The 1987-1993 Cadillac Allantes were luxury two-seaters built to compete with European cars that were wooing well-heeled American customers. It was new territory for General motors at a time when the company was dealing with corporate reorganization, product downsizing, look-alike styling, and uncompetitive quality in the face of strengthening foreign competition.
It was still early in Roger Smith's tenure as chairman and chief executive officer -- which began in 1981 -- when Cadillac decided it needed a top-of-the-line two-seater. It would be a high-tech, high-style, high-price, but low-volume "halo" car intended to boost the image of a Cadillac line that was shrinking and becoming less distinctive.
Bob Burger, Cadillac's general manager from 1982 to 1984, said he's not even sure whose idea it was. "Our market research indicated a need for a vehicle of that type. We probably had several meetings at lower levels to put together a presentation to see if it was feasible and could sell in sufficient quantities to make money."
The result was the Allante, introduced in 1987. Naturally, its creation took several years, beginning early in 1982 when Cadillac dispatched a group of engineers to Italy to discuss with famed designer/coachbuilder Pininfarina the possibility of designing and building a special luxury roadster body.
Ed Anderson was sent along, as far as he knew, to observe. "We went to find out if they had the capability to execute a car to the degree we were looking for," he explained. "A lot of things were discussed, and we came back thinking that Pininfarina should be selected. Two weeks later, they told me I would be the program manager.
"We placed three contracts with them that year," Anderson said. "The first was to design the car. Second was the body engineering. Then, in August 1983, we placed the contract to execute the car for production. We had a lot of things to work out. This was prior to the 1984 GM reorganization.
"Fisher Body was still a very powerful division and they didn't like the idea of giving responsibility to someone else. It took several months to come to an agreement on Fisher's involvement, but they knew the legal ramifications and the testing that had to be done."
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1987-1993 Cadillac Allante Development
One issue was that this car, internally code-named Callisto, would have the highest electronic content of any GM vehicle ever built. "That was a concern from the start," Anderson related, "because everything was going to be standard with a myriad of electronic assists.
"We didn't know how Pininfarina would build the body, put all the electronics in, and test it to make sure everything worked. We finally agreed that they would buy the diagnostic equipment and send their people over here for training to do those tests."
Allante chief engineer Dave Hill -- who later served as chief engineer and vehicle line executive for the C5 and C6 Chevrolet Corvettes and Cadillac's current XLR two-seater -- commuted to Italy at least once a month for five years. He pointed out that all that electronics complexity did not lead to reliability problems.
The Allante became the first GM car with electronics multiplexing, which enabled multiple signals to be sent serially along one data bus.
Another major challenge was the Pininfarina-designed manual top, which was difficult to operate and, at least at first, not completely weather sealed. "That was a misjudgment of what [buyers] in that segment were willing to do manually," Hill admitted, "and it held the car back. We had a wonderful one-button power top ready for 1994, but the 1994 Allante was never to be."
On the positive side, the Allante's dynamic development was outstanding. "That car had excellent dynamics, considering it was front-wheel drive," Hill asserted. "It was very competitive with Mercedes. Fred Wood was our car development guy and one of my heroes on the program."
He added that its initial 4.1-liter V-8 would have competed well with the Mercedes 380SL's 3.8-liter, "but when Mercedes bumped its V-8 to 4.5 liters, we were in a catch-up mode."
See if Allante was able to catch Mercedes in the following pages.
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1987-1993 Cadillac Allante Design
Almost from the beginning, Burger believed the two-place Cadillac's styling should be done by a name European design house -- preferrably Italy's Pininfarina, with which Cadillac had an ongoing relationship.
Famed then and now for designing timelessly gorgeous bodies for Ferraris and many other notable cars, the firm also was capable of building vehicles in modest quantities. "We figured we would get a different flair from designers in Italy than we would at home," Burger explained.
"We were taxed to the limit with all the things we were doing and they had good people who were interested in doing a car of this nature. You could argue that our design people could have done it as well, but we had decided and had the approvals to take that vehicle to Italy. It was the right thing to do," Burger added.
That decision did not sit well at GM Design. When then-Cadillac Studio Chief Designer Wayne Kady heard that the division planned to farm out this exciting program to an overseas design house, he was hurt and angry. Kady's team worked up its own design anyway.
