1990 Cadillac Allante
1990 Cadillac Allante. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

In the 1970s, Cadillac saw its reputation for technical leadership gradually being usurped by such marques as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar. To arrest this erosion, Cadillac launched its LTS (Luxury Two-Seater) project in 1982 to compete in the ultra-luxury, sporty car market. It became the Cadillac Allante, and its main target was the Mercedes-Benz 560SL.

The Allante was not only intended to showcase General Motors’ technology, but to inject some new life into Cadillac’s staid, vinyl-roof, wreath-and-crest image. And since GM had committed to front-wheel drive in the ’80s, the Allante had front-drive, the only one in its class.

To accommodate the limited production quantities and add some European cachet, Cadillac contracted with Italy’s famed stylist and coachbuilder Pininfarina to style and largely build the bodies. Pininfarina created a package that was tasteful, understated and sporty, without being garish or gimmicky.

The traditional Cadillac egg-crate grille was retained. The windshield was sharply slanted and the rear was dominated by huge, flush-mounted taillamps. Not prepared to totally abandon the wreath, Cadillac placed one on each wheel cover, and tastefully integrated one more into the deck-mounted, high-level stop lamp.

To assemble the Allante, Cadillac created what it called the “Allante Airbridge.” Eldorado platform and cowl assemblies, with the wheelbase shortened to 2,525 mm (99.4 in.), were shipped to Italy, where Pininfarina fitted them with complete, two-seater convertible bodies. They were then air-freighted to Detroit where the running gear, suspension, and other components were installed.

Cadillac mounted its 4.1-litre overhead-valve, aluminum-block, iron-head V8 transversely, driving the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transaxle. With electronic port fuel injection and ram-tuned induction, it produced 170 horsepower at 4,400 rpm, and 230 lb-ft of torque at 3,200, which was 40 of each more than regular Cadillacs.

The front suspension was MacPherson struts in with an anti-roll bar. Struts were also used at the rear, with springing via a fiberglass, transverse leaf spring a la the Corvette.

Power rack-and-pinion steering was fitted, and brakes were four-wheel discs with anti-lock. Tires were exclusive Goodyear Eagle VL 225/60VR15s. Although aluminum was used for the hood, deck lid and removable hardtop (which weighed 23 kg, or 50 lbs; there was also a manual soft top), the Allante weighed a husky 1,588 kg (3,500 lb).

When the Allante bowed as an early 1987 model, it received generally favourable reviews from the motoring press. Car and Driver (March 1987) was impressed with the styling and leather seats, but not with all the look-alike buttons and electronic instruments. It reported a zero-to-96 km/h (60 mph) time of 9.4 seconds, which was spirited but not outstanding. Top speed was 198 km/h (123 mph).

Road & Track (November 1986) ran a head-to-head test between the Allante and the Mercedes-Benz 560SL. It found the Mercedes’ larger 5.5-litre V-8 faster but thirstier, while its aging chassis delivered better braking but poorer ride and handling. It put the Allante ahead in luxury and handling, the Mercedes tops in performance and quality.

As good as the Allante was, Cadillac would find out that two-seater, $80,000-plus Canadian ($50,000-plus U.S.) cars are not just tasteful styling, mechanical excellence and leather seats. Buyers were also seeking prestige, snob appeal and reputation, and Mercedes brought more of this to the table.

Although first-year production was projected at 7,000, the Allante captured only 3,363 buyers for its 1987s. This led Automotive News, the industry journal of record, to call it the “Flop of the Year.” This seemed vindicated when only 2,569 1988s were sold.

For 1989, Cadillac increased the Allante’s displacement to 4.5 litres, and horsepower to 200, which quickened acceleration and upped the top speed. Sales increased a little, to 3,298.

In 1990 the Allante pioneered front-wheel drive traction control, and had more sophisticated damping and a driver’s air bag. Alas, sales slid a little to 3,101. For 1991, platinum-tipped spark plugs couldn’t keep sales from further eroding to 2,500.

There were only 614 1992 Allantes sold in a short model year. In January 1992, the ’93 model arrived with Cadillac’s outstanding double-overhead cam, 32-valve, 4.6-litre aluminum “Northstar” V8, with a rousing 295 horsepower, 95 more than the old 4.5 V8. In addition came Cadillac’s ultra-fast “Road Sensing Suspension,” and new A-arm-and-coil rear springing.

But this technical wizardry and now world-class performance couldn’t save the Allante. Continued slow sales and the need to apply scarce resources to other projects moved GM to discontinue the Allante in 1993. Although not the sales success that Cadillac had hoped, the Allante will surely be a future collectible.

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