By on March 10, 2009

[The First Curbside Classic]

Rambling along the streets of Eugene, I encounter cars that unleash memories and musings. Today’s nostalgia comes courtesy of the 1971 Cadillac Coupe DeVille.

1971 was a very BIG year for Cadillac, as well as for US workers and me. And in a number of ways, things haven’t been quite the same for any of us since. When this 1971 Coupe DeVille first rolled off the assembly line, it was the biggest ever, a full nineteen feet long and almost seven feet wide. And it remains the high-water mark for American cars. The ’71 Caddy was the quintessential land barge. It floated along serenely and optimistically across America on the still youthful and un-crowded interstate system, its 7.7-liter V8 slurping a gallon of 39-cent gas every 12 blissfully isolated miles.

In 1971, right after I turned eighteen, I left home and hitchhiked west, with thirty-five dollars in my pocket. One of my first rides could have been in this very Coupe DeVille. It was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, in the western, mountainous part of the state. The driver was a teenage kid, even younger than me. He and his girlfriend had borrowed Dad’s new Caddy for a trip to visit a relative. Dad worked in the steel mills of Pittsburgh.

It was the scariest ride of my trip; the freshly-minted driver was utterly unable to keep the yank tank in its lane on the winding mountainous stretches. In between attacks of anxiety as the Caddy rolled and wallowed, I pondered why his steelworker father drove a brand new DeVille, while my father, a neurologist, drove a stripper 1968 Dodge Dart?

It’s a question that I’ve wrestled with over the years. Once I got over lambasting my father for his cheapness, the bigger picture answer eventually revealed itself; and the current economic crisis has brought it into greater clarity and focus.

By several measures, 1971 also represented a high water economic mark for American workers. Average wages ($34K inflation adjusted) hit a an all-time peak. And things were cheap (prices inflation-adjusted): the median new house: $128K; college tuition: $1900 per year; healthcare: dirt cheap; pensions: rock-solid designated benefit pensions were the norm; and that new big 1971 Caddy? $29K—exactly one half the sticker price of a 2009 STS V8 sedan.

We’ve covered Cadillac’s demographic downward slide before, but along with the house, college, health care, and the size of new Caddies, 1971 marked the peak year of affordability for the average worker. For about a 25% premium over a similarly equipped Chevy Caprice, the “Standard of the World” could be sitting in your driveway. And the emergence of four-year auto loans suddenly made it possible with almost the same monthly payment as a Chevy on the traditional three-year loan. That vaunted Cadillac “premium” was now “almost free,” thanks to the magic of credit.

Of course, the “Standard of the World” wasn’t eponymous anymore. Quality was now at a low water mark (bathtub ring?). Plastic extensively replaced metal on the exterior and interior of the ’71. In fact, the Caddy just wasn’t all that special anymore and had become precariously similar to the Caprice. No wonder profit margins on the ’71 Caddies were outsized too. More than ever, the two were alike, and the markup of the Caddy over the Chevy was almost pure profit.

1945 to 1971 marks America’s “exceptional period,” when income and purchasing power grew relentlessly, and our standard of living (and cars) was the envy of the world. But since 1971, the small gains in average wages ($34K to $40K in 2007, adjusted) have been far outstripped by the costs of housing, college, health care, and new Caddies. America has been hard pressed to keep up the American Dream.

America’s first solution was to get wifey back in the workforce. That helped, for those that were ready, willing and able (and had a wife). But it only went so far. So our nation’s Best and Brightest came up with the grand solution: cheap and readily available credit. From the creation of junk bonds, deregulation of the S&L’s and huge government deficits in the eighties, to subprime mortgages and 84-month car loans in the aughts, America would borrow and deficit spend its way to continued prosperity. Or not.

Cadillac sales peaked in the seventies. Eventually, downsizing, declining quality and reliability, chintzy styling, and rising costs killed the golden goose. Now, the whole American financial system and automobile industry is about as torn and tattered as the vinyl roof on this once proud Coupe DeVille.

I eventually figured out why my father drove a slant-six Dart. And those particular genes have come to full expression in me. My new cars keep getting cheaper. There’s nothing quite like writing a check for the full price of a car to make you appreciate its real cost. And the true cost of credit.

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75 Comments on “Curbside Classics: 1971 Cadillac Coupe DeVille...”


  • avatar
    no_slushbox

    Come on, .083 miles a gallon? I think that’s a little harsh.

    On the other hand:

    “America’s first solution was to get wifey back in the workforce. That helped, for those that were ready, willing and able (and had a wife). But it only went so far. So our nation’s Best and Brightest came up with the grand solution: cheap and readily available credit. From the creation of junk bonds, deregulation of the S&L’s and huge government deficits in the eighties, to subprime mortgages and 84 month car loans in the aughts, America would borrow and deficit spend its way to continued prosperity. Or not.”

    Is, well, the truth about everything.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Cadillac has fortunately – for the most part – departed from its old ways and builds world-class cars today, in contrast to this 71. [But the Escalade pickup has no reason to exist, IMO.]

    If GM survives in any form, Cadillac will certainly be part of it due to its hard work to improve the product over the last 10 years.

  • avatar

    Great, great, wonderful article, Paul. I’ve always liked your stuff, but this story gives a great perspective on the current condition of our economy and society. It’s an oddly sad piece, not exactly pessimistic but not burbling over with faith in the attainability of the American Dream, but damned if it doesn’t sum up just how I feel about how things are without sliding into tangent like I tend to.

    Good work, good piece, excellent perspective. Thanks for writing it and sharing it with us.

  • avatar

    The decline of America as seen through the automotive lens. Absolutely marvelous story. And I say that with a bit of professional envy.

    My father, an economist, was cheaper than yours. My mother got the brand new stripper 1970 Valiant (which was an absolutely fine automobile, as I suspect the Dart was). A year later, my father bought China expert Jerry Cohen’s stripper and POS 1968 Ford Falcon wagon for himself. He drove it for the next five years.

