1981 Cadillac Coupe de Ville – Sharp Dresser

Anyone who’s read my old car posts over the years will know that I’m not shy about talking Cadillacs and Lincolns. While some prefer to vent their spleen complaining about past foibles, be they foreign or domestic rolling stock, I prefer to accentuate the positive. And in 1981 there was still a lot going for Cadillac. Though the high rolling years of the ’50s through the ’70s were about to change, and it was a sharp learning curve.

In 1979 Cadillac’s best seller was the Coupe de Ville. And although many associate these luxury yachts as geezer conveyances, at that time plenty of Cadillac buyers were in their 30s. Successful real estate agents, doctors and lawyers, who today would be more likely to be driving an ES350 or 3-Series, back then were as likely as not to be piloting a Seville or Sedan de Ville.

But as the ’80s dawned, Cadillac Motor Division, in trying to keep abreast of rapidly changing emissions, fuel economy standards, and new customer tastes tried broaden their appeal, all while trying to push back the continuing onslaught of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi, Not to mention crosstown rival Lincoln.

It started with the Seville in 1975, a smaller, more Mercedes-like Cadillac, a sharp car with its Bill Mitchell-penned ‘sheer’ styling and a predictor of GM styling that would continue well into the ’80s. Another new addition was the 350 Diesel V8, borrowed from Oldsmobile and available in Cadillacs starting in 1978.

These additions, and a rather razor-edged redesign of the Fleetwood and De Ville series in 1980, plus a brand new Rolls-Royce styled Seville, Bill Mitchell’s final salvo into design prior to his retirement, all looked good on paper. But of course, many people who bought diesel GM products were not overly familiar with the differences vis a vis gasoline engines, resulting in lots of teed off customers and towed vehicles.

At the same time, many Baby Boomers were willfully rejecting anything even slightly related to their parents’ tastes and lifestyle, resulting in the owner base of Caddys, Lincolns and Olds Ninety-Eights to begin moving from late thirties to mid-fifties age-wise. It was the age of the 3-Series, the Cressida, and the Volvo. Think Alex P. Keaton. The Caddy owners, in contrast, were more in the Judge Smails camp.

The cars themselves were very attractive, though the 1980 Seville was a love it or hate it proposition by any standard. I personally love them, most likely due to the Hot Wheels and Pocket Cars toy versions I had as a kid. But Cadillac always had been interested in new technology, so for 1981 a variable-displacement 368 V8 was added. Yes, the dreaded V8-6-4. Fuel economy standards were going up, and as a luxury make with V8 power, Cadillac was going to have to improve efficiency, or face big fat CAFE fines.

It wasn’t a bad idea. In fact, it is widely used today on many new cars. But in 1981 the technology was new, and the execution of same wasn’t the best. Teething problems resulted in trips to the dealer for many new Cadillac owners, who were not used to having their car towed. And who weren’t overjoyed at having their car flatbedded from the country club parking lot because it wouldn’t start. Long story short, the V8-6-4 was a one-year feature only, with the exception of the Fleetwood Seventy-Five limousines, which kept the variable displacement engine through the mid ’80s.

Of course, Cadillac collectors these days know that the 368 V8 was sound, and clipping one wire means you can enjoy an ’81 Cadillac with little fuss today, but that wasn’t a very valid option for the wealthy first owners of these cars, who expected everything installed on the car to work as it should.

The ’81s are widely considered the last of the good engines on these final pre-shrunken 1980-84 Cadillacs, making this one a good option for someone who wants a fun summer car to enjoy, and take to the occasional cruise night.

I spotted this one at a tiny car lot in Clinton, Iowa just last weekend, as I was on my way up to the lake for some technology-free R&R. In Cotillion White with tan leather, it was a dead ringer for the one featured in the 1981 showroom brochure, with the exception of the coach lamps on the C-pillar.

It was also in remarkable shape, even the bumper fillers (a notorious weak point on late ’70s/early ’80s Caddys) were nice, either well-preserved originals or replaced.

The 1977-84 Cadillac De Villes and Fleetwoods were downsizing done right. While they may have looked small compared to the 1976 Caddys they replaced, by the early ’80s they appeared ‘just right.’ The ’80 restyle took the ’77 design and made it just a little smoother, yet a little more formal too, with a more upright roofline.

