A Brief History Of Cadillac 1980-2000: Northstar And SUVs40
During the 1980s and 1990s, the look and performance of Cadillac would change greatly. Reductions in size would continue, a compact sedan based on the Chevy Cavalier would prove a disappointment, and a competitor for the Mercedes-Benz SL convertibles would arrive with fresh Italian styling. A new engine platform would be the standard of performance in Cadillac coupes and sedans, and in the late-1990s, SUVs would enter the Cadillac lineup, as luxurious family-haulers would come into demand.
The Seville was redesigned for 1980, featuring an all new “bustle-back” and a switch to the Eldorado’s front-wheel-drive chassis.
The early 1980s saw further reductions in size across the Cadillac lineup to meet with the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration) CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards.
Standard digital heat and air conditioning controls were introduced to all Cadillac models in 1981.
The Cadillac Cimarron was introduced in for the 1982 model year. Based on the Chevy Cavalier, the Cimarron was poorly received by the Cadillac faithful. Auto journalist Dan Neil listed the Cimarron as one of the “worst cars of all time,” adding it “nearly killed Cadillac and remains its biggest shame.”
In 1983, Cadillac debuted the optional Delco/Bose stereo system. The cassette stereo was priced at $895, and was only available on Eldorados and Sevilles. It would not be available in DeVilles and Fleetwoods until 1985.
The 1985 Cadillac DeVille was transformed with a transverse-mounted front-wheel-drive configuration, the first for any American manufacturer. Digital instrumentation was introduced on DeVilles and Fleetwoods in 1985.
Redesigned for 1986, the Eldorado and Seville models were much smaller in dimension and stature. Both were powered by transverse-mounted 4.1-liter V8s.
The Pininfarina-bodied Cadillac Allanté debuted for the 1987 model year, with bodies shipped from Italy to the U.S. for final assembly. The Mercedes SL competitor was powered by the transverse-mounted HT-4100 V8.
Cadillac’s Detroit, Michigan Clark Street assembly plant, which had been in service since 1921, was shuttered in 1987.
Traction control was available for the first time on the 1990 Cadillac Allanté.
Cadillac made history in 1991 with the introduction of the Northstar engine. Originally developed by Oldsmobile, the high-performance 4.6-liter 90-degree V8 was General Motors’ most complex engine, featuring aluminum block and heads, double-overhead cams, and four valves per cylinder.
Beginning in mid-1992, Cadillac introduced the Northstar engine as part of the Northstar System that included variable valve timing, suspension that “read the road,” four-wheel disc brakes, and variable power steering. The 1992 Seville was redesigned with some styling elements lifted from the 1988 Cadillac Voyage concept. The new Seville made Car and Driver magazine’s Ten Best list.
The Northstar engine was available in the Cadillac Allanté for its final year of production in 1993. Freshly redesigned for 1993, the all-new rear-wheel-drive Cadillac Fleetwood replaced the aging Brougham. The front-wheel-drive Fleetwood from previous years was renamed the Sixty Special. 1993 was the final year for Coupe DeVille production.
The 1994 Cadillac DeVille was redesigned on the same platform as the Seville, with a slightly longer wheelbase. DeVilles came with standard driver front airbags, full digital instrument cluster, digital information center, and dual-zone climate control.
The High Technology (HT) engine line that had been in production since 1982 was discontinued in 1995.
Continuously Variable Road Sensing Suspension, or CVRSS, was introduced in 1996, as was Magnasteer Speed Sensitive Steering.
The OnStar Vehicle Safety and Security System was introduced as an available option on all Cadillacs for 1997, and StabiliTrak was available for Sevilles, Eldorados, and DeVilles.
Along with a restyling in for the 1997 model year, the DeVille introduced a standard SRS passenger’s-side front airbag, as well as new stereo systems, and the TheftLock security system.
The entry-level Cadillac Catera sedan debuted for the 1997 model year. Aimed at mid-size European marques, the Catera was itself European, a rebadged Opel Omega built in Russelsheim, Germany.
The Chevy Tahoe-based Cadillac Escalade bowed for the 1999 model year as a direct competitor for the Lincoln Navigator. Massaging lumbar seats are available for the first time in select Sevilles, DeVilles, and Eldorados.
There was little in the Cadillac lineup that looked anything like the models of just two decades ago. Technology, styling, and performance would launch Cadillac into the new millennium.
