1986 Cadillac Cimarron V-6

Brian Konoske

On March 31, 1987, Dr. Herbert Crippon Davis took delivery of a brand-new Cadillac. The salesmandocumented a predelivery inspection of utmost rigor, confirming proper tie-rod clamp positioning (check), brake-line routing (check), and headlight chime functionality (check). The salesman then handed over a set of gold-plated keys and Dr. Davis headed home with the Cadillac that he would keep until the end of the millennium. Unfortunately, that Cadillac was a Cimarron.

The Cimarron, introduced for the 1982 model year, became an instant icon of badge-engineered mediocrity, a mean stew of cynicism and desperation tinged with the sour stench of wheezy four-bangers and cheap velour. In the early '80s, Cadillac still stood for a certain large-scale American bombast, but the Cimarron drove an 88-hp, four-cylinder stake straight through the heart of Cadillac's brand identity. It would've been one thing if General Motors had a world-class small car upon which to build a premium-priced little BMW-fighter. But what it had was the Chevy Cavalier. And calling a Cavalier a Cadillac is a move that can only be described as, well, cavalier.

The forthcoming ATS is Cadillac's first real attempt to confront the BMW 3-series on its own terms. It's also the first small Cadillac since the Cimarron, which last plagued showrooms in 1988.

So this seems like the right moment to celebrate Cadillac's progress by experiencing its low point first-hand. And that's how I've come to own Herbert Crippon Davis's 1986 Cadillac Cimarron.

Finding a Cimarron is harder than you'd think. I suspect that at this point, most of them have been recycled into items more glorious, like toilet fixtures and Walmart barbecue tongs. I even post an ad on Craigslist -- "Cimarron Wanted, Believe it or not" -- to which I receive zero responses. But finally I track one down in Charlotte, North Carolina, and it's as mint as Cimarrons get these days. It has fewer than 76,000 miles and no rust on its jaundice-colored body. Under the hood is the strapping, 125-hp, 2.8-liter V-6. I pay $1250 to a kid who got it from his uncle, who presumably got it a few more steps removed from Dr. Davis, the gentleman whose Gold Key delivery is so lovingly chronicled in the sheaf of original paperwork. The kid doesn't drive the Cimarron anymore, since he replaced it with a Nissan 240SX drift car. The world is strange.

At this point you may be expecting the inevitable explanation of how I plan to drop the Cimarron into a volcano or crush it with Grave Digger or turn it into a marine habitat at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. But I've had enough of crappy-car-destruction stories. This is still a useful car for someone. And there's no challenge in simply lighting it on fire. So how about driving it 600 miles and attempting to sell it at Mecum Auctions' sale in Kissimmee, Florida? Now that sounds like a challenge. Accompanied by photographer Brian Konoske, I strap a suitcase on the Cimarron's trunk-lid luggage rack and set out for the Sunshine State.

At first I drive the Cimarron like I'm walking an elderly dog, gently engaging the turn signals and accelerating with the utmost care, lest some quarter-century-old piece of GM plastic give way and leave us stranded. It doesn't help that I've read the owners' manual, which is essentially an indexed litany of excuses. I'm particularly concerned by the section on the 2800 V-6 cooling system.

"The cooling system may temporarily overheat during severe operating conditions," warns the manual. Such conditions are defined as "climbing a long hill on a hot day, stopping after high-speed driving, or idling for long periods in traffic." Stopping after high-speed driving? Am I expected to do cool-down laps every time I pull into a rest-stop Burger King?

Mindful of the temperature gauge, I initially stick to the right lane on I-95, heeding the speed limit and worrying over every perceived change in the Cimarron's soundtrack of squeaks, moans, and pushrod V-6 chatter. But as the miles accumulate beneath the Caddy's pathetic little tires, I begin to trust the old car's vigor and push a little harder. Three-speed automatic transmission aside, the Cimarron's acceleration is better than I expected. After all, this car has almost exactly the same power and weight -- 125 hp, 2600 pounds -- as a 2012 Ford Fiesta. When a Jaguar XKR-S charges past, I slide into the left lane and tail it for a few miles, in the process pegging the 85-mph speedometer. That exertion causes no ill effects, so I slow to 80 mph and set the cruise control, which I'm delighted to find fully operative. The steering, unburdened by much weight or rubber (195/70R-13s), actually feels pretty nice through the thin-rimmed '80s wheel.

Now, I'm not saying that this was a respectable product from the Standard of the World, but is it possible that the Cavalier was at least a little bit better than we give it credit for? I guess my $1250 Cimarron has me in a glass-half-full sort of mood, even if that glass is half full of disappointment.

We stop for the night in Savannah, Georgia, where the quaint cobblestone downtown streets make it feel as if giant mutant sand worms are attempting to tear asunder the Cimarron's feeble struts. At the hotel, I remove the bungee cords from the luggage rack and admonish the valet to take good care of my baby. No laying rubber down there in the garage, my good sir. We've got an auction to attend.

The next morning, we gas up the Cadillac and hit the road. An early '80s Cimarron brochure boasted, "Because of Cadillac's exclusively tuned Touring Suspension, Cimarron '83 is as much at home on a demanding Alpine road as it is relaxed on the Interstate." I'll reserve my judgment about the Alpine road, but Cimarron '86 is indeed quite relaxed on the highway -- enough that Brian nods off, prompting me to awaken him with a full-volume sampling of the CD that the previous owner left in the aftermarket stereo. It's a recording of an old lady telling a story. I'm not sure what that story is, because she's speaking Vietnamese. By the second or third time I deploy this fun alarm clock, Brian suggests that maybe we should stop for coffee.

This we do in Saint Augustine, a picturesque Florida town that, being in Florida, is hot. And, being picturesque, is crowded. By the time we pass the Ripley's Believe it or Not! museum, the Cimarron's temperature needle is flirting with red. We might have to stop to look at Ripley's collection of shrunken heads just to provide a respite for the V-6's incompetent cooling system. By the time we begin edging back toward the highway, I'm running the heater full blast and turning off the engine at red lights. Hey, kids, step right in and take a look at the amazing car that overheats even when there's nothing wrong with it! Gaze upon the wall of shrunken head gaskets! Behold the Cavalier that was called a Cadillac -- believe it...or not!"

Mercifully, we make it back to the highway and attain speeds suitable to cool the sweating 2800 and ourselves. While I've just proved that the heater works great, I'm afraid the same can't be said of the air-conditioning. At the auction, I'll have to fall back on the standard line offered by car sellers the world over who are peddling machines saddled with inexplicably broken A/C systems: it needs a recharge. Which is not, technically, dishonest. It does need a recharge. It might need a compressor and a condenser, too, but it definitely needs a recharge.

They say that in any difficult endeavor, half the struggle is just showing up. But when we arrive at the massive tents of Mecum's Kissimmee auction, I develop a strong suspicion that in this case, showing up was maybe 20 percent of the struggle, max. The remaining 80 percent will consist of convincing someone to buy this car instead of the 2000 or so more desirable options on display. I am not heartened when I pull to the gate outside the registration area. The check-in guy glances at the Cimarron and blurts, "You can't take that in here." I indignantly inform him that "that" is a 1986 Cadillac Cimarron, a classic-in-waiting and Lot G120 in the 2012 Mecum Kissimmee extravaganza. He silently motions for me to drive over to the check-in area, where a Mecum employee zip-ties the keys to the steering column. I head inside to dream up the selling points that'll be taped on the windshield to entice passersby.

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