Review: 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special Talisman

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

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.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Zammit Zammit on Apr 07, 2016

    Moment of Glory My father told me, “Everybody has a moment of Glory in their life. That was my moment of glory professionally” as he swiped some snack crumbs into a napkin from the corners of his mouth. Most ended up on his chest which were brushed onto the carpet to be gotten later. He was 81 years old, a widower for 10 years, and sitting on his brown leather couch in the Irish Hills of Michigan. We had just begun meditating on a picture from some dusty work files that I pulled out of the attic. The 60” LED flat screen with Tom Selleck in “Blue Bloods” before us, the panoramic window featuring aqua blue Loch Erin behind, the 1958 Mcintosh Tuner with turntable paired with MC30 tube amps on the left, and a JBL Ranger-Metregon Loudspeaker on the right faded away. The flash of a polaroid many years ago had captured my dad, a fit 40 year old silver-haired fox with swarthy Maltese skin, a pressed triple starched shirt, a fat cigar wedged between his pointer and middle finger with him poised in a power stance sporting some white patent-leather shoes. He was standing 5 ’6” with the giants of General Motors Corporation gathered around him gazing up at the “Flying Nun” that he engineered to put the vinyl tops on Cadillacs in 1976.. John Zammit worked for General Motors in Detroit, Michigan for 41 years. He grew up there, attended Holy Redeemer High School, and eventually General Motors Institute to become a mechanical engineer. My dad grew up poor. His parents immigrated from the Island of Malta to Detroit. Grandpa Zammit had to work two jobs to support his seven children. My dad was the second child and the Mommy’s boy behind his brother Frankie. I say Mommy’s boy only because Grandma said she kept Frankie on a diehard milk schedule even when he was wailing in his crib but gave Johnny milk whenever he wanted it. They lived near the old Tiger Stadium at Michigan and Trumbull. When he was a boy, to earn some nickels in the summer, him and the neighborhood boys would convince Detroit Tiger fans that they would guard their cars while they went into the game. People would give these juveniles, some delinquents, coin money for their watchful eyes or maybe as a token of “please don’t break into my car while I’m in the game.” Dad said that all the boys would run off to the corner store or go back to playing but he would sit on the curb several hours being vigilant to protect their investments until his customers would return. It was in him from his youth that earning money for a job required doing what is expected and agreed upon by the employer. He did not respect lazy people who refused to work and even less those who would slack in their work. I didn’t grow up with him. My father and mother divorced when I was 5. When my mother and I would drive I-75 past the Fisher Body Fleetwood Plant on the way to my grandma’s house in Southwest Detroit, she would always say at exit 44 , “There’s the plant that ate your daddy.” I would pause from my memorization of Topps Baseball cards, look at the monstrosity, and wonder. To add to the mystery she said one time, “Your dad received death threats for a machine that he designed in there.” There are people in there that want to kill him.” The machine was installed on the sixth floor of the Fisher Body Fleetwood Plant which produced American luxury for home and abroad. From this spot, management and UAW workers mixed in a seething cauldron of forced speedup and resistance. All of the auto industry was being rocked by union clashes with management. These work stoppages were not peaceful assemblies. People were beaten, property damaged, jobs lost, and families ruined. No wonder my dad would tell me when I was a directionless teenager, “Son, you have to have a plan. It’s a jungle out there.” John Lippert, Bloomburg Markets Senior Writer, was a worker on the sixth floor. He describes the strike on August 26,1977 in his article The Fall of Detroit saying, “I ran down six flights of stairs and onto a sidewalk baking in 85-degree-Farenheit heat. About 600 of us started drinking beer and celebrating. The line would stay shut for a day and a half. We called that a victory...Our militancy at GM drew on the youthful rebellion that was gripping the U.S. Hundreds of us at Fleetwood, black and white, grew our hair long, fueled by anti-establishment fervor that helped end the Vietnam War and sweep Richard Nixon out of the White House. During our 30-minute lunch breaks, we sat in our cars and listened to Jimi Hendrix as we smoked marijuana, drank beer and took Desoxyn and other methamphetamines before returning to work. Our quality levels and absenteeism rates were among GM’s worst. We didn’t care.” My dad explained to me that concessions would be made to the workers across Detroit because General Motors ruled the auto industry. They felt no threat from the “Japs.” He said he gave some Japanese manufacturers tours of Fleetwood and in retrospect they were probably writing their reports, We are not going to do this, this this, and this.” How ironic it is that the Fisher Body plants converted into mass production facilities of planes and tanks for the WWII effort! Japan was coordinating another attack on the United States with a better automobile. The Vinyl Workers at the plant were the generals in the battle against Fleetwood. My dad had a plan to abolish them but was rejected time after time by his superiors. He watched them day after day slow production, stand around brazenly letting Cadillacs go out of the building without completed roofs. Lippert chronicled the situation, “The company assigned more work at almost all job stations. On the day of the walkout, GM’s head of labor relations and the UAW shop chairman shoved each other while arguing about speedup. The local union president stood by, swearing. After its leaders were suspended, the UAW sent Bird and other lieutenants to organize the strike. About one in four afternoon-shift workers left that Thursday—a payday. On Friday, GM wouldn’t pay workers who hadn’t stayed for their checks. A striker put his foot through a glass door. GM started paying. After our walkout, the speedup tension simmered, especially among vinyl top workers. There were about 100 on each shift. They were a distinct subset and powerful enough to convince each other that militancy could pay. The vinyl workers—and a lot of the rest of us—goaded management by working “in the hole,” or purposely going slow so we’d follow cars beyond our workstations. The vinyl top people took their job 500 or 600 feet into the hole and disrupted what others were doing for weeks at a time. Management fired or suspended dozens of them. By Oct. 8, Fleetwood didn’t have enough people to cover absenteeism. GM let one in six cars go without vinyl tops. Their metal roofs, amid the whites, yellows and browns of the completed cars, were visible hundreds of yards away. As the unfinished models filled repair bays, GM capitulated. It increased the number of vinyl top teams to 39 from 35 and reinstated everybody with pay.” My dad couldn’t take it anymore. He walked into the plant manager’s office that glowed with Cadillac memorabilia, threw the blueprints and costs analysis on his desk with one question, “How long are you going to let these guys F@#! You? Dad had been rejected numerous times on this. The executive never looked at the plans. He said to my dad, “Go ahead and build it.” The Polaroid picture captured the culminating ironclad moment of victory. Lippert summarized, “The UAW was losing its grip at GM. The company eradicated sixthfloor militancy at Fleetwood with a robot for installing vinyl tops. Workers called it “the flying nun” because it pivoted over the car and dropped the top in place.” In that flash- Gone were the vinyl workers who took the money to the store and did not watch the owners cars. Gone were the vinyl workers who took the money and went to playing games and not finishing the job. A worker is recorded saying, “I worked at Fleetwood and four other plants for eight years during the heyday of U.S. carmaking dominance and union militancy.” George McGregor, president of UAW Local 22 at GM’s Hamtramck, Michigan, plant, worked at Fleetwood during the 1970s. He says the UAW should have used its power to stop GM from shipping defective cars instead of forcing it to hire unneeded workers. “We fucked that place up, and we’re paying for it,” McGregor says. Gone is the factory that spanned eight-city blocks pumping out American luxury to the world. What I imagine remains for my dad is knowledge of a job well done and a moment of recognition for being wise in battle and triumphing over an evil empire. I know that there are some funny cartoon caricatures created by another manager depicting my dad as several different world leaders for his victory. He also has a pretty neat painted wooden model of the contraption, and best of all the nicely framed patent for the invention coupled with the one dollar bill that he received from the company for his work.