To be continued.
Cadillac 1902-1917: the Birth of the Brand
Cadillac 1920-1940: the Pre-War Years
Cadillac 1940-1960: WW II and Beyond
Cadillac 1960-1980: Innovation and Excess
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Thank you for this great article (series). I’ve been reading them with a smile on my face. Also, thank you for not bashing on the Cadillac line of the 80’s and 90’s (I’m sure a lot of that will follow my comment and in other comments after). I personally have a strong tie to these years as my parents purchased their first Cadillac (1975) in late 1976 when I was just a young boy. Their second was a 1979 in 1981. By this time, I was old enough to become a huge fan of Cadillac. Even though they had some misses and things could have been done better, they weren’t all the doom/gloom that many attempt to say. Plus it was a decade (80’s) of change for many in the automotive world. In 1985 my dad and I ordered a brand new Cavalier sedan, and although a very nice little car, it was the Cimarron that I had my eye on. There was just something about a more lavish Cavalier that appealed to me.
In 1988 I went into auto sales for the first time at a Buick, Cadillac, GMC and Honda store. Being the last year for the Cimarron, we only had one left and it was too expensive for my 19 year old budget. It got sold and over the years I waited and waited for the perfect Cimarron to be traded in. No luck. But over those years, I proudly sold every Cadillac I could and even owned a few (mostly used) with one being a 1998 Catera. That was a really nice car, but just didn’t fill my desire to own a Cimarron. I had a DeVille diesel (82), a Seville (79, 84 and 85) and then the new Catera. I always had very good luck with them all and enjoyed each one. But finally in late 2021 I was lucky enough to find my Cimarron: a 1988 with 60,000 miles in near perfect condition and only 100 miles from where I now live. That car sits in my garage and will probably be with me till I die unless I find a nicer one!
I’ll end with my defense of the Cimarron. It was brought out 2 years too early and they should have waited till 1984 to bring it out with the massive changes/improvements that were made on the 1983. It should have had the body changes that the 1985 had. The car served a purpose and actually sold ok for those 7 years. However, the 1982 with the 1.8L was so bad, that the major improvements made in 1983 and then the body changes in 1985 just couldn’t lift the poor little Caddy out of the target zone for so many. But it was and still is a fantastic little car and every time I get in mine and go for a ride, I’m amazed at how solid and fun it is even when compared to today’s cars. The true difference? It has some class where today’s cars are just don’t have that class any more.
Thank you, Dan.
I agree that using the 1.8L in the initial models was a serious mistake. When the 2.8L V6 became available with the 1985 model year, the car became fun to drive and distinct from the other GM J-cars, as should have been intended in the first place.
Dan B, I echo your sentiments on the Cimarron. I too am one that was in favor of the little car when others had few kind words (Bob Lutz said in a TV Interview that he felt the Cimarron was the biggest mistake Cadillac ever made!).
I guess it depends upon who was the Cimarron’s targeted audience. It’s definitely NOT for the traditional Cadillac customer. My Mother bought a New 1986 V-6 Cimarron in Blue with an electric sunroof and the little rack on the trunk and she just LOVED it! Its small size was high on her list along with it being comfortable to drive and easy to maneuver in congested streets. Parking also was also a plus and it was very quiet for the size of this car. I also loved driving the Cimarron whenever I could. It was a fun small car to drive on twisty roads. She passed away due to Cancer in 1997, but had she lived, I believe her next car would have been the Catera.
Great commentary. I was born in 73 so a little younger than you but when the Cimarron came out, it did make a splash…I remember the commercials fairly well. You’re right that the original model was so hamstrung…later years were much better. My dad’s work had a DeVille in 1985 or 1986 (slimmed down model) and I thought the smaller V8 turned sideways in the engine bay was neat. I remember riding in it a few times and thinking how cool of a car it was. I was also aware of the European and Japanese models at that time and knew GM had its work cut out for it, but still I don’t think 1980s-GM gets as much credit as it should, considering the times and GM’s history with big cars.
