The ’75-’79 Cadillac Seville and the Great ‘What If’

Source: General Motors

Source: General Motors

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.

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Source: General Motors

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.

Source: General Motors

Source: General Motors

GM had considered doing a smaller Cadillac as early as 1959, when chief designer Bill Mitchell developed a personal luxury coupe for the brand, which it passed on (that car became the Buick Riviera). Cadillac also offered short-wheelbase Park Avenue models for the 1961-63 model years, but they were sales disasters for the brand. The ’70s were a new decade, however, and an increasing number of customer requests, dealer requests, and market surveys couldn’t be ignored anymore. People wanted a smaller Cadillac, and some of the decision makers at GM were beginning to think they were right.

By 1972, the all-new Mercedes W116 S-Class was chosen as the “baby Cadillac’s” target, and in a short-sighted move, engineers (who were largely resistant to the project) didn’t believe designing an import-fighter from the ground up was a cost effective decision and added it to the X-Body roster. Also known as the NOVA platform, the X-Body was a golden goose for GM, underpinning the Chevy Nova, Oldsmobile Omega, Pontiac Ventura, and Buick Apollo. Interestingly enough, GM briefly considered badging the Opel Diplomat as a Cadillac instead, but because its metric tooling and strict panel gap tolerances would make it difficult to build in the U.S., it decided it would be cheaper to design a new car based on existing architecture.

Source: General Motors

Source: General Motors

Despite its pedestrian underpinnings, Cadillac did a good job keeping the car from looking much like its less-exclusive cousins. With an extended wheelbase, Cadillac’s designers were able to give the car an extended greenhouse, and utilize what Mitchell called the “Sheer Look,” a combination of soft, rolled surfaces to offset the severe, upright lines that were popular in Europe at the time. The result was a car that took cues from Mercedes and Rolls-Royce while unmistakably remaining a Cadillac.

After kicking around names like “La Scala” and “St. Moritz,” the name “Seville” was chosen in 1974, and it made its official debut on May 1, 1975. 

Source: General Motors

Source: General Motors

Dubbed the “international size” Cadillac, the Seville entered dealerships as the brand’s flagship. At $12,479, it was one of the most expensive models Cadillac (and all of GM) offered, and was close to Mercedes territory. Despite its hefty price tag and humble underpinnings, the Seville seemed to do exactly what GM had hoped; it competed against the imports. With a standard 350 cubic inch fuel-injected V8, the Seville was praised for its smooth power, quiet ride, and better-than-average quality for a Cadillac. But there were issues — namely that the two-ton car couldn’t manage to get from zero to 60 in under 10 seconds, and when pushed hard, it was obvious that this was no sport sedan.

To better compete with Mercedes, the Seville was available with front disc brakes and the Oldsmobile 350 Diesel from 1976 on. After cracking the 40,000 sales mark in ’76 and ’77, it nearly moved 60,000 in ’78, then topped 56,000 for ’79. While it didn’t stem the tide of imports sales, it was enough for Cadillac to remain in the luxury conversation through the end of the decade.

Source: General Motors

Source: General Motors

But GM took the wrong lessons away from the Seville. Instead of realizing it had the right combination of size, luxury, and power, and could’ve had a competitive car with a better chassis and suspension, it realized that it could introduce cost-cutting and badge-engineering into its flagship brand and still make a buck. By 1979, Lincoln had developed its Seville-fighter with the Versailles, a re-badged Ford Granada. Chrysler joined the fray with a New Yorker Fifth Avenue. Plus the Seville failed to reach younger buyers. In fact, according to market studies, its short wheelbase appealed mainly to older women and retirees who liked how easy it was to park.

Not seeing the forest through the trees, the second-generation Seville moved away from the crisp, European flair of the original, instead combining blunt, upright lines with baroque styling cues from the 1930s. It shared its new front-wheel drive architecture with the Cadillac Eldorado, Buick Riviera, and Oldsmobile Toronado, and during its five-year production run, it never cracked 40,000 in annual sales. A radical downsizing for 1986 returned the Seville to its European-inspired roots, but by then cars from BMW, Mercedes, and Audi already had the market cornered. Over its five-year run, its production topped over 30,000 cars only once.

Source: Cadillac

Source: Cadillac

The 1992 Seville showed some signs of hope for Cadillac. It was named Motor Trend’s Car of the Year, and with its crisp, restrained lines and sporting pretensions, it looked like the car that could save Cadillac from obsolescence. But it couldn’t escape GM’s uneven build quality and parts-sharing, and at $40,000, there were far better cars on the market. It was given a redesign in 1998, and sales continued to drop as the base price increased. It was replaced by the STS in 2005 (pictured above), as Cadillac began its long, arduous climb back to relevance.

Had it been introduced in a world without imports, the first-generation Cadillac Seville would’ve been a great car. At a time when imported cars and short wheelbases were considered a threat to the American social fabric, the Seville stood out. It was designed better, handled better, and offered luxury in a way that no other domestic model could compete with. But that was its problem; Americans were getting their first taste of well-engineered, well-built imports, and they liked it. Cars like the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 3-Series both showed (albeit in different ways) that practical sedans could offer things like acceleration, handling, braking, and durability without compromise. The Big Three would continue to dominate the market for years to come, but from the entry-level to the premium segment, by the time the second-generation Seville came along, the writing was on the wall.

Source: General Motors

Source: General Motors

General Motors, being as big as it was, simply wasn’t equipped to compete with this kind of threat. “The way things are done” was the way things were done since before the Great Depression, and in the early ’70s, when Mercedes was barely selling 40,000 cars a year in the U.S. and Cadillac was selling over 200,000, the idea of changing the status quo for a “niche car” was laughable. And that’s a shame, because despite its shortcomings, the original Seville was a very, very good car. It seems like GM had all the information to see that a major shift was on the horizon. Had it had the foresight to put the pieces together, the Seville could’ve turned out to be a real Mercedes-fighter. Today, cars like the ATS and CTS are truly strong offerings, and can finally compete with Europe’s best. But they took billions of dollars in crash catch-up programs to develop, and the brand still hasn’t recovered from its decades in the wilderness with American buyers. Back 40 years ago, if GM had been more forward with the Seville instead of backward, who knows where Cadillac would be today?

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