I remember these well as new cars, being a kid in the ’80s. And I always loved all the little details these cars had: the emblems, the crests and chrome details, and the tiny little Cadillac emblems on the sides of the front seats.

Of course back then I knew nothing of the V8-6-4’s foibles, or the following new-for-’82 HT4100 V8’s teething issues. I just knew what I liked. And I liked what I saw!

If one decided to order a brand-new 1981 Cadillac, you could, if not enthusiastic about the V8-6-4, equip your new car with either the 350 Diesel, or the little seen, but technically available 4.1L Buick V6.

While the six was not a bad engine per se, it had to have been an, ahem, leisurely cruise when installed in a Fleetwood Brougham d’Elegance with 25 square feet of button-tufted velour, vast forests of imitation woodtone trim, and 36 pounds of chrome emblems and trim!

The ’80 design was long-lived too. While the final Coupe de Villes and Sedan de Villes last wore this style in 1984, being replaced by the very-downsized, front wheel drive C-body De Villes in 1985, the basic body lasted all the way to 1992.

First as the ‘Fleetwood Brougham’ from 1985-86 (there was a separate just-plain-Fleetwood model in the FWD design. Confusing? You bet!) and as the Brougham from 1987-92. Not a bad run. So even now, 25 years after the last one came off the line, you’ll still see random survivors like this one!

9 Replies to “1981 Cadillac Coupe de Ville – Sharp Dresser”

  1. Economist

    About ten years ago I had to drive a 1982 or so Coupe deville with the 4.1 engine. Acceleration was almost nonexistent, and body roll was boatlike.
    Quite a bit of brougham in that maroon land yacht, though.

    Reply
  2. Scotten

    I remember driving to a 7th grade dance in the very early 80’s in my friend’s dad’s Cadillac. My family had already ‘converted’ to Japanese brands and that big beast felt weird to ride in.

    And, it’s amazing the amount of meaningless shit you can remember 30+ years later… Ugh.

    Reply
  3. 1A

    New owner shouldn’t plan on driving too far with those tinted windows (they look illegal, but can’t say for sure). The nation’s longest-serving governor in history Terry Branstad declared January “Human Trafficking Prevention” month in Iowa. President Donald Trump is cracking the hell down on human trafficking also–you won’t hear this good news in the media though!

    I really miss the days seeing all the Cadillac deVilles and Fleetwoods being commonplace on the driveways in the 80s. I remember all the people who had big Cadillacs more so than any other car back then (even the colors they all had).

    Reply
  4. Jack BaruthJack Baruth

    I agree: the 1980 restyle was proper.

    I can get so heart-sick looking at these photos. Reminds me of my childhood, and being surrounded by cars like this. I wish I had enough money to restore a bunch of them to 99.9% condition and use them every day.

    Reply
    • Tom KlockauTom Klockau

      Our next door neighbors had a bridge club back in the ’80s, and one of the couples, the Hesemans, had a 1983-84 Sedan de Ville in black with maroon interior and the standard wheel discs. I always had to wander over when it was parked in front of their house! Our other neighbors had a triple navy blue 1983-84 Ninety Eight Regency Brougham, that was another sharp car!

      Reply
  5. sastexan

    My grandmother’s husband had an ’81 or ’82 Coupe deVille, blue, with the Buick V6. I had to drive it some in high school when my Olds kept crapping out. My friends loved razzing me how it stuck so far out of the angled parking spots that it stuck out further than the next two cars, and was even longer than the pickup trucks. The engine was a total dog; I remember attempting to get it on the highway and I don’t think it even would get up to 65MPH after a half mile running start. Added to the boatiness and giant blind spots, not one of the safest vehicles to drive. It did have the fabulous fiber optic lights showing the rear taillight indicators, though. My grandmother refused to drive it.

    Reply
  6. Jeff Zekas

    My wife loved her ’83 Caddy, but the electronics, being over 20 years old at the time, were a constant PITA. The ride was soft, the inside was quiet, and it was a great car for cruising long distances (drove it from Tahoe to Whidbey Island and back, one summer). And it was fairly reliable, much more reliable than my dad’s Mercedes or his Jaguar, both of which oozed “class” but spent most of their time being flat bedded to shop.

    Reply

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