Abandoned History: The Cadillac Cimarron, a Good Mercedes-Benz Competitor

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
abandoned history the cadillac cimarron a good mercedes benz competitor

Sometimes car companies get a bit carried away with a new idea that, for a myriad of reasons, doesn’t translate so well in its execution. Toyota (and other Japanese companies) did exactly this when they invested in the very unsuccessful line of WiLL cars and other consumer products in the early 2000s.

Today we look at a 1980s domestic example of an idea that fell flat. It was the time Cadillac thought applying lipstick to a Cavalier-shaped pig would make the BMW and Mercedes-Benz 190E customer come a’callin. It’s time for Cimarron, a J-body joint.

Cadillac, America’s Standard of the World brand, typically sold enormous and expensive cars that were at one point built to a high quality standard. And that was well and good. But by the early Seventies, two major points became clear to General Motors: Cadillac’s quality image was fading, and there was indeed a market for a slightly smaller luxury car. Smaller as in mid-size.

Thus, in 1976 GM took a risk and fancied up the rear-drive and mid-size X-body from the Nova into the much different (not really) K-body Seville. Sold as “internationally-sized,” whatever the hell that meant, the Seville was svelte, lighter than a normal Cadillac. And it was a sales success. But it didn’t change the North American Euro-luxury leaning buyer’s blue-haired image of Cadillac. “We must do more, aim lower,” said someone at Cadillac.

And aim lower they did, as in 1980 the brass at GM signed off on the smallest Cadillac ever, a compact to be based on the new J-body platform currently in development. This new car was a result of some marketing research on Cadillac buyers. The results informed GM’s management that Cadillac customers were not moving from European brands over to Seville because it was incredibly desirable. Rather, it showed Seville customers were typically loyal domestic brand buyers who wanted a smaller sedan. The “European matching” with Seville hadn’t worked.

In response, this all-new Cadillac offering would compete more directly with the compact (and premium) European sports sedans offered by Germany, in particular the 3-Series and Mercedes 190E. Smaller, more upscale, more front-drive – just like a BMW, huh? Dealers were in favor of a smaller car but didn’t know what they’d be getting.

Work began in 1980, two years before the debut of the J-body in North America. That wasn’t much (enough) time for the slow-moving behemoth that was General Motors, and the Cimarron had one of the shortest development times GM ever attempted. The Cadillac to end all Cavaliers was supposed to debut circa 1985, give GM time to work out the product kinks of a new platform (good idea, says me). But management was eager and pushed the timeline up to a model-year ’82 release with the rest of the J-body cars.

The rushed plan didn’t go down well with GM president Pete Estes, (in charge 1974 to 1981). Originally an engineer at Oldsmobile and the man who came up with the name for the Camaro, Estes saw the high-quality vinyl being draped over the Cavalier and protested.

“You don’t have time to turn the J-car into a Cadillac,” he said. Crickets from Cadillac management.

Cadillac hyped the new Cimarron in brochures, using bold adjectives like adventure, fortitude, and pioneering. GM first considered calling it the Envoy, Cascade, or Series 62, but instead went with Cimarron by Cadillac. They were proud enough of their creation that at launch the Cadillac name was absent from the car. This was immediately corrected when the Cadillac script appeared on the trunk in 1983, and the car was simply called Cadillac Cimarron.

More appropriate would’ve been Cimarron by Cavalier, as what debuted was a badge-engineering job unlike anything GM had tried prior. At the front and rear were slightly more formal-looking clips than a Cavalier, while every exterior shape between the two was the same. There was some additional trim and chrome outside, and an optional vinyl roof not found on Cavalier. Inside, the Cimarron steering wheel had three spokes instead of two. The center console was slightly a different shape, and the cassette stereo was up higher. While Cavalier sometimes had digital gauges, initial Cimarrons featured analog ones which were cased in silvery plastic “simulated aluminum” instead of gray. Digital gauges became an option later. Bucket seats were standard on the Cadillac and were covered in low-grade leather. A seldom selected “Ripple Cloth” option appeared later, with cloth seating surfaces and vinyl-covered bolsters. Seats were heavily ribbed and matched the color-keyed vinyl door panel trim.

And that was it. No wood, no luxuriously powerful engine, no special features, no cupholders. All Cimarrons were sedans (though a convertible wouldn’t have gone amiss here) and were powered by the same 1.8-, 2.0-, or 2.8-liter engines as the Cavalier. Transmissions were the same too, with a three-speed automatic or four- or five-speed manual, though most were ordered with the automatic. The 2.8 V6 became optional in 1985 on the luxurious Cimarron but became standard in 1987.

Along the way there was but one notable trim package, the D’Oro introduced in 1984. Directly translated from Italian and Spanish into “golden,” D’Oro was designed for customers who enjoyed gold trim, badges, wheels, grille, bumper strips, and tape stripes. D’Oro was emblazoned via a plaque on the flimsy glovebox lid alongside Cimarron, and there was additional color-matched lower body cladding not found on standard Cimarron. In ’84 the package was available only with black exterior and tan leather, but in ’85 the trim expanded to white and red exterior paint. D’Oro continued in availability through 1986.

