Could GM Have Built A Great-Selling ‘Cimarron’ With German Engineering And Italian Styling It Already Had?

Advanced in Tech & Business

Could GM Have Built A Great-Selling ‘Cimarron’ With German Engineering And Italian Styling It Already Had?

Growing up as GenXers and Millenials, we were used to being courted by cringe-worthy advertising attempts at youthful cool that had about as much verisimilitude as Steve Buscemi sidling up with his skateboard and backward cap. We might blame boomers for this style of  “Hey kids, what’s the 411, yo?” trash, but that much-maligned demographic of those born from around 1946 to 1960 was subject to similarly hacky try-hard marketing over the years.

Case in point, one of the largest car makers in the world foisted a rather weak cash grab upon that generation, and they didn’t fall for it any more than we did.

Vidframe Min Bottom

The car in question was the Cadillac Cimarron, an ill-conceived luxury car aimed at Boomers during the early eighties, specifically those that had eschewed the hippie “no possessions” sensibilities of their youth and now primarily wanted money and all the crap that can come with it. The sales debacle that was the Cimarron is well documented, but what if I told you GM had all the ingredients for a car that could have completed the Cimarron’s mission, but actually been worthy of the Cadillac badge and indeed a good car? Let’s get into it.

You Look Just Like Your Less Successful Brother

Look, there’s nothing wrong with platform sharing. Every large car maker does it, and most do it rather successfully. Cadillac did it quite well for years; people buying a GM C-body based Fleetwood or even the Chevy Nova-based Cadillac Seville felt they were getting their money’s worth for the premium that they were spending. Still, this practice can be a slippery slope; boy did Cadillac slip and slide on their ass with this form of creating new models in the early eighties.

General Motors

Cadillac knew that successful boomers were passing right by their dealership with pockets full of cash and taking it down the street to the BMW, Mercedes, or Audi dealerships. What they needed was a small high-end sedan, and they saw what they thought would have been the perfect answer in the new-for-1982 GM “J” cars that replaced their Vega-based compacts. If this seems like an unlikely source for a car intended to beat the E21 320i or a Saab 900, you’re right; look at any one of those dopey “Ten Biggest Marketing Failures In Automotive History” and I guarantee that the Cimarron will be in the top five.

The Cimarron failed in two major ways. First, while earlier Cadillacs were unrecognizable from their platform cousins from lesser brands, the Cimmaron was virtually identical in appearance to the half-the-price Chevy Cavalier.  Secondly, the Cimarron could have possibly succeeded if it had performance and road manners that rivaled the European competitors; if you’ve ever driven a J-car and seen how good GM was at getting torque steer out of a woefully underpowered car, you’ll know that wasn’t the case. Cadillac eventually added a V6 option for Cimarron and did subtle upgrades, but few if any yuppies fell for the thing. In fact, I have heard that many if not most Cimarrons were bought by traditional Cadillac buyers that just wanted a little car from the same dealership.

In typical GM fashion, they ignored cars that were right under their noses from their own brands which might have been worthwhile propositions for younger people of means that listened to Fleetwood Mac or Jimmy Buffet instead of Bing Crosby. I’ve proposed one option already that we can revisit, and also found an even better concept to follow that up which might have done a Lexus-like ambush of Bavarian and Scandanavian stalwarts. I’m not kidding. Let’s take a look.

Bitter Pill To Swallow

Some time back, I looked at the Cimarron conundrum that GM had of trying to find a car that would meet the Europeans head-on. What could they do? You know, how could they offer a German-built rear-drive high-end sedan with a straight six and four-wheel independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and an available five-speed manual? Something like, I don’t know, an Opel Senator? You mean a car that GM was actually making already? Yeah, apparently they didn’t see the potential of this rather underrated chassis, but Austrian coachbuilder Erich Bitter certainly did when he rebodied the Senator and sold it as the Bitter SC coupe.

Bitter Sc 3 28
Bring A Trailer, Collecting Cars (car for sale), Wikipedia/Tvabutzku1234

In my alternate reality, GM would have reached a deal with Erich in 1982 to make a federalized-and-Cadillac-branded four-door Opel Senator sedan with Bitter-designed nose, tail, and door skins (Two door coupes would remain branded as Bitters with a larger engine and sold through select Cadillac or Oldsmobile dealers). The end result I dubbed the “Cadillac Cantata:”


You can see that it looked rather fetching compared to other $20,000 to $30,000 German rivals of the time such as a scaled-up Passat (Audi 5000), a Bimmer with a low revving “eta” engine (528e) and a car that sounded like the engine was eating itself when it was idling (w123 300D):

Rivals3 30
Bring A Trailer, Bring A Trailer, Hagerty Marketplace (car for sale)

Inside the trimmed-up Opel interior would be more lavish looking than that rather antiseptic cabins of the German rivals, and the Bitter-style tail of the car would be spiced up with wide, tri-colored taillamps (yes, they’re Cimarron units turned upside down).