The V6 was a total character changer in many GM products, mainly because their 4 cylinders were so awful. In addition to the Cimarron and all J-cars, the X and then A-body cars (Celebrity, 6000, Ciera, Century) were vastly more enjoyable with the reasonably smooth and torquey 2.8,then 3.1 V6. The 1.8 and especially the 2.5L “Iron Duke” were rough and agricultural, but at least they were gutless as well. GM just doesn’t sweat the small engines like they do the 6 and 8 cylinder plants. Even the vaunted “Quad 4” was awful compared to a contemporary Honda or Toyota 4-banger.
oooooh … loved those 1981 Cadillac Seville & 1988 Cadillac Seville STS exteriors … it was some cars dreamed of having if all dreams had came to a truth, for example living in Florida in a US$ 10 millions house, design director etc
Personally disagree totally with this Auto journalist Dan Neil… listed the Cimarron as one of the “worst cars of all time,” in fact it is a good example of good design cars we miss today in stores and in streets. See now what we have. Better this guy reviewing his comments after seeing what is offered today, all plastics, no styling talents, none chrome, none connecting easy shapes. Indeed all cadillac’s the 1980ies and 1990ies were great ones as exteriors, interiors would say differently, maybe the instrument panels without wood or colours would having been better
Now see after 2010 what is Cadillac… sincere, it is nothing compared .. and since 2020, really downhill
The Allante is still a gorgeous car. Looks great even today. Looking forward to the next article.
When me and my brother did the Florida Trip among Epcot Center, Disney Things, Sea World and Cape Canaveral Tour… we with a rental Mitsubishi Colt… loved the car, for example the seating belt dressing you… took a GM Catalogue in 1992 of cars offered, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, Saturn, GMC and so on… still have this Brochure of 1992, and take care it with love. The models are all nice… So. After we did the Cruise Costa Riviera ex Michelangelo from Puerto Rico, Caracas & Virgin Islands. Second visit in Florida with Wife, already 2003, was different, this time with a rental Chrysler Dodge Neon, also very nice… indeed the USA made really great cars, what happened with USA people ?
You can’t mention the Catera without the bird/duck! And who is Lisa Catera?
That “bustle back” ‘81 Seville in my opinion was one of the most unique designs to come from Cadillac. I really think Cadillac should have taken the rear-end styling from the Seville and incorporated that into the upcoming Celestiqe
that would be interesting.
Cimmaron has its fans, and thousands were sold over its 7 years on offer. However the idea of luxing up a Cavalier and charging twice the price for not much more really was not up to the standards of the brand. I read that a Cadillac division general manager kept a picture of a Cimmaron posted in his office… as a constant reminder of what not to do again.
So this is exactly what I referred to with the same old stories being pushed by those who certainly don’t understand or know more about the Cimarron. Let’s just take one point:
You say “luxing up a Cavalier and charging twice the price for not much more”. So let’s visit some truth here. In 1985 my dad and I sat down with a Chevy dealer and ordered a brand new 1985 Cavalier CS sedan. The car was gray with light gray cloth. It had power locks ,but no power windows. It did have a cassette stereo, A/C and cruise. But that was it. No leather, higher end sound system, alloy wheels, power seat/s, etc. The car was quite nice and we really liked it. But it was far from a Cimarron. That Cavalier listed (MSRP) for $12,400. Assuming your story to be correct, that would mean a Cimarron would have been nearly $25,000. In fact, a much more highly equipped 1985 Cimarron would have been around $17,500.
Now, is $5,000 grand a lot (especially back then)? Yes, and I’m not defending the price they had on the Cimarron when new. But had we equipped the Cavalier with every option we could, it would have been closer to $13,500 in total.
Finally, I too have heard the story about the Cadillac manager having that picture on his wall for that same reason. Would it maybe have been more appropriate to have the pictures of the people who made the rushed decision on the Cimarron hanging on that wall instead and blaming them for it’s failure instead of the car they pushed out way too soon?
Base price for a 1982 Cimmaron was $12,131. Base price of a 1982 Cavalier sedan was $7,187, though you could get a Cavalier for $6,648. No, it wasn’t actually double but ranged from 69% to 83% more for the Cadillac. But it wasn’t 70% more of a car.
He could have mounted a photo of the folks who made the Cimmaron decision, but it would cover the whole wall, given how GM made its decisions. It was easier to just post the result of their decision,
Just really enjoyed the complete series on Cadillac. Sure brings back some great memories and ties in the G.M. of the past to todays G.M. Hope to see a similar series on all G.M.
