My Car Quest

October 22, 2019

The Cadillac Allante: There Was Many A Slip Twixt The Cup And The Lip On The Way To An All-Italian Design For GM….

by Wallace Wyss –

William L. Mitchell was the heir apparent to General Motors’ first director of design, Harley Earl. Mitchell had the same sort of showmanship as his former boss, even dressed the same, and, like Earl, even drove one-off prototypes as if they were his own. He ruled the Styling Deptartment as if it was his fiefdom. But in 1977, he had to retire when he reached mandatory retirement age of 65.

Now there was Charles “Chuck” Jordan as his heir apparent, and Jordan, being a Ferrari owner, was a car guy through and through but due to some faux pas, where he had alienated some powerful bigwig on the Board, he was not handed the scepter, instead was made to wait while Irv Rybacki served as VP in charge of Styling (later changed to “Design”).

Cadillac Allante

Cadillac Allante

So it was that in July 1977, the selection committee bypassed Chuck Jordan and instead put Irv Rybicki in as the new design VP. Rybicki had the experience, having been in every division’s studio except Buick.

Rybicki was, though, colorless.

And you do not get exciting cars out of colorless.

According to historian Mike Lamm (writing in a book on GM design history with the late Dave Holls of GM Styling) Jordan had once been Rybicki’s boss so it was tough for Jordan to keep going with this reversal of fortune.

And new products were being proposed that required a bold approach.

Buick had done some thinking of an open car but at first the idea was shot down then revived again, this time for Cadillac.

WHY NOT ITALIAN?

Now way back in Detroit automotive history, there had been several previous attempts to have Italian designed cars like the Hudson Jet, the DeTomaso Pantera, the Dual Ghia. All sold some cars but nothing like volume sellers.

But GM was suffering a crisis of confidence. The top brass felt like if a luxury two seater Cadillac was all American it might not have enough “class.” The car they were aiming at was the Mercedes-Benz R107 SL roadster which sold like hotcakes. Cadillac dealers wanted a car like that. So in ’92, GM began working on it, eventually choosing a name that sounds to me like a play on Atlantis, the fabled lost empire.

It was chosen to be front drive, probably the first serious mistake as they were challenging a rear drive Mercedes.

Mercedes by the way had a fixed head coupe version, the SLC.

GM decided to offer a hardtop which would have a soft top underneath.

They went back to Pininfarina not only for styling but for building the car. When I say “back” GM had been a Pininfarina customer before—with the limited-production 1959-1960 Eldorado Brougham — though the Eldorado Brougham had been designed in Detroit. (When you see the Italian version, though, you can see little evidences of Italian re-styling).

This time, GM decided the new roadster should have the cache of being built as well as designed in Turin.

Cadillac Allante

Cadillac Allante

Now that was a mighty how-do-ya-do to the pencil pushers back in Warren, Michigan at the Design Center.

Guys like Jordan were torn because he liked Pininfarina (especially as owner at some point of a Pininfarina-penned Lusso) but the implication was also that GM with their 3000 designers didn’t have one that could out-do an Italian.

Rybicki also reportedly fought for the honor of the domestic designers, asking for a postponement so his studio could do a design. Alas those in-house drawings were not released so we will never now what the all-American Allante would have looked like.

Cadillac chief designer Wayne Kady has been quoted that he thought GM high brass had decided to go with an Italian design even before Cadillac’s designers got started.

The fix was in.

EXPECTING EURO QUALITY

The GM management had bought into the idea that Pininfarina would come out with a car whose assembly quality and detail finish Cadillac couldn’t match. They might have been judging on cars that were much more expensive than cars GM sold, cars like Ferraris. Even back in the ‘50s the all-American designed all American built Cadillac Eldorado Brougham four door (the one with suicide doors in back) was superior in quality to the one Pininfarina built in Italy.

THE AIR BRIDGE

To make sure they could put the Pininfarina badge on the side, they decided to build the body in Italy atop a floorpan shipped from Detroit. This was done by plane so it was called the “air bridge”.

Making the result running cars in Michigan pushed the price tag up, so it was twice the price of a Cadillac Sedan.

In my judgement, the American public wouldn’t have cared if it was bodied in Detroit just as VW Karmann Ghia owners never cared that the Ghia design done in Italy was built by Karmann in Germany.

And the performance was, alas, lazy, not much better than the Buick two seater, the Reatta.

Only the final model of Allante, the 1993 model, had any guts, with the 295 horsepower (220 kW) Northstar engine, but that engine was plagued by recalls.

WAS THE ITALIAN DESIGN COMPROMISED?

Ironically, about that Italian styling, Chuck Jordan himself told me he wasn’t supposed to look at the design over in Italy but since he was in Italy a lot (being over at Opel part of that time) he begged a look and his buddy Sergio Pininfarina relented. Now I can’t believe Jordan didn’t suggest a few things that made it look more GM. Though in this case “more GM” meant “less Italian.”

