The cars we loved.
Any scholar of the American auto industry would tell you that times were tough for the big three in the 70’s and much of the 80’s. External forces brought on by tightening emissions and fuel regulations, combined with changing consumer taste caught Detroit with its paints down. Often stubbornness on the part of product planners and the assumption that Americans would buy American just because it was made with union labor only highlighted how out of touch the domestic manufactures were with their customers.
Cadillac was no different during a time when it was trying to re-establish itself as a maker of world-class luxury cars. The big V8 powered rear wheel drive car had been a staple of its product catalog for years. The move to smaller more efficient European sport sedans had begun. Audi, BMW and Saab had began to sell smaller sedans that were both luxurious and sporty with a big youth (relative) appeal factor. Cadillac had watched this trend developed and in a reactionary move scrambled to get a compact car out to market.
The solution was to use the new compact J car platform used by Chevrolet, Pontiac and later Buick and Oldsmobile. The J car platform was intended for entry-level cars designed to lower GM’s corporate CAFE rating. As a Chevrolet, it was the basis for the popular, but hopelessly crude Cavalier and on Pontiac’s slightly sportier Sunbird. Cadillac’s ideal was to rush its own version to market and after some deliberation, the name Cimarron was selected.
To distinguish the Cimarron from its J Car siblings, Cadillac added leather seats, a revised dash with full instrumentation, air condition and power windows. The resulting features pushed the cost to double that of a Cavalier, while they both shared the same 88 hp 1.8 L inline 4 cylinder engines. Early Cimarrons even used Cavalier rear lights. There were other (unfortunate?) firsts for a Cadillac like the use of a modern inline 4 cylinder engine and a 4 speed manual transmission.
Cadillac even told dealers that the Cimarron was not really a Cadillac in an attempt to distance itself from what it even knew was a car not ready for the brand. Early advertising often said “Cimarron by Cadillac” as if it were a one-off experiment. Over time it simply became known as the Cadillac Cimarron. Cadillac gave up on trying to distance the car from the rest of the line. Most Cadillac dealers had no clue as to how to sell a small cars anyway. The typical Cadillac buyer was over 55 and wanted a big rear wheel drive car with “Cadillac Style”.
As the model years went by Cadillac made efforts to improve the Cimarron by making it more distinctive and Cadillac like. It added a V6 engine and smoother 3 speed automatic, but those features were available in the sporty Z24 Cavalier and Sunbird GT for less money. Oldsmobile and Buick had started selling their versions of the car that were less luxurious than the Cimarron, but offered identical driving dynamics for considerably less money also. Road test after road test confirmed that the Cimarron was at the bottom of the compact near luxury car heap. At Cadillac, damage control was still recovering from the V4-6-8 engine ordeal, so the Cimarron was not helping.
Towards the end of its production run, the Cimarron like most cars near death had made late improvements, but was still being ignored by car buyers. The V6 now produced 125 hp and the suspension was improved. It was all a little too late as the decision came to end production in 1988 after 7 years of low sales. Had the product planners gotten their way the Cimarron would have been released later in the 80’s, after there had been enough time to adapt the J car platform to Cadillac standards.
The outcome might have been different. The J car platform was so average, that it might have taken nothing short of a miracle to produce a car capable of going head to head with Audi or BMW. Ironically, when the Cavalier Type 10 was introduced in 1982, it was touted as a BMW 3 series fighter.
The unfortunate legacy of the Cimarron might have been that of a complete and total disaster if it were not for the fact that it opened Cadillac up to the ideal of selling smaller cars. It lowered the average age of Cadillac buyers to the point that future products with more youth appeal like the Allante became possible. The ideal of selling another small sedan still carried a stigma well into the 90’s for Cadillac. Having learned its lesson with the Cimarron, Cadillac looked beyond the US platforms and used the Australia’s Holden Commodore as a base for its Catera in the late 90’s.