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

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.''

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.

Open the hood, and it's like looking at an automotive pirate's chest, what with all the high-tech equipment powering myriad accessories. The engine is all but invisible.

Where's the Cadillac? Where's the acreage? Where does one look for the total Caddy package?

Not in this car, certainly; and not in the Seville, which feels like a bigger car (because it has four doors and sits on a slightly different frame), but not like what one remembers as a Caddy.

The particular pleasure of driving a Cadillac has never been road-feel. It was always creature comforts. And those are here in the Seville. But it is a boring car. And somehow a Cadillac never seemed boring. So it goes through the various models of latter-day Caddies.

Until one gets to the Fleetwood-Brougham, the car Cadillac reintroduced in 1986, dubbing it, ``the Classic Cadillac,'' to help combat a shrinking market share and falling sales, and to recapture some of those Cadillac loyalists who couldn't see squeezing themselves into a car that looked like a Mercury Cougar, but sported a Cadillac hood ornament.

Cadillac bills the car - now referred to simply as The Brougham - as ``the longest, tallest, heaviest luxury car made in America.'' And they aren't kidding.

You don't enter a Fleetwood. You more or less check into it. Like a luxury hotel.

This is a Caddy, all right. A wedding-white, broad-shouldered wide-rider cruises along the highway with a beefy sense of ownership, sucking up gas as if it had been hiding in a Texas oil field all through the years of oil embargoes and energy-consciousness. Maybe the inescapable symbolism of this car is associated with hauteur, arrogance, and greed generally. (Some people say they wouldn't buy one even if they could afford to, because of what it stands for.) But from the inside, it's hard not to like a classic Cadillac.

The mixture of stereo, motion, and moneyed charm reaches some kind of sublime eloquence in the cabin of this car. You hit the cruise control and glide into that peculiarly American eight-cylinder dream, which one suspects a European could never understand. You do feel, though, a bit like you're travelling in a time warp - piloting a dinosaur.

The age of such big Caddies may really be gone forever. A showroom manager told me this car sells to the retirees and others who still want to drive the car they dreamed of owning in the '40s and '50s. And who's to say Cadillac should be building '50s cars in the '80s?

Maybe modesty becomes a machine.

Cadillac has certainly responded to the call for modesty with its Cimarron, a tiny, cute-as-a-button model that appears in almost all respects a standard small car, except for the Cadillac hood ornament - which is awfully easy to overlook.

Which may be why a woman whose BMW was blocked in her driveway by a Cimarron came to the house of the offending driver one summery night, and asked pleasantly: ``Excuse me, is that your Cavalier out there?''

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