  • The Facts The Facts on Jul 15, 2018

    "The public had barely accepted the 1977 de Ville" ?? He clearly has no idea what he is talking about. The sales of the all-new downsized 1977s were much better than in 1976. 1976 Coupe deVille: 114,482 1977 Coupe deVille: 138,750 1976 Sedan deVille: 67,677 1977 Sedan deVille: 95,421 1976 Brougham: 24,500 1977 Brougham: 28,000 "A new Seville, basically a Chevy Nova with leather" UGH. Yet another uneducated statement. The first generation Sevilles only shared the front sub frame, rear sub frame cross members and rear compartment floor pan with the other X-body cars. For someone that says they like these cars they sure know very little about them.

  • Richard Poore Sure, as the article itself notes (hence my ire) California has mandated that all new vehicles sold in state be EV by 2035. They require EV or hybrid by 2026. Since the author admits to this mandate it seems that the article title is clickbait... was really hoping that there was some sort of changes in the CA position since the state is sorely behind on where they need to be with charging stations for this sort of requirement.
  • VoGhost When will Audi eliminate the fake, oversized grills that impede aerodynamics?
  • Kelley It's about time! I was so discouraged to see those poor Chevy Bolts stuck at the charging station receiving level 2 speeds after 80%, it was ridiculous. It would be nice if EA would had more level 2 chargers, also, at the same locations for people to top off above 80% on the fast chargers.
  • Tane94 Carmela Harris is supportive of EV adoption, so government incentives will be continuing under her watch.