We all need some humor in our lives. So here’s one of the biggest automotive jokes of all time:
Look! Up in the sky! It’s Sunbird! It’s too plain! No, it’s Cimarron! (Roll theme music)
On May 21, 1981, one of the biggest “You’ve got to be kidding me!” moves in automotive history was made when General Motors’ Cadillac Division rolled out this generic economy car to an unenthusiastic, not-so gullible press corps and public. Essentially a rebodied Chevrolet Cavalier, even today the Cimarron evinces grimaces from Cadillac faithful.
Cadillac expected sales of 75,000 Cimarrons in the car’s first year; instead, only 25,968 sold. In 1988, the last year of the Cimarron, the sales had dropped to 6,454. The first two years of the Cimarron’s existence, the Division was so ashamed of the car that the car was called “Cimarron, by Cadillac“, not Cadillac Cimarron. This drove home the fact that the car was a Caddy by name only–which, of course, everybody already knew. Anybody who doubted that the Cimarron and Cavalier were siblings had only to look at the two cars. For example, compare the Cimarron at right to the junky Cavalier below.The car officially became the Cadillac Cimarron in 1983 after rightfully earning the nickname “Cadvalier.” Cadillac’s unmet expectations should have banished these product planners into the Phantom Zone until they could have made a car worthy of the Cadillac crest.
This is perhaps the worst and most cynical example of automotive rebadging. Cadillac marketed the Cimarron as part of its “Standard of the World,” but the Cimarron’s only differences from the other GM “J” cars (Chevy Cavalier, Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Firenza, Pontiac J2000/Sunbird) were Cadillac badges, nicer seats, dressier door panels, and a shock absorber system to help keep the drivetrain from dancing around inside the engine bay. To enjoy Earth’s yellow sun, an optional “Astroroof” was available exclusively to Cimarron buyers.
Obviously a reject from the planet Krapton, the Cimarron’s mild-mannered approach to everything automotive included an anemic 88-horsepower, 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder engine with a 4-speed manual transmission standard. To further slow you down, a 3-speed slushbox cost extra (Extra?!?!). Cadillac had not offered a 4-cylinder since 1914, nor a clutch in more than 30 years. The 120-horsepower, 2.8-liter V-6 became available in 1985, then was made standard in 1987.
The Cimarron was virtually identical to GM’s other J cars, but its Planet Bizarro pricing was roughly twice that of any of the other “J” cars that had the same equipment. During development, GM President Pete Estes had warned Cadillac General Manager Ed Kennard, “Ed, you don’t have time to turn a “J” car into a Cadillac.”
The poor little car got a freshening in 1983, but it was too little, too late. Like the Fiero around that time, the car’s reputation had already set–it was doomed. Cadillac changed the front and rear fascias and tried to tighten the suspension up to European standards, but who cared? The car eventually became such a standard of the world for what not to do that, according to Car and Driver, Cadillac Product Director John Howell had a picture of the Cimarron on a wall that said, “Lest we forget.”
I have only driven a Cimarron once. We had some very nice neighbors that were in the auto recycling business who frequently attended auto auctions, so we never knew what they might bring home. The Mr. bought the Mrs. a light yellow Cimarron, and they were kind enough to let me take it for a spin. I said, “Nice!” and grinned as best as I could to not let them know that I knew what a farce this vehicle was.
Other than soft, comfy seats, this thing had every grunt, groan, and yelp that a car costing half its price would have … hardly a Fortress of Solitude. The gauges looked very similar to those in a Chevette, the engine always sounded like it was in the next higher gear way too soon, and it drove like a cheap, early-production front-wheel-drive car. Imagine that. It didn’t have enough power to pull a hat off of your head, the steering was very loosey-goosey, and the brakes required planning light years ahead to be effective. Yes, it was a used car, but there was still no feeling of quality in anything this car did.
The only thing faster than a speeding bullet on these cars was their depreciation. Many Cadillac owners, after buying these cars, never returned.
The car at the top is a Cimarron; the lower one is a Cavalier. Thanks to David Colborne for finding the brochure image to match the Cavalier view!