Okay… you read about the Sturm und Drang involved in getting this 48,000-mile, two-owner Cadillac from Columbus, Ohio to Houston, Texas. Now it’s time to talk about the car itself a bit, and review it just the way we would review any other car here at TTAC.
Problem is… how do you review a car like this? It was the last, and largest, of the full-sized Cadillacs. It represents many of the best, and even more of the worst, qualities associated with American auto manufacturing in the dismal Seventies. Socially, it has significance well beyond what we have room to discuss, or understand, in a short blog post. It’s too important, too relevant, too resonant, too repugnant, too. This feels like too big a task for little old me, even if I have the help of another very interesting Cadillac that you will meet in just a moment.
Let’s start with this: thirteen thousand dollars. That’s what this particular car cost. About five times the price of a basic compact car. Cadillac in 1976 was a microcosm, a synecdoche, of the Sloan Plan. At the bottom was Calais. At the top was Seville (if you were talking marketing), Fleetwood Sixty Special (if you were talking sheer size), or Eldorado (if you still believed in personal luxury). Cadillac sold over 309,000 cars in 1976. It was their best year ever, but the chickens were winging their way home to Michigan for some long-overdue roosting.
You’re looking at a Medici velour interior. That’s the stuff Cadillac put in their factory-built Fleetwood limousines, and that’s what makes a Fleetwood Sixty Special a “Talisman”. Dissect the model name. “Fleetwood” means it’s above the common-and-garden Calais and deVille. It looks similar, but it’s a few inches longer. Why? Just because. Today, we’d carp that the two different wheelbases for production Cadillac RWD sedans represented a production inefficiency. Back then, it was important to distinguish vehicles which otherwise weren’t all that different. And since Cadillac was still doing the seven-seat limos in-house, it seemed reasonable to offer multiple wheelbases.
“Sixty Special” meant that it was a town car. Not a Town Car, mind you, a “town car” as opposed to the Fleetwood Seventy-Five limo. This was an era where “limo” didn’t mean “tacky prom night special”. It meant a car for a man with a driver. There were plenty such men, mostly commuting from places like Rowayton or Sausalito, and plenty such drivers. But this Sixty Special was meant to be owner-driven.
Think of a Talisman as a Sixty Special with Seventy-Five interior appointments. The option list was still long, and it was possible to spend seventeen thousand dollars — more than half again the ten thousand-dollar base of the Fleetwood Brougham — on a completely-equipped Talisman. A new Seville, basically a Chevy Nova with leather, was thirteen grand. (A new Nova without the Seville logo? $3300. Thanks to gslippy and CJinSD for the price note – JB) The pricing had nothing to do with the product, the content, or the value. The pricing was social. It was there to signify Your Place In The World. Vice-presidents stepped into a Calais and joined the world of gentlemen. Respectable country-club fathers drove the Sedan de Ville. Board members were driven in a Seventy-Five, or they drove themselves in a Talisman. Sevilles were for West Coast get-rich-quick types. Eldorados were for women, movie stars, and “bounders”.
Now you understand what the car meant, a little bit anyway. I don’t think you can understand it fully unless you were alive back then and understood how quickly doormen, bank tellers, and other service personnel could tell the difference between this year’s Talisman and last year’s DeVille. It used to mean something. No longer. All we can do is drive the car.
Open the massive door. The handles, and the mirrors, are heavy, chromed, exclusive to Cadillac. The doorsill is stainless-steel and carries the Fisher logo. There are no window frames. Sit down — down — into the Medici velour. The trim, sadly, is mostly junk. It was junk when it was new. The wood is obviously fake. There’s no excuse for that, nor is there any excuse for the flimsy feel of the controls. It was Seventies profiteering at its worst, aimed at owners who bought a new Cadillac every year, or every two years, irrespective of the merits of said Cadillacs. Too much of this car was destined to fall apart from the moment it was built.
And yet the mechanical bones of the beast are solid beyond understanding. The starter sounds like an engine of its own, and it spins the five-hundred-cubic-inch V-8 into life easily. There is no vibration through the wheel, none of the sympathetic communication provided by a BMW 535i. This is a luxury car, in case you’ve forgotten what that means because you never knew in the God-damned first place. Visibility is absurdly good. The windshield is upright, the pillars are narrow. Only the privacy-enhancing sail panels in back keep it from being a perfect vista. No backup camera necessary, and this is a vehicle which stretches to nineteen and a half feet.
I drove this car thirteen hundred miles and never used full throttle. It wasn’t required. Isn’t required. In 1976, Cadillac offered fuel-injection on the 500. We don’t have it here, but we still have 380 lb/ft of torque to go with our lazy 190 horsepower. The mighty Talisman weighs slightly less than a modern Escalade and, truth be told, is somewhat more pleasant to guide down a freeway lane. I saw an average of fourteen miles per gallon in my driving, about what one might expect from a ‘Slade. Where’s the progress?
