Welcome to What If, a new feature from imaginative illustrator Abimelec Arellano and Hagerty. We’ll be taking you back in time—and possibly forward into the future—to meet alternative-universe automobiles. Even better, our time machine is working well enough to bring “short take” reviews along with the photographs and advertisements. Buckle up and enjoy the ride! — Jack Baruth
(Originally published in Road And Driver, October 1976 edition)
Didja ever hear the story about the time Rolls-Royce sent a representative out to chastise a pig farmer? They’d heard a story that a very wealthy fellow in the English countryside was using his Silver Cloud to haul his prize pigs to exhibitions. So the boys from Crewe went out to his mansion, knocked on his door, and waited for him to answer.
“Ah, sir, it has come to our attention that you are a Rolls-Royce client …”
“That I am,” the farmer growled.
“And it has also come to our attention that you are in the business of, ah, livestock …”
“I’m a pig farmer, that’s what I am,” was the irritated reply.
“Quite right, yes. And furthermore it appears that there is a suggestion, perhaps nothing more than a rumor at the moment, that you have been reported to have employed your Silver Cloud in the transport of certain animals …”
“Pigs paid for it,” the farmer spat, “and pigs will bloody well ride in it.” Then he slammed the door right on the John Lobb brogues of Rolls-Royce’s representative. Here in the fifty states, the folks at Traditional Coach Works have made a similar kind of agricultural hay with their deVille-based pickup truck, the Mirage, selling a few hundred examples in 1975 and 1976.
This year, of course, there’s a new de Ville in town—the astounding “downsized” ’77 model that stretches just 221 inches from bumper to bumper but has just as much cabin space as its land-yacht predecessor. The engine is a de-bored 425-cubic-inch version of the old 500, but it still leaves every stoplight with authority. We’ve called the ’77 Caprice “the best American car in decades,” and the Cadillacs are just the same thing with more gingerbread and a bigger engine.
Problem is, not everybody is going to be happy with their small-is-beautiful Caddys. At the same time, Chevrolet and GMC dealers are selling more top-of-the-line versions of their Suburban station wagon than ever before. Is there a way to capitalize on both these issues? You bet—but it’s so crazy that we think it’s going to fall on its face like Charlie Chaplin in a fast-forward matinee.
The “Escalade” is a 1977 Suburban, with a few important differences. First off, it has the old 500-cubic-inch engine from the ’76 Fleetwood Talisman, complete with the fuel-injection option we remember from that car. Next up, it has a rather awkward-looking graft of the 1976 de Ville nose onto the Suburban’s 1973-vintage front fascia, and the tail fins from last year’s Fleetwood tacked on to the rear quarter-panels.
This, we think, is where the Escalade will fail. Everybody knows that Cadillac buyers are too sophisticated to buy a Suburban just because it has a Cadillac front end. Could you imagine if it didn’t have any tail fins, but instead just had the regular Chevy lamps? You wouldn’t sell a single one. Or—and this might be a result of too many martinis at lunchtime here at 1602 Pigback Road—what if they’d tried to do the Escalade with the plain-Jane Chevy engine and a GMC grille, just swapping in the Cadillac crest for the GMC logo? You’d have riots at the dealerships. Possibly even a fatality or two among the sales staff.
Thankfully, Cadillac is too sharp to badge-engineer the thing like a second-generation Austin-Healey Sprite. There are some real differences, from the engine to the bodywork. And it’s inside that you start to get the real Cadillac treatment. The Suburban’s width almost precisely matches that of the 1976 de Ville, which means the seats from that old car fit without so much as a shave of the velour. Also on board: Cadillac’s “Twilight Sentinel” headlamps. One feature that didn’t make the cut: the fiber-optic turn-signal monitors so beloved of the Palm Beach retiree crowd.
What’s it gonna cost? Well, that’s the dirty little secret that explains why the Escalade exists. A new Sedan de Ville starts at $9864. A 1977 Suburban has a base price of $5259—but we’ve seen window stickers for big-block, fully-loaded, two-tone ’Burbs that reach as high as $9629, making them cowboy Cadillacs in all but name. The Escalade starts at $11,599 and goes up from there! That’s Fleetwood Brougham money for a vehicle that doesn’t even have a vinyl roof.
Is there any market for the Escalade? We think not. Cadillac buyers won’t be tempted out of their smooth and quiet big sedans for the rough ride and sharp-edged interior of what was obviously a last-minute attempt to address the downsides of downsizing. And Suburban buyers in West Texas and elsewhere won’t have any interest in the wreath-and-crest badge. Look for this Cadillac model to join the Calais on the scrap heap of history before too long. If we’re wrong, however, it could be a real secret weapon for the Standard Of The World—and one that the boys from Dearborn won’t be able to address. Like what are they are going to do … make a four-door Bronco with a Lincoln badge? It would be easier, although just as ridiculous, to imagine a Lincoln with front-wheel-drive! Forget pigs in Rolls-Royces—at that point, they’d just be flying!