Editorial: General Motors Death Watch 259: Sajeev Mehta's "Cadillac Dreams"

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
editorial general motors death watch 259 sajeev mehta s cadillac dreams

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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  • Sajeev Mehta Sajeev Mehta on Jun 02, 2009
    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.
  • Argentla Argentla on Jun 02, 2009

    @ 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.

  • Dusterdude @SCE to AUX , agree CEO pay would equate to a nominal amount if split amongst all UAW members . My point was optics are bad , both total compensation and % increases . IE for example if Mary Barra was paid $10 million including merit bonuses , is that really underpaid ?
  • ToolGuy "At risk of oversimplification, a heat pump takes ambient air, compresses it, and then uses the condenser’s heat to warm up the air it just grabbed from outside."• This description seems fairly dramatically wrong to me.
  • SCE to AUX The UAW may win the battle, but it will lose the war.The mfrs will never agree to job protections, and production outsourcing will match any pay increases won by the union.With most US market cars not produced by Detroit, how many people really care about this strike?
  • El scotto My iPhone gets too hot while using the wireless charging in my BMW. One more line on why someone is a dumbazz list?
  • Buickman yeah, get Ron Fellows each time I get a Vette. screw Caddy.