Luxury ain’t what it used to be. In the modern world even a Cadillac has firmly upholstered seats and is expected to lap the Nurburgring at warp speed. Luxury and sporty driving characteristics used to be mutually exclusive, with the exception of a few high dollar european marques that is.
Little European sports cars enjoyed a vogue in the 50’s and 60’s. Their minimalist character and comparatively taut driving dynamic implied that the driver was a man (or woman) with a zest for life and gifted with a slightly devilish panache. Domestic manufacturers responded. In 1953 Chevrolet brought out the Corvette and Ford’s Thunderbird bowed in 1955. There were other domestic or semi domestic sports type cars that came out at the same time. Snappy little rides like the Kaiser Darrin in 1954 and the Nash Healey of 1951. These were strict two seaters, like the Old World sports cars. The public admired the looks of these minimalist motorcars but they didn’t necessarily buy them in large numbers. The best year ever for two seater T-bird was 1957 with Ford selling 21,380 units. Chevrolet’s Corvette was selling in even smaller quantities.
The marketeers at Ford decided that the T-bird had a popular public image, even celebrities like Frank Sinatra had one. However, they reckoned they could sell more of them if they had a usable back seat. For 1958, Thunderbird would be a four seat car. The punters loved it and sales were up 16,000 units over 1957’s tally.
The “SquareBird” of ‘58 ended up being intermediate size. In keeping with its luxurious mien Interior components were high quality, with leather upholstery being an option. The driving environment was suitably theatrical in the best 1950’s American tradition, with plenty of two tone color options. All the better to set off the racy twin cowl style dashboard and acres of brightwork. This was designed to make the driver feel special, pushing the same psychological buttons as a slot machine when you hit a jackpot. The personal luxury concept was marketing genius for the postwar generation. A two seater was just too hedonistic, too sinfully selfish for a populace with a deep puritanical streak. The nod to practicality provided by seating for four or more allowed buyers to indulge in that new Thunderbird without the guilt.
The personal luxury car isn’t so much a compromise dictated by the marketing department as a glorious cocktail, a martini of a car. The hint of sportiness is the vermouth just gilding the glass, the luxury, is the warming embrace of the gin. The olive is that sybaritic extra something, the landau roof if you will, that sets it all off. A mixture of simple, obvious components which is greater than the sum of its parts.
Ford had the midsize luxury sport(y) coupe market largely unto itself throughout the first half of the 60’s. Chevy continued to rely on its two seater Corvette sports car as a range topper. Eventually GM’s styling supremo Bill Mitchell decided he wanted a car that was cross between a “Roll-Royce and a Ferrari”, the result was Buick’s svelte Riviera of 1963. Oldsmobile weighed in with its Toronado, an advanced front wheel drive super coupe in 1966. Chrysler looked on. These cars along with the Eldorado and Continentals, with their two door bodies and intimate, luxurious passenger compartments replete with all the bells and whistles were definitely personal luxury coupes. However, they were all exclusive range topping cars representing the ultimate example of their respective marques. The core of the personal luxury market was undoubtedly the mid level cars. The essence of personal luxury is that was attainable luxury.
Chevy weighed in with their Monte Carlo in 1970, giving GM’s highest volume division its own personal luxury coupe. Since it was essentially a Chevelle with a formal roofline it could be sold at very accessible price indeed. The Monte Carlo name would be a long lived one too, lasting until 1988 as a rear wheel drive body on frame car. The name went dormant only to reemerge in 1995 as a front wheel drive coupe. The last Montes rolled off the line in 2007, one of the final personal luxury hangers on.
The personal luxury concept really came into its own in the mid 70’s. If choice is a luxury, then car buyers had it in spades. Performance was on the wane, killed off by extortionate insurance premiums, OPEC and the EPA. If the car couldn’t get you there in speed, it could still get you there in style and comfort. Oldsmobile uncannily knew exactly what buyers wanted in their PLC’s. The Cutlass Supreme topped sales charts for much of the decade. It makes sense too, people who bought 442’s, Mustangs, Cougars and GTO’s in the 60’s would be maturing in the 70’s and more concerned with comfort than sportiness.
