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 – had become purveyor of the automotive equivalent of the Early Bird Special: Rebadged (and re-priced) versions of Chevys, trimmed with vinyl roofs and fitted with fake wire wheel covers. You could almost smell the Noxzema.
Not much future in that – because your demographic hasn’t got much of a future.
And so – like a has-been athlete determined to whip himself back into fighting trim – 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 Pininfarina 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. It came with two tops (removeable hardtop or convertible soft-top) 10-way power Recaro sport buckets wrapped in hand-trimmed leather and a dashboard with partial electronic/digital display – impressive equipment for 1987.
And for an American car, especially.
The standard engine was Cadillac’s HT4100 V-8, which was actually (and for the first time in along time) a not-Chevy V-8. It was aluminum and 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, a not-bad number for the era.
The engine drove the front wheels through a specially calibrated four-speed Turbo-hydramatic automatic transmission with overdrive.
Performance was good: 0-60 in 9.5 seconds with a top speed of 120-plus mph (although the Allante’s targeted rival, 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 Goodyear Eagle tires, stopping power and handling dynamics were much-improved over the wallowing whitewall-tired geezermobiles 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 that included a 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 a stupendous $56,533 – equivalent to almost $160,000 in 2015 dollars. It was – by far – the most expensive Cadillac since the virtually hand-built V-16 cars of the pre-WWII era.
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 – 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 described it, the “world’s longest assembly line.”
It was also hugely, horribly complex – which almost foreordained quality control problems – as well as horribly inefficient, which helped boost the Allante’s end-cost to the point that GM reportedly lost money on each “sale.”
Worse, minor (and a few major) problems plagued the cars from the very beginning – including issues with the digital dash and convertible top ranging from malfunctioning latching mechanisms to water leaks to fabric wear resulting from the material rubbing up against the body while stowed.
While almost everyone agreed 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 about half that number found buyers. Allantes began to stack up embarrassingly at dealers. Hefty rebates and other cash incentives – even more embarrassing – had to be offered to clear existing inventory.
Thus began the death spiral.
Giveaway pricing on new Allantes caused the value of already-sold Allantes to depreciate at a Yugo-esque rate. Allantes lost as much as a third of their value the moment they were driven off the dealership lot. The industry publication Automotive News scathingly christened 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, to aggressively deal with the significant problems and weaknesses revealed during the first-year run – only made matters worse.
Just 2,569 were sold.
Like Titanic, Allante was mortally wounded – but the “captains” of GM – like Captain Smith on the bridge of Titanic – refused to take appropriate (emergency) measures, preferring to believe things weren’t really all that bad.
GM was stuck playing catch-up – desperately trying to fix a car whose image had already probably been perhaps irreperably wounded. Flaws and defects people may forgive in a lesser car can be (and often are) 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 tried to lower the price point in 1990 by making the removable hardtop optional – and thereby trimmed the base MSRP 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 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. 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 effected 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 – 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 hideous 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. Even though sales of the ’93 model were by far the best to date (4,670 were sold – and 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.
A total of about 21,000 Allantes were manufactured during the car’s seven year production run. Despite the failure of the Allante, its dramatic good looks, unusual layout, iconic history and low production assure its future collectibility … for those brave enough (and with wallets deep enough).
The top speed of the Allante rose from a a so-so 120 MPH for first-year/first generation models to almost 150 MPH for the final run of Northstar V8-powered Allantes. The car’s zero to 60 run also tracked lower as the model years elapsed, concluding with a very decent 6.3 second sprint for the 295 horsepower 1993 Allante.
The rarest Allantes are the ’92 models. Only 1,932 were made that year. Ironically, the final year of production (1993) was the Allante’s best year. 4,670 were sold. The last Allante built was flown from Turin, Italy on July 2, 1993, and completed at Detroit-Hamtramck 14 days later.
Adding to the Allante’s high cost was a tacked-on $1,300 federal “gas guzzler” tax. The cars averaged mid-high teens, obnoxious thirst for the era.
One of the most trouble-prone Allante features was the optional digital display instrument cluster. It was a $495 option, to boot (available at no charge on the removable hardtop model). However, most customers ponied up. Only 187 cars were equipped with the standard analog cluster during the ’92 model year.
Copyright 2015, Eric Peters
The above is a chapter excerpted from the forthcoming book, Doomed.