  • avatar
    golf4me

    Although the 1962-64′s were my favorite Devilles, these are probably a close second. My neighbor has a 72 4dr HT in pretty good condition for his daily driver. In a sea of Toyondas, it’s a really cool sight to see. Sounds great too. I doubt that engine ever revs above 2k, and it seems like he’s idling around 400 when he’s going down the street. I agree with the author that this gen was really the first to betray the close relationship to the Caprice/Boneville/Electra/98.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    no_slushbox: Make that 12 miles per gallon. That’s a bit better.

  • avatar
    cjdumm

    Cadillac certainly did slide downhill rapidly after this high-water mark. In the 1950s a Cadillac in your driveway was the object of your neighbor’s admiration.

    By 1977 a brand-new Caddy in the driveway of our middle-class neighborhood in upstate NY was a curiosity: why would they spend all that extra money on a Chevy Caprice?

    By 1986 a new Cadillac in my college dorm parking lot was the object of ridicule, soap, and toilet paper: why would anyone spend all that extra money on a ^&*^% Chevy Cavalier???

    But all that is old (or at least *much* that is old) is new again: a 1950s Caddy in your driveway today would be an instant crowd-pleaser.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    But since 1971, the small gains in average wages ($34k to $40k in 2007, adjusted) have been far outstripped by the costs of housing, college, health care, and new Caddies

    This really is an important point, and has a lot to do with why we are where we are. To whit:
    * People aren’t smart, not en masse.
    * Income brackets are polarizing
    * Available wealth is vanishing

    So you have a conundrum: the rich want to get richer, but there’s a limit to how much you can squeeze the rest of society for. So how do you do it? Create artificial demand and suck up even more money!

    There’s a number of fascinating works on this, but the basic premise—mean age might not have changed much, but the median is dropping like a stone and the range increasing dramatically—does not point to a sustainable economic future unless you start incorporating concepts like “indentured servitude”. Now, I know Landcrusher and Geeber (at least) are probably going to give me heck for this, but I think it’s time for a little forced income redistribution. We need more than a little incentive to cap and control the concentration of wealth, because even if we do dig ourselves out of the current situation, we’ve still got an unhealthy and unsustainable spread, and it’s not getting better.

    I eventually figured out why my father drove a slant-six Dart.

    The real tipping point for the American carmakers is when they started screwing up cars like the Dart/Valiant and Falcon. People buying discretionary cars will forgive a lot because the purchase is partly ego-driven and ego lets you forgive a lot. Screwing up the Dart (with the Aspen, and then the Aries, Spirit, and Stratus) is like screwing up Wonderbread: the customer has no emotional involvement, and they’ll dump you in a heartbeat if you mess with them.

  • avatar
    superbadd75

    I absolutely love that old American luxury. Seemingly as long and wide as a mobile home, with 400+ cubes under the hood, how can you resist? Gone are the cars with front seats a 6 footer can sleep on, and maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I miss it! Thanks for the write up, Paul. You’ve rekindled my desire to own one of these beasts!

  • avatar
    rpol35

    “I pondered why his steelworker father drove a brand new DeVille, while my father, a neurologist, drove a stripper 1968 Dodge Dart?”

    And there in lies the tragedy and the beauty that is America!

  • avatar

    I use to bemoan my father’s cheapness too and now I‘m just like him. My dad was a Yale and Columbia (masters) graduate and he never purchased a new car for himself. While he was employed, he never made more than 28,000 dollars a year. He amassed over a million dollars after he retired in 1980 on his retirement income and off the income of a few rental duplexes. He ended up owning a small shopping center along with 22 units of duplexes and over a million in the stock market on blue chip safe investments. Yet he still never purchased a new car for himself. He passed away in 2006 at 91 after a fall and if it were not for that he probably would have made it to 100.

    I live off 1700 a month an bank almost one full pay check every month. My house and car are paid for and I have several rental properties as well. Today I give thanks to my Dad for teaching me his values.

  • avatar
    menno

    Hi Paul,

    Just a quick note – good article, by the way. My Standard Catalog of American Cars says the new MSRP for a 1971 Cadillac Coupe DeVille was $6264. The lowest price Cad coupe was the Calais, which priced out at $5899, and the 1971 Chevrolet Caprice hardtop lists out at $4081, which is about 69% of the price of a Calais. But you have the right general idea.

    Contrast the next nearest thing to a 1971 Caprice vs. Caddy in 1957; a Buick Special (still full sized, V8) started out at $2704, whereas the lowest cost 1957 Cadillac 2 door was a Series 62 at $4609. The Buick was therefore 59% as expensive as the Caddy.

    So it can easily be seen that GM was trying to do a “Clipper” and soak up more sales and profits by dropping the price of their top-of-the-line cars relative to other cars in the line / competiton, at the expense of long-term prestige. Just exactly as Packard did in 1936 with their 120 which morphed into the Clipper.

    It’s one thing to do this to save the company as a temporary measure (alas, Pierce-Arrow was unable to afford to retool for a lower cost car; there had been one potentially planned using Hayes of Grand Rapids Michigan bodies as used by Reo for Flying Clouds…) and Pierce died off. But ultimately, debasing a prestige make for short term gain ends with the car losing the core market.

    Just as happened with Packard when they did not restore their focus to high priced cars after the war (when it could have been obvious to concentrate on large 8 and bring back V12 cars in leiu of six cylinder taxicabs and Clippers ONLY). Especially since from 1945 to about 1948, every car factory could sell every single car they made no matter what the cost.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    I hate to bring politics into this, but the turmoils of today, is a consequence of the politics that has ruled supreme in the western hemisphere the last thirty odd years or so. Milton Friedman and his Chicago Boys. Reaganomics and Thatcherisms. From a wealth more equally distributed among the vast middleclass, the rich has been getting richer, and the poor poorer. And the middleclass squeezed in between consumerism and outsourcing. In the end, you get what you pay for.