I thought the bustle back was elegant looking. The downsized fwd Devilles , I didn’t care for, but they have aged well, and look better than what’s out there now.
I consider my 1986 Cadillac Eldorado America2 Ltd. Edition among the finest cars ever to wear the Cadillac wreath and crest.
GM has changed so much. I remember 1980s when divisions built their own engines while often sharing exterior design. Now, exterior design is what differentiates each brand even though under Sincoe Chevrolet and Buick are starting to share too many lines. Cadillac keeps getting makeovers but it doesn’t seem like luxe buyers are looking for an alternative to current players like Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Audi or even Acura. Each year Cadillac sales dip along with other former icons like Jag and Alfa.
Barra deserves an A for effort in her effort to create a new, technologytechnology-driven automaker and master EVs but I’m not sure if thus will work.
This was the era where Cadillac really vanished. All the things that made Cadillac were lost.
Even the Fleetwood was just a fancy Caprice.
I would not argue with most of the charitable comments made on specific models of this era. What I will say is that Cadillacs of this era lacked that Cadillac mystique that carried the brand through the post-WWII years up until it began to slowly dissipate at the end of the 60’s when government regulations caught Detroit off guard, opening the door for imports to establish themselves and challenge Detroit with products that appealed to a changing marketplace.
Cadillac in the 80s was lost, looking for answers to the question of how to hang on to that Cadillac ‘tradition’ while it tries to fit into a changing world.
Cadillacs of the past several years have been able to keep their head above the water, but they are still treading. However, the debut of the age of electrification has given them an opening for a renaissance, to recapture that ‘Cadillac mystique’ with the fabulous Lyriq and Celestiq and what they have in the pipeline.
It was not the look etc.
Cadillac had nothing that was Cadillac only even the NStar was not Cadillac……
Corporate parts turned a special car into just another GM car.
Lots of reminiscing for me – I started as a manufacturing engineer at Cadillac Clark Street Assembly in 1983. Now retired – and disappointed this article made no mention of the shift of 1988 rear drive Fleetwood production to Arlington Texas. I was the lead brake processing chassis manufacturing engineer assigned to the startup in Arlington. We introduced a Bosch 4 wheel Anti-lock brake system for the first time on that vehicle in that plant.
The argument for the Cimarron was made by many Cadillac Dealers that wanted an “entry level Cadillac”. I think it may have been Lloyd Reuss, Mark’s father that said there was already an entry level Cadillac. It was a used Buick or Oldsmobile. I find it hard to disagree with that line of thought. However, from the Dealer’s point of view, if you were a single line Cadillac store, the least expensive new vehicle you had on your lot was a DeVille. There are two sides to that story.
On the engine side, there were two 1.8L engines in the GM portfolio in the early 80s. The 1.8L OHV was the really anemic one. Anyone that ever drove one would agree. That engine morphed into 2.0L OHV, which ended up being a pretty good one. Better torque and throttle response. The other 1.8L was an OHC. That was a horse of a different color. Used quite a bit by Buick and Pontiac, it even came in a turbocharged version that could really kick up it’s heels.
ACZ, I agree!
In my earlier comment (under “TomL”), I should mention my Mother had originally bought the first year the Cimarron came out. I think it was in 1982. I believe at the time it was available in a manual transmission (but my Mom ordered the automatic). Boy, anemic was being polite! She loved the car, but hated crossing streets or merging into highway traffic. It truly was a gutless wonder! I would suggest she turn-off the A/C before she tries to merge into traffic until she reaches freeway speed. That 1.8L was embarrassing! As soon as the V-6 became available, she upgraded and it erased any previous doubts about the car. However, in full disclosure, the transversed V-6 engine in her Cimarron did have an oil leak issue somewhere in the valve cover which was annoying and the Cadillac dealership had a really hard time fixing it. One of the mechanics told me I would never want to replace the spark plugs that were facing the firewall. Overall, we did have a very positive experience with the 1986 V-6 Cimarron model. 🙂
Adam at Rare Classic Cars on YT said that they originally wanted to use the X car, which had a V6 option, but the Citation sold so well initially that they didn’t believe there would be enough production capacity available for a Cadillac version. Of course, its mechanical problems made Citation sales drop like a stone, so by ’82, there would have been the capacity, but they’d already decided to rush out a Cadillac J car with minimal changes. But everyone thought gas prices would keep climbing, and there was a sharp recession driving people away from big Cadillacs, so the decision made more sense at the time.
