This is a 1981 Cadillac Seville. Like the first high school senior of the year to come to class without a bookbag, the Seville represented the beginning of an end, and in the car’s case, it was the end of one of the biggest automotive empires to ever live: General Motors.
Also like a high schooler in the throes of senioritis, the Seville wasn’t really that good at anything. This was a fat high schooler too, tipping the scales at two tons. Now, it’s okay to have a heavy car, so long as there is a powerful engine to motivate all that mass down the road. I’m not going to beat around the bush: this Cadillac didn’t have much motivation.
1981 was the only year the Seville had GM’s V-8-6-4 engine. In fairness, the idea behind this was actually pretty clever. A V-8-6-4 was effectively a normal, 145 horsepower V8 that had the ability to shut down either two or four of its cylinders when they weren’t needed in order to save fuel. This meant that the Cadillac could be a V6 or even a V4 when the car was operating under conditions in which the power of a V8 wasn’t needed, such as when travelling downhill or idling. Sounds smart, and it was. In fact, many cars and trucks today use a similar technology known as cylinder deactivation. But as is the case with much of the 80s, there was a problem.
You see, the V-8-6-4 was a great idea on paper. The problem was it never, to use a technical term, “worked.” Sevilles stalled, crunched, and jerked their way into many automotive history books as one of the biggest technological failures of the twentieth century. Many owners rushed back to the dealership to have the system removed or, in many cases, to get rid of the Cadillac altogether, go down the street, and buy a Mercedes. And it was no use picking a different engine either, because they were woefully underpowered if they ran on gasoline. The diesel engines were too, but they had the added distinction of occasionally falling to pieces.
The Seville also wasn’t particularly well built, as evidenced by the fact that this one’s hood won’t close properly. It was front wheel drive, which immediately took it off the shopping lists of many potential customers. The four-speed-transmission was groggy, it was expensive, and it had a power-to-weight ratio comparable to cars sold in the 1930s. The reason for all this misery has to do with the gas crisis, shrinking profits, and old people.
General Motors, the company that owns Cadillac, had enjoyed near monopoly levels of success all through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. This though was the 1980s, the company’s worst decade in terms of market share loss. The Seville was one of the first in a long, depressing line of poorly made, unreliable and underpowered cars that eventually culminated in General Motors’ bankruptcy five years ago. It also didn’t help that, while the Seville was designed to appeal to younger buyers, the car attracted mostly retirees.
I however, did not live through the 80s. My impression of the Seville is of a car removed from its time, and for this car, that’s a good thing. Despite all the negative things I said about this big old bruiser, I like it. I like the wire wheels. I like the two shades of blue they painted it in. I like the fact that the seats could serve as Lay-Z-Boys and that the dashboard is made of real wood. And I really like the chopped off rear end. That particular styling feature is called the “bustle back” and is supposed to hearken back to coachbuilt Rolls Royces of old. I don’t really know why I like all these things, but I do know that at this moment I’d like to drive this very car through New Orleans, or maybe Savannah. In the evening. In the rain. Listening to some old jazz. Over the past thirty years, I think this Cadillac has, in spite of its many flaws, climbed out of the pit of sad malaise and become, somehow, what it was always intended to be but never was: classy.
- The bustle back came from a much earlier Cadillac designer named Wayne Kady in 1967. The design was never intended for a sedan.
- This car comes from the era when the Cadillac logo had ducks in it. Just look- they’re right there in the gold parts! Also, hooray for hood ornaments!