The 1988 Cadillac Voyage Concept Charted a Course for the 21st Century

It’s not an exaggeration to say the Voyage saved Cadillac from itself—and GM—at a critical point in its history.

byBenjamin Hunting| UPDATED Sep 23, 2021 7:37 PM
The 1988 Cadillac Voyage Concept Charted a Course for the 21st Century

By the end of the 1980s, Cadillac had boxed itself into a corner—at least when it came to design. A decade spent distancing itself from the excesses of the previous era's land yachts lead to downsizing, the sharing of front-wheel drive platforms with its GM corporate cousins and a distinctly square appearance for nearly every vehicle in the showroom. The only car that deviated even slightly from this game plan was the Cadillac Allante roadster, which would eventually fail for an entirely different set of reasons. Simply put, things were getting stale.

(Editor's note: It's easy to dismiss concept cars as marketing gimmicks and dead-end design exercises. But every once in a while, a company gives away the secret to its future without anyone noticing. With ever-grander promises about electrification, autonomy and material advances being made by today's concepts, I thought it'd be useful to take a look through the archives to see how and when the major engineering and design trends that define the present were actually seeded. This recurring column by the great Ben Hunting is called The Most Important Concept Cars You Forgot All About, and its aim is to give you the tools to understand what's really coming next. -- KC)


Cadillac wasn't alone in this obsession with right angles. Almost every large car (and most of the mid-sizers) built by General Motors during the same period fell prey to the same boxiness. It wasn't until the Ford Taurus arrived on the scene in 1986 that Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Cadillac stylists were put on notice that the status quo was no longer going to cut it among those seeking visual excitement in a domestic automobile.

Unwilling to concede any further on size, Cadillac's brain trust decided it was time for a radical shift in how it shaped its sheet metal. The end result was the 1988 Cadillac Voyage (by the way, that's VoyAHHje, like bon voyage), a monster luxury sedan that didn't just telegraph the next 10 years of styling for GM's biggest mile-eaters, but also previewed Cadillac's foray into high-tech territory that would become a key part of its changing image once the 20th century drew to a close. Though Cadillac's journey to a company that can embrace something like Super Cruise didn't begin here, the Voyage was an aptly-named spirit quest that clarified a lot of what the future of American luxury should be all about.

Technology First, Design... Also First

When the Cadillac Voyage Concept rolled onto the stage in New York City for the first time in 1988, it tried its best to draw attention to what was on the inside of its eye-catching shape. GM elected to unveil the car at its Teamwork & Technology show, which was a fancy hooplah at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the vein of the old Motorama tech and design exhibitions. It went all-in on promoting the various telecommunications and electronics features stuffed into its cabin.


These included things like a dual-screen navigation system, a hands-free phone that could respond to voice commands, and even a rearview camera to assist in both highway driving and reversing the extended auto (which was 212.6 inches long, or roughly the same length as a same-year Ford F-150). The car also boasted an "active" four-wheel drive system that could computer-activate the front axle should a loss of traction be detected while driving, a novelty in an era where all-wheel drive was still outside of the mainstream.

And yet, to focus on any of these features was to miss the true message of the what the Voyage Concept was hinting about GM's future. While they might have sizzled on the Cadillac's highlight reel, almost every one of its gizmos (save for a coded keyless access panel) was many, many years away from reaching the options list of any production car.

The '90s In Plain Sight

Instead, the real story was that General Motors had brazenly displayed its upcoming design language not just for Cadillac's full-fleet make-over, but also the entire family of B-body sedans (and wagons). The Voyage was the sleekest and most imposingly-styled Cadillac to have been delivered in the modern era, with much of its ultra-slippery looks attributed to wind tunnel testing that pushed its drag coefficient to sports car-like 0.28.

Gone were the pizza-box proportions seen on Sevilles, Caprices, and Roadmasters. From every angle the Voyage refuted the existing dogma that guided GM's full-size visuals. Along the sides the sedan's body was dominated by a single crease that ran from the front fender all the way to the taillights notched out of the very top of the trunk. The rockers rolled under the sills to help reduce wind resistance, the bumpers were fully integrated into the body, and the steeply-angled windshield directed air up and over the car after it had been bisected by the Voyage's relatively narrow snout. Cadillac claimed a 200-mph top speed from the concept, although that came with a heavily-weighted asterisk of it being untested.

