If General Motors eventually goes bankrupt (again) it won’t be for lack of imagination and innovation. It will be for lack of successful innovation.
The Allante project is a case in point.
It began with high hopes – and an audacious plan. By the mid-1980s, Cadillac was still the “standard of the world” – if by “the world” one meant nursing homes and the parking lots of Florida retirement communities. GM’s premier division – once purveyor of coach-built V-16 masterpieces in the 1920s and ’30s and chromed out heavy breathers in the ’50s and ’60s – had been reduced to vinyl-roofs, fake wire wheels – and the “early bird special.”
’80s-era Cadillac definitely didn’t have anything competitive with ultra-luxury grand tourers like the Mercedes SL560 and Jaguar XJS.
And so – like a flabby, long-ago-benched athlete determined to whip himself back into shape and get back on the field – GM execs conceived the Allante. It would be a winning combination of European elan and American muscle; a no-compromises tour-de-force of elegance, speed and technology. The goal was nothing less than putting together the finest ultra-luxury coupe GM had ever produced – and perhaps, that the world had ever seen.
Styling was turned over to Pininfarina – the world-famous Italian design studio where so many automotive legends first took form. The relationship was not entirely new, as Pininfarna had been involved previously with Cadillac on the cosmetics of both the 1931 V-16 Phaeton and the ’59 Eldorado Brougham.
This third collaboration would also turn out brilliantly – at least insofar as the initial curb appeal of the finished car was concerned.
The Allante was universally acclaimed as a gorgeous piece of work when it made its debut in 1986 as a 1987 model. The two-seat roadster – Cadillac’s first such car since 1941- was dramatic; sleek and expensive-looking – and most definitely not a Retirement Community Special. It came with two tops, 10-way power Recaro sport buckets wrapped in hand-trimmed leather and a dashboard with partial electronic/lLCD display – impressive equipment for 1987.
And for an American car, especially.
The standard engine was Cadillac’s HT4100 V-8, which featured sequential electronic port fuel injection (an upgrade over the throttle-body style then in common usage), roller cam/lifters and high-flow cylinder heads – good for 170-hp. The engine drove the front wheels through a specially calibrated 4-speed Turbo-hydramatic automatic transmission with overdrive.
0-60 took 9.5 seconds, with a top speed of 125-mph. This was reasonably fleet for 1987 – especially for a luxury car and particularly for a Cadillac luxury car - although the Allante’s primary target, the Mercedes-Benz 560SL, was quicker and faster). With four-wheel-disc brakes (10.25-inch vented up front; solid 10-inch discs in the rear) and VR-speed rated Good year tires, stopping power and handling dynamics were also much-improved over the grumpy grampa “starter caskets” Cadillac had been selling up to that point.
A seven-year warranty was standard, too – unprecedented for GM – and each car was given an extensive pre-delivery inspection, including 25-mile test drive by a team of dedicated technicians, who signed off on the car before it reached the customer.
Base price in ’87 was stupendous: $56,533 . This made it by far the most expensive Cadillac since the virtually hand-built V-16 cars of the 1930s.
Pininfarina not only penned the car’s exterior, it built (and finished) the actual bodies, too – at least, partially so. While the exterior panels (including the lightweight aluminum hood, trunk lid and removable hard-top) were unique pieces not shared with any other GM vehicle, the Allante’s underlying platform was derived from the same-year Eldorado – albeit in modified, shortened-wheelbase form. This meant it was necessary to ship partially assembled Eldorado under-bodies to the Pininfarina factory near Turin, Italy – where the Allante-specific exterior panels were fitted. Once this work was complete, the fully assembled and painted shells (56 at a time) were transported overseas in specially built cradles; these were were loaded onto Boeing 747 “air bridges” for the return trip to the U.S. and GM’s Hamtramck assembly line in Michigan. Here, the running gear – engine and transmission, suspension, brakes, etc. – were bolted to the chassis, completing the cars.
It was, as Cadillac PR self-described it, the “world’s longest assembly line.”
It was also as complicated, circuitous and as inefficient as a ’67 Coupe deVille. The ocean-tripping manufacturing process helped boost the Allante’s end-cost to an amount equivalent to a six-figure sticker in today’s money, which was bad enough. But the quality control issues that plagued the car were much worse.
