Alternative histories are an irresistible subject to tackle in fiction. But as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and Stephen King’s 11/22/63 all show, it’s often used to show a dark, disturbing “what if” universe that we’re glad to have never lived through. Now what if we attempt to present an alternate history that deals only with cars, not weighty world events like World War II and the Kennedy assassination? That shouldn’t be too bad, right? Let’s give this a try.
Here’s what really happened: Beginning in the 1970s, the rising tide of premium imports from Europe began to loosen Cadillac and Lincoln’s grip on the United States’ luxury market. These quick, stylish, and beautifully engineered cars created a stark contrast against the American cars’ bloated curb weights, garish velour-trimmed interiors, and declining build quality. By the 1980s, BMW and Mercedes-Benz had become the industry standard, and Japanese automakers began to enter the fray. At the dawn of the 21st century, both Cadillac and Lincoln were all but left for dead, a position that both companies have had a hell of a time clawing back from — though Cadillac has made it look easy compared to Lincoln’s lingering troubles.
Now imagine this: General Motors saw the rising popularity of imported luxury models as early as 1972, and sunk its resources into moving away from luxo-barges, instead building clean, compact sedans that offered the comfortable, familiar luxury that Cadillac owners expected with the quality, engineering, and performance that would eventually lure so many customers to imports. The brand would prosper through the end of the century, growing and competing on equal footing with its German and later Japanese rivals, holding onto its “Standard of the World” title well into the 21st century.
The worst part about all of this is, it could’ve happened. Because in 1972 Cadillac did begin work on an import-fighter, and the resulting 1975-79 Seville sedan ended up being arguably the most prescient car it would build for decades. In the early ’70s, Cadillac still ruled the roost when it came to luxury in the U.S., but even GM could see that there was trouble on the horizon. The baby boomers who were snapping up Corvairs and Camaros a few years before were moving up in the world, and were beginning to ignore dad’s suggestion that they trade up for a Cadillac.