Last of the Land Yachts: Cadillac Sedan de Ville (1971 – 1977)

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American consumerism at its absolute finest, the Cadillac de Ville series was a range of cars that came to define the dream of gigantic luxury land yachts that would cruise across the wide-open plains of the Midwest or drift sedately down Fifth Avenue. However, like with many cars of this size, it would become a serious victim of its own success as an ever-changing world quickly outpaced cars which were expected to trend forever.

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The original Cadillac Series 62 DeVille of 1949.

By 1971, the DeVille series had been in production for 22 years and had made its debut on the Series 62 DeVille in 1949. For this particular model year, the entire range of General Motors products were updated to suit the times, and, in common with the trends, it was all angles from here on out!

A staple of the 1970’s, especially in motoring circles, came down to two trends; the Big Box and the Wedge. While sports cars such as the Lamborghini Countach and contemporary Ferrari’s followed the Wedge design in pursuit of perfect streamlining, luxury cars chose to increase their physical dimensions and exchange flowing curves and chrome for straight lines, right angles and a more serious look. Pretty much every luxury car, apart from those carried over from the 1960’s, took on the angular look; the Lincoln Continental, the Cadillac Eldorado and the Rolls Royce Camargue being fine sentiments to this.

The DeVille series was no exception, adopting greatly increased dimensions that were so humongous they set a world record for the largest interior width fitted to a passenger car until the full-size GM rear-wheel-drive models of the early 1990’s.

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New DeVille’s are assembled at the Cadillac factory in Detroit.

The standard engine for Cadillacs, essentially since 1914, was the Cadillac V8, which remained in production in one form or another as late as 2010. For the latest version of the DeVille, the displacement was upped from the previous 7.0L to 7.7L on the base model, and an absolutely outrageous 8.2L on the top of the range model. This gave the car 375hp, which, when you consider the size of the engine, is abysmal!

Furthermore, such a comparatively low power output for such a massive machine didn’t exactly make the car sprightly. 0-60 came in 10.1 seconds and the top speed was only 119mph. Then again, it wasn’t exactly built to be a racing car, although Jeremy Clarkson still felt it would be a match to a brand new, race-ready BMW M5 when filming Top Gear’s Worst Car Ever. As you can imagine, that’s like trying to compare apples and oranges.

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The Cadillac Sedan de Ville became the ultimate item of American wealth and influence.

Nevertheless, the car was launched for the 1971 model year and immediately seemed to settle in with the slew of other gigantic luxury limos and sedans now on the market. Competition was stiff in these times, and cars such as this, as well as contemporary Lincoln Continentals and fellow Cadillac Eldorado’s, were gobbled up by consumers. The thing that made these cars competitive was how cheap they were. While Mercedes-Benz and Rolls-Royce attempted to breach the US Market with lashings of luxury at a luxury price, this only really appealed to a select few. Home-grown Caddies and Lincolns on the other hand were comparatively inexpensive, and the idea of buying a car of such huge amounts of luxury built in the United States was certainly appealing.

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A promotional image of the 1971 Cannonball Run, in which a stock DeVille went head-to-head with the likes of the Ferrari Daytona and the MGB.

To help their promotion further, November 1971 saw a showroom-stock 1971 Coupe de Ville placed third in the annual coast-to-coast Cannonball Run, posting the highest average speed of the event, 84.6mph and averaging 8.9 mpg. 8.9 mpg may strike you as absolutely frightening, especially with today’s environmental considerations, but  in 1971 fuel could be burnt up like it was going out of fashion. This was the time of the gas-guzzler, non-renewable fossil fuels were seen as infinite, and how much pollution was being caused was more of an afterthought. At this point in time, the world seemed set on a bright and prosperous future, trailblazed by the massive land yacht.

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The 1973 Fuel Crisis hit America hard, and the gas guzzling days of big US motors hit the buffers.

However, the 1970’s very quickly caved in on cars such as the DeVille when, in 1973, the Fuel Crisis struck. Following the start of the Yom Kippur War between Israel, Egypt and Syria, and with the NATO nations selling arms to the Israelis, the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) placed an embargo on selling oil to Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. The result was fuel prices skyrocketing almost overnight, and global economies were thrown into recession, especially in the UK and the USA. Both nations were hit by the worst economic stagnation since the end of World War II, and with it came trouble. Money was harder to come by, therefore resulting in cars such as the DeVille failing to sell in the numbers GM had hoped for. Eventually, Cadillac were forced to sell these cars literally dirt-cheap, but this meant they fell into some disreputable hands.

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An image often associated with 70’s Cadillacs, heavily modified by pimps to make them look absolutely insane!

Aside from the economic struggles, the beginning of the 1970’s was the start of what many considered a social degradation, especially in the cities. The spiritual homes of the DeVille, either drifting down Park Avenue in New York or cruising along Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, were now overrun with criminal activity, ranging from violent gangs and militant anti-establishment organisations to drug dealing and prostitution. With the rise in gangs came a desire to assert their authority over their ‘Turf’, and cheap Caddies such as the DeVille were their prime choice. Very quickly these LA Limos and Manhattan Machines would find themselves wandering the backstreets of Brooklyn under the ownership of the local pimp, who would often like to customise his car in the most tasteless and tacky styling you ever did see! Big wheels, bizarre paintschemes, velvet bodywork, and, worst of all, a propensity to fit the car with absurd hydraulics which made them bounce around like a rodeo horse!