I wish I could put every TTAC reader behind the wheel of this Fleetwood. In a flash, in a single kinesthetic moment, you would understand what you don’t now. You think a Town Car is a “boat”. Hello no. A modern Town Car has the reflexes of a Lotus Elise in comparison to a ’76 Cadillac. You think a Camry has a “floaty ride”. You’re wrong. The imports, the “compacts”, the Car and Driver editors, they were all fighting to bury THIS CAR. This is a car which can barely match posted cornering limits around offramps. There isn’t the slightest bit of enthusiast appeal to the Fleetwood. It loafs, it sags, it leans, it doesn’t want to turn. When the 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood appeared on its downsized chassis, it was an utter revolution compared to this car. Every “full-sized” car most of you have ever driven is, instead, a full-on reaction to the massive GM and Ford boats. Put this and a 2009 Grand Marquis on a racetrack, and the Marquis would lap it in under ten minutes. The difference between this Fleetwood and a 1977 Fleetwood is greater than the difference between a 1977 Fleetwood and a BMW M5. That’s not hyperbole. It’s fact.
Now let me show you the revolution which followed the 1977 revolution. Dr. Sanjay Mehta, the Talisman’s owner, also has a Cadillac limo… from 1984. (Edit: Mad Hungarian and Austin Greene pointed out that it is probably a 1985 or 1986 model. Mea culpa – JB) It’s far more spacious inside, both front and back. Carries seven people better than the Talisman carries five. Let’s take a look.
Only eight years separate these two cars. In eight years, Cadillac changed its world. The Fleetwood dropped from 5400 pounds to 3400. An aluminum V-8 half as large as the ’76 engine provided virtually identical motivation, in numbers if not feel. Amazingly, the cars became larger inside, more spacious, easier to operate, easier to park, just plain better in most respects. Like an Apatosaurus poked in the hindquarters, GM was slow to react to the legitimate criticism of its big car but powerful in the magnitude of its response. Seventy-six to eighty-four. From dinosaur to mammal in the same time it takes Honda to build two different kinds of substantially similar Civics. And the mammal is just so much better at nearly everything.
Everything, that is, that has nothing to do with the core values of Cadillac. The smaller car, even when it isn’t a “limo”, has odd, dwarfish proportions. The vastly more efficient passenger compartment looks like the proverbial ten pounds in the five-pound bag. The public had barely accepted the 1977 de Ville as a necessary reaction to desperate times. but the FWD ‘Lac was comical, not dignified. It looked like a joke, like a child’s drawing of a car. Cadillacs didn’t need to be excellent, but they needed to be prestigious, and this was anything but prestigious. Sales fell dramatically as GM scrambled behind the scenes to “upsize” the car again, to put a little hood and trunk on it, to stop it from looking like a clown car that still, by the way, cost much more than twice what a normal family sedan did. They never returned to the massive, impressive look of 1976. They couldn’t even make it back to 1977. The current DTS looks like what it is: a sad attempt to expand the “Antares” not-quite-Aurora-but-had-to-be-second-generation-Aurora-due-to-budget-cuts G-body into something vaguely Cadillac-esque. Next to a ’76, it looks like a sick joke at its own expense. The wood inside may have become real, but the car itself has become false, forgettable.
So. The Fleetwood goes, but it barely stops, it doesn’t turn. It rides well enough, but the Grand Caravan I drove last week is better-isolated from impacts, even if a modern CTS isn’t quite as good as either. It isn’t a “good car” in any sense of the word, and in the years after its introduction, these old mid-Seventies Caddies slumped, rusted, and disintegrated their way from the suburbs to the ghettos to the roadsides and junkyards, delivering perhaps the final coffin nails to the brand’s embalming.
Why, then, do I love it so much? Why do I love its styling, its sheer sweep of sheetmetal, its unapologetic stretch past the borders of parking spots, common decency, and personal accountability? Why would I buy one myself, in a heartbeat, if I had a place to put it? Think of the men who played music on the deck of the Titanic as it sank. They knew their world was ending, they knew they would not live through the night, but while one was alive, one would conduct one’s self with decorum and a touch of style. It’s too much to ask of this Talisman that it be a talisman. There’s nothing magical about it. Rather, there’s something majestic. A sad majesty, the band on the Titanic, the lion in winter, the great general in defeat, holding on to his sword for one last moment. Once upon a time, Americans built these cars. Not good cars. Not great cars. Only sad, and majestic, and, in the final analysis, wonderful.