  • avatar
    menno

    psarhjinian, the “current day” slant six Darts and Rambler Classic sixes and so forth, are now the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

    Now, compare the Chrysler Sebring to these two market leaders, and even the Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion.

    Yep. You’re right; once you screw up the cars that keep your customers coming back – they don’t bother coming back.

    End of profitable business enterprise.

  • avatar

    Incredible piece, Paul.

    I need to get around to posting my history of GM, which was a chapter of my Ph.D. thesis. One GM exec liked it so much that that was the piece of my thesis he decided to recommend to Bob Lutz. Of course, it was the rest of the thesis that sought to explain their inability to consistently create great cars…

  • avatar

    menno:

    If you want to see a real spread, check out prices in the 1920s. The Depression forced Sloan’s ladder to collapse not long after it was first fully executed.

  • avatar

    I think easy credit is an absolute social disaster. Not so much for the ability it gives us to buy houses and cars, major purchases, but the idea of a credit card really doesn’t quite jibe with my understanding of a healthy economy. The idea the people need a $15 loan to buy some goddamn sweater or $60 to buy a pair of shoes is asinine – it is my great dream that Americans, when faced with this economic crisis, will pull their heads out of their asses and stop buying things they can’t afford and don’t need. This economy was built on this stupid idea of people gobbling up all the food they can stomach and stuffing their oversized homes with rubbish they won’t use and buying pants for $100 and a pair of sunglasses for $150. And a Gazelle from Tony Little, because going for a jog is too damn hard. All this while making an average of under $40,000/year, with a median house price in the $200k range and median auto price north of $30k.

    God damn people are just stupid greedy pigs and part of me wishes we’d let this economy crumble like it deserves to because I tell ya, re-building it in it’s previous image will only lead to disaster. It’s not politics, it’s social, and there’s something seriously wrong with being able to easily get our hands on anything we want. Outside of one-time, infrequent, major-major purchases or running a business, credit is for idiots.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    menno: I said “a similarly equipped Caprice”. By by that, I meant a loaded one: A/C (not standard), automatic, big block V8, and other options to make it more comparable to the Caddy. I did that exercise once before, and the result was about a 25% difference. Or thereabouts.

  • avatar
    no_slushbox

    psarhjinian:

    “There’s a number of fascinating works on this, but the basic premise—mean age might not have changed much, but the median is dropping like a stone and the range increasing dramatically—does not point to a sustainable economic future unless you start incorporating concepts like ‘indentured servitude’.”

    The US has gone a long way toward that with the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005 (the credit card industry even bought it a pretty name).

    Prior to that bankruptcy kept lenders honest.

    If a lender lent someone so much money, on such poor terms, that he would rather lose most of his assests and ruin his credit than pay the lender back, then the lender would be left holding the bag.

    It was a beautifully American system. It didn’t require that lenders be heavily regulated, the threat of discharge created its own laissez-faire incentive not to make bad loans.

    Bankruptcy is so American that the founding fathers (many of them had debts back in Britain that they used a little war to “discharge”) provided for it in the Constitution.

    However, the credit card industry, which lives off of making bad loans (within the industry people who pay in full on time, and therefore pay no interest, are referred to as “deadbeats”), did not like the disincentive that the previous bankruptcy laws put on making bad loans. They lobbied heavily for bankruptcy reforms that would allow them to make bad loans and then turn the borrowers into indentured servants.

    A little bit of money to politicians, and the credit card industry finally got its way on indentured servitude; except for a provision which would have overridden the homestead exemptions that make mansions exempt from bankruptcy in states like Florida and Texas. The Republicans thought that provision was a bit too harsh on their base.

    Except that the Supreme Court, which, for the most part, has ideological conservatives (check out the dissenters, and pathetic majority, in this case of big business vs. homeowners) instead of big business whore Republicans, threw a bit of a snag in the lenders indentured servitude plan by strongly reaffirming, with my full support, the 2nd Amendment. Which does leave indentured servants with one way left to discharge their debt.

  • avatar
    geeber

    America’s first solution was to get wifey back in the workforce.

    I think cause-and-effect may be mixed here.

    Women entering the workforce in large numbers was promoted by feminists – not conservatives – as liberating for women, not a way to maintain family incomes. This movement had been occurring before 1971, and conservatives were ridiculed by liberals and feminists for initially opposing it.

    When a large group of people begin competing in career fields that had largely excluded them, the effect on wages is not likely to be good.

    Today many women do work to maintain family income – although I know many families with children where only one spouse works, and they are not destitute. They don’t have a brand-new luxury sedan in the driveway, they aren’t taking luxury vacations and the television isn’t the latest-and-greatest, but most people in the 1960s didn’t enjoy luxury goods, either.

    Part of what we have witnessed is rising expectations – everyone expects to have the latest-and-greatest immediately. I remember when getting a color television was a big deal, and not everyone immediately had one.

    ingvar: I hate to bring politics into this, but the turmoils of today, is a consequence of the politics that has ruled supreme in the western hemisphere the last thirty odd years or so.

    The reason Thatcher and Reagan were elected is because the 1970s were a time of turmoil marked by inflation, strikes and general economic stagnation. Unions virtually brought Great Britain to its knees in the late 1970s, while in America inflation had hit double digits by the late 1970s, and unemployment was high, too. It’s not as though Reagan and Thatcher were elected during a time of prosperity and growth. Indeed, many of the ideas that are popular today were becoming discredited at that time because of “stagflation” (a deadly combination of inflation, little or no economic growth and high unemployment).

    The prosperity the U.S. enjoyed until roughly 1971 was largely based on our competitors still getting up off the mat in the aftermath of World War II.

    The auto industry is a perfect example.

    When there was very little overseas competition for GM, Ford, Chrysler and AMC, and the UAW had a lock on the labor used to build cars in the United States, the key question for each new contract was how much wages and benefits would increase, not whether they would increase. Any price increases were passed on to the customer, who had no real options.

    That is why the UAW enjoys such stellar wages and benefits – not because Ronald Reagan was not yet in the White House; not because the domestic managers were especially brilliant or compassionate; not because UAW members always installed the parts and trim properly.

