1981 Cadillac


In order to meet the federal government’s fuel economy requirements for 1981, General Motors developed what was termed a “modulated displacement engine” for Cadillac.

The electromechanical system on the 6.0-liter V-8 engine was supposed to open and close the valves on either two or four cylinders whenever it received instructions from the control module.

By operating on four or six cylinders when the power of eight cylinders wasn’t required the V-8 would deliver better fuel economy — at least in theory. Unfortunately, the problematic engine back in 1981 proved to be too complex to be reliable. It soon disappeared from the Cadillac lineup. However, for every rule there is an exception.

A South Dakota couple purchased one of the V-8-6-4 Cadillacs in 1981 and because the base price was $13,847, they took exceptional care of their expensive purchase. The 4,202-pound Cadillac was one of 56,100 such models built that model year.
A few years after the couple purchased the Cadillac the husband died and his widow began renting an apartment in Dell Rapids, S.D. from a gentleman named Lloyd Welbig of Sioux Falls. The 1981 Cadillac spent most of the time housed in a garage.

After two decades, the widow was preparing to leave and she followed up on Welbig’s offer to buy the Cadillac — an offer that he had made several times over the years.
“I kept telling her she was such a small lady to be driving a huge car,” he says.
Welbig quickly agreed to buy the 1981 Cadillac that was still in like-new condition. It had been driven only 72,000 miles.

The metallic gray Cadillac came from the factory with a gray vinyl top. Behind each wheel is an unobtrusive mud flap that helps keep road debris from chipping the paint. Contrasting with the cloth upholstery, woodgrain panels surround the dashboard and the doors. Dark blue velour upholstery covers the large, comfortable seats. The 121.4-inch wheelbase helps in that regard with comfort. “It has a floaty ride,” Welbig said.
In an effort to involve passengers with the real-time economy of the V-8-6-4 engine, GM installed a gauge on the dashboard that provides an instant readout of the gasoline mileage.

“Overall,” Welbig reports, “it gets about 17 or 18 miles per gallon.” Because the car is so heavy, Welbig explains, it keeps on going after you take your foot off the gas pedal.
The big Cadillac is well-equipped as a luxury car should be. It left the factory in 1981 with electric climate heating and cooling and a rear window defroster. Besides power seats and power windows, the Cadillac has power door locks and an AM/FM radio.

Even with excellent care parts can wear out and break. A few years ago, Welbig says, the deep blue interior overhead headliner began to sag. Welbig had a new headliner installed. It looks like the original he says. And in 2008, when the car was 27 years old, the air conditioning compressor quit working, which also affected the windshield defroster. That problem was promptly addressed.

When Welbig acquired the 1981 Cadillac records that came with the car indicated that it was rolling on its second set of tires. It wasn’t long before he replaced those fragile tires with the third set of tires that are now on the Cadillac.
The longest trip Welbig has driven his 140-horsepower Cadillac was about 1,500 miles when he and his wife were accompanied by another couple on a trip from their South Dakota home to Missouri.

“Everything worked fine,” he recalls. “I would take off and go anywhere in it,” Welbig says, “but only on nice days.”

Neither the original owners nor Welbig have ever experienced problems with the variable displacement engine. The odometer on the trusty, low-mileage Cadillac is now approaching only 78,000 miles. — Vern Parker, Motor Matters

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2010

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