I remember being in high school thinking how HOT the 1988 Cadillac Seville STS and that body style was at the time. I still think they are gorgeous and the design has withstood the test of time IMO. I think the Gen 2-Gen 3 Cadillac CTS will still also look good 30 to 40 years from now.
ACCad: In my book above (too long winded some times!!), I failed to recall that I actually had that exact same car. In 2010, I found a 1988 white STS in Washington State and flew from LA to Seattle to buy it. I drove it home that same day (over 1,200 miles) and found that car to be ultra comfortable and yet it was fantastic handling. Not only did I drive it home that time, but I also drove it round trip from LA to Missoula (MT) for a family reunion in 2011. Then in 2013 I drove it to Nashville, (TN) when I moved there. Certainly one of the best road cars I’ve ever owned! And that interior was magnificent. Since I love wood (real or fake) inside a car, that one was the best. But the decision was made in 2014 that I would need to move back to LA once again, so I decided to sell the STS. A guy from Florida flew to Nashville and purchased it on the spot and he drove it back to Florida the next morning. To this day, I keep in touch with him and he still owns that car and told me he would never sell it. I have no idea how I forgot that one.
Hi again. This is the first article that I just keep coming back in hopes of reading other’s stories about the 80’s and 90’s Cadillac’s. Plus, being my favorite two decades for them, I keep thinking of more things.
The main pic of the story of the black Cimarron is actually the special edition D’Oro. This was brought out in 1984 I believe for the first time and offered in only black or white. Cool fact: That’s the only way you could get a Cimarron in black from the factory and I think just that one year. In 1985, they still offered the D’Oro but in a dark maroon or white and I think they offered it till 1987. I’d have to go back into my research books to be sure on that, but I don’t think the last year offer it.
Another fun fact/s: I was with Cadillac for the entire Allante run from 1987 till 1993. Fantastic car to drive. In 1989 when Cadillac redesigned the DeVille/Fleetwood front drive cars, I was sent to Detroit for a factory tour and drive away. Outside of the birth of my two children, I think that was the best 4 days of my life and what a joy to drive a brand new 1989 DeVille from Detroit back to the dealership. Ah, the memories.
Just a quick story. In 1986 I received a job transfer that left me with a commute of 120 miles a day. I had two options for transportation, either get a little car with a little four cylinder engine or something larger with a diesel. I found a low mile 1981 Coupe DeVille diesel. I kept that car long enough to put 285,000 miles on it and finally sold it because I just needed a change. Original engine and trans. Just had to do tires and brakes a few times. Only other repair was rear axle bearings. That was one of the best cars I ever had.
ACZ: I think this has been covered in other articles, but it was the 1981 model where GM made huge improvements to the 5.7 diesel. Yes, it’s sad that it took them about 2 1/2 years to do so, but even some of the early ones weren’t bad IF the person driving them knew a lot about it and took care of it. But from 1981 on, they were quite good and I would often see them traded in with 150,000 and more. Those people loved them. The ones who normally had issues were the ones who had little knowledge of a diesel and the “different” care they could need. I also had a diesel DeVille (1982) in 1989. Amazing for comfort and cruising on the freeway I would get 31 MPG in a huge car.
Dan, you’re right. 1980 saw massive improvements in the diesel and more in 81. By the time 1985 came along they were virtually bullet proof but the damage was already done to the reputation. The main way to make one live was clean fuel and proper oil and filter changes. They really lived well when used on the highway. The worst thing you could do was to use one for short trip driving.
Yes ACZ, that is correct. It’s funny yet sad how GM (at least in the past) has a history of bringing out something with good intentions, but it’s sub-par at best only to make improvements over several years and then kill it when it’s perfected. Examples:
4.3 V6 diesel
Citation, and so many more that we could name. But everything that I listed was ok at best when introduced and then became much better by the end.
Dan, what you mentioned is part of a much longer list. How about the Corvair, the XLR, Rochester fuel injection, to name a few more. I’ll never understand it. The only guess I can make is that bean counters get involved where engineers should be involved. One thing I do know is that once a product has been brought to market, the design folks are reassigned to new projects and the current product is dumped into the lap of the service folks. Then it’s up to these folks to try to figure out what happened and how to fix it. Not the smartest way to operate.