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Back Page: Rear Breed

Jack Smith

It once was the American Dream, equal parts apple pie and sex appeal, prom night and Hollywood. The Cadillac was a little flashy, a little obvious, and everyone yearned to drive one. But that was before the marque began its descent down the slippery slope of expediency.

You could say the decline was a product of the times, for it was the era of the malaise, of gas lines, federally imposed 55 mph speed limits, and pervasive austerity. Surely, Cadillac concluded, what the luxury market wanted was a compromise. And with its 1980 front-wheel-drive Seville, that is just what Cadillac offered. Front-wheel drive was lighter than Cadillac’s traditional configuration. It also afforded greater passenger room and was less expensive to build than rear-wheel drive. But it did not handle as well, nor was it as soul-satisfying to drive. Indeed, the company that benefited most from the Seville’s new technology was Lincoln. As Forbes reported, sales of its presumably outmoded rear-wheel-drive Town Car spiked to an unprecedented 120,000 in 1980, earning Ford’s luxury division a billion-dollar profit. Meanwhile, Seville sales tumbled from 56,985 in 1978 to 39,344 in 1980.

Cadillac’s odyssey into ambivalence continued through the 1980s with the appearances of the Cimarron and the Allanté, both front-wheel drivers. In 1994, three years after Robb Report proclaimed on its September 1991 cover “Cadillac’s Back!” in response to the introduction of the 1992 Seville Touring Sedan and Eldorado Touring Coupe, pulses slowed with the debut of the DeVille Concours. Slab-sided and fender-skirted, it was built to woo baby boomers away from BMW with what Cadillac described as “sporty” performance in a front-wheel-drive behemoth. It soon joined the Cimarron in memory, but not before Cadillac could boast that its 300 hp Northstar engine made it the most powerful front-wheel-drive car in history. This, says Gordon Wangers, CEO of Automotive Marketing Consultants in Vista, Calif., was a dubious claim to fame. “The more power you put into a front-wheel-drive car,” he notes, “the worse it handles.”

By now, Cadillac was in deep denial about luxury car buyers’ preferences, ignoring that Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Audi, and Lincoln—in fact, every other luxury carmaker in the world—eschewed front-wheel drive in their top-of-the-line models. Cadillac abandoned the full-size, rear-wheel-drive paradigm altogether at the end of the 1996 model year, when it eliminated the geriatric Brougham from its lineup. While it is true that the company also added a new rear-wheel-drive vehicle, that car was the Catera, a midsize sedan based on the German Opel with less power than a Honda Accord. To promote the Catera, Cadillac’s ad agency launched a campaign starring a duck and described the über-Opel as “the car that zigs.” For the marque’s other models, TV commercials mysteriously alluded to “The power of &.”

On the other hand, as industry observers pointed out, what else could you say about a front-wheel-drive luxury car? It is quite likely that Cadillac was asking itself the same question; it even may have experienced a spiritual awakening that directed the carmaker back to its roots and informed the creation of the STS and its speedier sibling, the STS-V (“American Sport Horses”). The most competitive luxury vehicles that Cadillac has produced in a quarter century, both are laden with amenities, new technologies, and a refined finish. Yet the most compelling aspect of the STS and STS-V is a feature long absent from top-of-the-line Cadillacs: rear-wheel drive.

With its return to this venerable design, perhaps the carmaker is on the road back to its erstwhile eminence. However, the advertising remains sophomoric: an STS chasing other luxury marques off a dance floor. Finally, though, Cadillac has a car that deserves better.

Copyright 2014 Infiniti
Photo by Pietro Carrieri
Photo by Pawel Litwinski
Photo by Aldo Ferrero
Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions