By on June 1, 2009

When I was a kid I wondered what it was like growing up in GM’s heyday of brilliant designs and well-defined brand delineations. I was a product of the 1980s, a time when emissions-choked Disco Iron and OPEC-induced minimalist boxes overshadowed yesteryear’s works of art. And what I learned from this generation is that General Motors is no stranger to progress, yet they never got over themselves to do the right thing.

I saw it on TV, heard it in my house: you can’t tell a Cadillac from an Oldsmobile these days. While acid-wash wearing youngsters knew the difference between a FWD Delta 88 and its chrome-laden Cadillac counterpart, my parents disagreed. And they had a point: GM products were far more distinctive when they immigrated to this country in 1965. Twenty years later, a series of Lincoln ads capitalized on their values.

As Pistonhead folklore has it, TV spots known as “The Valet” made Cadillac and GM the laughing stock of Detroit’s elite social circles. It showed a confused valet delivering mundane 1985 Buicks and Oldsmobiles to a frustrated rich couple waiting on their (equally dull) Sedan DeVille. While Ford made GM’s wrong wheel drive experiment look ridiculous, that wasn’t far from the truth. But the exception was the new-for-1985, downsized, Cadillac Fleetwood Seventy-Five Limousine: a Turd Blossom of the highest order.

Yes, the 1980s was a period of unflattering change for GM. Yet spending time in the Fleetwood Seventy-Five’s decadent cocoon makes the silver lining easy to spot. A product of decades-long cooperation between Cadillac and Fisher Body (a.k.a. GM’s internal Department of Redundancy Department), the Fleetwood Seventy-Five was a brilliant concept: cut a Coupe DeVille in half, stretch two feet and cram with a host of unique and unbelievably luxurious parts.

And the last of the Fleetwood Limos was no slouch, unreliable powertrain notwithstanding. Weighing a modest 3700lbs but sporting the same levels of space and luxury as the “good old days”, it was a great niche for an increasingly energy-conscious nation. Cadillac spoke to Wall Street sans Gordon Gekko: symbolizing everything right with the “old” GM while simultaneously acting as the springboard for their future.

But that never happened. The growing pains from Ross Perot’s EDS-infused technology, problems with too many parts, boring brands and benign platforms combined with decreasing market share made GM an overburdened automaker with a tenuous grip on auto and home finance. And there’s no better example of GM’s Blizzard of Bland than the staggering number of V6 engines produced since the death of the Fleetwood Seventy-Five to the passing of General Motors.

The first is the 60-degree pushrod V6, introduced with 2.8 liters of displacement. Never a finesse player, this motor became the foundation for the Twin Dual Cam in the Chevrolet Lumina Z34. Not one to let this sad sack lay, GM kept this motor as their “High Value” V6, powering today’s rental car queens with niceties like variable valve timing and even displacement on demand. Yes, really.

The other value-intensive mills are the 3.8L “Fireball” Buick and the 4.3L (small block Chevy derived) V6. The latter lived and died in brand-dishonest interpretations of the Chevy Caprice/Impala/Monte Carlo, while the former is known across all brands for excellent boosted or naturally-aspirated torque, respectable durability and three generations of inferior NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) characteristics from its physically unstable 90-degree architecture.

Today we have several flavors of High Value: 3.5L, 3.8L and 3.9L. All fit in the same car, target market and price point.

Maybe one pushrod V6 is enough. Better yet, consider GM’s “High Value” six bangers: the Northstar based ShortStar V6 in the Oldsmobile Aurora/Intrigue and the Alloytech 3.6L mill used in the Cadillac CTS. Too bad GM sent the limited-production ShortStar to an untimely death, and the Alloytech is far, far too late.
Instead of sticking with one design and refining it over several decades, GM threw everything on the wall to see what’ll stick: keeping antiquated motors for ancient platforms, praying their business model stays afloat.

Why make a pushrod V6 Buick Lucerne flagship, even if it costs less than a DOHC V6 Camry?

I thought General Motor’s days of indistinguishable products peaked when Miami Vice sailed off the airwaves. But GM’s initiatives from the 1980s went all wrong, and V6 engines are only one explanation for why the company failed. Make no mistake, there’s plenty more where that came from.

GM was supposed to install uniformity where it isn’t visible, keeping product uniqueness everywhere else. And hopefully making the equivalent of a Fleetwood Seventy-Five for all brands: we wouldn’t mourn the loss of General Motors if they trashed the unnecessary engineering, using their ingenuity instead for eye-catching (and profit-laden) redesigns of the Impala, Cutlass, Park Avenue, Grand Prix and Fleetwood. Better luck next time, General Motors.

