The Cadillac Allanté: Crock or Classic?

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It’s one of the most polarising cars ever built, a machine that split critics and customers straight down the middle when it first rolled onto the scene in the late 1980’s. On the one hand, many praise this little roadster for being a stylistic gem and a perfect mix of style and comfort that was severely lacking in American cars of the period. On the other hand, many deride this unfortunate machine as being the halfwit child of Cadillac and Pininfarina, a humiliating attempt by the American luxury builder to try and win back an ever decreasing audience by giving what was otherwise a regular Eldorado some undeserved zhoosh.

So where did the Allanté come from?

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Cadillac’s previous land yachts, like this 1975 Eldorado, while lathered with luxury, were considered ancient history by the end of the 70’s.

By the beginning of the 1980’s, Cadillac was in dire straits. The fuel crises of the 1970’s had crippled the company and its days of building gigantic land yachts were well and truly over. No longer did the luxury car customer want to buy a titanic road-going ocean liner that wallowed on corners and lumbered along at a snails pace, instead opting for the performance, comfort and speed of the European equivalents. At the same time, Cadillac’s essential decadence had meant that the build quality of their models during the 70’s was downright atrocious. A malcontent workforce simply slapped together archaic cars and didn’t bother to check whether the body panels were properly aligned or if the electrics had been wired up correctly. The results were machines that had underpinnings dating back to the 1950’s that were built with no care and cost a fortune to buy and operate. Meanwhile, the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Audi could provide you with an equivalent machine that was faster, smoother, infinitely more reliable, performed well and were of proportions that seemed at the very least manageable.

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The Mercedes-Benz 560SL, the bane of American auto manufacturers throughout the early 1980’s.

Cadillac had to do something quick, and thus put all their models of a serious diet. Engine sizes decreased, dimensions were reduced, quality was upped and an emphasis on both luxury and performance was brought to the fore. However, as the company stuttered along during the early 1980’s, it was still apparent to the management that those dastardly Europeans were still selling in massive numbers; delivering exactly what the discerning driver wanted in a luxury machine.

The company responded by fighting fire with fire, deciding to bring forward their first ever roadster to take on the likes of the Mercedes-Benz 560SL and the Jaguar XJS. However, in order to do this Cadillac needed a unique selling point, something that would woo the American buyers into rejecting the European upstarts and come crawling back to their homegrown crop. The project, known as the LTS (Luxury Two-Seater) project, was officially launched in 1982 for a proposed 1987 release date, and would be the absolute pinnacle of General Motors’ style and technology.

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The Jaguar XJS, while flawed in terms of reliability, carried the attraction of unbeatable British charm and a world-class V12.

The Cadillac would no longer be seen as an ‘old man’s’ car. With a perfect mixture of style and performance, General Motors would create a machine akin to the European rivalry, striking a chord with the young, high flying business executives of the day.

However, before anything, they had to take a quick trip to a foreign lands.

Their destination, Italy!

Cadillac’s first instinct was to combat their European rivals by utilising European design flare, something the American’s had been considered to be lacking. While American cars do have their own unique style, when it comes to making a true thing of beauty the only people who can deliver above and beyond the call of duty are the Italians. In this case, Cadillac turned to the styling house Pininfarina, then under the auspices of Sergio Pininfarina; the son of the company’s founder Battista “Pinin” Farina. Sergio had made a name for himself throughout the automotive industry for his crisp, subtle but sublime car designs, with his résumé including such gems as the Peugeot 504 Coupé, the Austin 1800, the Ferrari 328 and the Fiat Dino.

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The 1958 Cadillac Skylight concept was one of the previous collaborative works between the US builder and the Italian stylist.

With these credentials, Sergio was more than suitable for the purpose of designing a roadster that would conquer the American market. This wasn’t the first time Cadillac had turned to the Carrozzeria Pininfarina for styling advice, having made use of their services to make several one-off concepts such as the Cadillac Skylight, the Cadillac Pininfarina Jacqueline, and a limited run derivative of the 1959 Eldorado known as the Brougham.

