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Fender Skirts and a Hint of Tail Fins

Times Staff Writer

In the retro-traditionalist 1980s, it was bound to happen. Tail fins are making a comeback of sorts. To be sure, they aren’t the hideously sharp fins of the early 1960s. But modest, squared-off fins seem to be sprouting on the back ends of 1989 Cadillacs just the same.

“I would say they certainly are not big fins in the way Cadillac had in the 1950s and 1960s, but they are leading in that direction,” observes Chris Cedergren, a Cadillac historian as well as a market analyst with J. D. Power & Associates, an automotive consulting firm. “They are subtle fins.”

Cadillac doesn’t call them tail fins--they are officially “vertical tail lamps"--but company executives don’t argue the point very much. The rear features haven’t existed on Cadillacs since the 1970s, and were added, Cadillac officials acknowledge, to let buyers know that the old Caddy is back.

Indeed, the return of the fin on Cadillac’s redesigned 1989 Fleetwood Sedan and Coupe de Ville models, which were introduced at a press conference here Tuesday, seems to be part of a larger strategy designed to evoke an era when bigger, heavier and showier was deemed better.

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Cadillac lost many of its traditional customers in the mid-1980s, when it switched over to downsized models that looked too much like Buicks and Oldsmobiles, and now Cadillac officials say they are determined to make Cadillacs stand out to win those buyers back.

“When you look at that car, there is no question in your mind that it is a Cadillac,” Cadillac General Manager John Grettenberger said Tuesday as he pointed to a Fleetwood after the press conference. “You are not going to see our competitor using that car in a commercial where the man can’t find his car in the parking lot because it looks too much like every other car,” he added, referring to a particularly devastating Lincoln-Mercury ad that lampooned Cadillac’s look-alike problem.

Along with its modest fins, the 1989 Fleetwood has been equipped with rear fender skirts, the first on a Caddy since 1976. At the same time, the Fleetwood has been lengthened by nine inches and the Coupe de Ville has grown by six.

“They are trying to make it more of a legitimate Cadillac, trying to bring it back to the standards the car had 15 to 20 years ago,” notes Cedergren.

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The 1989 models are the first Caddies in the 1980s to carry anything resembling fins and thus represent a reversal of a trend that began in 1965, when Cadillac’s designs began to move away from sharp and showy fins towards a boxier look. Fins remained in some form until the late 1970s, but they were sedate by comparison with those of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Cadillac dealers, who previewed the new cars last week, say they are pleased with Cadillac’s decision.

“I think this was an attempt to take a traditional step back,” says Bob Rader, general sales manager of Martin Cadillac in West Los Angeles, the largest Cadillac dealer in California. “I think the dealers all came away with a feeling that we are going in a real good direction.”

THE 1989 CADILLAC FLEET

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- De Ville and Fleetwood coupes and sedans have been stretched 6 and 9 inches, respectively.

- The Fleetwood series gets fender skirts, the first since 1976.

- The extensive restyling has a price tag: On a comparably equipped basis, De Villes and Fleetwoods are up about 4.5% to a starting price of $25,435. When measured by base price only, they are up 8.7%, or $2,031.

- The $57,000 luxury roadster Allante has a larger, 4.5-liter V8 engine and an electronically controlled suspension system. The larger engine makes it the first and only GM-built car to be subject to a gas-guzzler tax, raising its price by $650.

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