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28 Comments on “Editorial: General Motors Death Watch 259: Sajeev Mehta’s “Cadillac Dreams”...”


  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    I saw it on TV, heard it in my house: you can’t tell a Cadillac from an Oldsmobile these days.

    I used to have an ’81 Eldo. My co-workers kept calling it a Toronado. It bothered me until I realized that it was a much bigger problem for GM than it was for me.

  • avatar
    86er

    I never caught those Lincoln commercials when they originally aired. I had no luck finding them on youtube.

  • avatar

    You lost me, Sajeev. What’s the connection between the Fleetwood and various V6s?

    FWIW, the Buick V6 is OOP.

    The Shortstar died because it missed all targets set for it, including cost and power output.

  • avatar
    salhany

    But the Shortstar was still a fine engine; my Intrigue had it and I enjoyed the experience. It would have been better had they added variable-valve timing, though.

  • avatar
    Dave Skinner

    “Instead of sticking with one design and refining it over several decades…”

    While that may be a good approach, successful manufacturers also follow the “frequently redesign the engine” approach. Look at Honda’s engine development:

    The first V-6 in the Accord was a 90 degree engine (introduced a mere 11 years ago), which Honda replaced after three years with a clean sheet 60 degree unit. Since then, the 60 degree engine has gone through about 8 iterations, and four different displacements (If I include the trucks and Acuras using this engine).

    On the four cylinder side, since 2000 Honda has replaced EVERY camshaft belt drive engine with a new chain drive unit. This change requires a new engine case, tensioning system and oil passages. And no, Honda does not use the same four cylinder engine in all cars. The Fit, Civic and Accord base motors all use unique architecture, sharing neither displacement nor design.

    Both GM and the Japanese manufacturers have frequently updated their engines. The difference? New engines designed by the Japanese offer DEPENDABLE performance.

  • avatar
    superbadd75

    I don’t think a pushrod engine is going to kill a sale if it’s a good one. The general public doesn’t know, or care, about the difference. GM’s problem was (still is?) indistinguishable differences between the brands. Think Equinox/Torrent or Cobalt/G5. When customers move up the GM ladder, they expect to notice a difference. Not only visually, but in every aspect. If a Cadillac not only looks similar to a Buick, but is also no more quiet, doesn’t offer any more luxury, and has no more electronic gizmos than said Buick, then WTF is the point of the Cadillac? The pushrod engine under the hood isn’t the problem, the NVH from that engine is what people notice. Same goes for anything that can be seen or touched. For my money, a Buick had better offer higher grade leather and more gadgets than a similarly sized Chevy. Where GM missed the boat was the heirarchy thing. Instead of telling people that they couldn’t buy a Chevy with a certain option and that they’d have to step up into an Olds (and so on), they just offered everything to everyone at every outlet.

  • avatar
    agroal

    86er

    The commercials were funny. Lincoln had just introduced it’s new for ’90 RWD Town Car. Compared to the badge engineered, small, awkward looking FWD GM cars, the TC was bigger and more distinguished looking. The advertising tag line was “Lincoln, what a luxury car should be”. Mr&Mrs. Rich Whitebread are waiting for the valet to bring their new Caddy around but get a Buick instead. “That’s not my Caddy, that’s an Olds” “Is that my Buick, no that’s my Caddy” and it goes on and on. This repeats over and over until a more handsome greying couple ask for their Lincoln TC. The valet has no trouble finding it right away.

  • avatar
    BDB

    I’ve been searching on YouTube in vain for that commercial as well (it was before my time so I don’t remember it being on TV).

    It’s a shame that Cadillac still has that stigma, because in the last eight years they have come a long way. Cadillac is one brand GM got right recently.

  • avatar
    paulie

    Sajeev

    Speaking of 1980 Cadillac bad dreams…how did they ever come up with THIS rear end!?

    http://americandreamcars.com/1983seville051605.htm

  • avatar

    MK: You lost me, Sajeev. What’s the connection between the Fleetwood and various V6s?

    Not a direct correlation, and the V6s are but a single example of the problem. Imagine if GM made one or two V6 engines, or continually refined one a la Nissan’s VQ family and called it a day.

    Imagine if the money, factories, engineers, EPA certification inspectors had something better to do with their time than work on 2.8L, 3.1L, 3.4L, 3.5L, 3.8L, 3.8L supercharged, 3.9L, 4.3L, 3.6L DOHC, 3.6L DI DOHC motors.

    Could GM use that money and manpower to make a Prius killing EV1 before Toyota even had Hybrid Synergy? Or kicked the LS 400s butt with a Fleetwood 75 before it even had a chance to make Lexus what it is today?