With the Italian’s now on board, Cadillac now had to consider what the technology would be behind the car. In the 1980’s, General Motors had committed itself to developing front-wheel drive across its product range, and the Allanté was no exception; eventually becoming the only front driver in its class. Power would come from a 4.1L overhead valve, aluminium block, iron-head V8 was transversely mounted driving the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transaxle. This powerplant, with electronic port fuel injection and ram-tuned induction, produced 170 horsepower at 4,400 rpm, 40 more than regular Cadillacs.

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The rear of an Allanté, with the removable aluminium hardtop in situ.

Suspension was by MacPherson struts in front with an anti-roll bar, while at the rear were struts and control arms with a transverse fibreglass leaf spring, akin to the Chevrolet Corvette. Power rack-and-pinion steering was fitted, and brakes were four-wheel anti-lock discs.

In terms of equipment, the car brought over many of the goodies found on the contemporary Eldorado, including a Delco-GM/Bose Symphony Sound System (a $905 option on other Cadillacs), the industry’s first power retractable AM/FM/Cellular Telephone antenna, and a complex lamp-out module that substituted an adjacent lamp for a burned-out bulb in the exterior lighting system until the dead one could be replaced were all standard. The only option was a cellular telephone, installed in a lockable centre console. The car also came with a removable aluminium hardtop, which provided a touch more safety over the regular fabric convertible roof.

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Allanté bodies are offloaded from a hired Boeing 747 at Detroit after construction at Pininfarina’s workshop in Turin, Italy.

However, while the car had promise, Cadillac had made problems for itself from the very start by contracting Pininfarina to not only style the car but also build the bodies at their factor in Turin. These bodies would then be flown, 56 at a time, in the cargo hold of a Boeing 747 to Detroit where it would be carried on the back of a truck to the Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly and married to the running gear; completing the car. This practice was incredibly expensive due to the shipping costs and the requirement to pay a secondary workforce in Italy to help build the frames.

Cadillac could’ve saved themselves the bother and had Pininfarina coachbuilders seconded to Detroit in order to build the bodies at the Hamtramck factory, but had made the somewhat glaring error of closing their own coachbuilding shop, Fisher Body Plant #18, in 1987 as part of their drive for austerity. The Fischer Body Plant had created Cadillac bodies since 1921, but was deemed surplus to requirement as the demand for coachbuilt cars dropped off thanks to the creation of the monocoque.

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Body and running gear are finally united at the Hamtramck factory in Detroit, after a journey of nearly 4,000 miles.

However, this expense was almost entirely made up for due to the car’s absolutely drop-dead gorgeous looks. The design of the car is largely in keeping with the general Cadillac design of the time, including the classic box grille and rectangular headlight clusters that were in evidence on the likes of the Eldorado and the Brougham Sedan. However, the low-slung roadster body was a perfect blend of being sporty but not grandiose. There were no lashings of chrome or other ridiculous gimmicks, the car instead being handsome enough to be a headturner but not so flashy or showy that it would come across as vulgar; the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini being no strangers to such.

The car was released to the public in March 1987, with several machines handed to the motoring press for their reviews. Initial reception was generally positive, with the styling, interior and leather seats being of particular praise. However, there were bones of contention, partially due to the carryover buttons and equipment from Cadillac’s lower-end models, but mostly due to the car’s tepid performance.

Despite the car’s light weight, 0-60 came in an abysmal 9.4 seconds, with a top speed of 123mph. By comparison, the Mercedes-Benz 560SL could do 0-60 in 7.7 seconds and go on to 140mph, while the comparatively heavy and lumbering Jaguar XJS could do 0-60 in 8.6 seconds and go on to a top speed of 158mph.

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One of the Allanté’s biggest selling points was by far its superior levels of luxury over the European crop.

