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As far as great ideas go, it’s right up there with travelling to the Arctic Circle to get ice cubes for your Tom Collins.
Rather than design and construct Cadillac’s new ‘LTS’ – luxury two-seater – in-house, General Motors instead decided to outsource both its styling and manufacture to Italian design guru Pininfarina.
In a move that would send today’s just-in-time manufacturers straight to the emergency room clutching their chests, the bodywork and interior of the 1986 Allanté would be handbuilt in Turin, before being air-freighted to the United States aboard a fleet of Alitalia and Lufthansa Boeing 747s, 56 units at a time, with the coachwork married to American-built engines and running gear in Detroit.
The same planes then carried components to Europe to start the whole process again. And that’s before some completed cars made the return trip to be sold in Europe.
You can almost hear Duncan Bannatyne’s soul-crushing ‘‘…and because of that, ahm oot” upon presentation of the idea.
But while you needn’t have a master’s degree in foresight to realise that the whole enterprise would be eye-wateringly expensive, it was in many ways better than the alternative.
General Motors wasn’t exactly geared up to design and build the car itself at the time, due largely to the recent closure of its Fisher Body Plant.
Nor was it sufficiently fleet of foot to make its existing mass-market infrastructure work quickly and efficiently for a car that would, even with the best will in the world, always be a niche product.
Pininfarina, on the other hand, offered a ready-made solution – albeit hampered by the minor inconvenience of a few thousand miles…
It helped that the companies had previous.
Way back in 1931 Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina, having recently parted ways with his brother, took on a commission for the Maharaja of Orchha, creating a stunning boat-tail speedster built around Cadillac’s famed V-16 engine and with a rumble seat for hunting tigers.
In later years the Detroit powerhouse and the carrozzeria collaborated again on the 1959 Eldorado Brougham, which like the Allanté was mainly built in Italy before being shipped to the States.
Before the Eldorado, Hudson famously paired with Pininfarina’s fellow Torinese coachbuilder Touring, creating the Italia as a last hurrah before its amalgamation into AMC.
Eugene Casaroll, meanwhile, shipped Chrysler chassis to Ghia before finishing his cars in Detroit.
Both endeavours should have perhaps served as a warning to Cadillac: when costs were tallied and the Italia project was canned, just 25 cars made their way from Italy, costing $4800 (more than a Caddy) by the time they hit the showrooms.
Casaroll, meanwhile, lost money on every Dual-Ghia sold. The Eldorado didn’t fare much better – fewer than 100 made the journey.
Despite the obstacles, Cadillac was determined to bring to market a luxury two-seater to take on the class-leading Mercedes-Benz 560SL – an idea that had been brewing since 1982.
The alliance between the US giant and Pininfarina was much more than a marketing exercise, with the Italian firm heavily involved in directing the project and GM chief engineer David Hill spending at least one week per month working in Turin.
When Cadillac first began to consider the Allanté, company chiefs understandably leaned towards the rear-drive set-up that was common to rivals such as the Beverly Hills favourite Mercedes SL.
But Pininfarina managed to steer things in a different direction by citing the handling benefits of front-wheel drive in snowy conditions and, perhaps more importantly, the potential styling opportunities that the layout would afford.
The logical choice of platform was the E/K chassis from the Eldorado, with bare floorpans and engine compartments being shipped to Turin, where they were shortened by around 8½in prior to being bodied.
The Eldorado and Seville also provided the basis of the Allanté’s suspension, which consisted of four enormous turrets with coils up front and a rear ‘Transflex’ single leaf spring, similar to that used on the Corvette.
Though much of the hardware was straight off the GM shelf, the system was fettled extensively: among the refinements were deflective-disc strut valving, which resisted damper fluid aeration, and modifications to the Eldorado’s hubs to allow fitment of Bosch ’s anti-lock braking system.
The Allanté marked a massive departure from Cadillac’s conventional luxo-barges, but in addition to the running gear and underpinnings, much of the car’s construction was straight from the firm’s familiar playbook.
The body panels, with the exception of the bonnet, hardtop and bootlid, were made from West German double-galvanised steel, though other options were considered.
Pininfarina, for its part, would have made more extensive use of aluminium to complement the one-piece Alusuisse alloy panels used on the upper portions of the car, while GM was tempted by a composite that would better resist parking dings.
Ultimately, however, tried and tested materials won out.
General Motors also looked close to home for the powerplant, making use of the aluminium-block, iron-head ‘High Technology’ 4.1-litre 90º V8 that had joined the model line-up in 1982, albeit with a few choice improvements.
The HT4100 was given sequential multi-port fuel injection and high-flow swirl intake ports, plus low-friction pistons and a unique high-capacity finned aluminium oil pan, where the rest of the range made do with steel.
Following Mercedes’ lead, no manual transmission was offered and Cadillac beefed up its THM440 four-speed auto to cope with the extra urge.
Shifts from second to third and third to fourth were controlled by computer, coupled with an imperceptible spark retard to back off the torque at the right moment, prolonging the life of the ’box.
As well as an increase in twist to 230lb ft, power was upped from 140 to a useful 170bhp – sufficient to hustle the Allanté from a standstill to 60mph in a shade under 10 seconds and on to a top speed of 125mph, but not enough for engineers in Stuttgart to lose any sleep.
Surprisingly, the pace fell some way short of the firm’s self-imposed benchmark, with the 560SL taking around 8 secs to get to 60mph and boasting a top speed just shy of 140mph.
It was a failing not lost on the Cadillac’s designers, who were painfully aware that enthusiasts would demand more.