    That worked when the domestics sold about 85 percent of all cars in the country. This lack of competition, however, is reflected in the 1971 Cadillac DeVille, which was steadily cheapened to protect profit margins in the face of steadily increasing costs.

    Without effective competition, Cadillac had very little incentive to build a better mousetrap, which is why the 1971 DeVille is really a restyled version of the 1949 Series 62 with superb climate control, govermment-mandated safety and pollution-control equipment and disc brakes (and poorer build quality). And fuel economy was awful – this DeVille’s divisional companion, the 1971 Eldorado with the 500 cid V-8, delivered around 8-10 mpg in normal driving.

    By 1971, an increasing number of Americans were getting tired of this – foreign car sales were on the upswing, and Mercedes began making serious inroads in the Cadillac-Lincoln market.

    The 1950s and 1960s are gone forever – and they really weren’t all that great the first time around.

  • avatar
    h82w8

    My grand dad was an Olds 98 guy, and a ’71 Olds 98 4-door hardtop was the last car he had before he died several years later. Only real difference between it and the Caddy (or the Buick Electra 225) was the motor – an Olds 455 in the case of my grandfather’s 98. I drove his 98 quite a bit when I was learning to drive, and about that time my dad (at my prodding) traded in his ’68 Olds 98 convert for a new BMW 530i. For a young driver like me the difference between these two cars could not have been more stark. It was scary trying to “steer” (guide?) the floaty, wallowy Olds on the interstate at even the double nickel, whereas the taught, autobahn-bred Bimmer felt like you were doing 30mph at 100mph. I have zero nostalgia for these old Detroit land barges now – they were POS-es back then, and even worse today. Good riddance!

  • avatar
    200k-min

    1971 is an interesting year. That year Nixon pulled the US out of the Bretton Woods agreement of the gold exchange standard. That one change is the paramount reason for the inflation that is cited in everything from homes to cars to education and health care.

    As for the grotesque size of vehicles at that time, 1971 was a turning point year as well. In 1970 US oil production peaked, reported in ’71. Going forward all additional US consumption needed to be made up from imports…and has been.

  • avatar
    Colinpolyps

    Man the guy that is driving that pos doesn’t know it but he may as well be walking.

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    menno :
    March 10th, 2009 at 11:43 am

    psarhjinian, the “current day” slant six Darts and Rambler Classic sixes and so forth, are now the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

    Now, compare the Chrysler Sebring to these two market leaders, and even the Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion.

    Yep. You’re right; once you screw up the cars that keep your customers coming back – they don’t bother coming back.

    Menno: I think you’re right on all points but one – the cars themselves. Today’s equivalent of the Dart/Valiant/Rambler/Nova/Falcon/Maverick isn’t the Camcord, but the Corolla/Civic/Sentra/Lancer/Focus/Cobalt. They offer less power and equipment, and are generally more appealing to frugal buyers.

    The Camcord’s natural predecessors were Detroit mid-size cars – a market that Ford invented with the Fairlane and GM overtook. Today’s equivalent of Malibu/Cutlass/Torino/Satellite/Coronet/Matador
    would be Camry/Accord/Altima/Mazda6/Malibu/Sonata in roughly that order, plus the many sport and luxury variations thereof from US, Japan, Korea and Germany.There’s a broader choice of engines (4 and V6), more luxury equipment, and a more profitable transaction price (or at least until recently).

    Great article, Paul. I drove with a friend from NYC to Virginia in a ’72 Calais a few years back and wow, what a great boat!

  • avatar
    walksatnight

    My first car was a ’73 Deville. I still miss it. Bike racks are for wimps – I used stick my 10 Speed in the trunk. No problem.

  • avatar
    racebeer

    Great writeup Paul. Reminds me of the Down the Street series by Murlee.

    Speaking of the dimensions, the real monster of the lineup was the Seventy-Five series — 151.5″ wheelbase and 250″ overall length. Stretch limo from the factory, so to speak.

  • avatar
    Nels Nelson

    At the risk of spoiling the party, the Cadillac pictured is a 1972 Coupe DeVille.

    I do remember the UAW called a strike against GM in 1970 which reduced the supplies of ’71 model year cars.

    Furthermore I remember a group of students hired to drive a ’71 Sedan DeVille cross-country for a gentleman entered the car in the first Car & Driver Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. The car ran flawlessly and averaged a speed of almost 90 mph. I believe its finish was among the top 3. The winner was a Ferrari Daytona 365GTC driven by Brock Yates and Dan Gurney.

    • 0 avatar
      silverkris

      You’re right, the Caddy in the picture is a 1972 model.

      As a personal aside with the late 1970 UAW strike, our family was in the market to get a new station wagon at the beginning of 1971 – as we were a Chevy family, we were looking to get a 1971 Kingswood. But my dad said that the dealers didn’t have any ’71 models (the ones with the clamshell tailgate) due to the strike. So we went to Hertz rent-a-car and got a used 1970 Chevy wagon. It lasted a really long time – well into the 80′s, I learned to parallel park that sucker and drive it occasionally to college to haul my stuff back and forth.

  • avatar
    geeber

    psharjinian: Now, I know Landcrusher and Geeber (at least) are probably going to give me heck for this, but I think it’s time for a little forced income redistribution.

    Wouldn’t you be disappointed if we didn’t?

    psharjinian: The real tipping point for the American carmakers is when they started screwing up cars like the Dart/Valiant and Falcon.

    I agree that this is part of Detroit’s problem. But during the 1960s, Detroit’s “standard” cars were the full-size Chevrolet and Ford. When buyers began to migrate away from those cars in the early 1970s (even before the first fuel crunch), Detroit never really recovered its bearings.

  • avatar
    cleek

    @Ingvar

    …Milton Friedman and his Chicago Boys. Reaganomics and Thatcherisms…

    Poor getting poorer?