However, the Allanté did have an edge over the Europeans in that, surprisingly, it was more fuel efficient. The comparative Mercedes-Benz 560SL and its 5.5L V8 may have made it faster but it required a greater amount of fuel to get it going. As well as that, the overall design of the 560SL dated back to the early 1970’s, which meant that the chassis, handling and brake designs were all starting to show their age. As for the Jaguar XJS, while this was the fastest of the bunch and delivered luxury in spades, the hulking V12 Goliath up front made for utterly atrocious fuel economy, compounded further by reliability issues as the company went through a hard transition from nationalised ownership by British Leyland to its short run as an independent manufacturer. Contemporary reviews therefore deemed the Allanté to have the advantage in luxury and economy, but its European rivals edged ahead with build quality and performance.

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Chrysler’s ill-fated TC, built in conjunction with Maserati, was comparable to the Allanté in terms of performance.

In terms of homegrown competition, the Allanté’s biggest competitors were the Chrysler TC by Maserati and the Buick Reatta. The TC, which was essentially a rebodied and rebadged Maserati BiTurbo, had slightly slower acceleration at 9.9 seconds from 0-60mph, but was evenly matched in terms of top speed at 124mph. As for the sleek, low-slung Reatta, this could do 0-60mph in 8.8 seconds and go on to a top speed of 125mph, a point which reviewers were quick to draw emphasis to when considering the Reatta the better option.

This was reflected in their eventual production numbers. By the time the Allanté left sales in 1993, 21,000 of these cars had been built. By comparison, while the Chrysler TC had a truly abysmal run of 7,300 units due to various faults with the technology and multiple behind-the-scenes issues, the Buick Reatta sold over 21,000 examples in a production run that was two years shorter than the Allante’s. The first model year of 1987 was especially hard on the Allanté, with only 3,363 examples sold against a forecast production of 7,000, making it the Flop of the Year. This was made worse for the 1988 year when only 2,569 units made it off the showroom floor.

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The short-lived but far more successful Buick Reatta got the drop on the Allanté due to its higher performance and lower construction costs.

Things looked bleak for the Allanté, so in order to try and jumpstart sales Cadillac chose to install a new engine, this time a larger HT-4500 V8 producing 200hp. This increased the speed and improved the performance at the cost of fuel economy, but it was still nowhere near comparable to the likes of the 560SL. This was reflected in slightly more optimistic sales, with 3,298 cars sold in 1989.

For 1990, Cadillac introduced traction control to the Allanté, the first American front-wheel drive car to do so, while also adding more sophisticated damping and a standard driver’s air bag. 1991 saw the addition of platinum-tipped spark plugs, but in spite of their efforts, the Allanté’s sales were starting to plummet below 2,500 cars for that year. 1992 proved to be the car’s darkest hour, with only 614 sold; a truly appalling run.

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A 1993 Allanté, fitted with the magnificent Northstar V8; truly the engine it deserved.

In a final ditch effort to regenerate enthusiasm, in January 1992 the car was fitted with the engine it truly deserved, an outstanding double-overhead camshaft, 32-valve, 4.6L, aluminium Northstar V8 with 295hp. This was supported by ultra-quick Road Sensing Suspension and new A-arm-and-coil rear springing. The car that resulted was incredible, with a top speed of 140mph and a 0-60 of 6.4 seconds, which is quick even by today’s standards. Finally, the car was comparable to 560SL, and even outperformed its replacement the R129 SL of 1989; which could only boast a 0-60 of 8.3 seconds and a top speed of 138mph on the base model.

However, Cadillac’s epiphany came far too late to save the Allanté and 1993 proved to be the end for this strange and obscure little car. Sales remained far too low to make a profit and Cadillac was undergoing a massive improvement scheme to try and coax life back into their other models. Resources were needed elsewhere and the Allanté was a dead duck draining vital money and energy.

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The direct descendant of the Cadillac Allanté, the XLR of 2003. This, somehow, failed even worse than the Allanté in terms of sales.

Once production of the Allanté ended, the car remained as obscure as it did when it was on sale, becoming a footnote in the history of General Motors. It’s only recently that the car has started to make a comeback as more people fall in love with the idea of retro products. As for Cadillac two-seater coupés, the Allanté’s place in the model lineup was replaced in 2003 by the XLR, which followed the same trend as its predecessor by completely tanking in the sales department, only selling 15,000 units over 6 years.

So, the Allanté, crock or classic?

