In 1977, GM offered the above two vehicles for sale. Squint a bit; can you see a certain fundamental similarity? Yes, their exterior skin and styling were somewhat different, but once you peel back the vinyl top and other superficialities, you’d find a lot in common, as is obvious from their basic shared architecture. They both rode on the same basic platform/suspension, although the bottom one did have its rear wheels extended three inches for a touch more leg room. They both sported GM’s fine 350 (5.7 L) V8 engines, the top one with 170 hp, the bottom with 180 hp. The Chevy Nova (top), with more than a hint of BMW in its styling, was perhaps the best handling American sedan of its time, given that it also shared its underpinnings with the Camaro. The Nova’s price started at $3500 ($12k adjusted). The Seville (bottom), was aimed at the Mercedes S Class, and went out the door for about $14k ($48k adjusted), or four times as much. Can you tell where this is going?
Admittedly, the Seville had certain charms, mainly in the eyes of affluent middle-aged women, who had been hankering for an easier-to-park smaller Caddy for years. And lest you protest the Seville’s DS categorization, keep in mind that the Cimarron, the universally-acclaimed all-time GM DS turkey, cost less than twice as much as its donor Cavalier. Yes, the Nova- based Seville might have been one of GM’s most profitable vehicles it ever made, but at what a price. The Seville most perfectly marks the beginning of the long decline of Cadillac. So let’s also call it Cadillac’s Tombstone Car.
The Seville owes its existence to Mercedes, whose (then) superbly-crafted and relatively compact sedans began to make serious inroads in the luxury market in the late sixties and early seventies. The Big Three’s luxury cars had long been evolving on a more dubious model: cancer. Terminal unchecked growth has its limitations, especially considering that there was rarely more than one or two persons aboard. Car-pooling and flashing one’s wealth aren’t typically overlapping activities.
Women, who tend to be a bit less obsessed with exaggerated length then men, had let it be know to Cadillac for some time that they were interested in a smaller version. But then, women weren’t exactly making any of the decisions back then, especially at GM. So the 1971 Cadillacs were over-the-top big, and none the better for it. Quality was down, they looked and felt like a tarted up Chevy Caprice, and Mercedes sales were booming. The Cadillac formula was broken. But it would take decades for Cadillac to figure out what the new paradigm in luxury cars really was.
To Cadillac, the Seville was the first step in what seemed like the right direction. And its big success for the first few years only sent GM the wrong signals, and accelerated the demise. That was the bitter-sweet aspect of cars like the Seville: they helped propel GM sales to an all-time high of 9.66 million and a 46% market share in 1978. When women are tearing overpriced Novas out of your hands, it takes a while for that flush of flattery and pride to dissipate…say, about a quarter of a century or so. Pride goeth before the fall.
Could GM have done things differently? They could have looked to Germany, where Opel built their Kapitan-Admiral-Diplomat luxury sedans designed to compete against the Mercedes S-Class. The latest version, dating to 1969, had handsome lines (that influenced the Seville, undoubtedly), featured a DeDion semi-independent rear suspension, and precision construction. It would have been a logical starting point. Blame the GM bean counters, who said it would be cheaper to cobble up a Nova-based S-Class fighter. Or was it just the old prevailing attitude that the Detroiters knew best what Americans wanted, or deserved?
Deservedly, or not, Americans got a tarted up Nova. But this was no “budget” Caddy; the Seville was positioned and priced above the big cars, even the Eldorado and the Fleetwood Brougham. Yes, the option list was blessedly shorter, but still there: leather and cruise control were extra. Space wasn’t: obviously, the Seville wasn’t going to be roomy like the big cars. But the Nova’s architecture meant interior quarters that would seem downright claustrophobic for today’s standards. Mercedes weren’t just about the star on the radiator: they were designed from the inside out, and the S-Class’ vastly better space utilization was just one of many obvious huge differences.
The Seville did mark a break in GM styling, and it was a breath of fresh air…until it became stale. It represented the new tight and boxy paradigm for GM, and it was the standard bearer of the switch from GM’s obese seventies’ bulge-mobile look to that crisp and very boxy future. Unfortunately, it was one that was shared almost identically across the whole GM line, most of all the intermediates. The Seville’s rather bracing effect when it arrived in 1975 was short-lived; within a few years, everything GM looked like a Seville. No wonder the gen2 Seville was so desperate.
OK, the Seville wasn’t exactly a Nova with a squared off roof and a gaudy interior. GM’s prodigious engineering talent worked feverishly to give it the quietness and soft ride that was to be expected in a Caddy. Typical for American luxury cars of the time, the ride was just that, as long as the pavement stayed smooth and the curves gentle. But the one thousand pounds (!) of weight the Seville gained in its transformation from the Nova also hampered performance. The average of two contemporary road tests was 13.2 seconds for the amble to sixty, and 18.3 seconds for the quarter mile. Mileage: mediocre mid teens. And this despite the proud trumpeting of GM’s new (Bendix) Electronic Fuel Injection! The Nova could run rings around the Seville. But did luxury car buyers care about these details? Yes and no.
Certainly not the buyers of Mercedes diesels. But they were after something else, and they sure as hell didn’t find it in the disastrous diesel version of the Seville that appeared in 1978. Buyers of Mercedes were looking for two things: superb quality and/or the prestige that came along with it, even if it was a poky 240D. The Seville sold well enough, but not at the expense of Mercedes. Especially in California, the Seville’s size and the buyers’ affluence just made it the Caddy for those late to the MB/BMW party. Most likely, their last one too.
Cadillac was clueless about the rise of Mercedes and BMW, and one good place to confirm that was the instrument panel. Let’s not waste time analyzing them. But which one pointed to the future was obvious. But Cadillac was determined that it still had something unique or distinctly American to say in the design of the luxury car interior and IP, until it finally caved in and used a very MB-inspired look in the gen4 Seville.
There is one good thing to be said about the gen1 Seville: it only went downhill from where it started. Its wretched successors will have their deadly day of reckoning here eventually. And of course, the Seville spawned a whole generation of imitators (Lincoln Versailles, Chrysler Fifth Avenue) that flooded our streets with their garish and kitschy faux-luxury padded roofs, crests, and hood ornaments for at least a decade and a half.
Yes, the Seville was a real pioneering car all right: it helped to launchd the whole bad taste era of American cars. Or is that giving it too much credit? Perhaps we need to come up with a new category for them: Beyond the Valley of the Deadly Sins. Suggestions?