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.
The windshield info card is a public cheat sheet that lists your car’s amazing features — rotisserie restoration, only 20,000 original miles, once owned by Soleil Moon Frye’s cousin. In my case, I’m really tapping a dry well when it comes to praising the Cimarron. I mean, do I brag about the thirteen-inch wheels, the three-speed transmission, or the easy interchangeability of Cavalier parts? The woman at the check-in desk tries to help me out.
“What color is it?” she asks.
“Well…sort of light yellow. On tan.”
“Unique color combination!” she replies. I appreciate her positivity. The color-combo brag goes on the windshield. Along with very little else. Now the Cimarron will get parked outside on the grass, enticing auction-goers until it hits the block tomorrow morning.
I flee to the visitor parking lot and the 2012 Cadillac CTS Premium Collection that I’ve borrowed to serve as a rolling reminder of Cadillac’s progress. The Recaros are as comfortable as any chair in your house. The V-6 puts out 318 hp without any fear of overheating. The air-conditioning is sublime. This is why you should be jealous of your kids — if Herbert Crippon Davis had been born a couple of decades later, he would’ve owned this instead of a Cimarron.
I wake up the next morning with a knot of fear in my stomach. What if the Cimarron doesn’t sell? I haven’t really prepared for that contingency, even though it’s entirely possible. As I drink my morning coffee, I jot down the addresses of Orlando-area pawn shops. There’s at least one that takes cars. I might be visiting it later, depending on the fate of Lot G120.
Back at the auction, I wander around and assess the crowd. Later today, many of these guys will casually snap up $100,000 cars and load them onto trailers next to their other $100,000 cars, but the overall sartorial makeup includes a lot more jean shorts and white high-tops than you see at Pebble Beach. If I told you, “Meet me next to the sunburned guy with the ponytail,” let’s just say there would be a lot of confusion.
I spend a while lurking next to the Cimarron and eavesdropping on the comments, none of which are hugely encouraging. One guy points to my trusty machine and tells his friend, “I call that a Cadillier. It was a Cavalier with leather.” He then peeks inside and says, “This one doesn’t even have leather!” My instinct is to defend my car, but he has a point.
If there’s any encouragement to be found, it’s in the fact that most of the cars here are in some way awesome, so the Cimarron will at least stand out through its sheer mediocrity. Oh, another pristine 1969 Camaro? Yawn. But a Cimarron? You don’t see those every day. There’s a good reason for that, but still, you don’t.
As the morning’s consignments churn through the main auction building, the Cimarron’s big moment draws near. An enlistee of the Mecum army fetches the car from the grass and moves it to the line snaking toward the tent. I stare at the little Cadillac, willing it to behave. Don’t overheat. Don’t drop the transmission. Don’t puke a rod. Every other owner here is wishing the same thing of their vehicles, and not all are obeying. As if sensing their fate, many of the spotlessly primped classics in the queue seem to be doing their best to sabotage their impending trade to a new team by failing to start, refusing to go into gear, or just running ragged and ornery in protest. The Caddy, though, creeps toward the door without complaint. My stress level is mounting. The Cimarron is ready. But is anyone ready for the Cimarron?
The lady behind the wheel shifts into neutral and shuts down the engine while three white-gloved guys line up at the trunk and begin pushing my car into the building. Considering the modest amount of money on the line, I am unbelievably stressed out. What if nobody buys it? What if the high bid is only $750? I have the reserve at $1000, but would I pull it off at some lower point or take my chances at the pawn shop? All of this will be resolved momentarily and in real time. Once the auctioneer’s silver-tongued chatter can no longer elicit any higher bids, you either cut your car loose or you hear, “The bid goes on,” and your ride joins the cast of unlucky lepers that are still for sale.
After covering four states and more than 600 miles of trouble-free driving, the Cimarron is pushed under the auction block’s searing bright lights. They definitely highlight the fact that the front end is a slightly different color than the rest of the car (probably because of factory-defective paint, which is, of course, covered by an excuse in the owners’ manual). “HeybiddabidafybiddaFIVE-HUNDRED!abiddabiddaabiddaCadillacCimarronabidddda,” declares the auctioneer, Mark Delzell. There’s a shout in the audience, and the bid goes to $750. Feeling good energy, I decide to pull the reserve. Let’s keep this bidding frenzy going. Big money! I feel like I’m in a casino, riding a hot streak in front of a few thousand people. With bidding already at $1000, Delzell announces that the reserve is off. The crowd cheers. I’ve never heard of such a thing as group sarcasm, but that cheer was it. The bidding goes up another notch, to $1250, where it…stops. The hammer comes down, and my Cimarron is sold for exactly the price I paid for it. Minus the $500 auction commission. You’d better watch your back, Wayne Carini! There’s a new car-flipper in town. Today a Cimarron, tomorrow a Beretta Z26.
I find the Cimarron’s lucky new custodian, a car dealer from Florida, and hand him the original paperwork and a spare set of keys. It’s not Gold Key delivery, but it’ll suffice.
Giddy with the euphoric relief that comes from selling my Cadillac Cimarron, I point the CTS back to the hotel and fire up my laptop to book a plane ticket home. When I open my e-mail, I find that I have a first and only response to, of all things, my original Craigslist “Cimarron wanted” ad. The e-mail asks if I’d found a Cimarron, because this guy is looking for one. I write back and tell him I already sold it. He asks the year, mileage, and price, concluding, “I kinda want that car, too.” OK, if you say so.
I give him the name of the South Florida used-car dealership where the Cimarron will soon resurface. Today it’s sold, but tomorrow, the bid goes on.