    A trip through Modern China, the old Soviet empire, eastern Europe, Russia and India will enlighted you greatly. The billion plus people who have risen up from poverty due to market reforms postulated and championed by the aforementioned are a pretty good metric for success. Make sure you ask those folks about the good old days of equality while you’re at it.

  • avatar
    cleek

    My Mom had a ’71 El Dorado. The hood on that beast had its own zip code. Great road car, though the back seat was a little tight for a young man’s ambitions. I tried to sell her on the Coupe to no avail.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    At the end of the day, since at least thirty years, the rich has been getting richer, and the poor poorer. It doesn’t matter that some billion people has got a better lifestyle, some 75% of all living people on this earth still lives in poverty, and in most cases, has got it severly worse than before. Equality is obviously not on the agenda. Freedom of choice? If you have a choice, yes. Most people doesn’t.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    This is a beautifully written, lucid and to-the-point piece. I agree with it 100%. The economics are right, the politics are too, and the logic of Cadillac as a signifier of America is just perfect.

  • avatar
    geeber

    ingvar: It doesn’t matter that some billion people has got a better lifestyle, some 75% of all living people on this earth still lives in poverty, and in most cases, has got it severly worse than before. Equality is obviously not on the agenda.

    I would certainly say it does matter that many people have improved their standards of living.

    The reason other people haven’t experienced this improvement is because many of them have the misfortune of living in countries ruled by brutal dictators who have no interest in increasing the political, economic or social freedom of their subjects. These people are not suffering because other people improved their standard of living.

  • avatar
    postjosh

    is that mold growing on the car?

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    Ask the estonians or icelanders what they are thinking of their falling governments, after the current economic crisis hit their shores like a tsunami they never knew where it came from. Tiger economics my ass. The global economy as we see it is a falling house of cards. And it will backlash into Keynes and another “new deal”.

  • avatar
    NickR

    I have zero nostalgia for these old Detroit land barges now

    Me neither. In the late 60s, they still had some style and power. But by 71-73 (depending on the manufacturer) they had become unattractive, unreliable, and laughably underpowered for their size. 190hp from 500 cid? 196 from 460 cid?

    The only thing are good for is long blocks that can be rebuilt as kick ass hot rod engines.

  • avatar
    Mike66Chryslers

    Excellent article!

    Styling-wise I sure don’t think of the 1971 Caddy a “high water mark”. Caddy styling declined as their fins shrank. Look at the front of that car. Most of it is body color! (At least it was originally. What is that, mildew?) Where’s the chrome?! Without the Caddy emblem, it could easily be mistaken for a Pontiac from the front.

  • avatar
    50merc

    S&L’s were deregulated because the regulatory limits on interest rates they could pay were killing them by causing disintermediation.

    Say, Paul, did you ever learn why the steelworker drove a new DeVille? Stupidity? Inability to make good choices? I’m guessing it had something to do with his “pursuit of happiness.” Americans like doing that.

  • avatar
    moedaman

    The real reason why income disparity is growing is because of the cumlitive effect of people’s lifestyles. The rich keep doing what they did to become rich, while the poor keep doing what they did to be poor. Live under your means and you gather wealth. Live above your means and, well you know the rest.

  • avatar
    geeber

    50merc: The article said that the father worked in the steel mills. He could have been a manager. Even if he was a steelworker, if he wanted a Cadillac, and could afford it…more power to him.

  • avatar
    Verbal

    postjosh: is that mold growing on the car?

    Mold, moss, mildew, whatever. It’s the green shit that grows on all cars in the Pacific Northwest when they sit in one place long enough. Even the ground under the Caddy’s front bumper has turned green. Dollars-to-doughnuts that car is sitting in exactly the spot where it was photographed right now, even as we speak.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    50merc, It’s an editorial, not a review. I don’t espouse left wing politics. Or right wing politics. I just call them as I see them. And regarding the S&L’s: are you saying it was better to deregulate them, and then have the taxpayer bail them out when they made foolish investments (in iffy speculative real estate) instead of just letting the weak ones die? It’s almost exactly like today with the current auto bail-out question.

    I think it’s great the steelworker could fulfill his dream of a new Caddy. But I’ll bet that today a steelworker trying to support a family on one paycheck isn’t contemplating a new STS. That’s the point of the story. We reached a high point in blue-collar income in 1971. I’m not trying to explain everything that caused that to end then. But it did, and cheap/irresponsible/excessive credit was an attempt to make folks feel richer than they were. Care to argue that?

  • avatar
    nikita

    Ah I love these nostalgia pieces. I, too turned 18 in 1971, but already lived on the West coast and you cant hitchhike to Hawaii.

    Dad’s ultimate road trip car (except that it was unreliable) was a 1964 Lincoln Continental, metallic turquoise with matching leather inside, six ashtrays with lighters, and suicide doors.

    I was such a car nut as a teen that I had salesmans data books (list prices, not invoice) for some makes. As I recall, a 1969 Caprice could, in theory, be optioned up to an MSRP HIGHER than a basic Calais, thus making Pontiac, Olds and Buick irrelevant back then.

  • avatar
    mjal

    Please get your facts correct: The car shown is of a ’72 Cadillac, not a ’71. The ’71 did not have colored lenses between the headlights.

  • avatar
    BobJava

    Fantastic read, Paul.

    I didn’t experience any of the high times in this country (wasn’t born yet) except for the ephemeral dot-com/real estate boom, which didn’t help me one bit, as I was still in school.

    This thread sheds a bit of light on why everyone my age is working so hard and living a lower quality of life than their parents.

    By the way, worldwide, poverty has FALLEN over time:

    http://povertynewsblog.blogspot.com/2008/08/world-poverty-more-widespread.html

    I think this has a lot to do with the opening of markets (Bretton Woods, WTO, etc.)

    Unfortunately, in the macro sense, this has come at the expense of the US, the middle class specifically. All of the trade organizations and treaties were sold as being to the US’s benefit. They are, in that they benefit the captains of industry (the rich) and the corporations they run. As for the rest of us poor saps, it shipped good jobs to cheaper places. It has led to greater efficiency, but tell that to the US jobless college grad.

