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Everything from Hood Ornaments to Tail Lamps 1974 Cadillac Calais Coupe (foreground) and Calais Sedan (background)
1974 Cadillac Calais Coupe (foreground) and Calais Sedan (background)
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Vol. 1, No. 5
May 8, 2002

Look Honey, I Bought You the Bottom of the Line!
by Andrew Angove

Image: MILEPOSTS Garage
Automobile manufacturers offered a dizzying array of models in the fifties, sixties and seventies. Even the exclusive luxury makes had a confusing assortment of models in their catalogs. One has to wonder why. When a customer walks into a Cadillac dealership, it's reasonable to think that they are there because they want a luxury car. The Cadillac of today is much different from the Cadillac of yesterday. Once a status symbol of the first rank, a Cadillac in the driveway was an indication that the owner had indeed "made it". He had achieved a level of wealth that afforded him the ability to purchase "The Standard of the World." This image of superiority was carefully maintained by General Motors, and was reflected in Cadillac's advertising, which included the Cadillac "V" and crest depicted in rare gems created by Black, Starr and Gorham and Harry Winston. Attractive models wore evening gowns and tuxedos, with furs provided by Revillon, and the setting was almost always an elegant estate, or out front at The Waldorf-Astoria. The Cadillac name was a symbol of success, glamor, and quality.

Over the years, this has changed somewhat. Expensive imports that were more fuel efficient, provided better performance, and exhibited a higher level of quality control hit the American car market like a storm in the mid-seventies. Cadillac's quality control was slipping during this time, and the once exclusive Cadillac became just another GM brand. The downsizing and corporate cookie cutter approach to designing and building cars took away the last morsel of status that Cadillac had once commanded. GM and Cadillac are fighting desperately to recapture their lost status now, and it remains to be seen if they will be successful, but it's doubtful that they will ever reclaim the symbolism and status the Cadillac name once held.

The fifties and sixties were truly the golden era of American motoring. Regardless of what a persons motoring requirements may have been at the time, your friendly neighborhood car dealer had something to offer. A visit to the Imperial dealer afforded the option of three levels of luxury. The bottom of the line, or "most affordable" of the offerings was the Imperial Custom. Outside, it certainly looked like an Imperial, without a few of the extra chrome doo-dads tacked on. The interiors weren't really that much nicer than those in a New Yorker or 300, and the standard level of equipment wasn't much better either.

For customers wanting something nicer, and willing to pay for it, Imperial offered the Crown series. More standard equipment, snazzier interior appointments, and extra nomenclature inside and out indicated to the world that the owner had expensive taste--and a wallet that could support his or her needs.

And if the Crown series wasn't adequate, the top of the line LeBaron series would certainly meet anyone's needs. Even more sumptuous interiors, more standard equipment, and that magical "LeBaron" name to boot. Sure, the LeBaron looked like the Custom from a few feet back, and the difference in the level of luxury between it and the Crown was a matter of taste. But the LeBaron had a price tag to prove it wasn't your ordinary Custom or Crown model.

Imperial wasn't alone in this approach. Lincoln was trying to determine about this time just exactly what it wanted to be when it grew up, and it was decided that for a while in the fifties, it should match its competition model for model. So, Lincoln offered the bottom of the line Capri, the mid-level Premiere, and the top of the line Continental. Again, the differences were mainly the amount of chrome trim and where it was placed, the standard features, and the plushness of the interiors.

Even Packard, once the undisputed King of luxury in autodom, offered a low line Clipper, a mid-level Executive, and a top of the line Patrician. In fact, there are those who will tell you that the Clipper was Packard's undoing. In an attempt to broaden Packard ownership and affordability, the less expensive Clipper line tarnished Packard's image, and Packard wasn't around long enough to undo the damage.

Cadillac was the worst offender of all. In 1958, Cadillac offered no less than five different series! The bottom tier included the Series 6200 models, which offered 2- and 4-door models, as well as a Convertible. Next rung up the ladder would be the Series 62 Eldorado Specials, with the Eldorado Seville Coupe and the Eldorado Biarritz Convertible. Then came the Series Sixty Special Fleetwoods, with the Fleetwood Eldorado Brougham, the most expensive regular production car of its day. Top of the line would be, of course, the Series 75 Fleetwoods, with the 4-door Sedan, the 4-door Imperial Sedan, the the Commercial Chassis, also known as the Limousine.

One has to wonder why so many offerings. Was it possible that the luxury class needed to be so specific? In some instances, the difference in equipment and price was very modest. And just exactly how big was the market for bottom of the line luxury cars? During the late fifties, the Cadillac Series 6200 models outsold the more exclusive models by a sizable margin. As the various models entered the sixties, sales of the cars in the low line series began to trail off and the higher priced deVille series (introduced in 1952 with the Coupe deVille), began to gain popularity. It was obvious Americans were seeking more luxury from their luxury cars, and the low line models became dinosaurs by the mid-seventies.