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Though built to be the cars of America’s business elite, these machines often left the factory riddled with faults.

Build quality was an issue too. When it came to the 1970’s, quality control for both US and UK car manufacturers was something of a mixed bag. In the UK, British Leyland had given the nation a reputation for cars that were dead-on-arrival. In America, the ‘Big-Three’ quickly gathered their own reputation for taking good cars and watching them slowly die. With the economic crisis came strike action and a loss of enthusiasm to build cars properly. As such, these luxury limousines and sedans, that would be the property of some of America’s most influential people, left the production line with all kinds of faults; be they electrical, mechanical or just the result of shoddy workmanship.

In the summary of Jeremy Clarkson, “if the car smelled funny, there’d be one of the line worker’s Tuna sandwiches in the glove-box, if it rattled, there’d be a Coke Can under the seat.”

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The basic underpinnings of the ‘new’ DeVille, including floorplan, engine and suspension, went back to the original DeVille of the 1950’s.

Perhaps the biggest problem with cars like the Cadillac was that the design was outdated as well. Though a capable car, the general underpinnings of these machines dated back to the 1950’s, with the floorplan, engine, suspension system and other mechanical parts being derived from the previous model. Though the styling changed and the engine was re-tuned, the new models were more just facelifts and body swaps. To remain competitive, car manufacturers should really have had a full rebuild and new design with cutting edge technology when proposing a new model year. As you can imagine however, full redesign is an expensive and time consuming process, with a recommended period of works to last at least 3 years from concept to launch.

Not like we in the UK were any better, we didn’t even bother with facelifts even when we did have the money! The Mini kept its design from 1959 to 2000, the Metro from 1980 to 1999, the Original Range Rover from 1969 to 1995 and the Morris Minor from 1950 to 1972.

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The Mercedes-Benz S-Class showed the world that luxury cars could be both reliable and economical in the face of the American land yachts.

All these problems combined resulted in the rise of what had previously been considered the underdog, the economy car. While the USA had the space to build cars that were massive while also having a ready supply of its own oil reserves, in Japan, a lack of space and a need to import oil had forced this country to build smaller, more economic cars. The result was the likes of Datsun and Toyota starting to make an appearance in the United States and selling rapidly. At the same time, issues with reliability had meant that those who could afford a bigger car chose to buy foreign instead, primarily from Germany; the workshop of Europe. Though quite literally divided by communism, Germany (West Germany at least) had managed to weather the storm of recessions and still maintain a standard of reliability. As such, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche quickly landed themselves on American shores en masse, with at least one of their dealerships appearing on the streets of most US cities.

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The next generation of DeVille, launched in 1977, constrained the dimensions somewhat, but Cadillac weren’t willing to trim too much off.

Despite a new model being released in 1977, it was clear that the DeVille and the many other kings of consumerism were now starting to look seriously out of place in a world of environmental considerations and fuel efficiency. Though the fuel efficiency wouldn’t be brushed on until the 1990’s, the new model for 1985 decreased the size of the car substantially, so much so that its dimensions almost matched those of contemporary Mercedes and BMW products. By the end of the 1980’s, the infamous land yachts were well and truly dead, with an emphasis placed combining luxury and performance in a similar fashion to those of European equivalents.

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The 1985 DeVille, demonstrably smaller and more akin to the likes of the highly successful S-Class.

Today, 70’s versions of the DeVille hold a mixed reception. While many praise its design and love its lashings of luxury, others deride them as among the worst cars ever made; not just on a technical level but on a symbolic level. They were seen as cars of decadence and greed in a time when money was tight for the average person. They’re seen as selfish cars, cars built solely for America that dried up the resources of the world to make them operational.

Me personally, I adore big luxury cars of the 1970’s, especially land yachts. Yes they’re thirsty, oversized, poorly built and designed for an era of consumerism that when bankrupt in the mid-60’s, but, when you consider the space and luxury such cars gave the discerning owner you can’t help but admire them. The DeVille I personally put as my favourite of this time, a car fit for a King in a country run by a President!

Scores

  • Looks – 6/10 – I’m in the minority, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the boxy US designs of the 1970’s and 80’s. However, I’ll be fair to its detractors
  • Comfort – 10/10 – A car that will cosset you from start to finish
  • Practicality – 5/10 – It had the largest interior ever fitted to a car at that time. However, it’s a car that only works in America, attempting to drive this thing on UK or European roads is tantamount to insanity!
  • Features – 5/10 – Lots of interesting 1970’s knick-knacks, but nothing that really stands up today
  • Reliability – 3/10 – One of these car’s many problems thanks to poor build quality
  • Efficiency – 1/10 – It does 9.5mpg
  • Quality – 2/10 – Aside from the build quality issues, a lot of the features within the car felt quite cheap as they were carried over from other GM products
  • Speed – 1/10 – 0-60 comes in 10.1 seconds and it will only do 119mph, but let’s not forget it’s a massive, massive luxury land yacht
  • Handling – 3/10 – Drive the DeVille in the same manner you’d drive a bus!
  • Price – 7/10 – Because of the car’s many faults and its soiled reputation, you can pick up DeVille’s for anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000
  • Value – 7/10 – They may be cheap to sell at the moment, but I feel that as nostalgia continues to gain momentum these huge luxury dinosaurs will see prices gradually rise
  • Total – 50/110 – One of the most famous, if not infamous, luxury cars of all time, and a true testament to dying years of America’s love affair with itself.

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