Cadillac, after decades as America's luxury leader, was reduced to also-ran status in the 1990s. There were several reasons, starting with a stale image.
Journalists began to quip that the typical Cadillac buyer was "somewhere between 60 and death." That meant the brand wasn't appealing to the younger upscale trendsetters who preferred the cars of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Toyota's upstart Lexus, for their superior workmanship, cachet, and performance. And once customers are lost, they're awfully hard to win back.
General Motors compounded the problem with "brand management," attempting to win sales more by clever marketing than imaginative design or world-class quality. Though Cadillac did pioneer several praiseworthy innovations and began exploring new markets, the efforts were often too little or too late.
As a result, total division sales declined from over 220,000 units for 1990 to just over 185,000 in 1999 -- a painful 16-percent drop. And there was worse to come. Quite simply, rivals had eclipsed Cadillac in design, engineering and buyer esteem, and GM's finest just couldn't seem to get back in the game.
That's not to say every Cadillac of the 1990s was a dud. The 1992 Cadillac Seville, the 1992 Cadillac Eldorado and the 1994 Cadillac De Ville represented solid technical and design progress, and other initiatives promised to put Cadillac back in the hunt against unprecedented competition, foreign and domestic. Yet somehow, too many buyers were unmoved.
A perfect symbol of Cadillac's late-1990s situation was the Cadillac Eldorado, which languished with little change of consequence from 1992 though the end of the decade and beyond. To be sure, demand for big luxury coupes had been withering since the early '90s, yet Eldorado returned year after year as the sort of car Cadillac said it wanted to get away from.
At times, it seemed Cadillac itself didn't have a clear idea of what a Cadillac ought to be. During the 1990s, it conjured up a premium two-seat convertible, the Allante, but aimed too high with its pricing, and by the time it finally got the car sorted out, the public had lost interest. Then it thought a gilded version of a sedan from GM's German Opel division might make it as a BMW 3-Series fighter. But the Catera was not the bold statement Cadillac needed at that point.
What Cadillac really wanted was to attract younger buyers without turning off its older customers, but the company ended up satisfying neither group entirely.
Despite some competitive products, Cadillac couldn't overcome a brand identity that was stodgy at best, tasteless at worst. In the 1990s, owning a Cadillac had somehow gone from status to stigma. Ironically, it was an SUV, introduced in 1999, that would restore some luster and hope at Cadillac.
We'll begin our discussion of the Cadillacs of this decade with a look at the 1990 Cadillac lineup next.
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.
- 1980-1989 Cadillac: America's top luxury brand was in crises in the 1980s. Learn about how it weathered the storm.
- 2000-2008 Cadillac: Discover how bold design, big power, and an SUV fuel a Cadillac comeback.