Cantana Ad
General Motors, ebay (Car For Sale)

As I said in my earlier post, I firmly believe that this Russelsheim-built Cadillac would have been a success in the market; maybe not the gangbusters windfall of the 1975 Seville but absolutely better than the Cimarron. Even if it didn’t sell outrageously well, GM certainly wouldn’t have lost the corporate credibility they did with the overpriced Cavalier that really damaged Cadillac’s reputation to this day.

Let’s say the Cantata did become at least a minor hit, or at least was worthy of a successor. What would that look like? I think I know a great place to start.

A Mercedes Fauxster?

I don’t watch those cooking shows, but I’m well aware that even if two chefs use the same ingredients one can create a culinary masterpiece while another can get a full-on dressing down by Gordon Ramsey. In the automotive realm, it’s the same situation. Carroll Shelby put American muscle into an old British AC Ace sports car and struck gold with the Cobra. Rover put a more upmarket-looking new body and interior onto a reliable-as-taxes Acura Legend and got a poorly built mess with the Sterling 825.

You’d think that an Italian-designed and built Cadillac roadster would be a can’t-miss proposition, but we know now that wasn’t the case. Pininfarina created a crisp, understated-looking design of a convertible for the Cadillac Allante and hand-crafted the body and interior at a special facility outside of Turin. Next, the firm put in an Italian-massaged Corvette C4 drivetrain and chassis and … no, I’m just kidding. The bodies were flown at great expense by custom 747 cargo jets to Detroit’s Hamtramck plant (“a 7000 mile long assembly line”) where a buzz-kill engine and underpinnings from Cadillac’s lame scaled-down front-wheel-drive Eldorado were stuffed into the thing. Yes, that’s really what happened.

Allante 3 31
General Motors

With GM’s malaise-era track record, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that there were issues, such as leaking and hard-to-put-up (manual) tops plus malfunctioning digital gauges. These kinds of slip-ups were especially disappointing when the key rival of the Allante was the R107 Mercedes roadster, a by-then ancient ride that nonetheless has to be one of the finest quality and most durable products in the history of the automobile. Truth be told, the idea of going after the 560SL at all was a fool’s game that was inexplicably tried by others unsuccessfully as well with cars like the Chrysler TC By Maserati and Buick Reatta convertible. Seriously, the idea of strictly two-seat luxury-biased convertible doesn’t make much sense, and even the ones with a three-pointed star on the front had a limited market; the rest of the entrants to that segment never stood a chance.

Once again, GM had the ingredients but misused them. A shame, since they had what they needed for a product that, in retrospect, might have been a winner (or, at the very least, not a loser).

The Second Generation Cantata

In the alternative Cimarron-free universe, the first Bitter-like Cantata I proposed would have run its course by about 1986, and Cadillac could have applied some of the efforts wasted on the Allante towards something that might have generated more than snickers from Munich, Stuttgart, and Gothenburg. In fact, it might have given them a run for their money.

Here’s how it would go: for the 1987 model year, The General released a new version of the car on which the first “Bitter” Cantata would have been based, the Opel Senator. Still powered by a straight six spinning the rear wheels, this updated executive sedan could be bought with a five-speed manual if you wanted to skip the four-speed slushbox.

Senator3 28
General Motors

Cadillac would need to adapt to this new Senator for the next generation Cantata. Could the 1987 Cantata have just been a barely tweaked new Senator? Probably not. The Senator was a decent car but a decade later GM proved that releasing an Opel relatively unchanged for the US market was a Cimmaron-style mistake. Remember that in 1997 Cadillac tried to sell the Senator’s replacement (Opel Omega) in the US as the Catera; it wasn’t a horrible vehicle but it just had nothing to make it stand out in terms of looks and performance in a market that was by then saturated with very good German and by then Japanese choices as well.