These included multiple problems with the convertible top ranging from malfunctioning latching mechanisms to water leaks to fabric wear resulting from the material rubbing up against the body while stowed. The 4.1 engine was fragile and soon earned a reputation as an infamous oil burner, among other things. Body integrity, including panel fit and finish – was far from world class. Apparently unfixable squeaks and rattles plagued owners with unending trips to the dealer. And on and on it went
While the Allante looked great, it wasn’t living up to its promise – or its price tag. First-year sales reflected buyer’s cool reception. Cadillac had hoped to sell 4,000 cars in ’87; however, only 1,651 found homes. Allantes languished embarrassingly on Cadillac lots – and soon, hefty rebates had to be offered just to clear the inventory.
This, in turn, caused the resale value of Allantes to plummet like Confederate dollars. The cars lost as much as a third of their value the moment they were driven off the dealership lot. Automotive News dubbed the ’87 Allante: “Flop of the year.”
The fact that the second-year ’88 models were basically carryovers with no significant updates or improvements to tempt buyers or, more significantly, fixes to deal with the significant problems and weaknesses revealed during the first-year run -only made matters worse.
Just 2,569 were sold.
Barely two years after its launch and Cadillac was already stuck in the unhappy role of playing catch-up – desperately trying to fix a car whose image had already been mortally wounded. Flaws and defects people may forgive in a lesser car are almost always the kiss of death for a vehicle with pretensions to greatness – and a price tag to match.
1989 saw minor but noteworthy changes, including an increase in engine size to 4.5 liters – and a respectable bump in output to a full 200-hp. This gave the car more top end (135 mph) and cut its 0-60 time to a more sporty 8.5 seconds – enough to nip at the heel of the Benz SL.
But it still wasn’t enough to make the necessary impression.
GM belatedly tried to address the pricing issue, lowering the Allante’s MSRP in 1990 by making the removable hardtop optional – which knocked the sticker price down to $50,900. But that didn’t help much, either. Total production barely crested 3,000 that year, despite the cost-cutting and the addition of new safety/performance equipment such as Bosch II traction control and a driver’s side airbag. The Allante was very clearly in deep trouble. Yet inexplicably – unforgivably – there were no major changes for either 1991 or 1992, by which time production had slipped calamitously to a mere 1,931 cars.
The Allante was now almost five years old – a geological epoch in the car business even at that time. The initially favorable impression made by the dramatic Pininfarina styling had long since dissipated; by this point, Allante had become just another compromised coulda-been.
Then came 1993 and the major updates which might have saved the car – had they been put into production back in 1987 or ’88. Chief among these was the installation of an all-new powerplant that was, at last, up to the car’s potential and promise. This was Cadillac’s excellent 4.6 liter/279 cubic inch DOHC Northstar V-8, rated at 295 hp. The addition of nearly 100 hp transformed the Allante into the exotic GT it might have been at the get-go. Zero to 60 times dropped by more than two full seconds to just over six seconds – which is a respectable number even today - while top speed climbed to nearly 150 mph. A revised suspension with speed sensitive steering, auto-adjusting road sensing ride control and upgraded brakes rounded out what had, at the 11th hour, finally become an impressive package. So impressive, in fact, that a mechanically stock 1993 Allante was able to serve as Pace Car for the Indy 500 race that year – with only the addition of track-required safety equipment differentiating it from a standard model. There was also a new power-assisted optional hardtop, one-piece side windows and a new Delco-Bose premium audio system with high-frequency speakers. Most of the quality control problems had been fixed, too.
But though it wasn’t too little – it was definitely too late. GM had already decided to euthanize the Allante. So even though sales of the ’93 model were by far the best to date (4,670 were sold — despite a base price that had by then climbed to $61,675) there would be no more Allantes after this final hurrah.
GM would not attempt another ultra-luxury roadster for a full decade – when the Allante’s spiritual descendant, the XLR roadster appeared in 2004 – ceding the market to the established European players.
The sad thing is that the Allante was by no means foreordained to be a short-lived lemon. The success of the ’93 model proves it didn’t have to turn out the way it did. Like the Chevy Corvair – and later, Pontiac’s ill-fated mid-engined Fiero sports car – the basic concept was sound and though the production cars were fatally flawed, anyone could see what might have been.
Instead of what, unfortunately, was.
Excerpted from “Doomed,” by Eric Peters. Preliminary release date summer 2012.