Cadillac and the rest of General Motors began to lose their way in the 1980s, unable to keep up with an ever faster-changing world.
Slowly but surely, GM lost sales, income, and credibility through costly mistakes and wasteful distractions, many reflecting the self-absorbed complacency that often plagues giant companies and the people who run them.
Decisions made in the 1980s triggered a market-share slide that by the mid-2000s had GM is struggling to maintain a 20-percent share of U.S. car and truck sales, a far cry from the 40-50 percent it typically held in the salad days of the 1950s and 1960s. Cadillac's fall over the period was just as dramatic, from easily outselling all other luxury brands in the U.S. combined, to struggling to keep pace with Lexus and BMW.
How could GM, and Cadillac, fall so far? The reasons are many and varied, but most observers cite three main factors: a bloated bureaucracy that was slow to act and too-often wrong when it did; a stubborn "business as usual" attitude despite growing import-brand competition and other new market realities; and products that pleased GM managers more than consumers, who increasingly judged rival cars and trucks superior for style, quality and reliability
Cadillac in the 1980s was certainly wracked by the same forces afflicting the rest of the U.S. auto industry. Cadillac, however, was wounded more acutely, given the exalted heights from which it fell.
The undisputed prestige leader of America, and in some ways the envy of even the top European automakers, would be reduced in the 1980s to an automotive also-ran, with products and technology barely distinguishable from those of other GM divisions, and forced into sales campaigns designed to attract buyers who no longer represented the country's demographic cream.
That GM itself no longer saw its flagship brand as singular did as much as anything to undermine Cadillac's status as the aspirational pinnacle of U.S. car ownership.
The 1980s started well enough for Cadillac. It sustained an impressive market share, meaningfully improved its cars, even introduced a new "baby Cadillac," the influential 1980 Cadillac Seville.
But things went quickly awry as Cadillac largely overpromised and underdelivered. Its dreadful diesel V-8 engine and variably displacement V-8-6-4 initiatives tarnished its engineering reputation. Dressing up a four-cylinder Chevy as the Cadillac Cimarron erased some of its individuality. And downsizing its big cars too much stained its status.
In the 1980s, "The Standard of the World" would lose its standing as a standard for America's discerning car buyers.
For more information on Cadillac, see:
- Cadillac: Learn the history of America's premier luxury car, from 1930s classics to today's newest Cadillac models.
- 1970-1979 Cadillac: See how Cadillac maintained its hold on the premium market by adroitly addressing changing consumer demands.
- 1990-1999 Cadillac: Import competition and a stale image rock once-proud Cadillac. Here's the low-down on Cadillac's come-down.