Back in the 1970s, Cadillac and Lincoln were facing an onslaught of luxury imports. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Jaguar were all moving in on their sales and they needed to adapt to the newbies, which were just as luxurious (if not more) for a decent price, with better economy and reliability. Both brands went to the drawing board, and within two years of each other debuted a new, smaller model which was designed to give an owner the same experience as the bigger cars, but with a nod to better economy and practicality.
But, that’s where the similarities ended, because one company of those two hit the nail on the head and sold more than 4 times the amount in its first generation alone. Cadillac’s Seville is a car that most people associate with Florida snowbirds doing 50 in the left lane, but it’s got a history that can be looked at with a lot more respect. The Lincoln Versailles, on the other hand, was an out-and-out failure and was dropped after 1980.
The Seville, introduced in 1975, was full of firsts for Cadillac. It was the first Cadillac ever to use a diesel engine, as well as the first one to not use a Cadillac-designed engine as standard equipment It was also based on a design from the GM parts bin. The Cadillac team used the chassis of the Chevrolet Nova as the starting point, but made sure that it differed significantly from the donor car in multiple ways. The Nova, which had a decent reputation and a proven design, was a good starting point to work from. The body was completely different from its parent, while the engines were from Oldsmobile. The interior was a completely different animal as well, with much higher-quality materials for the time period. The chassis was modified as well so that the Seville was not the same driving experience as the lowly Nova. Strangely, despite the Seville being the most expensive car Cadillac sold that year, it also was a huge success thanks to savvy marketing and an up-to-date design. The car had staying power, as Cadillac built nearly 1 million Sevilles before it was retired in 2004.
Lincoln saw the same problem, and by all appearances, attempted to do the same type of method in creating a smaller luxury car. The Versailles was also based on the same type of car, in this case, the Ford Granada. The Granada, by all accounts, was not that good a car. In addition,Lincoln didn’t do quite enough to ward off the whiff of the Granada (itself a re-hashed Ford Maverick), despite doing work behind the skin to refine its design so that the Versailles would appeal to finer-taste and higher-income buyers. First off, the interior wasn’t a big change, so when a potential buyer walked into a Lincoln-Mercury dealership and sat in the new Versailles, they saw a dashboard straight out of the Mercury Monarch (the Granada’s twin brother). The Granada was far too close in styling to the Versailles, while the Seville still looked distinctly different from its Nova roots. Also, Ford had already attempted to market the Granada (in the most cynical and probably the least-thought-out marketing attempt of the 1970s) as an alternative to the posh and popular Mercedes 280, while Lincoln was chasing the exact same buyers. The car was also not up to date at launch, making the Versailles appear behind with its exposed wipers and too-close styling at too high a price. The Versailles was given a quick burial and no funeral in 1980 after just over 50,000 were produced.
What does this teach us today?
Badge engineering is a simple concept, on paper. Take lower-priced car, gussy it up, sell it for a higher price under another name. But it’s not that simple–even now, manufacturers make a mess of it. General Motors has done it right with the Buick Verano, thanks to separate engines, a completely different body shell, and a changed interior, but did it wrong with the Cadillac Cimarron, which was a Cavalier with leather and a cynically high price tag. One can also make the case that every single GM W-body product (no love gained for any of them on this website) is an example of where GM missed the plot, where all models had the same engines and interiors, and different body trims and just barely discernible changes in suspension tuning (You can’t tell the difference? Don’t worry, neither can the experts). However, Ford didn’t really learn from their mistakes, and when the FWD Continental came out in 1988 based on the Ford Taurus, no one laughed and the Continental name failed to recover. They’re even still at it with the Lincoln Navigator, which really is an Expedition with an analog clock. But, imports are just as guilty.
Acura’s a great example of a company doing badge-engineering right, and wrong. The TSX, which I’ve had the pleasure to drive, is a funny one because it’s a European Honda Accord, which is actually a great plan because the Accord in Europe is more upscale compared to the American model (it’s also tailored more to a European style and size), so it fits in as an Acura in the USA, where Honda’s name is only in one market level. The ILX, on the other hand, is a bit cynical in that it’s a Honda Civic with a bit more leather and the engine out of the Civic Si as an option. If anyone is going to take a cheaper car and improve it, let this be a warning: Don’t just throw leather in it, change the badges, and call it a day, like Lincoln still seems to do and Chrysler consistently does (anybody remember the Chrysler TC by Maserati? Good, let’s not bring that up). Nissan did a poor job as well with the old G20–a Nissan Primera with “Nissan” scratched off all the panels and “Infiniti” scribbled in crayon. The bottom line is this: if a company is going to badge-engineer anything, pick a decent car to use as a base point (the Cruze was a good idea, the Cavalier was not. The European Accord was a good idea, the Chrysler LeBaron was definitely not). Then, don’t just slap badges on it and go have Burger King–make it feel like more than its cousin, and give buyers a reason to choose it over the car it’s based on. If a company can’t understand this simple fact, then go back to the drawing board.
-Albert S. Davis