    Imagine how much better GM’s portfolio could have been.

    That’s the point, and the answer is: You betcha.

  • avatar

    paulie: that rear end is absolutely awesome. If you wanted less crazy, there are plenty of Buicks and DeVilles for your tastes.

    The real problem was the Seville that replaced the BustleBack. Yawn.

  • avatar

    I would suggest that “unstable” is the wrong word for the Buick 3800. It’s not like it’s radioactive; “unbalanced” is the word you’re hunting for.

    I also wonder at the “unbelievably luxurious parts” description. One of my big complaints with 70s and 80s Caddys is that the interior materials are highly variable. Cushy leather and carpets, but really low-rent plastics and the most grotesque press-on wood applique this side of the Home Depot contact paper aisle. A friend of mine loved the late-eighties Fleetwood, but the interior always struck me as shockingly downmarket for its price and intent.

  • avatar

    superbadd75 : I don’t think a pushrod engine is going to kill a sale if it’s a good one.

    Agreed: but the number of OHV engines in GM’s lineup comes at a cost. You can’t make all this stuff and NOT cut corners elsewhere.

  • avatar
    paulie

    Sajeev

    To be truly honest…I really did secretly pine for this car can when it came out and I was a young man in LA.
    It sort of was a euro look.
    But since this is a private correspondence between only you and I, it can be admitted.

  • avatar
    paulie

    Sajeev
    Wasn’t it you who reviewed the MKS when it first came out?
    I see suddenly there have been lots of reviews on the MKS w/ecoboost.
    When can you get your hands on one?
    We just saw an American “tank” comparison and wonder how this one will come out.
    Is it the new hot rod lincoln come back?
    Looking forward to what you have to say.

  • avatar
    ajla

    GM’s current US engine lineup only consists of the following:

    1.6L I4
    1.8L I4
    2.0L DI I4 Turbo
    2.0L I4 Turbo (Saab’s)
    2.3L I4 Turbo
    2.2L I4
    2.4L I4
    2.9L I4
    3.4L V6
    3.5L V6
    3.9L V6
    3.8L V6
    3.6L V6
    3.6L DI V6
    2.8L V6 Turbo
    4.2L I6
    3.7L I5
    4.3L V6
    4.8L V8
    5.3L V8 (both Vortec and LS4 versions)
    6.0L V8 (Vortec, L76, and LS2 versions)
    6.2L V8 (both Vortec and LS3 versions)
    6.2L V8 Supercharged
    6.6L V8 Diesel
    7.0L V8
    4.6L V8
    4.0L V8 Supercharged

    … I might of missed a couple.

  • avatar

    paulie: I haven’t driven the MKS yet, just the other D3 sedans. They are like reverse viagara when you see them in the showroom, it’s hard to want to test one. Regarding the Seville: everybody must embrace their inner pimpmobile/land yacht. It’s okay to give in.

    Sooner or later, the folks at Cadillac will do the same, and stop chasing their tail with entry level luxo sedans.

  • avatar
    bunkie

    “Instead of sticking with one design and refining it over several decades…”

    I have to wonder if you’re being sarcastic here. The 3.8 liter is the very definition of sticking with design and continually refining it. The most recent versions are fine, if somewhat large packaging-wise, engines. They are durable as hell, smooth and economical. I recently rented a Lucerne and the 3.8 was quite effective in that application.

    Having said that, your main point is well taken. My previous car was a first-gen CTS with the 3.2 V6 (shared with SAAB), the weakest aspect of that car. I made a point of carrying oil filters in the trunk which I bought two or three at a time because they were so hard to find. What made me decide to move on was the failed thermostat. Buried under the intake manifold (who the hell came up with that idea?), the replacement of a $35 part turned into a $400 repair. The 3.2 was thrashy and unrefined. Compared to the Nissan VQ that powered my ’97 Maxima, it left a lot to be desired.

  • avatar

    I kinda liked the 4.3L V6 in my old 2003 Chevy S-10 pickup. It ran well, but it was pretty bad on gas. I don’t know for sure if it was due to the weight of the pickup or the E-10 that was available when I had it, but it seemed like it was worse on gas than my 1998 P71 Crown Vic (aka Police Interceptor model).

    I would probably still have it today if not for my ex-wife…

    Of course, now I’m rockin’ the VQ35DE in my 03 Infiniti G35 coupe. And of course I love the mods I can do to it: plenum spacer, Z-tube/K&N, dual cat-back is in the near future too.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I’d venture to say GM’s first major snafu was the expansion of the term luxury when applied to introduced models like the 1966 Caprice, etc.