As luck would have it, when I was researching this article I came across a drawing on the net which was an original Pininfarina drawing of the Allante signed by the artist Mario Vernacchia. When I Googled Mario’s name, I was able to contact him directly and he straightened me out on a few things, among them confirming that, yes indeed, Jordan looked at the car before it’s design was finalized (“hardened” is the phrase they use in the industry).

This rare deisgn rendering looks more Italian

This rare deisgn rendering looks more Italian

Vernacchia wrote me and I quote from his e-mail:

the design (was) to be unconditionally Italian! No … influences and contaminations have to be considered from current GM automotive styling.

In fact at that time the ‘GM Style’ was oriented to very ‘boxy’ shapes with sharp edges; on the contrary the Allantè style was based on a more soft and rounded bodywork with streamlined feature lines.

(Mr. Jordan said)

The Allantè will be ‘The New Spirit of Cadillac’ an ultra luxury roadster unlike any that has come before it!

Chuck only suggested to introduce for the Allantè a front grille similar to the typical Ferrari grill (the classic net with the rectangular pattern).

In my mind the goal was to conceive an attractive and durable design, not affected by the time: in other words, my real strong ambition was to perform a ‘timeless design’ like in the best tradition of Ferrari-Pininfarina.

As far as my question I put to him about the design resembling the Lancia Gamma Coupe, he said that Pininfarina was doing several cars with the same design themes but they were never copying that car intentionally.

Lancia Gamma Coupe

Lancia Gamma Coupe

He also said the plastic top boot was always foremost, and no leather or vinyl traditional boot lid for the folded top was considered. As far as the headlights, he considers it an achievement that a one piece lens was used rather than two rectangular ones as GM was using at the time.

Looking back, Mario Vernacchia is quite proud of his role with the Allante, amazing when you consider he was self-taught as far as car design (though a mechanical engineer), not a graduate of Art Center or any other car design school, and it was his first big job. In 2007 Mario Vernacchia and his brother Sandro founded “VD” (Vernacchia Design) an independent Design Studio that provides design services for automotive, railway vehicles, buses, seacraft, and aerospace projects. More than 200 projects have been done for customers worldwide.

Lancia Gamma Coupe

Lancia Gamma Coupe

Even though my critique of the car centers on my belief that the Italian influence is not as much as it could have been, and the mechanicals are disappointing, I have to admit I still lust after one. I was at church the other day and this young man about 45 arrives in a pearlescent white one with aftermarket mag wheels and those thin whitewalls with the extra gold line (Vogue?).

And I had to admit that it looked damned good for a car that was over two decades old. Especially when you consider all its attributes: Italian body, Italian styling (sorta-kinda), Pininfarina badge, two seater, American drivetrain. V8. Removable hardtop. All at say, present used prices sometimes being under $5,000—at or near the price of say a used Toyota Avalon which has utterly no cache by comparison.

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is a fine artist whose prints of exotics from his original paintings will be available at Concorso Italiano in Monterey this August.

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Summary
The Cadillac Allante: There Was Many A Slip Twixt The Cup And The Lip On The Way To An All-Italian Design For GM….
Article Name
The Cadillac Allante: There Was Many A Slip Twixt The Cup And The Lip On The Way To An All-Italian Design For GM….
Description
The author speaks with the Italian designer of the Cadillac Allante.
Author

Comments

  1. Don Sicura says

    I was the fortunate owner of a 91 Allante, by all measures it was a masterpiece of design, it had adequite power, was well appointed and an overall wonderful car, the shortcomings were the cheap shortcuts GM built into the car (with cheap plastic interior parts falling apart or just crumbling away) and the brake problems which required constant attention to keep functioning and the improperly treated aluminum body panels which were prone to corrosion. But, over all this truly was a very special car, sad to say I had to sell this beauty because the cost of keeping her on the road was crazy expensive, it seemed that everyone was hoarding the parts for these things & if you were lucky enough to find the part you needed, it was very expensive.

  2. Rob Krantz says

    Mike, I saw an Allante the other day, after not seeing one in the flesh for years. It looked really good. I had not cared much for them when they came out and never did much at all. I have a feeling though that these “sleepers” will become sought after collectibles at some point.

  3. Rollie Langston says

    Another terrific article from the talented hand of Wallace Wyss. I think he is right about the FWD power train selection. GM was likely trying to one-up the Mercedes roadster with a “better” configuration. I am reminded of the Toranado-derived FWD Cadillac Eldorado. That car also had great style, but the design did not endure. A very nice original 48,000 mi Allante just sold at the Branson Auction for $6,600.

  4. Werd Bmocsil says

    Wow, how weird.

    I, too, hadn’t seen one of these in YEARS, and yet on my way home _yesterday_ there was an Allante, top down, cruising down the highway. Not even close to ‘collectible’ condition, but the lines nevertheless made me slow down for a better look.

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