The 1980s were not precisely Cadillac’s decade. While in the 1960s Cadillac, the creme de la creme of General Motors, could do no wrong, in the 1980s it seemed they made misstep after misstep. True, changes had to be made. Fuel economy had to be improved, dimensions reduced, and technology added. But there is no doubt that the first half of the decade was exceedingly painful at Cadillac Motor Division.
Cadillac could do no wrong in the ’50s and ’60s. They consistently outsold both Lincoln and Imperial and were essentially in a class of their own. But as the 1960s progressed into the early 1970s, they perhaps became a victim of their own success. The cars slowly became less special as Cadillac chased ever higher profits. Starting around 1969, Cadillac started skimping on interior materials.
Not that the cars were bad. Hell no, they were still great cars. But there were some small things. What had been chrome plated hardware was replaced with flash-plated plastic. Real wood trim on the Fleetwoods was replaced with the soon-to-be ubiquitous wood-grained vinyl. Slowly but surely, Cadillacs had more in common with their B-body corporate cousins. While at the same time Chevrolets, especially the Caprice, became even more Cadillac-like.
1980 would be the last time for several years that you could purchase a Cadillac and not worry about potential mechanical mayhem. The 368 CID V8 was robust and reliable, if somewhat detuned from the earlier 425. The new styling of the ’80 Cadillacs was quite attractive too, perhaps better than 1977-79.
In 1981, the ill-fated V-8-6-4 was introduced. It was a good idea, but introduced just a bit before it was technologically robust for prime time. In the early ’80s the technology was in its infancy and the cylinder displacement module was nothing but trouble. It could be disconnected as simply as cutting a single wire, but the well-heeled folks who were buying new Cadillacs found such a solution unacceptable. The system should just work, or be able to be fixed and reliable. It wasn’t, and Cadillac’s reputation suffered.
1982 brought a new engine. The aluminum block HT4100 “High Technology” 4.1L V8 was introduced that year, replacing the 368 in all Cadillac models save the limousines. It was in response to ever-tightening CAFE regulations, and it was not exactly the tough, powerful V8 Cadillac was known for. When it worked, it was slow for a V8 when you really stepped on it. But mechanical issues were common, at least in the early years.
But some were okay, as a friend of mine’s father-in-law had a 1984 Seville that lasted into the late ’90s on its original engine, racking up over 145,000 before it said uncle.
The ill-fated Cimarron, that favorite target of half-baked bloggers nationwide, also came out for ’82. Let’s save that car for another time! The 1982-1984 de Villes and Fleetwoods were not necessarily robust vehicles with their 4.1L ‘hand tighten’ engines, but at least they looked imposing and were clearly Cadillacs. That would change for 1985, when Sedan de Villes, Coupe de Villes and Fleetwoods went on a serious crash diet.
Here is a 1984 Sedan de Ville. Still nice-looking, yes? Clearly a Cadillac, clearly a luxury car. You’d look great stepping out of it in front of the country club. But the look would be so much different in ’85!
They were introduced as early ’85s in March of 1984 and although they had more space and were certainly more driver-oriented, some people (namely, people who never bought or owned or perhaps even drove a Cadillac) had a hard time taking them seriously as Cadillacs.
With the exception of the Fleetwood Brougham, which remained as before in all of its full-sized Broughaminess, all de Villes and Fleetwoods rode a much-reduced C-body platform, shared with the Buick Electra and Oldsmobile Ninety Eight. While the Cadillac retained its exclusive V8 (Electras and 98s made do with V6s), it wore the new design perhaps the least successfully.
The Electra looked the best in my opinion, with the Olds in second place. They also had the benefit of the famous 3.8L V6, instead of the self-destructing Cadillac engine.
If you had to have a GM luxury car in 1985 the Buick and Olds were safer bets, and a truly full-size Delta 88, LeSabre, Parisienne or Caprice might have been an even better choice. But despite the drastic change of all three of the C-body GM luxury cars, they sold pretty well. Not everyone loved them like they loved the 1977-84 versions, but sales were respectable.
1985 de Villes and Fleetwoods were now front wheel drive with a transversely-mounted version of the 4.1L V8, with a 4.3L diesel V6 as a no-charge option (try and fine one of those today!). The 4.1 produced 130 hp at 4200 rpm and had 200 pund-feet of torque. Confusingly, Fleetwoods used the new body, while Fleetwood Broughams used the 1984 full-size platform. Yes, there were TWO Fleetwoods now, and they were very different from each other, though either one was suitably plush.
In GM’s defense, during the early ’80s most people thought gas prices were going to go through the roof. After the second gas crisis in 1979, gas was expected to hit $2 a gallon in a few years, so GM designers had to adapt Cadillac styling cues onto a much smaller platform. These shrunken Cadillacs were the result. The 1985 de Villes and Fleetwoods got respectable sales, though that would not exactly be the case when the even smaller Eldorado and Seville appeared in ’86. But that’s a story for another time.
Not much changed for 1986. Coupe and Sedan de Villes received the wider chrome rocker moldings, as used on the ’85 Fleetwood. In addition, the bumper rub strips changed from black to dark gray, but that was about it visually. 1987 brought composite headlights, a new eggcrate grille, and slightly extended rear quarter panels with new taillights.
The big news for 1988 was a new engine, the 4.5L V8. This engine finally replaced the star-crossed 4.1 and was much more reliable. Cadillac offered a new six-year, 60,000 mile powertrain warranty to back it up. The 155 hp, 273 CID V8 had digital fuel injection and was mated to a four speed automatic with electronic overdrive.
Both Coupe and Sedan de Villes continued to be offered. The full cabriolet roof, first offered in 1987, was still available on Coupe de Villes. It actually did look like a convertible, as long as you were nearsighted enough to not notice the cut lines for the faired-in doors. You could also get a formal cabriolet roof in vinyl with opera lamps on the Coupe, or the standard painted steel roof – probably the least common choice.
After all, this was a Cadillac, and lots of exterior gingerbread was the order of the day. But our silver example here has one of the then-popular dealer-installed tops. At least it doesn’t have a fake Rolls-Royce grille or Continental kit! I’ve seen these cars with both. They generally look better without the aftermarket rickrack.
Other than the engine, the 1988 models stood pat. Finally, Cadillac had a decent engine in their volume line, although the cars themselves still looked an awful lot like a Volvo 740 with a Brougham package.
That would change for 1989, when Cadillac finally restored the full size proportions, at least to a certain extent. The 1989s marked Cadillac getting back to what made it great: good looking, good running, comfortable luxury cars.
I ran across this ’86 Sedan de Ville in June of 2015, while driving through Clinton, Iowa. It was in nice shape; almost certainly a one-owner car. Even its stand-up hood ornament was present and accounted for.
There was no rust and even the black leather bolsters on the driver’s seat were in great shape. I still see these cars from time to time, but they are usually in pretty sorry shape, and usually the later facelifted 1989-93 models.
Yes, GM’s top-tier brand stumbled badly in the Eighties, but gradually Cadillac returned to health. The current CTS and CT6, are sharp and readily identifiable (at least, to your author) as Cadillacs. Of course the XT5 crossover is the big seller, but it keeps the sedans in the lineup, and even the XT5 itself is pretty sharp, especially in pearl white. But no matter what shape or form they’re in in the Year of Our Lord 2018, I’m glad you can still get a new Cadillac!