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CADILLAC. Once synonymous with luxury, and all that is opulent and grandiose, this peculiarly American eight-cylinder dream has lost some of its glamour in recent years

By Christopher SwanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 8, 1987


A gleaming red '86 Cadillac Eldorado pulls up at a curbside pay phone. As the driver gets out, a man standing nearby shakes his head in disbelief, staring at the car. ``Man, is that an Eldorado?'' he asks, sounding almost betrayed. ``They sure took a lot out of that car.'' Then he saunters over to his own '84 Eldorado - larger by a country mile, and somehow much more Cadillac-looking - saying with finality, ``Well, I'm keeping the one I've got.''

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Another Caddy loyalist holds onto the dream.

As Cadillac has responded in recent years to the call of the minimalist, shaving fenders and chopping chassis, the company has also redefined an American icon, a nameplate which once arguably had more ready-made identity than any other in America. To Cadillac owners and non-owners, the car has always meant something: opulence, even snobbery; magnificent pretention; luxury you couldn't miss.

Cadillac once rolled over all comers as the essential means of transport to the American dream.

German carmakers may have changed all that forever. The status-symbol-of-choice designation has definitely shifted to BMW and Mercedes. But that hasn't changed an id'ee fixe in the minds of many Americans, an image of what a real luxury car should be - and even how we should feel about cars.

So, how are we supposed to feel about Cadillac today? Have resizing, rethinking, and retooling basically engineered all the dreams out of America's erstwhile dream machine? Can Cadillac pull its own weight in the status-symbol sweepstakes any more?

To properly answer these questions, you must first look back at the romance once conjured up by Cadillac. Convincing evidence that this romance was very real indeed can be found in a remarkable book called simply, ``Cadillac'' (Rizzoli, $50). Photographed by Stephen Salmieri (some of the photos were tinted by his artist wife, Sydnie Michele Salmieri), Cadillacs young and old, battered and glistening, adorn the highways, parking lots, and curbs of America. There is a text by Owen Edwards; but the real business of the book is to portray Cadillacs in their natural opulence and sometimes shameful deterioration.

Strangely, the condition of the cars has little bearing on the feeling each of them conveys. Mass and scale loom out of these pictures, a metallic statement of what it means to possess something grandly. The lines and curves may be eaten by rust or banged with negligence, but they never lose their identity.

Something ghostly speaks through the tinting, something almost gone from our horizons, a nearly forgotten arrogance.

The outspoken Cadillac - brash, American-by-jingo!, heavy, lusciously pompous in all its gleaming insouciance - moves in these pages through decades of spreading hoods and lengthening tail fins. The Caddy may have bowed to the passing fashions in car design, but it never stopped preening itself as the adored white elephant of the upwardly mobile.

The memory of which lends a strange feeling to the glove-like Eldorado mentioned earlier - snug and rich, but also just ... well, small. The car gleams like one of Dorothy's ruby slippers. Step on the gas, and you embark on a gliding, smooth ride - with the Cadillac hood ornament constantly tracing its insignia on the white-line ribbon spooling out before you. Computer displays wink greenly at you out of the darkened dashboard.