    Fewer good manufacturing jobs, and it’s no surprise US wages have fallen.

  • avatar
    DweezilSFV

    Motor Trend did a comparison between a loaded Caprice and a Cadillac from 1971. I think the article was called ‘High Priced Spread” a play on words reference to a margarine commercial of the period.

    It seems there wasn’t much difference for your $4500 or so between the Caprice and Cadillac.
    Pictured side by side and in profile and rear shots there was definite poaching by Chevrolet of a lot of Cadillac design themes, especially apparent in the front end shots. Nowhere near the GM cannibalism of later years,of course.

    But in an effort to make the Caprice an “everyman’s Cadillac” Chevy/GM succeeeded better than they ever could have planned.

    BTW: young people just starting their careers generally always live less well than their parents. That took time and work and slogging away for a couple of decades by their parents. This was well before their children even realized what a standard of living was much less the idea that they wouldn’t be living the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed when they first left the nest.

    Sort of like the whining in the late 80s done by the newly minted college grads who complained that all the “good jobs” had been stolen by the baby boomers.

    People aspired to a college degree so they wouldn’t have to work in a bloody factory like their parents did.

    And as usual, just because one has a degree doesn’t mean that without practical experience an employer is interested in a someone with 16 years of schooling [1-12 and a 4 year college tour] and a degree with no job experience in any their chosen field. This isn’t a surprise. A degree does not mean automatic entree into a Fortune 500 Company or even a factory job, unfortunately, but that’s nothing new.

  • avatar
    Jeffer

    As mentioned in the article, there was a big decline in quality during this era. The 1970 Caddy had a real metal grille and headlight bezels, but the ’71 was all plastic. I believe the ’72 in the picture, has GM parts-bin headlight bezels.

  • avatar
    BobJava

    DweezilSFV

    Not to get too far off topic, or to sound like I’m picking a fight, but it’s too easy to say the younger folks have unrealistic expectations about wages. There’s absolutely no question that wages have fallen:

    http://www.workinglife.org/wiki/Wages+and+Benefits:+Real+Wages+(1964-2004)

    This graph is a bit dated, but how much do you want to bet that it’s only become worse?

    The workforce is more educated, more specialized, and willing to work, but the simple fact is that the US has fewer good paying jobs.

    That, combined with what the author mentioned (higher costs of education, health care, etc etc) means we are working harder than our parents did at our age, only to receive less.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Mea culpa; it is a ’72. Almost no difference to even this discerning eye. How about we pretend it’s a ’71 for the sake of the story, ok?

  • avatar
    happy-cynic

    Great article. I agree easy credit screwed up the economy.
    Look at housing market; easy credit, caused the price of home go way up.

    Ah yes, I grew up in a very high income family too. All of our rides where well used iron, the next owner after us was the junkyard.
    We lived in Eastern TN for a summer. Mom spent a day up in the hills volunteering for a medical clinic. Us kids went up with her, Our car was in the same/worse condition as the folks lining up for free medical care.

  • avatar
    quasimondo

    So this is the type of car we want Cadillac to build again?

    I think I’ll stick with the CTS. Or the Catera for that matter.

  • avatar
    DeadEd

    Let’s give the old Cadillac some credit here. It’s a 37 year old car that’s still on road. It isn’t completely rotted out (yet), and the one interior shot shows that it isn’t completely trashed…and this clearly isn’t a well cared for car. I have a 1970 Deville, with essentially the same powertrain (the ’70 has a higher compression engine). The high nickle content block and THM-400 tranny make the powertrain virtually bullet-proof. No, it’s not efficient (10-12 mpg no matter if you baby it or hammer it), but they’re pretty easy to work on and things like alternators and a/c compressors are still easy to find at your nearest autozone.

    Even with vastly improved quality over a decade or two ago, I wonder if anything produced by Caddy today is going to be chugging along 37 years from now.

  • avatar
    jerseydevil

    god help me,i really like the new DTS. It is the spiritual seccessor to this car, i know, my friend had one when i was a kid. However the new DTS is smaller, WAY more fuel eficient, WAY easier to handle. I dont know all the bellyachin is about. If you like this kinda car, go buy it. I would love to, but I dont wanna spend that money.

    We were middle class. we couldnt afford anything. I am not now.

  • avatar
    dastanley

    In the early 80s, I had just gotten my driver’s license right about the time my mom’s male friend (a doctor) let me drive his older ’75 Cadillac Fleetwood to school and around town on occasion. It was dark green, had a choked down 500 cubic inch mill (first year of catalytic converters), and was big and heavy as hell. To some around my high school, I was the shit. To others, I was a shit-head. I guess that depended on their automotive preferences from 1981-84. Regardless, I had a blast and hated it when he got rid of it and bought a new luxury K-car.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    An enjoyable read!

    “Screwing up the Dart (with the Aspen, and then the Aries, Spirit, and Stratus) is like screwing up Wonderbread:”

    What was screwed up about the Spirit? Some of the components were cheap, but it was priced accordingly. We have a ’90 Spirit, with all the typical issues fixed (aquatic headlights drained, A604 tranny sorted out, perishable valve guides replaced, trunk leaks sealed), plus some modest enhancements.

    Everyone who rides in it is impressed. Comfy, spacious, quiet, fast (V6), economical (40+mpg highway). Original exhaust system, original metallic blue paint, split/fold back seats, trip computer, full gauges, cruise control on steering wheel. US versions had a driver’s airbag. Chrysler probably could sell more units of a remade Spirit than that Charger thing.

    Hey, how about a “classics” review of the Spirit/Acclaim.

  • avatar
    Ronman

    Brilliant Read!!!!! enough said….

  • avatar
    LennyZ

    Curbside Classic!? Have I stumbled onto Jalopnik?

  • avatar
    geeber

    Paul Niedermeyer: But I’ll bet that today a steelworker trying to support a family on one paycheck isn’t contemplating a new STS. That’s the point of the story.