"We did a full-size clay model, interior and exterior," Kady said. "My boss, Stan Wilen, and his boss, Chuck Jordan, were going back and forth looking at the model Pininfarina was creating, and they'd come back and wonder why we were still working on ours. I told them it was studio pride, that we took it upon ourselves to show that we could design a car as well as anybody.
Pininfarina skipped the clay model phase, preferring to go from sketches to full-size "renderings," then directly to a fiberglass model. Burger described the day when the Italians brought five renderings to Detroit from which he and his staff would choose one to pursue. They were pinned on the wall, the most futuristic on the left, the most conservative on the right.
"We listened to everything pretty carefully," he said, "and had quite a bit of discussion on each one. The one in the middle played upon attributes of our vehicles that were already out there and seemed to fit our needs down the road, and that's the one we picked. It wasn't a unilateral decision, and I think those who were there would tell you we chose the right one."
For more on the Cadillac Allante's styling, check out the next page.
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1987-1993 Cadillac Allante Styling
Later in the program, Pininfarina provided interior and exterior styling bucks for Cadillac to "clinic" at a hotel in Anaheim, Calif. The participants, owners of Porsche 928, Mercedes, and Jaguar convertibles -- even some Ferrari owners -- reacted very positively.
"They liked the concept and didn't know it was a Cadillac," Anderson said. "We were going in the right direction."
Pininfarina hired and trained 25 young men not long out of high school to build the bodies at a new facility it had built in rural San Giorgio, Italy, some 20 miles from Turin. "Their work ethic and mechanical skills were utterly phenomenal," said Bill Buschman, who was operations director for Allante manufacturing there.
"But we did have our problems," Buschman said. "They were not accustomed to the dimensional control standards we required in the body shop. They eventually put in a robotic checking device that checked dimensions down to thousands of an inch, which was critically important. Also, their paint shop was made to European standards."
As Buschman pointed out, the definition of quality had different meanings in Detroit and San Giorgio. "To [the Italians], if a car ran like the dickens and had great styling, it was a high-quality car. If a few things didn't work, and the doors didn't quite fit, and the paint had a little dirt in it, those things were not too important to them.
"That was a tremendous gap that we had to get over. Eventually, they totally redid their facilities and put in a new paint shop, but it was tough at the beginning," he said.
At first, all welding in the body shop was done manually. "Later on," Buschman continued, "we got a multiple-head robot that did a bit of the welding, but the bulk of it was still done manually. The last line in the body shop was the metal finish line, where all the major parts were hung by hand. While one person would hold the door, for example, another would be bolting it on. But all the metal finishing was done very meticulously.
"When each car came out of the paint shop, a group of inspectors would mark any kind of defect whatsoever. Then they would take a little razor blade and shave off the head of any defect or piece of dirt, lightly sand it and polish it, and then buff out the entire car. Eventually, when we got a much more sophisticated paint system, that wasn't necessary.
"We always had a concern about dust getting on the car, because if it did and an operator was working on it later, he could scratch the finish. So they wrapped all the horizontal panels -- the decklid, hood, and hardtops -- in clear plastic wrap so no dust would get on them.
"Even with that, they immediately cleaned and vacuumed off the cars when they came in, so there was no dust or grit whatsoever going through the trim operation. And talk about craftsmanship: In the trim shop, I have never seen anything to match that in all my days," Buschman explained.
See the following page for how the Allante was produced.
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1987-1993 Cadillac Allante Production
While overall body quality was less than desired at first, it dramatically improved over time. By 1991, the joint product of San Giorgio and the Hamtramck, Mich., plant --where the bodies were married to their chassis and powertrains -- was ranked second among all GM vehicles. The following year, it topped the list.
Then in 1993, Buschman said, “Ron Ports, who headed up the corporate quality audit, said, ‘Bill, compared to any other car we measure in the world, GM and non-GM, Allante is in a class by itself.’”
One unique element of Allante production was the “Air Bridge” that linked the two facilities. After each body passed its final electrical tests, it went onto custom-built racks and was not touched again until it was unloaded at Hamtramck.