One has to question the decision to continue to build these low line cars, since it was obviously more profitable to sell the higher priced cars. In 1967, the bottom of the line Cadillac was the Calais series. Offering just 3 models, a 2-door Coupe, a 4-door Sedan, and a 4-door Hardtop, the Calais series racked up 21,830 sales. The deVilles, offering the same models plus a convertible, enjoyed sales of 139,807, a 640% increase! Was Cadillac so greedy that it just couldn't fathom giving up any sales? Cadillac's competition during this time had decided the lower priced models weren't worth the bother, as Imperial dropped its Custom line in 1964, which made the more popular Crowns the lowest priced Imperials, and Lincoln abandoned all of its models except for the Continental 4-door hardtop and 4-door convertible in 1961.

So, where did Cadillac's competition for the Calais series come from? It mostly came from other GM Divisions, in the form of the Buick Electra 225 and Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, both of which were the top offerings from Buick and Oldsmobile, yet were priced considerably lower than the Cadillac Calais. Externally, the Calais and deVilles were almost identical, except for the small Tiffany-style script on the rear quarter panels. The deVilles offered a higher level of standard equipment and richer interior appointments, but even the lower cost Electra and Ninety-Eight arguably had nicer interiors and appointments than the Calais models did.

Who exactly was Cadillac's target Calais customer? In its brochures, Cadillac described the Calais as the "most practical way to discover Cadillac luxury and distinction," "the easiest step up to the pride and pleasure of Cadillac ownership," and "Cadillac value in action." Was Cadillac seriously courting the younger buyer, perhaps not quite affluent enough to afford the standard Cadillacs their parents drove? In the muscle car era of the mid- to late-sixties, the affluent youth movement was buying Corvettes, Rivieras, Thunderbirds, and Toronados. A Cadillac was seen as a car for their parents and grandparents, although a Cadillac deVille Convertible might have been an acceptable choice. In theory, the low line series would afford the buyer with a more modest income the ability to own a new Cadillac, and move up to the more expensive models as their income grew. But the fact was that most of these buyers were buying Thunderbirds and Rivieras. They were less expensive, had more standard equipment, and a better resale value. Cadillac didn't advertise this fact, but the Calais models had a traditionally lower resale than many other luxury cars, as most used car buyers wanted the same thing in a Cadillac as new car buyers did--and it wasn't the Calais.

The concept of the newly married couple, he a rising young executive and she a happy housewife, purchasing a new Cadillac Calais as a second car for the wife to drive was rare in late sixties America. Most of these families parked a Mustang, Cougar, Camaro, or Firebird in the garage. If they were indeed more affluent than average, chances are you'd spot a Thunderbird or Riviera in the garage. After all, which sounds best: "Look honey, I bought you the bottom of the line Cadillac Calais!", or "Look honey, I bought you a new Thunderbird with bucket seats, sequential turn signals, and a Tilt-Away Steering Wheel!" Given that choice, more than likely the Thunderbird would be greeted with more enthusiasm by the young wife.

Although the Calais could be ordered with almost every option in the Cadillac catalog, there were a few drawbacks: no vinyl roof was available on the Calais models until 1974, and interior upholstery selections were limited to a handful of colors in a cloth and vinyl combination, or an optional, extra cost all-vinyl upholstery.

Cadillac finally dumped the Calais line in 1977, with the popular deVille series becoming the entry level Cadillac at that time. In its final years, the Calais series was a mere blip on the Cadillac sales figure chart. Why Cadillac held on to the Calais as long as it did is a mystery, but with their market share beginning to shrink in the seventies, and with inflation and other factors squeezing the American pocketbook, it's possible Cadillac was afraid the few former Calais customers it had wouldn't move up to a deVille, but look elsewhere for transportation when replacement time rolled around.

The most likely scenario of the typical Cadillac Calais buyer was an elderly couple who had little need for rear center fold-down armrests and rear seat cigarette lighters. They were frugal with their money, and wanted the ultimate symbol of success in their retirement years, but didn't see the need for all the optional extras. And a standard Calais model without options was a dreary thing indeed: no power windows or seats, no radio, whitewall tires, or air conditioning. Meanwhile, across town a Thunderbird could be had with standard vinyl upholstery, AM radio, rear center fold-down armrest, and individually adjustable front bucket seats to keep peace between the front seat passengers on long trips. And the Thunderbirds, Rivieras, and Toronados held their value better at trade in time.

