Doomed: the Cadillac Seville (1976-2004)

When did Cadillac start becoming BMW – or trying to?

This can be pinpointed with some precision. It was 1976, the year of the Seville. This was Cadillac’s first small car – for Cadillac. It was conceived as a Cadillac for people who were leaning toward the smaller luxury-sport sedans made – and being sold, successfully – by European brands, especially BMW but also Mercedes-Benz. These were carving slices of what had been Cadillac’s (and Lincoln’s) domination of the American luxury car market.

Part of this was changing demographics – and changing times. The people in the market for a new luxury car in the mid-‘70s were the people who had been in the market for sporty cars like the Mustang in the ‘60s. They were no longer the youth market but they weren’t old yet, either. And it was mostly older people who were buying up traditional Cadillacs.

Sedan deVilles and Eldorados.

Don Draper was getting gray around the temples by the time Jimmy Carter became president.

He might buy a new DeVille. But it might be his last new Cadillac.

Enter the Seville. In theory.

It was meant to appeal to the same youngish prospect who was old enough to be able to afford a new BMW or Benz but not old enough to be considering a move to Boca just yet. It was about the same size as a Chevy Nova – which made sense because it was built on the same underlying chassis, which featured a partial unibody with the engine and front suspension mounted to a bolt-on subframe.

At just 204 inches long overall, it could easily hide in the shadow cast by a Sedan DeVille, which spanned 230 inches, more than two feet longer. And almost a foot wider. A ’76 Sedan deVille was just shy of 80 inches side to side; the ’76 Seville just 71.8 inches.

Speaking of inches . . .

Under the hood of the first Seville was the smallest V8 Cadillac made. And Cadillac didn’t even make it. The 5.7 liter V8 was made by Oldsmobile, which eventually got Cadillac into trouble with customers when word got out. Not that there was anything wrong, per se, with the Oldsmobile-sourced 350 cubic inch V8 that powered the first Seville. But it wasn’t a Cadillac V8 and people who paid Cadillac dollars weren’t happy when they found out that they’d bought an Oldsmobile V8.

The little V8 developed a respectable (for 1976) 180 horsepower and was fuel-injected, making the ’76 Seville the first mass-produced American car to come with it standard (EFI was offered as an option on a few earlier American specialty cars, such as the “fuelie” Chevy Bel Air of the mid-1950s, same-era Corvettes and a handful of others but it was always optional and these systems were also mechanical; the Seville’s system was a Bendix-Bosch-designed electronic injection system).

Still, it was quite a step down – in cubic inches and exclusivity – from the 7.7 liter and 8.2 liter Cadillac V8s that came in deVilles and Eldorados. These may have sucked oceans of gasoline but that was just the point. An economical Cadillac was kind of like a flat-chested Miss America.

Another step down was in the gravitas department.

A ’76 Sedan deVille had a curb weight just shy of 5,000 pounds – why is why it needed a minimum of 7.7 liters of V8 to move it in Cadillac style. But the Seville weighed about 800 pounds less (around 4,230 pounds) and so could get away with a Chevy-sized (and Olds-made) 5.7 liter V8, which delivered as much as 23 MPG on the highway – a shameful thing, almost, for a Cadillac.

Cadillac moved 43,772 Sevilles off the showroom floor that inaugural (and Bicentennial) year. The first 2,000 of these were all Georgian Silver and carried the highest sticker price – $12,479 – of any Cadillac except the Series 75 Fleetwood limousine, despite being the smallest Cadillac on the showroom floor.

Unfortunately for Cadillac, the Seville’s primary appeal, as it turned out, was to older women – who were attracted to the car’s easier-to-manage dimensions. So an attempt was made to offer another attraction:


The ’77 Seville became the first Cadillac to come standard with four wheel disc brakes and the first American car – other than Corvette – to offer them at all. In ’78, a  digital instrument cluster – the Tripmaster – became available. It could estimate how long it would take to arrive at your programmed-in destination as well as miles-to-empty and miles-per-gallon.

Interestingly, another high-tech item, air bags – which had been offered as optional equipment in big Cadillacs as far back as ’74 – were not offered in the newest, smallest Cadillac.

Sales upticked slightly to a high (for the first-generation model) of 53,487 sold in 1979. However, this was still a drop in the bucket relative to sales of the big Cadillacs, which still accounted for the lion’s share (300,000-plus) of Cadillac’s total sales volume.

Apparently, size did matter – to Cadillac buyers.

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