American consumerism at its absolute finest, the Cadillac de Ville series was a range of cars that came to define the dream of gigantic cars that would cruise across the wide-open plains of the Midwest without a single turn for at least 100 miles! But, like with many cars of this size, it would become a serious victim of its own success, and an ever changing world quickly outpaced cars which were expected to trend forever.
By 1971, the De Ville series had been in production for 22 years, originally appearing on the Series 62 De Ville 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!
Yep, 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 Lamborghini Countach and contemporary Ferrari’s chased the desire for perfect streamlining, luxury cars chose instead to increase their size and distance themselves from the classic chrome elements such as big round lights and fins, to go instead for a more serious and mundane 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, the Rolls Royce Camargue and so on.
The De Ville series was no exception, with dimensions increased to a 64.3 inch shoulder room in the front, and 63.4 inches behind, it set a record for interior width that would not be matched by any car until the full-size GM rear-wheel-drive models of the early to mid-1990s. Pairs of individually housed squarish headlamps were set wider apart, and the V-shaped grille had an egg-crate style insert and was protected by massive vertical guards framing a rectangular license plate indentation. A wide hood with full-length windsplints, a prominent centre crease and hidden windshield wipers were added, and the Cadillac crest decorated the nose. There were new indicator lamps that appeared atop each front fender, and a horizontal beltline moulding ran from behind the front wheel housing, almost to the rear stopping where an elliptical bulge in the body came to a point and where thin rectangular side markers were placed above and below the chrome strip.
The standard engine remained the 472, still rated at 375 SAE gross horsepower and 365 lb·ft (495 N·m) of torque. However, due to the car’s massive bulk, 375hp from a giant 5.0L V8 didn’t exactly make the car sprightly. Then again this car wasn’t meant to be a racing machine, but instead a spongy and squashy limo for the top brass of American society, though interestingly enough that doesn’t stop Jeremy Clarkson from attempting to get this to perform the same as the race-ready BMW M5!
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.
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 in this day and age with our environmental considerations, but remember, 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 an afterthought than an actual point of contention. At this point in time, the world seemed set on a bright and prosperous future, the trail blazed by a 94ft long Cadillac!
However, the 1970’s very quickly caved in on cars such as the De Ville when, in 1973, the Energy Crisis struck. Following the start of the Yom Kippur War between Israel, Egypt and Syria, and with the NATO nations selling arms to the Israeli’s, 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 many of the global economies began to suffer, especially the UK and the USA. Both nations were hit by the worst recession since the end of World War II, and with recessions came trouble.
Money became harder to come by and thus cars such as the De Ville failed 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.
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 home of the De Ville, 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 crime 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 De Ville 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!
Build quality was an issue too. Sadly, 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.”
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 weren’t exactly new models, 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, having full redesigns of cars is an expensive and time consuming process, with a recommended period of works to last at least 3 years from concept to launch, but in the midst of an economic downturn, money wasn’t exactly easy to come by.
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.
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, and also had a ready supply of its own oil reserves, on the other side of the Pacific 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, with at least one of their dealerships lining the streets of most of the nation’s major cities.
Despite a new model being released in 1977, it was clear that the De Ville 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 the Mercedes and BMW products it was competing against. By the end of the 1980’s, the idea of giant luxury cars was well and truly dead.
Today, 70’s versions of the De Ville hold a mixed reception. While many praise its design and love its levels of luxury and sheer brashness, 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. Me personally, I do adore big luxury cars of the 1970’s, especially those big American cruisers, the De Ville being no exception. Yes they’re thirsty, yes they’re oversized, yes they weren’t built with the integrity they deserved and yes they really were a car 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 De Ville I personally put as my favourite of this time, a car fit for a King, in a country run by a President!