The one magic thing the Calais had going for it was its heritage: that golden Cadillac name. And that might have been part of the reason for Cadillac holding onto the Calais for as long as they did, they had to maintain the integrity of the Cadillac name. They couldn't admit defeat and drop the low line series due to lack of sales. They had to wait for a logical time to quietly discontinue it. And that time came in 1977, with the downsizing of the standard Cadillac line. Cadillac was going to do battle with the imports, and a more conservative size and better fuel efficiency was demanded by the motoring public at the time.

Perhaps in these days of reduced owner loyalty and toss-away brands, Cadillac in particular might benefit from a look back at its past. What was it that made Cadillac "The Standard of the World"? Could it be they tried to offer something for everyone, they stayed at the very front of design trends, built a quality product, provided good customer service, and weren't afraid to take a few risks? Quite possibly, the answer is "yes" to all of those questions. It appears that Cadillac is once again taking a few risks, and one can only hope it isn't too late. Few people today hold the Cadillac name in the high regard they did in the sixties. Somehow, Cadillac dropped the ball and allowed its most precious asset to be taken away from it.

Once again Cadillac is trying to court the entry level luxury car buyer. They are trying to attract a younger clientele who has been making foreign car makers like BMW and Mercedes very wealthy over the last few decades. But success has not come easily, with the 1980's Cimarron and the 1990's Catina lines both failing to attract enough buyers to justify their existence. It will be a struggle for Cadillac to pull this off after so many years, but if anyone can pull it off Cadillac can.

Someday soon the bottom of the line Cadillac may once again be a good thing, as it was in the fifties. Cadillac can learn much from its past, as long as it doesn't repeat it. Everyone loves to hear about a success story, let's hope Cadillac doesn't become the next Oldsmobile.

While Cadillac may have stood alone in the sixties and seventies in offering "more affordable" luxury car models, there were other cars in the luxury field that were pretty bleak without options. Take for instance a 1965 Thunderbird Hardtop with just white sidewall tires, rear fender shields, and remote trunk release for options. Think about it. No power windows or seats, no air conditioning, not even a rear speaker for the AM radio. But it has a remote trunk release! Now I ask you, WHO WOULD BE THE TARGET CUSTOMER FOR THIS CAR? Too lazy to get out and unlock the trunk with a key, but they'll reach across the car each time to unlock a door or roll down a window!

And how did the car makers decide there was a market for luxury cars without all the optional extras? And why did the people who purchased them new not buy an Oldsmobile or a Mercury and get it loaded with extras for about the same price? Granted, there are people that don't care for power windows. A few don't like listening to the radio while driving, so they might not care about the sound system, or lack of it. I have seen both a 1969 and a 1970 Continental Mark III with no radio. Not even an AM pushbutton job. Nothing. The 1970 had leather seats, cruise control, tilt wheel, automatic headlight dimmer, but no radio. Other than a power sunroof and a radio, that Mark had everything. One has to wonder what the resale value on that puppy was when trade in time rolled around back in say, 1974!

Was it the styling that was so attractive to the entry level luxury car buyers? Did they really not care for or desire the extras, and purchase the car solely for the good looks? I suppose it's possible, but to me the looks of a car are just a part of the total package. I remember a 1964 Thunderbird Hardtop that was for sale at a salvage yard in the mid-seventies. It was in good shape, the paint was a little faded, but the interior was immaculate and it ran good. It had been for sale for a long time, and the used car lot finally junked it to make room for newer cars that would sell. It had air conditioning, a rear radio speaker, tinted glass, and rear fender shields. Nothing else. The asking price was $150.00! (Not a typo.) But I didn't want it, because to me a Thunderbird should have power windows. I can overlook power seats and door locks, but power windows seem as if they should be a necessity on a Thunderbird. Even so, you do still find a lot of them around today with manual windows.

I know there are people out there that are glad to own one of these great vintage cars, regardless of the level of equipment it has on it. Perhaps there seem to be more around today without all the extras because it was the extras that caused all the problems as the cars aged, and the loaded ones were junked because the power windows wouldn't go down, or the automatic temperature control blew hot air constantly.

I'm sure there weren't many, if any, husbands that actually said "Look honey, I bought you the bottom of the line!" when delivering news of a new car arrival to their wife. And many luxury car ads over the years have addressed the issue of cost, pointing out that the resale value alone makes it a worthwhile investment or the many miles of luxurious and carefree driving are worth the added expense. Very few of these cars were actually ordered fully loaded, as the fully optioned ones seem to be quite rare today. People do expect more equipment in the new cars they buy today, compared to years ago. What was once a premium luxury item is today considered a necessity. Makes you wonder what the cars of tomorrow have in store for us, doesn't it? One thing is for sure, they'll never have the personality of a vintage luxury car from the fifties, sixties, or seventies. And that goes for the "most affordable" ones as well.

Copyright © 2002, Automotive Mileposts, Inc.
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