The racks were rolled onto trucks for the trip to the Turin airport, where they went into a dedicated hangar before being loaded into specially equipped Alitalia and Lufthansa 747s that jetted them to Detroit. Once there, still in their racks, they were rolled into trucks for the short run to Hamtramck.
"The underbody, the rear compartment, the motor compartment, and all the major electrical components, roughly 80 parts in all, were flown from America to Italy, assembled there and flown back. You might say the assembly line was 9,000 miles long,” Buschman said.
A dedicated area had been set aside for Allante assembly at the Hamtramck plant where higher-volume Cadillacs were built. Before installation, each specially tuned 170-bhp 4.1-liter aluminum-block port-injected V-8 was run for 48 minutes on an engine dynamometer.
Following final assembly and testing, which included a water test and a final careful paint check, each finished Allante was tested for 25 miles on a specially designed evaluation track adjacent to the plant. “I’ve got to give that team credit, too,” Buschman said. “It was an extremely dedicated workforce, and the quality that came out of Detroit-Hamtramck was excellent.”
The Allante was finally introduced in 1987. Find out more about that year's model. Continue on to the next page.
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1987 Cadillac Allante
Cadillac’s luxury roadster hit the streets in March 1987. Billed as GM’s “passenger car flagship,” it was distinguished from other ultralux entries by its front-wheel drive and electronic sophistication.
Because the name Callisto translated into unfortunate things in some languages, a name search and an internal contest were held. Allante emerged as the winner in May 1985.
Its Pininfarina-built body was galvanized steel and aluminum with separate subframes to support its Eldorado-derived fully independent strut-type front and rear suspensions, with a stabilizer bar and coil springs in front and a Corvette-type composite transverse leaf spring out back.
Its steering was power rack and pinion, its brakes four-wheel power discs with the Bosch III antilock system, and its transmission a viscous-clutch electronically controlled four-speed automatic.
At a time when De Ville prices started at around $21,000 and even a Fleetwood Sixty Special listed near $35,000, the Allante was priced at a breathtaking $54,700, which included the removable aluminum hardtop with a built-in rear-window defroster and a seven-year/100,000-mile warranty.
Still, the Allante was forecast to capture 6,000 to 8,000 annual sales, roughly half the U.S. market for such cars.“When we introduced the Allante, the dealer organization applauded it from every angle,” said John Grettenberger, who replaced Burger as Cadillac general manager in January 1984. “We introduced it to our Master Dealers, the top 100 in Cadillac’s entire dealer body, at a resort location, and Sergio Pininfarina himself came over to unveil it.“We made a conscious effort to position it as something that would have a great deal of appeal to affluent people, because it was a very expensive car. We wanted people driving Allantes who were opinion leaders and had high visibility in whatever their work might be." See how well the 1987 Allante debuted in the following page.For more information on cars, see:
1987 Cadillac Allante Debut
To commemorate its birth, Cadillac published a limited-edition coffee-table book, Allante: The New Spirit of Cadillac, with text in four languages. “From the company that became the ‘Standard of the World,’” it began, “now comes a car unlike any Cadillac that has gone before. A luxury roadster in the tradition of the great European road cars."
Grettenberger personally delivered a new Allante to actor Larry Hagman about the same time that Hagman’s character, J. R. Ewing, started driving one on the internationally popular television series, Dallas.
"It was very prominently used and displayed on the show for a long period of time, and we kept replacing them when they needed new ones," Grettenberger said. "I think it did a lot of good for Cadillac to have Allante on the Dallas show and others like it.”
Media reaction was generally positive despite skepticism about the Allante’s Mercedes-like price and its ambitious volume goal in a market that had absorbed fewer than 3800 Jaguar XJ-Ss and 2600 Porsche 928s the previous year.
Most complaints focused on its modest performance -- 10-second 0-to-60 acceleration, “video-game” instruments, too-hard seats, and difficult manual soft top.
Still, Automobile magazine proclaimed Allante’s debut “a significant event, probably a milestone, in modern American automotive history. It represents a refreshing attitude, a renewed willingness to specialize and to appeal to a narrow slice of the buying public.”
The start of the end began in 1988. Visit the following page to see how the Allante panned out.