GM persisted with slight fiddling with front and rear trim to make it look a bit different from its Cavalier sibling. Wrap-around taillamps appeared in ’86, alongside much better-looking composite headlamps to replace the sealed beam Cavalier units. The Cimarron was largely laughed out of the room by the automotive press, and rightly so.

However, though its 132,499 sales were not as impressive as expected, many Cimarron buyers were new to the Cadillac brand and younger than the typical customer. Cadillac brass considered a new generation of Cimarron past 1988, but instead sealed its fate and sent those development funds to update the Eldorado and Seville for ’88 and the front-drive Fleetwood and Deville for ’89. A good call. Cimarron was one of the last first-gen J-body cars on sale, as for ’88 the Cavalier and company entered their second generation.

Cimarron eventually made its way to Worst Car Ever lists here and there. It’s largely considered the worst example of badge engineering in modern history, as it represented a cynical take on a Cavalier at nearly double the price. Thus far, Cadillac has remembered the Cimarron’s Abandoned History lesson and has not repeated the mistake.

[Images: Cadillac]

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  • Jeff S Jeff S on Oct 20, 2021

    @el scotto--Excellent summation of what is wrong with the Detroit based auto manufacturers and the same thing applies to much of the US based manufacturers. The executives are too far removed from the actual product and the experiences most consumers have with those products. The problem is also the bean counters who cost cut the product so much that there are more problems and the product itself becomes less desirable. Cimarron is an excellent example of what was and is wrong with Detroit.

  • Mr. Fletcher Mr. Fletcher on Oct 20, 2021

    TTAC the website that ensures the Cimarron lives on.

  • Nrd515 I bought an '88 S10 Blazer with the 4.3. We had it 4 years and put just about 48K on it with a bunch of trips to Nebraska and S. Dakota to see relatives. It had a couple of minor issues when new, a piece of trim fell off the first day, and it had a seriously big oil leak soon after we got it. The amazinly tiny starter failed at about 40K, it was fixed under some sort of secret warranty and we got a new Silverado as a loaner. Other than that, and a couple of tires that blew when I ran over some junk on the road, it was a rock. I hated the dash instrumentation, and being built like a gorilla, it was about an inch and a half too narrow for my giant shoulders, but it drove fine, and was my second most trouble free vehicle ever, only beaten by my '82 K5 Blazer, which had zero issues for nearly 50K miles. We sold the S10 to a friend, who had it over 20 years and over 400,000 miles on the original short block! It had a couple of transmissions, a couple of valve jobs, a rear end rebuild at 300K, was stolen and vandalized twice, cut open like a tin can when a diabetic truck driver passed out(We were all impressed at the lack of rust inside the rear quarters at almost 10 years old, and it just went on and on. Ziebart did a good job on that Blazer. All three of his sons learned to drive in it, and it was only sent to the boneyard when the area above the windshield had rusted to the point it was like taking a shower when it rained. He now has a Jeep that he's put a ton of money into. He says he misses the S10's reliablity a lot these days, the Jeep is in the shop a lot.
  • Jeff S Most densely populated areas have emission testing and removing catalytic converters and altering pollution devices will cause your vehicle to fail emission testing which could effect renewing license plates. In less populated areas where emission testing is not done there would probably not be any legal consequences and the converter could either be removed or gutted both without having to buy specific parts for bypassing emissions. Tampering with emission systems would make it harder to resell a vehicle but if you plan on keeping the vehicle and literally running it till the wheels fall off there is not much that can be done if there is no emission testing. I did have a cat removed on a car long before mandatory emission testing and it did get better mpgs and it ran better. Also had a cat gutted on my S-10 which was close to 20 years old which increased performance and efficiency but that was in a state that did not require emission testing just that reformulated gas be sold during the Summer months. I would probably not do it again because after market converters are not that expensive on older S-10s compared to many of the newer vehicles. On newer vehicles it can effect other systems that are related to the operating and the running of the vehicle. A little harder to defeat pollution devices on newer vehicles with all the systems run by microprocessors but if someone wants to do it they can. This law could be addressing the modified diesels that are made into coal rollers just as much as the gasoline powered vehicles with cats. You probably will still be able to buy equipment that would modify the performance of a vehicles as long as the emission equipment is not altered.
  • ToolGuy I wonder if Vin Diesel requires DEF.(Does he have issues with Sulfur in concentrations above 15ppm?)
  • ToolGuy Presented for discussion: https://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper2/thoreau/civil.html
  • Kevin Ford can do what it's always done. Offer buyouts to retirement age employees, and transfers to operating facilities to those who aren't retirement age. Plus, the transition to electric isn't going to be a finger snap one time event. It's going to occur over a few model years. What's a more interesting question is: Where will today's youth find jobs in the auto industry given the lower employment levels?