    Are you going by sticker price, or actual transactions prices? As we all know, GM sticker prices don’t bear too much relation to what the customer actually pays.

    Plus, in the early 1990s, GM realized that it had allowed Cadillacs to become too cheap, so it began raising prices well beyond the rate of inflation in an attempt to move Cadillac back upscale.

  • avatar
    menno

    Actually, on reflection, bomberpete, I think you’re right.

    The current day equivalent of the old Dart etc IS a Corolla.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    psarhjinian, the “current day” slant six Darts and Rambler Classic sixes and so forth, are now the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

    You know what I’d love to see? A Valiant vs. Falcon vs. Corvair comparo. If you could find a Rambler in working order, it’d be fun to throw that in, too.

    I have a Falcon (on blocks, natch) that I was working on getting into running order. I haven’t had any time to look at it since my son was born, so it’ll be a while, but I’m really looking forward to getting it going. I’ve always liked the simple flair of the mid-century Detroit compacts; it’d be nice to see them get a little more attention.

  • avatar
    Phil Ressler

    And it remains the high-water mark for American cars.

    This is not even remotely true. Whatever one’s reference, no car built in 1971 was a high water mark. One can make the case for 1920s Dusenbergs, mid-Fifties Lincolns and Cadillacs, several cars of 1965 – 1969 vintage, or the best of the 2006 – 2009 era. And surely there will be improvements to come. But by 1971, worker malaise (even hostility), management bloat, divergent regulation (mandates for cleaner & safer, and later more fuel efficient) prompting immature engineering response had devolved the automobile worldwide.

    Circa 1965, cars had become reasonably efficient for the technologies available, and the excesses of late 1950s design had dissipated while the turgid bloat that set in post 1969 was yet to come. Cars then weren’t yet clean anywhere however. Depending on where you get your data, affordability of automobiles was between 20 – 24 weeks’ labor, average for average. Cadillacs took more.

    In the 3rd quarter of 2004, automotive affordability, depending on sources, had returned to between 20 – 22 weeks’ labor. Escalating regulation, content and consumer appetite for features had pushed affordability down to 28 – 32 weeks’ labor during the latter 80s through the late 1990s. Then competition, productivity gains and predatory pricing had pushed affordability into the under 50% annual average income in the ’00s. The broad elevated plateau in real-dollars cost in automobiles from roughly 1986 – 2000 was disproportionately driven by consumers electing to pack average-priced cars with options.

    But look what you get. Cadillac to Cadillac, an STS V8 is a vastly more competent and evolved car than the 1971. It’s quicker, faster, stops and steers better. It’s exponentially cleaner, requires less maintenance, has more feature content, including features unimagined in 1971.

    About the time Paul was captive and soiling his pants in an early-70s Caddy, I was roaming Pennsylvania in my Dad’s 1966 Olds 88 Regency, and then a 1969 Poncho Bonneville. While by the criteria of the time both were enviable cars, it was easy even as a kid to sense that things were going to — had to — change. It didn’t happen the way we imagined, as the great global malfunction called The Seventies rudely obstructed progress. By 1971, the scant-inflation economy of the long JFK-LBJ boom had yielded to creeping stagflation and a cloudy horizon. Nixon responded to 6% inflation with the unbelievably nutty experiement of wage-price controls. Automotive bloat had jumped the shark with the release of the 1970 models. Things only got worse from there, for the next dozen years. 1971 was a high water mark for nobody, in anything. Well, there was this girl….

    As noted, the original impetus for women migrating into the workforce was not economic necessity, but once in, couples came to quickly realize that dual incomes kept an escalating dream within reach. Housing began its price march around 1980 even amidst alarmingly high mortgage rates due to Boomer influx competing for supply, especially in the gentrifying cities and their immediate suburbs. We heard all the alarms being sounded now: a generation might begin to slip backwards relative to their parents; good times are gone, never to be repeated; hunker down, the jig’s up, we’re toast.

    No question there’s been a migration of relative wealth away from the middle class over the last 40 years, though the rate of change has been highly variable. But our concept of poverty has crept to a higher threshold and it’s also not only cheap credit that has kept the middle class in RVs, desert bikes, ATVs, jet skis, stainless steel barbeques and big screen TVs. It’s also income spurts and price deflation in the form of more-for-less.

    We had house calls by physicians up to about 1970 but people died quickly from ailments that are treatable today. The Cuyahoga River no longer catches fire and Lake Erie isn’t “dead” anymore. New England is back to 80+% forested after being denuded of trees by about 1905. California supports millions more people on similar water supplies compared to 20 years ago, and most days in Los Angeles, you can see the San Gabriel mountains. You can buy 400 – 500 hp cars capable of highway fuel efficiency near a bog-slow Beetle’s from 40 years ago, and it’s vastly cleaner, too.

    High water mark for American cars? A 2009 Cadillac CTS-V would be more like it. A 2009 Corvette ZR-1. A 2003 Ford GT. A 1996 Impala SS. A 1966 Olds Toronado. A 1937 Duesenberg Model SJ Rollson Cabriolet. Pick your era and selection criteria but don’t blaspheme American automotive history by christening a 1971 anything as a high water mark.

    Meanwhile, the current economy shall too pass, yielding to another arc of progress. In 1971, boys were still dying in Viet Nam and going to the moon had become so routine the public got bored with it. A decade-long socio-economic crisis lay just ahead. You should have more confidence.

    Phil

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Phil Ressler: A mighty long comment for misreading my words: A high water mark IN SIZE! The biggest Caddy ever! If you had actually read my article, I say quite clearly that the quality was “a low water mark”.

  • avatar
    Phil Ressler

    A mighty long comment for misreading my words: A high water mark IN SIZE!

    Well, you didn’t write that.

    When this 1971 Coupe DeVille first rolled off the assembly line, it was the biggest ever, a full nineteen feet long and almost seven feet wide. And it remains the high-water mark for American cars.