But, just like the decision to outsource construction to Italy, the performance figures were a pragmatic trade-off: top brass were more frightened by their new flagship being branded a ‘gas guzzler’ back home than they were of losing to Mercedes at the lights.
In production trim, the Allanté’s combined fuel economy was just a whisker away from the punishing sub-22.5mpg tax category – and the negative publicity it would inevitably bring.
Inside, the cabin is like something out of a B-movie remake of Battlestar Galactica, a vision of the future centred around a ‘wedge’ Lagonda-like digital dashboard from Japanese firm Yasaki – one small part of around 40% of components to come from outside the United States.
Flick on the ignition and the flat black LCD face lights up with digital representations of the tachometer, speedo and temperature gauges, a surprisingly clean and clear display that only suffers when hit with direct sun.
In lower-light conditions you get a great view of the instruments thanks to the enormous two-spoke steering wheel, which though smaller than the Merc’s was meant to be daintier still – until engineers realised that it interfered with the driver’s view of the dash, which had already been designed.
Any semblance of simplicity gleaned from the sleek digital dashboard is completely negated by the rest of the centre console, which resembles the aftermath of an explosion at a scientific-calculator factory.
There are buttons absolutely everywhere, for just about everything. No fewer than 50 individual controls operate all manner of functions, from the heater to the onboard computer, including some with names that can’t help but make you smile such as the ‘Twilight Sentinel’ automatic lights – a distant relation of GM’s Autronic Eye.
Sitting in the middle of the centre console is an old-school tape deck – the sort of thing we used to record the singles chart as kids.
As an attempt at modernity, it has all the energy of the Amstrad E-mailer phone.
Despite the gadget overload, the Allanté scores high in terms of ergonomics.
The cockpit is an incredibly comfortable place to be, with plenty of space and acres of treated maroon hide – one of two colours offered at launch.
The seats, multi-adjustable affairs from Recaro, are among the most comfortable I’ve sat in, and there’s all the elbow and legroom the taller driver could want.
Where it most impresses – and where no doubt Pininfarina earned its money – is in its refinement out on the road, where the lack of buffeting or wind noise comes as a surprise.
Barrelling along through the Chichester countryside – ahead of Bonhams’ SpeedWeek sale on 17 October 2020, where this car sold for £12,650 – is perhaps not where Cadillac’s designers anticipated the Allanté being put through its paces.
After all, most returned to the States and, though it was hoped the car would be a hit in Europe, few (including our test car) made it further than Switzerland.
But while most Caddies of this vintage have all the handling prowess of a fairground bumper car, the Allanté is neat and composed.
There’s no hiding its near-3500lb heft, but whatever witchcraft was worked on the Eldorado-derived suspension paid dividends: the ride is smooth even over rough surfaces, and it manages to keep a lid on bounce and dive.
It’s got power, too. The gearbox is remarkably sharp, with a peppy kickdown that makes the most of the big V8’s 170 horses.
It isn’t quick by any stretch, but it’s urgent enough when you want it to be and more than capable of putting a smile on your face, especially with the roof down when you can make the most of the soundtrack.
Of course, it gives its best in a straight line: where the weight works with you when guiding the Allanté through sweepers, every kilogram makes itself known in sharper bends.
Go in a bit hot and you’ll be met with plenty of understeer that will set the front wheels scrabbling.
Greater power came in later years, with an updated 4.5-litre car arriving in 1989 and a 4.6-litre version with the new ‘Northstar’ V8 in 1993.
With 295bhp on tap the run-out model must have been a real handful; I suspect the 200bhp 4.5 is something of a sweet spot.
For all the Allanté’s quirks, you have to admire Cadillac ’s ambition in trying to elbow its way into the super-luxury sports car segment.
At a time when the rest of the US auto industry was focused on building SUVs and minivans, General Motors stuck its head above the parapet in the hope of creating something truly special, challenging the status quo and seeking to usurp the very best that Europe had to offer.
As with a gangland hit, if you’re going to take a potshot at the Don you’d better make damn sure you don’t miss, but by taking aim at the Mercedes-Benz SL Cadillac ended up shooting itself in the foot.
The Allanté fell so far short of the mark in terms of build quality, dynamism and performance that the two cars were barely comparable, yet the comparison is in escapable.
In truth, the Allanté is not a bad car – not by a stretch. There are some brittle plastics, and the performance and handling are only likely to excite for the wrong reasons.
However now, just as in period, you probably won’t set out to buy an Allanté for its 0-60mph time or top speed.
As a classy boulevardier with sharp, contemporary styling – looks that have only improved with age –it offers a compelling alternative to the accomplished yet slightly conservative SL.
And the best bit? Today, you don’t have to dig half as deep to realise the dream.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to Bonhams
- Sold/number built 1986-’93/21,430
- Construction steel chassis, steel and aluminium body panels
- Engine alloy-block, iron-heads, ohv 4087cc 90º V8, multi-port fuel injection
- Max power 170bhp @ 4300rpm
- Max torque 235lb ft @ 3200rpm
- Transmission four-speed automatic, FWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts, lateral and trailing links, anti-roll bar rear struts, control arms, transverse GRP leaf spring
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes ventilated front, solid rear discs
- Length 14ft 10½in (4536mm)
- Width 6ft 1½in (1864mm)
- Height 4ft 4in (1321mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 3½in (2525mm)
- Weight 3488lb (1542kg)
- 0-60mph 9.8 secs
- Top speed 125mph
- Mpg 22.8
- Price new $54,700
- Price now £10-15,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication