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Classic Comparo: Chrysler TC by Maserati vs Cadillac Allanté

Two Italian-American luxury convertibles with something to prove

Rory JurneckaWriterBrandon LimPhotographer

Oh, just admit it. Come clean. You've always been a little curious about this wacky Italian-American pair, the Cadillac Allanté and Chrysler TC by Maserati. One was designed and partially built by legendary Italian designer Pininfarina who also put its mark on some of the most achingly gorgeous Ferraris of all time. The Chrysler has a Maserati badge on it for Pete's sake and, well… it has a Maserati badge on it!

Through the miracle of depreciation, you could buy both of these cars today with a credit card. Never mind that when new, the two cars together cost as much as a three-bedroom house in the midwest. Just think, this very evening you could pull up to your local Italian food joint and park out front, top down like a big shot and order a plate of lasagna and a glass of chianti and stare out the window at your new pride and joy, sparkling under the street lamps. These are Italian cars! Finely crafted, expertly engineered things of beauty with easy-to-service American hearts! Have we sold you yet? Maybe not, but let's dive a little deeper.

In the mid-1980s, everyone who thought they were someone was driving around in a Mercedes-Benz SL. Those with fewer zeroes in their bank accounts bought used grey-market, six-cylinder 280 SLs and those who'd really made it went for the fancy, top-of-the-line 5.6-liter, V-8-powered 560 SL. Solid, torquey, well-built cars those were and prestigious too. Driving one told the world you'd made it and you even looked a little more attractive from behind the wheel. Meanwhile, American automakers Chrysler and Cadillac had already began to lose their luster; if you saw one of their newest offerings on the road—an occurrence that was becoming less common with every new day—odds were that an 80- or 90-year-old was behind the wheel, BluBlocker shades on, walker stashed in the trunk, headed out for the early bird special at the local Steak 'N Stein.

The key to longevity was younger, well-moneyed buyers, like the kind that bought Mercedes SLs. At General Motors, the gears were turning in the minds of product people and a two-door convertible project slated to become a Buick ultimately filtered over to the Cadillac brand (Buick would start again with the Reatta coupe). The car would be based on a shortened version of the front-wheel-drive E-platform that underpinned the Cadillac Eldorado chassis with a V-8 engine, of course. For extra cache, Cadillac roped in Italian design maven Pininfarina, who believe it or not, had helped on a handful of one-off Cadillac show cars in the past as well as the production 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.

When the Cadillac Allanté was unveiled at the 1986 Paris Motor Show, it drew raving responses. Its crisp, smart exterior design was thoroughly modern and eye-catching. Techy features such as a digital instrument panel and center stack were a hit in the days where personal computers were starting to go mainstream. In fact, the hype around the Allanté even secured it an exclusive spot on the cover of Automobile's September 1986 issue, where we talked excitedly about its 170-hp 4.1-liter V-8 which was shared with other Cadillac models, but had exclusive modifications including roller-style cam lifters, multiport fuel-injection and high-flow cylinder head.

To produce the Allanté, a specially equipped Alitalia-operated Boeing 747 flew 56 chassis at a time from Detroit, Michigan to Turin, Italy where Pininfarina shortened them and hand-assembled the Allanté's body panels and interior before sending it back to GM's new Hamtramck assembly plant for the installation of powertrain and suspension. It was a time-consuming and costly process that added a certain allure, but heavily affected the bottom line, contributing to a base price of roughly $55,000 in 1987, its first year on the market. At the time, that was about double the price of a new Chevrolet Corvette and nearly 50% more than the cheapest Porsche 911 you could spec. Big bucks, in other words.

Meanwhile at Chrysler, there was a similar thought process in the works. Chrysler's highly regarded chief, Italian-American Lee Iacocca, already had a good relationship with various members of the Italian automotive fraternity. While at Ford, he'd worked with Argentinian-in-Italy, Alejandro DeTomaso to bring the DeTomaso Pantera to Ford/Lincoln showrooms in the 1970s and then licensed the DeTomaso name for a run of special-edition Dodge Omni coupes with a special DeTomaso cosmetic package. In 1976, DeTomaso had purchased the dying Maserati brand out of receivership from Citroen and reshaped the company through the 1980s with cars like the Biturbo and Quattroporte III.

By 1984, a deal had been struck between Iacocca and DeTomaso to do a run of joint-produced sporty coupes with elegant styling and a driving experience befitting both the Chrysler and Maserati brands. In a fairly uninspiring naming convention, that car became the Chrysler TC by Maserati when it debuted at the 1986 Los Angeles auto show. The Q-platform it was based on was said to be unique, but was actually a shortened and lightly modified K-platform from the LeBaron and Dodge Daytona. The standard powertrain was the Daytona's 160-hp, 2.2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder paired with a three-speed automatic transmission.

By the time the TC hit showrooms three years later in 1989, an optional 200-hp, 16-valve Maserati-engineered cylinder head (which was actually built by England's Cosworth and assembled by Maserati in Italy), was available, along with a five-speed Getrag manual gearbox. The Maserati-tuned engine also boasted Mahle pistons, special Maserati crafted camshafts and a stronger crankshaft and connecting rods-just 501 TCs were so optioned. The price of a base TC without the Maserati goodies in 1989 was $33,000, some $14,000 more than the most expensive, but similar-looking LeBaron GTC you could buy. No wonder we suggested in our June 1988 issue that "TC" actually stood for "Too Costly."

Not surprisingly, neither the Cadillac Allanté nor the Chrysler TC by Maserati were what could be considered sales successes. Despite improvements to each car through their respective production runs (including a Mitsubishi-built 3.0-liter V-6 option for the TC and a 4.6-liter "Northstar" V-8 for the Allanté's  final model year), the Cadillac lasted seven years (1987-'93) in the marketplace, selling some 21,000 examples. The TC had just three years (1989-'91) in specially selected and trained Chrysler dealerships, with just over 7,000 examples finding buyers. Every Allanté and TC sold was said to lose money. Seeing either on the road today is a fairly rare sight, but good examples are still out there.

Case in point: The 1993 Cadillac Allanté and 1989 Chrysler TC by Maserati sitting in front of us by the Long Beach, California waterfront. The Chrysler was trailered here all the way from Arizona by Larry Carlson, a TC enthusiast of the first order who owns a several-hundred car strong TC wrecking yard (TCparts.com), and his family. Trailered? Well yes, this TC was actually purchased new by B. Karleen Tarola, the founder TC America, the self-proclaimed "Club for owners of the Chrysler TC by Maserati," (chryslertcbymaseraticlub.com). Despite Tarola's infectious enthusiasm for the model, her car has covered just 7,600 miles in its pampered life and clearly has been kept in tip-top condition. Today, it's a show piece though it does cover the odd mile here and there for club events or, say, a magazine feature.

Carlson shows us around the pale yellow TC before we get into the Italian leather-lined interior which is really quite decadent looking, even today. Virtually every surface is covered with supple cow hide or real wood. We're told it's rare to find a TC interior in such good condition; DeTomaso chose ultra-soft, furniture grade leather that just didn't hold up to use in a daily-driven convertible. Carlson tells us that you won't find a single screw exposed inside the car, another DeTomaso mandate. We try for a moment, then decide to believe him.

A twist of the key and the TC fires up into a steady idle as we pull the real wood shift knob down to 'D' and set off. Giving the throttle our all, we discover that the TC will easily keep up with traffic, but you shouldn't expect too much more from the eight-valve variant. Like many early turbocharged engines, power delivery is peaky with not a lot happening until the turbine starts spooling, which does give us some motivation to run the revs out. When boost does arrive, the power can't be considered overwhelming, but then again a little perspective is needed: this is a 30-year-old Chrysler. Similarly, the predictably vague and light steering is just a product of period Chrysler and while the TC feels like a small-ish car on the road, the ride is more luxurious than sporty, with supple damping and plenty of body roll. We're tempted to buy a spare pair of these seats for our living room-they're that comfortable.

Time to turn the TC's leather-wrapped steering wheel back toward our photo crew and Mike Borzi's Pearl Red 1993 Cadillac Allanté. Like Carlson, Borzi is another dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast of his chosen vehicle and is the president of the Cadillac Allanté Club of America's Los Angeles chapter. He also manufactures various aftermarket Allanté parts, including interior wind-deflectors and armrest cupholders. Nevertheless, this final-year Allante (one of two Allantes he currently owns, though he's made his way through several more in the past 20 years) is no show queen, proudly wearing 151,000 miles of use while looking like it's covered about half that distance.

The Allanté's design is immediately different than the TC, with its styling-by-straightedge body panels and interior features. Opening the large door, we're greeted with a somewhat rare standard analog instrument panel (many Allanté buyers opted for the digital version for an extra $600 or so) and a crisp center stack, angled cockpit-style towards the driver with a 'Pininfarina' emblem at the bottom. The seats are firmer and sportier than in the TC, and look it, and while the Allanté's interior is also filled with leather and wood, there's also more plastic than the Chrysler has. Overall, the Allante feels very contemporary and state-of-the-art compared to the TC's old-world charm.

The big Northstar DOHC V-8 fires up smoothly and quietly, befitting of a Cadillac, and accelerating down the road there's clearly a huge power advantage to the once far more expensive Allanté. Dipping into the throttle reveals a still-impressive 290 lb-ft of torque, the advantage of over twice the TC's displacement, naturally aspirated. Even the four-speed automatic transmission does a decent enough job of dropping down a cog or two to dip back into that power. The Allanté rides a little firmer and has better-controlled body motions than the TC despite feeling like a larger and heavier car. In this regard, it does seem to at least challenge Mercedes' SL with the stately feeling we have driving down the road. Expensive to build, once expensive to buy, the Allanté still feels like an expensive and impressive car from behind the wheel, even if its outright performance likely struggles to rival the new-generation R129 SLs that arrived by the time the Allanté was halfway through its lifecycle in 1990.

In retrospect, the Chrysler TC by Maserati feels like an elegant, well-finished wooden sailboat. Compact if not sporty, and of modest propulsion, it's a car to be enjoyed in leisurely way. The Cadillac Allanté, by comparison, is a cabin cruiser with sharper speed and style, but of larger stature and a more technology-based approach than one of emotion. The fact that less than $10,000 will get you prime examples of either of these luxury convertibles today can be considered a bit of good luck for bargain-seeking enthusiasts. May we recommend a glass of chianti while you peruse your local Craigslist?

1993 Cadillac Allanté
PRICE $59,975 (base when new)
ENGINE 4.6L DOHC 32-valve V-8/295 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 290 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
TRANSMISSION 4-speed automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, FWD convertible
EPA MILEAGE 13/20 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 178.7 x 73.4 x 51.5 in
WHEELBASE 99.4 in
WEIGHT 3,752 lb
0-60 MPH 7.2 sec
TOP SPEED 157 mph

 

1989 Chrysler TC by Maserati
PRICE $33,000 (base when new)
ENGINE 2.2L turbocharged SOHC 8-valve I-4/160 hp @ 5,200 rpm, 171 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION 3-speed automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, FWD convertible
EPA MILEAGE 16/20 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 175.8 x 68.5 x 51.9 in
WHEELBASE 93.0 in
WEIGHT 3,197 lb
0-60 MPH 9.5 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 129 mph