    The “And” beginning the second sentence implies you’re making a point *additive* to the prior assertion of size. Still, there were bigger American cars earlier, so even that Caddy wasn’t a high water mark in size. The Dusenberg I cited, for one, was 20.5′ long.

    But all that was just a point of departure for the more important points that followed in my response. Oh…and I read all of the original article.

    Phil

  • avatar
    sutski

    I nearly didnt read. Glad I did. Superbly written piece. So if credit has artificially kept us going, what will keep us going now nobody wants credit? Will the debt-creation based economy collapse?

    Hmmmm…What then ? A Rescource Based Economy? Why even bother with a redistribution of fiscal wealth, just scientifically redistribute the worlds resource wealth so we all benefit from the most efficient use of what weve got to play with….

    The Venus Project perhaps….

  • avatar
    ajla

    Pick your era and selection criteria but don’t blaspheme American automotive history by christening a 1971 anything as a high water mark.

    Pontiac did introduce the 455HO V8 in 1971.

  • avatar
    Phil Ressler

    Pontiac did introduce the 455HO V8 in 1971.

    Exception granted, appropriately!

    Phil

  • avatar
    Martin B

    Memories!

    In 1970 I was working at my first real job. My boss, a millionaire builder, visited the US and fell in love with the Coupe DeVille and imported one, a special import because there were no dealers, to South Africa.

    What a magnificent car! It had a beautiful burnt-gold pearlescent sort of paint job, and not a flaw anywhere. The workmanship was first class.

    The engine was a 7 liter high compression V8. We couldn’t buy high octane fuel at the pumps in those days, so my boss had to buy drums of aviation spirit to mix with the local petrol.

    Bear in mind that my personal car was an 850 cc BMC Mini, and most people drove around in British Fords and Morrises and Austins, and you’ll realize it was a totally outrageous car for South Africa.

    Being a passenger was a frightening experience because here we drive on the left, so if the boss needed to overtake (which he often did because the Cadillac was really fast), he had to pull far over to see past the car in front. Meanwhile the passenger side of the car was already half way over the white line, with the terrified passengers watching the oncoming traffic heading straight for them.

    It was the longest, widest car I’ve ever known. I joked to the boss he could start a farm on the bonnet, it was so big. And it needed two parking bays in length to park it.

    An interesting thing I’ve never seen again was the battery. It had little perspex portholes in the top which were normally white, but turned black if the battery water in a cell was low. The trick was a plastic rod that floated in the water, and changed the light reflected, depending if it touched or didn’t touch the perspex porthole. (Maybe they’re commonplace in the US, but I’ve never seen them again.)

    I remember that DeVille as a truly amazing car. An American classic. Totally unsuitable for us non-Americans, of course, but still.

    Epilogue: It turned out the boss was a bit of a Madoff character and his “wealth” came from borrowing money and not repaying it. He fled the country a year later. I don’t know what happened to the car.

  • avatar
    davey49

    quasimondo- for a lot of people, yes. The CTS is a good car, but not a Cadillac.
    If you think this early 70s Caddy is a crappy car, check out an early 70s Audi. Now there’s a company that’s come a long way.
    I never thought the DeVilles were anything special, I preferred the Eldorado.
    Dart,Aspen,Aries,Stratus,Avenger
    Really only the Aspen was a truly bad car out of that lot. The Avenger/Sebring are good cars but we’re nth power more anal about our cars now, so they’re considered crap.

  • avatar
    john.fritz

    I can certainly overlook Phil’s somewhat meandering story line. It’s a pretty good read. But a ’96 SS? No.

    And I like the ’96 Caprice too. A lot.

  • avatar
    davey49

    “High water mark for American cars? A 2009 Cadillac CTS-V would be more like it. A 2009 Corvette ZR-1. A 2003 Ford GT. A 1996 Impala SS. A 1966 Olds Toronado. A 1937 Duesenberg Model SJ Rollson Cabriolet. Pick your era and selection criteria but don’t blaspheme American automotive history by christening a 1971 anything as a high water mark.”
    Ford GT? really?
    high water mark- Saturn S-series

  • avatar
    Gary Numan

    Yep, great article. I believe all GM full size platforms for one year (1971) had the vent louvres punched into the top of the decklids near the back window. Let’s see a pic of said car in that spot to also help determine the model year!

  • avatar

    it’s amazing what having to pay the bills will do to a consumer’s choices. when I was in law school, I dreamed of Beemers and Benzs. Actually, the RS4 was my reverie of choice. Bathed in a sea of soft leather, hugged by reassuring seats, listening to the bellow of a V8. Every time I see those drilled and slotted roters, I feel a little tug at my heartstrings. Now, with a wife, kid, mortgage, student loans, credit debt, etc. I don’t dream about cars, I dream about Costco. Sad huh?

    But when I do NEED to purchase something, it will be a couple years used. I think maybe i’ll pick up one of those 2010 Mazda 3′s in 2012 or 2013.

  • avatar
    sahdow

    I really don’t care about the environmental movement, the cost of gas or anything else about this car.

    I had a 71 1/2 Coup Deville with twin glass packs (replaced with Cherry Bombs – Glass packs were outlawed in Cali) and a tow package with air shocks.

    The thing drove like a boat, didn’t require me to hold onto the door jam to get in and out of the drivers seat, could pull stumps like a truck and carry passengers in comfort.

    The 400 HP stock motor would switch from 8 cylinders to 4 when cruising on the freeway, but had power when needed even though it was an automatic.

    So my view is; if they made the 71 De’Ville out of lighter materials.. I’d buy one today, then put the same mods (Tow Package, Twin Glass Packs) back in.

    But then I remember the looks of consternation from teens in Mustangs and Camero’s when I took them off the line, and setting off every car alarm in a parking gaurage by tapping the excellerator was a blast. If I hadn’t had to relocate I’d still have that great piece of American Enginuity.

    The 71 Coupe De’Ville was Cadillac’s accidental muscle car and deserves to be remembered for it.


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