How General Motors took risks with the 1970s Cadillac lineup

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Cadillac Sedan DeVille Richard Bennett

After the turbulent decade of the 1960s, it was time to relax and luxuriate. The Greatest Generation had reached the prime earning years. They were ready to enjoy the fruits of their labors. What way was better to enjoy and show off their wealth than with a large and luxurious automobile? 

The first half of the ‘70s saw some of the largest automobiles ever, at least in terms of length and weight. Sadly, this parade of giant living rooms on wheels was about to crash. The OPEC crisis in 1973 saw large cars quickly fall out of favor with many; small, efficient cars were suddenly in demand from most customers. Naturally, there was still a sizable group who didn’t care. They demanded the largest car money could buy, and they were willing to back their demands with cash—but the writing was on the wall, and things had to change.

General Motors made the decision to go big on going small, downsizing their entire lineup with the largest and most prestigious nameplates getting the dryer-on-high treatment first. It was a huge gamble, but GM was still a leader in the industry and had a pretty good idea of what the buying public would like. Real effort was put into every aspect of these cars, and the results were obvious. Build quality was pretty good for the era, and the fundamentals were right.

Cadillac Sedan DeVille
Richard Bennett
Cadillac Sedan DeVille
Richard Bennett

Cadillac Sedan DeVille
Richard Bennett

Interior room was within an inch or so from the previous model, while trunk space increased dramatically. This wouldn’t be such a big deal, but the engineers maintained these specs all while lopping off around nine inches of length, four inches of width, and close to a ton of weight! A revised engine lineup was also included, which contributed to a slight improvement in fuel economy.

What should the cars look like? That part wasn’t clear —but the Cadillac Seville had its debut in 1975, and its “sheer look” styling, as designer Bill Mitchell described it, was a huge success. The warm reception accorded the Seville, convinced GM to apply that basic look to its big cars.

The “downsized” large GM cars debuted for 1977, and were a runaway success. Once again, General Motors was right about what the market would want.

Cadillac DeVille
GM

With the exception of the yearly grille, tail lamp, and trim changes, this iteration of the DeVille continued through 1979. 1980 saw a slight rework of the basic design, which would stick around through 1992.

Our feature car is a 1977 Sedan DeVille I saw at the Cadillac-LaSalle Club meet, which was held at the Gilmore Museum near Kalamazoo, Michigan. It’s an original car that has been well loved since new. The odometer reads a touch over 94,000, but the rest of the car belies its age and mileage. The interior still smells like new, the leather is supple, and the trim looks good.

While most people today associate these DeVilles with older folks, Cadillac actually marketed these cars to upper class families. Advertising usually showed families with children for the Sedan, and “active” couples for the Coupe.

Cadillac Coupe DeVille
Richard Bennett
Cadillac Coupe DeVille
Richard Bennett

Cadillac Coupe DeVille
Richard Bennett

This 1977 Coupe DeVille was also at the show. Cadillac decided to give the coupes a slightly sportier roofline, and customers responded. The Coupe DeVille outsold the Sedan DeVille by quite a wide margin in 1977: 138,750 coupes as compared to 95,421 sedans.

Among the noteworthy details of Cadillacs from this era is all the interior lighting—there are courtesy lamps everywhere! Another distinctive feature is the various Cadillac emblems carefully placed throughout the car. It was these little touches, combined with the comfortable seating, quiet ride, and styling that subtly but confidently announced your arrival, that made travel by Cadillac a special occasion.

The success of that 1977 gamble convinced General Motors to pull the lever again in 1984. This time, the changes were even more substantial, and although the front-drive C-bodies were initially popular with buyers, the mood of the market was changing. The big Cadillac sedan would go from being de rigeur at the country clubs to being just a little bit… embarrassing. Today’s Escalade has recaptured some of Cadillac’s ‘70s mojo, but it makes a Sedan de Ville look like a toy. Turns out that downsizing was just a temporary situation!

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