    Why does your entry brand need a luxury model?

    FF to ’76 or so, and while interior-wise the Caprice I’m sure was interior to the Cadillac, you could hardly tell from the outside. Never mind you still had a “luxury” Pontiac, Olds, and Buick further up the food chain…..

  • avatar

    bunkie : I have to wonder if you’re being sarcastic here. The 3.8 liter is the very definition of sticking with design and continually refining it. The most recent versions are fine, if somewhat large packaging-wise, engines. They are durable as hell, smooth and economical. I recently rented a Lucerne and the 3.8 was quite effective in that application.

    And I counter that the 3.8L is the very definition of sticking with a design until it’s totally outclassed by its competition…competitors that are both in/outside of GM.

    90 degree V6s are inherently unbalanced by design, and the feel of a 3.8L and 4500 rpm can’t hold a candle to an OHC V6. Forget about the imports, even Ford sells Duratec Fusions for the same coin, or less.

    And the mere fact that GM sells low-line Buick Lucernes for rental companies kinda proves my point: too many of the same motors (for too many of the same cars) that never won the hearts and minds of retail buyers.

  • avatar

    Dave M. : I’d venture to say GM’s first major snafu was the expansion of the term luxury when applied to introduced models like the 1966 Caprice, etc.

    Why does your entry brand need a luxury model?

    Which was another concept I thought about for this DW. I don’t remember who said it, but when the entry level “Calais” Cadillacs hit the market, the phrase “You know Cadillac is in trouble when the people who make them can afford them” really stuck in my head.

  • avatar
    PRND21

    I remember reading the story behind the development of the “The Valet”, as well as the fallout within the auto community it caused, and was able to find it here: http://tiny.cc/avAFY The story starts at the second to last paragraph on Page 133.

    Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry By Paul Ingrassia, Joseph B. White is a great read.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    I believe Nissan as 4-5 motors across its entire line. 1.6-1.8, 2.5, 3.5-3.7 and 3.7t, 4.5, 5.6. Of those, the 3.7t and 5.6 are for specialty, high-cost models. Why GM has 11 engines in the 2.9l-4.3l range is incomprehensible. Conversely I recall reading about an efficiency expert hired by Ford. He pointed out that they were using different seat rails for just about every model, naturally he was fired.

    I had a sneaking suspicion that it was over for GM when they brought over the Cadillac Omega Catera. Despite having the correct drive wheels, I thought it looked like nothing so much as a puffed up Grand Am without the cladding (maybe that is “design language”).

  • avatar
    bunkie

    “90 degree V6s are inherently unbalanced by design”

    One of the improvements made to the 3.8 was a new crankshaft (with the Gen III engine if memory serves) that largely corrected the imbalance problem. Interestingly Honda has quite a bit experience with “unbalanced” V motorcycle engines and making them run more smoothly by using offset crankshaft pins. A 90 degree V6 is harder to balance, but it is possible to get close enough so that it doesn’t make much of a difference.

    And I have to respectfully disagree, but RPM isn’t everything especially in large cars designed primarily for comfort such as the Lucerne. In these applications torque is more important and for that a large-displacement, longer stroke slower-turning engine delivers the goods. Combined with its reliability and economy, I’d say that it’s well-matched to the application.

    In my opinion, too many people worship at the altar of the Honda Accord, a car that leaves me absolutely cold. The largest tragedy here is not the loss of GM, but the potential narrowing of available choices for car buyers. The Accord may outsell almost every GM model, but there are still a signifigant number of people who prefer what GM sells. For every GM horror story, there are an awful lot of hapy customers. I’m one of them.

  • avatar
    menno

    The situation with so many engines has some roots back in the old GM divisional structure.

    Here were the North American engines in 1962, GM’s sales zenith (at 52% of the market). Everything was cast iron & OHV unless noted, plus all V8 engines generally had multiple variations.

    Chevrolet Division

    145/pancake six (alloy; Corvair)
    145/pancake six + turbo (alloy; Corvair Monza Spyder)
    153/4 (Nova)
    194/6
    230/6
    283/V8
    327/V8
    327/V8 + fuel injection (Corvette)
    409/V8 (big-block)

    Chevrolet Truck Division (light duty vehicles)

    235/6 (the old engine)
    261/6 (the old engine)

    Pontiac Division

    194.5/4 (Tempest)
    215/V8 (purchased from Buick Division)(Tempest)(Alloy block & heads)
    389/V8
    421/V8

    Oldsmobile Division

    215/V8 (Alloy block & heads; shared a basic block with the Buick unit) (F-85)
    215/V8 + Turbo (F-85 Jetfire)
    394/V8

