If we could teleport back to 1997 and somehow found ourselves sitting in the product planning department at General Motors, we might see a room full of suited-up executives from Cadillac and GMC sitting in front of their Compaq Presario laptops arguing about how their fancy version of Chevy’s new Tahoe would be the best one to take on the Lincoln Navigator.
Back then, the first-generation Lincoln Navigator was already showing all the signs of a huge profit-maker. Certainly from the shiny windows of Detroit’s Rennaisance Center high-rise complex GM had just moved into (fun fact: These iconic buildings were Henry Ford II’s brainchild), executives understood the simplicity of the Navigator. Underneath, it was just a Ford Expedition.
Sure, it had leather seats and woodgrain trim, plus a big grille and plenty of side cladding. It also cost about $7,000 more than an Expedition Eddie Bauer, and everyone gathered in this theoretical meeting at GM knew that the Navigator did not cost $7,000 more to build. It was probably more like $70.
Profit, And Lots Of It.
What everyone must have agreed about in this smoky theoretical conference room (fun fact: You could still smoke in Michigan restaurants on New Year’s Eve in 2009) was that Cadillac and GMC both needed dressy SUVs.
What arrived for the 1999 model year, though, was a pair of identical SUVs separated only by a $3,200 price tag.
The GMC Yukon Denali was priced at about $43,000, and that money bought a Yukon with unique exterior body cladding, chrome wheels, running boards, nicer two-tone leather upholstery, Bose speakers, and a smattering of wood trim.
The Cadillac Escalade would set you back $46,200 or so, and that extra coin (more than $5,000 today) bought only Cadillac badges and perforated single-tone leather upholstery.
Seriously, that was it. OK, Cadillac’s warranty was a year longer than GMC’s, and its dealers had a tonier reputation — though admittedly there were (and still are) plenty of dealers that sold both brands under the same roof.
Here’s the best part, though: Chevy and GMC dealers were treated to redesigned Tahoe and Yukon SUVs for the 2000 model year, but the Escalade and Yukon Denali carried over unchanged. These “flagship” SUVs were close relatives to pickups introduced more than a decade prior. Can you imagine any automaker trying that one today?
Both the Escalade and the Yukon Denali have been long-term success stories for GM. The Escalade quickly usurped the Navigator in sales and today it is unquestionably the flagship of the Cadillac lineup. The current model’s curved control panel is a thing of the future, and a well-equipped Escalade tops $100,000 with ease. Hey, there’s that profit thing again.
At GMC, it took barely a decade for Denali to become its own sub-brand. There’s a Denali version of every GMC bar the Savana full-size van, and it’s no stretch to imagine that GMC product planners ensconced in that conference room have envisioned such a thing at least once.
First-generation Escalade and Yukon Denali SUVs are not easy to find today, especially in good condition. Here’s a 1999 Yukon Denali with limited modifications in Detroit for $6,000. Escalade examples seem slightly more plentiful, though for either you’ll want to set an Autotrader alert. Here’s a remarkably sharp 1999 Escalade with just over 100,000 miles in North Carolina for $7,000 or so. Find a Cadillac Escalade for sale or Find a GMC Yukon Denali for sale