Within three short years, the concept's ripple effects had made their way into showrooms.

It started with the 1991 Chevrolet Caprice and Buick Roadmaster, two models that barely managed to maintain their rear-wheel drive platform in the face of GM's front-wheel drive house-cleaning of the time. Seen in profile, it's impossible to ignore the near-identical greenhouse proportions, belt-line, and rear-wheel coverings that link each car to the Voyage. Even Cadillac's Fleetwood, which maintained the most traditional looks of all 90s-era Cadillacs, incorporated some of the concept's flare into its extended D-body interpretation of the design. 


The B-body platform underpinning all those cars was not longer for this world, and by the end of 1996 each of the above nameplates had been wiped from their respective catalogues. Much more important was the effect that the Voyage had on Cadillac, starting with the 1992 Seville. Also known as the Seville Touring/Luxury Sedan (or STS/SLS), the car mimicked the concept's silhouette but managed to retain a harder edge, abandoning the rear fender skirt and instead matching the Voyage's short deck, broadly-angled D-pillar, and canted hood.

The Seville's ability to incorporate the better elements of the soon-to-depart Allante with the future-facing Voyage created a bridge between the preceding Lego-block '80s and the Art & Science 2000s that would follow. To say this was a crucial personality shift for Cadillac is to undersell just how revolutionary the Seville STS was coming from a company that had spent the last two decades putting its customers to sleep. It was a sharp-looking car that didn't scare off the brand's existing buyer base, and instead managed to broaden its appeal to would-be Lexus, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz customers seeking a less anachronistic Cadillac with a driving experience to match. 


Second (North) Star To The Right

The Seville's intriguing dynamics behind the wheel can also be directly linked to the Voyage Concept, which debuted the very first dual-overhead camshaft V8 engine ever built by General Motors. If 'DOHC,' 'V8,' and 'Cadillac' sound familiar to you, that's because GM was about to make a very big deal about these details when the Northstar engine made it into production in the early 1990s

The Voyage Concept's unit was a 4.5-liter design rated at 275 horsepower and 330 lb-ft of torque, almost matching the original 4.6-liter Northstar that arrived in 1993 for both the Allante's swan song as well as an upgrade for the STS (with the SLS keeping its pushrod 4.9-liter V8 until 1994). The 32-valve, all-aluminum Northstar was the equivalent of lightning in a bottle between a Cadillac's front fenders, boosting output by almost 100 horsepower in the STS from one model year to the next and giving even the softer SLS a 75 horsepower advantage.


Unlike the Voyage, however, Cadillac yoked the DOHC unit to the front wheels rather than the rear, creating something it called the 'Northstar System' that encompassed a series of performance upgrades (adaptive suspension, four-speed automatic transmission, variable-assist power steering) that added an extra glow around the introduction of its new halo drivetrain. It was an overall success: the sophisticated V8 was as smooth as its import competitors and the sedan (and eventual Eldorado coupe) were decent dance partners for their size. For the first time in eons the terms 'Cadillac' and 'handling' were not mutually exclusive. 

The Northstar engine was a mainstay for the automaker well into the 2000s, and it eventually found its way into the Oldsmobile line-up (in both 4.0-liter V8 and 'Shortstar' V6 form), as well as limited runs in full-size Pontiac and Buick cars. Cadillac even used a supercharged 4.4-liter version of the V8 in the V-Series versions of the XLR roadster and final-generation STS.


Voyage Re-Writes Cadillac's Future

It's no exaggeration that the STS is the car that saved Cadillac from the same irrelevance that would soon claim Oldsmobile and very nearly did Buick in (before its own late-2000s rebirth). Not only can a clear line between drawn from its 1992 debut all the way through the next dozen years of Cadillac's styling, but the Northstar engine and the decision to embrace a new era of front-pullers with punch dragged the company out of the dregs of its own inertia and made it a legitimate contender alongside the fresh wave of luxury players that flooded the 90s from both Europe and Japan.

Underneath all of that sits the Cadillac Voyage Concept as the foundation of the automaker's abrupt about-face. The 1988 show car might have been a little premature with its predictions of voice-controlled telecom suites and video navigation systems, but its prescient mix of styling and sophisticated power made sure that when these technologies did arrive, Cadillac would still be around to sell them to you.

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