    Buick Division

    198/V6 (this was the first year of the V6 which later grew to 225, then 231 cubic inches)(It was loosely based upon the 215/V8 architecture)
    215/V8 (Alloy block & heads) (Special, Skylark)
    364/V8
    401/V8

    Cadillac Division

    390/V8

    GMC Division

    304.7/V6 (this was a 60 degree unit, but was definitely a truck-only engine; massive & tall)
    351/V6 (HD trucks)
    401/V6 (HD trucks)

    In addition, GM had various automatic transmissions built by:

    Buick Division

    Buick Special Dual-Path automatic (alloy case, planetary set inside the torque convertor, 2 speeds; in top gear, the engine was 36% mechanically connected to the rear wheels, 64% via torque convertor)

    Buick Twin Turbine Variable Pitch Dynaflow automatic (big Buicks, only)

    Chevrolet Division

    Corvair Powerglide (2 speed)

    Pontiac Tempestorque (2 speed rear transaxle, for a front engine car)

    Powerglide “A” cast iron case (2 speed)

    Powerglide “B” alloy case (2 speed)

    Turboglide alloy case (3 speed)(hyper-complex would be a British understatment; unreliable total and complete junk, would not be)

    Hydramatic Division (all fluid couplings, not torque convertors) (look it up if you don’t understand the difference)

    Dual Coupling (4 speed)

    Roto Hydramatic Model 10 (3 speed) (“Slim Jim” – this may be credited with putting tens of thousands of transmission repair shop owners’ kids through college)

    Roto Hydramatic Model 5 (3 speed) (Olds F-85, Holden, Vauxhall, Opel Kapitan)

    When GM was on top of the world, they could afford this sort of thing.

    In fact, I believe that during the 1970′s, when so much money had to be spent on emissions reduction, safety, etc., and GM started to use bits & pieces from “wherever” in all of their cars, and tried to rationalize – that was the time when they should have spent the money on making all-new corporate MECHANICAL bits – such as engines – cross divisional and built everywhere, greatly reducing costs (needless to say, engineering the new engines and testing them BEFORE introducing them instead of their usual process of having the customer be the guinea-pigs).

    Instead, GM commonized BODIES more and more, and by the 1980′s, it was almost impossible to tell whether your neighbor had a nicer “brand” than you did – if you both bought GM.

  • avatar

    bunkie : One of the improvements made to the 3.8 was a new crankshaft (with the Gen III engine if memory serves) that largely corrected the imbalance problem. A 90 degree V6 is harder to balance, but it is possible to get close enough so that it doesn’t make much of a difference.

    And that is GM’s problem: anything they do is “close enough” and “doesn’t make much of a difference” for them. Not true: you have to meet or exceed the benchmarks by your competition. The 3.8L is a museum piece, better off in the minds of collectors and hot rodders.

    GM had to beat Ford/Honda/Toyota/Nissan’s V6 engine and scrap their dead weight. If not, you go bankrupt.

    bunkie : And I have to respectfully disagree, but RPM isn’t everything especially in large cars designed primarily for comfort such as the Lucerne. In these applications torque is more important and for that a large-displacement, longer stroke slower-turning engine delivers the goods. Combined with its reliability and economy, I’d say that it’s well-matched to the application.

    Sorry, I can’t go with that. Look, I’m one of the biggest land yacht fans in the world, but this isn’t the early 1980s, a time when gas cars made power like diesels, running out of breath after 4000rpm: today, cars rev well past 4500 rpm and are expected to feel liquid smooth. Or at least Duratec smooth.

    It doesn’t deliver the goods nearly as effortlessly/silently as the 3.5L motors from every other car maker. Not to mention being two forward gears short of its competition, as that is the worst handicap of GM’s high value V6s.

  • avatar

    @ menno

    Calling the Turboglide a three-speed is a slight misnomer. The Turboglide (and the conceptually similar, short-lived Buick Triple Turbine Dynaflow) was essentially what today we would call a continuously variable transmission — just a really lossy and inefficient one, based around a complex torque converter, rather than mechanical belts, gears, or rotors. It did have gearsets, but it didn’t shift them mechanically.

    The reason that (and the Dynaflow, which was a similar idea, if far less complicated) developed was that Chevy and Buick didn’t like the firm, rather jerky shifts of the early four-speed Hydra-Matic used by Olds, Pontiac, and Cadillac. Until well into the fifties, Buick and Chevy still used torque-tube enclosed driveshafts, so each shift sent a jolt into the body. The Dynaflow and early Powerglide were designed to be ‘jerkless’ transmissions, albeit at a great cost in efficiency.


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