In the 1920s and 1930s, Cadillac was a respected peer of Bugatti and Rolls-Royce, the “standard of the world” among luxury cars. By 1982, GM’s premiere division had reduced itself to pawning off tarted-up Chevrolet Cavaliers and hoping no one would notice.

For thousands more than the cost of Chevy’s compact economy car, Cadillac buyers were able to drive home in . . . a Chevy economy car with Cadillac trim glued to the fenders. In every meaningful respect the 1982 “Cadillac” Cimarron and 1982 Chevy Cavalier were identical. They shared the same GM “J-Body” floor pans and chassis and most major exterior body panels interchanged. Under the hood could be found the same 88-horsepower, four-cylinder economy car engine, right down to its Adam’s Apple two-barrel carburetor.

The final insult? For the first time in almost 30 years, buyers had to pay extra to get an automatic transmission. This was marketed as “sporty,” when it fact it was just plain cheap: It cost GM less to use the Cavalier’s manual transmission than to make the more costly automatic standard.

Even Cadillac seemed a little ashamed, initially describing the car as the “Cimarron by Cadillac” rather than a full-fledged Caddy, which of course it wasn’t. Nine “hand-buffed” colors couldn’t begin to paint over the ugly reality that GM’s premiere luxury division was re-selling Chevys—cheap ones—at Cadillac prices. The “standard of the world” had become a K-Mart Blue Light Special in everything but the price.

Fifty years of building up the Cadillac brand-name to a position of unassailable integrity got flushed down the pipe by this single egregious bait-and-switch. Blinded by greed and short-sightedness, GM had hoped to rake in money by saving the time and development costs of designing and building a separate small car for Cadillac to sell, the way it had always been done in the past. Instead, sales slipped along with the brand’s prestige as word got out about the Cimarron’s guttersnipe origins.

To this day—more than 20 years after the Cimarron debacle—many people refuse to even consider a Cadillac as a result of the bad memories. It was like marking-up Cool Whip as fresh heavy cream—and betting the blunt-skulls wouldn’t know the difference.

They did.

Cadillac let the Cimarron linger for six full model years, when it would have been far smarter to quietly sweep things under the rug and let time heal the wounds. Given enough time, it might even have been possible to deny the whole thing ever happened—sort of like Henry Ford’s authorship of “The International Jew.”

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