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1988-1993 Cadillac Allante
For 1988, it got a power pull-down for the decklid, no-cost optional analog instruments, and improved headrests. The following year brought a 200-bhp 4.5-liter ohv engine and a more aggressive 3.21:1 final-drive ratio. Together they improved 0-60 performance to less than 8.5 seconds -- but also prompted $650 in federal "Gas Guzzler" taxes.
Other new features for 1989 included 16-in. wheels and tires, three-mode automatically adjustable Speed Dependent Damping (SDD) suspension, speed-sensitive power steering, softer seats and door panels, and other improvements.
By 1990, Allante prices were closing in on $58,000. That's when Cadillac took a stab at enhancing affordability with a new soft-top-only version that cost about $6,300 less than a fully-equipped model. Aside from jettisoning the lift-off metal roof, buyers of this "budget" Allante paid extra if they wanted the LCD instruments or Pearl White paint.
New standard features in every Allante included traction control -- an industry first with front drive, suspension refinements, a standard compact-disc player, and a driver's-side airbag. During the year, a power header-latching mechanism was added to the folding top.
For 1991, more suspension and steering refinements and a more powerful Delco-Bose Gold Series Symphony sound system were found.
Nothing much changed for the 1992s, but they were destined to be short-term cars anyway. That April, a substantially improved 1993 Allante went on sale, the first car with Cadillac's all-new 4.6-liter 32-valve dohc Northstar V-8, which pumped 295 thoroughbred horses and 290 pound-feet of torque through a new overdrive four-speed automatic transmission with electronic controls.
This powertrain could launch the car from rest to 60 in less than seven seconds. Also notable were a new short/long-arm rear suspension, new-generation traction control and Speed-Sensitive Steering systems, and a more complex and responsive Road-Sensing Suspension in place of the SDD setup.
One-piece door glass replaced the former fixed ventpane look, seats were reconfigured, and the hardtop became a $4,500 option. Thanks to its early release, the 1993 Allante was around in time to serve as the pace car for the 1992 Indianapolis 500.
The best Allante ever, it was finally the internationally competitive luxury roadster its creators had envisioned. Sadly, it reached that exalted status six years too late.
What was wrong with the timing? Find out in the next page.
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Cadillac Allante Discontinued
What few outside GM knew was that this much-improved Allante arrived long after the painful decision had been made to discontinue it. "We had to decide in the latter part of 1991 whether to continue it beyond 1993," Grettenberger said.
"It was due for a significant styling change, it needed a power top, and a number of new technological features were scheduled to be introduced on it. All that would have required a very significant investment…$300 to $500 million dollars…at a time when GM was hemorrhaging money and struggling to survive, which was very hard to justify on such a low-volume car, even though it was serving us well as an image vehicle.
"What would be the best use of that capital? Should it be invested in the low-volume Allante, or should we put it to work on higher-volume vehicles in the Cadillac lineup? That was ultimately where that money went, to the Eldorado, Seville, and De Ville, where it could have a much greater payback for our customers and stockholders.
Regrettably, it was economics that killed Allante, not the car itself, which reached the point in 1993 where it was absolutely a leader among any vehicles in the world in performance, handling, image, and presence. In retrospect, it was probably the right decision, but it bothered me -- and a lot of other key people in the Cadillac family -- a great deal that we had to discontinue it."
So why put a new high-tech engine in a car that was already canceled?
Grettenberger explained: "The purpose was to give the Northstar a year in a low-volume vehicle where we could keep track of every one of them before introducing it...in a much-larger number of cars. It was there as a one-year test bed with a few thousand owners to make sure everything was right. As it turned out, that engine was so good, it was almost foolproof."
The last Allante built was flown to Turin on July 2, 1993, and completed at Detroit-Hamtramck 14 days later. With 21,430 built, assemblies averaged just a little more than 3,000 a year throughout the car's lifetime.
Buschman describes the day he had to confirm Allante's cancellation with the dedicated Pininfarina crew: "When I went out to the plant to meet with the people firsthand, most of them broke down and were crying. 'Please tell us this is not true,' they were saying in Italian.
"I had to tell them it was true . . . and try to explain why as best I could. That's a moment you never forget. It gives you some idea of the tremendous importance that this had for those folks."
Editor's note: Some of the quoted material in this article comes from "The Story Behind the Cadillac Allante" by Rich Bednar (audio tape) ©2002.