, Land Rover’s products are decidedly decadent, with consistent, well-executed designs, stylish interiors, ample choices for options and personalization, up-to-the-minute powertrains—along with abundant snob appeal and British brand heritage. Land Rover’s image transcends the vehicle’s pragmatic benefits— absolutely no-one needs very expensive off-roaders that never go off road, but people sure do want them in order to show off. Sounds similar to the reasons plenty of people bought huge, shiny Shalimar Gold DeVilles in 1969….
Tastes may change but status seeking motivations remain the same, providing a very comfortable nest for a golden goose, to the benefit of companies smart enough to figure out the formula. True in 1969, true today, and central to the art of marketing high margin luxury brands.