Consequently, for our 1987 Cantata we need to add a little pizazz to the Opel, and we know just the guys to do it: our Pininfarina friends in Turin. A Cantata based on the visual language that was used for the Allante works surprisingly well. Scaling up the overall height, windshield rake, and body section doesn’t kill the looks. You know that The Bishop is a fanboy of angular cars, the Pininfarina products of this era (especially the lovely Alfa Romeo 164) were a nice contrast to the German cars and the bar-of-soap direction that even mainstream Fords had embraced at the time.

As with the first (alternate reality) 1983-1986 model, General Motors would set up a separate assembly line at Opel to build the Cantata and ship fully assembled German cars to the US.

Cantata Collecton Revised 3 30
General Motors

Ah, but there’s more. Cadillac would offer a full line of Cantatas, including the first pillarless hardtop coupe from the brand since the early seventies. Here’s something with style and decent rear seat room to combat the E-Class coupe (and far more space than a BMW 6 series). While we’re at it, let’s send a few examples over to Heinz Prechter’s ASC for the roof to be chopped off entirely. The end result looks a bit like an Allante that’s been Stretch Armstronged, but it visually works (better than the two-place roadster if anything). It certainly would have worked from a marketing standpoint; we all know two-seaters are fun but ripping out a back seat will easily chop the sales figures of any car by at least half. The Cantata Cabriolet would have much of that high-end drop-top market to itself; the W124 cabrio wasn’t around yet. What other real four-seat luxury convertibles were there then?

Inside, I’ve always liked the Allante’s angular interior but thought it looked a bit too cheap. You couldn’t sell a high-end German car in America in the late eighties without real walnut on the dash, so I’ve added some wood slabs and softened up just a few of the overly harsh edges on the dash:

Cantata Interior 3 30
Ron Ferrari Auto Sales

Under the hood, the 3.0 liter straight six would pump out around 175 horsepower, but a year or so later the Senator offered a 24-valve version of the motor we could use that pushed power closer to 200.

That’s a full lineup with something for every successful boomer, right? Still not convinced? Fine. My alternate universe small Cadillac has one more trick up its sleeve to turn Mr. Yuppie’s head, the coup de gras for many of the European competitors. Remember that back in 1987 if you wanted a long-roof high-end Euro car you had limited choices. Your picks included the blocky Volvo 740 series or their medieval 1966-era 240 series, the Audi 5000 Avant (with an angled roof that made it more of a hatchback), or a w124 Mercedes estate with vinyl seats that cost as much as a house (the BMW touring models weren’t available stateside for many more years).

I’ll just leave this here for you:

1987 Cadillac 05
General Motors

Turin, Russelsheim, and Bathurst?

Can you even imagine comparing the Bavarian rivals with a tarted-up Chevy Cavalier? GM really asked the public to do that with a Cimarron with a straight face. It’s a shame that the Standard Of The World brand didn’t bring a little more of that world to their small car efforts, like with this alternative universe Cantata. Even if they couldn’t make a Michelin Star-level meal out of their ingredients, Cadillac certainly could have done better than Old Country Buffett.

Look, we already know there will be at least one comment from a reader stating that the top-level Opel sedans ultimately lacked the feel of a BMW or the brick-shithouse feel of a Benz. I totally agree, and you know what? It doesn’t matter. Buyers would be more intrigued by the fact that they could have bought a German-built car with Italian-penned looks inside and out at an American high-end dealership; the Cantata would have had a style that the others didn’t. Tuning the chassis to be more biased to ride than handling might be a good move as well; Lexus learned a few years later that their target market doesn’t necessarily do laps around the ‘Ring.

Don’t worry, though; I’ve got German and Italian ingredients in the Cantata mix, but now I need to put in some Vegamite. If Cadillac made a Touring Sedan version of the Cantata powered by a motor with two more cylinders than the concurrent E28 or E34 BMW M5 and Peter Brock-tuned suspension bits from a Holden Commodore, people in the big round towers of Munich would brush it off but in reality not be happy. Not happy at all.

Performance Allante 2a
General Motors

I’ll take my Cantana Touring Wagon with a V8 and an energy polarizer, thank you.



Our Daydreaming Designer Solves Cadillac’s Problem From 40 Years Ago – The Autopian

A Euro Market 1977 Caprice That Could Challenge (And Beat) The “Ronin” Mercedes 450SEL 6.9? – The Autopian

GM Learned Nothing From The Cimarron By Selling A $76,000 Chevy Volt With A Cadillac Badge: Unholy Fails – The Autopian

A Look At An Alternate Universe Where The Cadillac Allanté Got The Respect It Deserved – The Autopian