For the first time in my life, I own a completely worthless car.
Because so few ’90s Cadillac Seville STS models remain on the road and because I imagine that so many are sitting in salvage yards, my latest purchase wouldn’t bring more than scrap value if it decided to quit running. Fortunately, mine is still running great — but that actually makes it less than worthless.
How? Well, there are 7,623 reasons — maybe even more.
We’ll get to that.
Just about any ’90s luxury sedan is only going to be worth a small fraction of its original MSRP nowadays. But we’re beginning to see some exceptions: The cult followings that have sprung up around cars such as the Lincoln Town Car, the Acura Legend and myriad models from manifold European automakers prove that there’s some enthusiasm for this generation of cars, so long as they’re in great condition.
My 1993 Cadillac Seville STS certainly has the pedigree, considering I bought it from the original owner, and it only has 66,000 miles. For this near museum-quality artifact from the beginnings of Cadillac‘s Northstar generation, I paid $3,000.
But I’m starting to realize that I massively overpaid.
See, for a car to be collectible, people have to want to own it. The Lincoln Town Car is coveted because it’s the last of the dinosaurs: It’s the last , frame-on-body land yacht, and it’s extremely durable. With the Acura Legend, the Lexus LS and older European cars, it’s the appeal of a simple, serviceable platform with bank vault-like build quality, something that’s irresistible to enthusiasts who hate the word "infotainment."
Unfortunately, the only thing my Cadillac is famous for is blowing its head gasket before hitting 100,000 miles. But that’s not its only drawback.
Every car has its weak point, but few weak points are as widespread and fatal as the head gaskets on Northstar cars. Once the weak head bolts strip in the aluminum block, it’s a fight to the death between the combustion chamber and cooling system. The real victim of this deathmatch is the owner’s wallet, as the cost of the fix often vastly exceeds the value of the car, and owners, logically, dump the car as soon as possible. Because blown gaskets are an accepted fact of Northstar Cadillac ownership, the only people crazy enough to buy them are annoying car YouTubers with masochistic automotive proclivities.
But plenty of normal things can break on an older car, too. My Seville is no exception. Once I brought it home to chilly Kansas weather, I needed to fix the broken heater. But then I noticed a clunk in the front suspension, and the engine looked pretty oily underneath. Normally, I take my cars up to my trusted mechanic, the Car Wizard, for an honest assessment. This time, though, I took my newest purchase to the closest Cadillac dealer.
I did this to show how a small list of seemingly minor issues can mechanically total an old Cadillac just as easily as a blown head gasket can. I wasn’t disappointed.
The high cost of parts and labor factors into lofty dealership estimates — but honestly, I don’t fault them for their markup. The massive overhead and labor costs of these big operations have to get covered somehow, and the convenience, speed and quality of dealership service facilities is generally much more consistent than in independent shops. And I wasn’t interested in having them actually fix any of the issues on my Cadillac, anyway, but I was happy to let them figure out what failed with the antique automatic climate control system and poke around and see what else they could find.
I dropped off my Seville yesterday afternoon. By this morning, I had a complete list of all the problems, plus a short video from the mechanic showing the problem areas. The culprit of my climate control issues was is a failed computer. The dealer wanted $769 to replace it. The bulk of the cost was the part — but apparently, the fix requires tearing apart the dashboard, and that takes at least two hours.
Wait, it gets worse.
The suspension clunk is coming from the sway bar end links, but while the mechanic was inspecting the suspension, he noticed that the brakes needed replacing. Those’d be $337 and $420 to fix, respectively — which, even when combined with the climate control repair, might be something an older Cadillac owner could stomach.
The real shocker was the oil leaks. The valve cover gaskets and engine oil pan were seeping oil, and because of the transverse mounting of the front wheel-drive-based Northstar engine, neither is easy to reach. Getting to the valve cover gasket requires removing lots of other items out of the way, which isn’t unusual with modern engines, and replacing it would cost $658.
While that’s not outrageous, the oil pan job certainly is. To remove the oil pan, you have to drop the engine with the front suspension and subframe out of the bottom of the Seville. Despite the ridiculous amount of work it takes to reach this oil pan — and how critical it is to, you know, keep oil inside the engine — Cadillac decided that it didn’t need to seal these pieces with a gasket — just a generous application of engine sealant. Put into perspective, I can see why a Cadillac dealer would want $4,629 to fix a small oil leak.
Along with a recommended battery replacement, the estimated total cost of the repairs came to a whopping $7,623. After facing a massive repair bill like that, most owners will find a way to dump their cars as quickly as possible. Because I was morbidly curious, I decided to find out how much I could get if I wanted to dump my Cadillac fast. So I went to Carmax for a free appraisal.
Thirty minutes later, they offered $700 for my very clean but very broken Cadillac. If I had dumped my Seville to Carmax, it wouldn’t have be the biggest bath I’ve taken on a car. Still, it hurts to face reality.
I know from experience that any luxury car can become worthless, but I think this Cadillac is unique. An entire generation of buyers was turned off by this poorly engineered platform, which didn’t have enough endearing qualities to separate it from the luxury car competition (or overcome its evident faults).
Some brands offer a product special enough to get away with such massive engineering snafus, but oftentimes residual values are overlooked when calculating leases. Too, younger people are more likely to buy used vehicles — and if their introduction to a brand is similar to what many went through owning a ’90s Cadillac, they probably won’t want to buy another. Brand heritage only goes so far, and while Cadillac’s impressive current offerings don’t bear any resemblance to my 1993 Seville, I think the skeletons in Cadillac’s closet factor into their disappointing sales.
As for my Cadillac ownership experience: I’m an automotive masochist, so I’m going to fix mine. Mostly: The oil leaks are so minor that I won’t address them now, but I’m having my mechanic fix the heater and suspension so that I can enjoy winter drives. After that, I’m not sure what I’ll do. I’m morbidly curious how long it will last. Will the head gasket finally let go, or will it be something else that finally makes this Cadillac worthless enough to be recycled into soda cans, like so many of its siblings?
I guess we’ll see. Find a Cadillac STS for sale