Friday April 13, 2018
Some cars have the power to form vague yet disquieting images in the mind, like a half-remembered horror film, and one such ran along the lines of ‘was there really a Cadillac-badged version of the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk. II?’. To which the answer is ‘yes’ – In fact, the Cimarron was far from the only US-built version of the GM J-car, for there was also the Buick Skyhawk, the Chevrolet Cavalier, the Oldsmobile Firenza and the Pontiac J2000. The Cadillac-badged model was meant to woo affluent young drivers away from their BMW 3-Series and Audi 80s, but unfortunately, its reputation is now little short of dire. 11 years ago, Time magazine went so far as to state that that ‘everything that was wrong, venal, lazy, and mendacious about GM in the 1980s was crystallized in this flagrant insult to the good name and fine customers of Cadillac’. So, somewhat of a Marmite car then.
In theory, the first ever compact Cadillac should have stood a chance with its intended customer-base, and indeed the Opel Ascona C and Vauxhall Cavalier II were highly in their home markets. The J-Car platform was partially the result of the 1975 Energy and Conservation Act, and GM believed that a new generation of “compact” sedans would be essential to compete with various imports. The original plan was to introduce American consumers to the cheaper versions before launching the Cimarron, which would allow time to modify the running gear, but by that time General Motors was losing sales to various overseas prestige models.
And so, the ‘Cimarron, by Cadillac’ made its bow in May 1981, only to face the problem that it was regarded as far too expensive, for all its air-conditioning and ‘leather-wrapped steering wheel’. At a starting price of $12,181, it cost around 50 % more than the basic Chevrolet while the marketing slogan also inferred a distinct lack of confidence in the product. In 1982 Popular Mechanics magazine reported that ‘Cadillac ads boldly pit the new Cimarron against the likes of the BMW 320i, Audi 5000, Volvo GLE and Saab 900S’’ but as the 1980s progressed, it was clear that the Cimarron was not going to be a major success. The 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine was seen as underpowered, the standard four-speed manual transmission was not popular, and the image was just too chintzy to appeal to a driver who might be considering a Mercedes-Benz 190E.
By the middle of the decade, GM was emphasising the prestige badging in a manner that can be fairly described as less-than-subtle – ‘the Cadillac touch. It’s everywhere. You’ve got to drive this car and experience the Cadillac touch. Best of all, it’s a Cadillac’. A V6 engine option did improve matters, and when combined with automatic transmission it did help to create the image of a scaled-down Detroit cruiser. But it was too little, too late and Cimarron production ended in 1988. The motoring writer Hannah Elliott best summarised its essential challenge in this epitaph for a car that appealed:
“neither to Cadillac’s loyal followers, who appreciated powerful V8s and Cadillac’s domestic luxury edge, nor to buyers who favoured Europe’s luxury brands, whose cars out-handled and out-classed the Cimarron in every way.”
But one question remains – have any examples of this fascinating machine found their way across the Atlantic?