The car continues to hold polarising views even to this day among critics and customers alike. While many consider it one of Cadillac’s most under appreciated gems, others feel it was far too slow and wet to have ever been anything other than a sales disaster. The one thing that most will agree on though is that the styling is just gorgeous, a handsome and lovable looking machine that proves to be the perfect blend of Italian flare and what was traditionally Cadillac with the grille and lights.

Personally, I adore the Allanté, but only the later ones.

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The crisp, low lines of the Allanté still strike a chord of excellence with enthusiasts even to this day.

The main draw of the model as a whole is the fact that it was so un-Cadillac in its style and features. You’d take one look at the car and think it was either some sort of one-off concept or a lost Maserati BiTurbo. While I’d like to consider the car’s entire range a classic on looks alone, the sad truth is that models before 1992 were far too slow and far too underwhelming to be a roadster you could properly adore. With performance comparable to the contemporary Volkswagen Rabbit GTi, you might as well have bought the Rabbit as it would’ve saved you at least $45,000 in yesterday’s money. Simply put, if you had $54,000 to spend on a roadster, you would’ve definitely bought either the Mercedes or the Jaguar in order to get the complete experience.

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Perfection!

This car could’ve been a classic though had GM early on decided to put all their efforts in, throw caution and fuel economy to the wind and fit the Allanté with that wonderful Northstar V8 for the entire production run. They knew they were making something exuberant and they needed to deliver that in all aspects of the car’s creation. It had exuberant styling and it had exuberant luxury, all it needed was some exuberant performance and and it would’ve truly struck the chord it deserved. Instead, it spent years as a car that seemed to be only ⅔ complete, which is by far the most tragic part. There were just so many times this machine could’ve been saved but wasn’t, Cadillac going through what seemed to be the pains of hell to have bodies built in Italy, shipped to Detroit, married to mundane running gear and then completely failing to make back its expenses.

That’s what the Allanté is at the end of the day, an automotive Greek tragedy. While it’s starting to get a bit more love these days, the sad truth is there were more than enough times during its production life it could’ve been given the engine it deserved and needed in order to make it one of the most appealing roadsters on the market. Instead of being some obscure rarity barely anyone’s ever heard of, the name Allanté could’ve been synonymous with style and performance, with one parked on every driveway in Beverly Hills!

Scores

  • Looks – 8/10 – While I think it’s drop-dead gorgeous, I can see how the boxy lines can be a touch off-putting for some, so I’ll be generous
  • Comfort – 6/10 – Earlier models had slightly washy suspension, but later versions with their ultra-quick road sensing technology made for fairly smooth machines. This was complimented by lavish leather interiors and springy seats
  • Practicality – 5/10 – A generously sized boot but no rear seats make its use for anyone other than singles or couples troublesome. Then again, this car wasn’t built to be less a family machine and more a romantic roadster
  • Features – 6/10 – Lots of buttons and switches to keep the guys entertained, but by the standards of today it has aged somewhat
  • Reliability – 5/10 – A somewhat large question mark hangs over the long term reliability of these machines, especially when you consider General Motors build quality of the time
  • Efficiency – 2/10 – With a MPG rating of 14 city, 20 highway, it’s not exactly a Toyota Prius
  • Quality – 7/10 – While the finish was fine, the mechanical fidelity of these machines, especially when considering General Motors’ quality of the period, leaves something to be desired
  • Speed – 5/10 – While the Northstar versions of 1993 were as fast as the car deserved, earlier models weren’t exactly snails either
  • Handling – 6/10 – Can present nippy handling for most winding roads, but don’t push it too far
  • Price – 7/10 – 1993 models are sought after classics, with prices usually starting anywhere between $25,000 and $35,000. Earlier examples, however, depreciated like mud at the bottom of a stagnant pond and can go for as little as $4,000
  • Value – 3/10 – If you have a 1993 model, you’re in luck. If not, you’re out of luck
  • Total – 60/110 – Despite its troubled history and the failure of GM to give it the engine it deserved until it was far too late, the Allanté is still a peppy little car and a genuine Caddy.

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