Take the Cougar, when it came out it was a svelte little car, Mercury’s slightly more luxurious Mustang. For the 1974 model year Cougar shifted gears entirely when it started sharing a platform with the Ford Torino and Mercury Montego. It even had an opera window ! In 1975 Chrysler decided to cash in on the trend with their Cordoba. The Cordoba had round headlights and running lights like an old Jag and an exotic spokesman in the form of Ricardo Montalban. To me Cordoba was THE personal luxury car of the 70’s even if the Cutlass Supreme handily outsold it.
Advertisements did everything in their power to further the image of luxury and class often showing cars with elegant people in elegant places. The lily could be gilded even further with option packages and trim levels like “Brougham” and “Landau” and various designer and collector editions. Anything to make you feel special. Including rich colors and interiors available in plush velour, “corinthian” leather (corrr-EEN-thian, purred Mr Montalban) and “glove soft” vinyl. Vinyl wasn’t necessarily looked on as downmarket either, remember these were the days of polyester leisure suits. You laugh now, but you’d have worn it then and liked it !
Manufacturers even applied personally luxurious trimmings to their small cars. You could have a Mustang II Ghia or Chevy Monza Town Coupe complete with padded roof and opera windows. If you needed something a little larger try a Nova Concours or Plymouth Volare, available in smart two-tone paint, also with the seemingly obligatory vinyl padded roof.
As the 1970’s gave way to the 1980’s synthetic baroque luxury began to be seen as declasse. American manufacturers started to pay lip service to the engaging driving dynamics of imports like BMW, Saabs et al. Chevy stopped building rear wheel drive Monte Carlos, and started making front wheel drive Lumina “Eurosports” in 1989. The Cutlass name was so successful in the 70’s that throughout much of the 80’s and 90’s Oldmsobile would sell you any car, so long as it was a Cutlass. You could have a Cutlass Supreme, Cutlass Ciera or a Cutlass Calais. You pays your money, you picks your Cutlass. Trouble was, this marketing tactic seemed to dilute the Cutlass’s supremacy. Olds, which once knew their customer base as well as Starbucks knows theirs today, had begun to lose their way.
There were at least a few at GM who saw the way the wind was blowing. They noticed that buyers were gravitating towards technologically sophisticated imports such as Acura and BMW. In 1986 Buick introduced the first computer touch screen in a car, take that Tokyo ! Buick’s Graphic Control Center told you everything you needed to know, in a high tech green glow. Olds followed with their own COLOR touch screen system for the Toronado in 1989.
Over at FoMoCo they decided that the T-bird needed a little foreign performance flavor so one could opt for a Turbo Coupe running the raucous turbo 2.3 litre four cylinder. Thunderbird’s Lincoln sister the Continental MKVII was fitted with air suspension and could be had (for a time) with a BMW built six cylinder diesel. See, you don’t need an oil burning Mercedes W123 two door after all ! Buy American ! Buyer’s of a more enthusiastic bent could opt for a MKVII LSC, shorthand for Luxury Sport Coupe. A delightful executive express motivated by Ford’s evergreen 5.0. The MKVII could also be had in the cooking base version and Bill Blass luxury edition for the Sperry Topside wearers.
Personal luxury cars had their swansong in the last years of the previous century. 1997 saw the last Thunderbirds and Cougars to be built as midsize, rear wheel drive personal luxury coupes. The final iteration of the Buick Riviera saw the light of day in 1995. And it was quite a handsome beast at that. Lovely organic curves and a classic long hood, short deck profile. Sending power to the Riv’s front wheels was Buick’s unburstable 3800 V6 with a Rootes type blower on top. Lincoln’s last two door Continental, the MKVIII looked like sex on wheels. Oh how I lusted after those in my high school days. It had 32 valves and magic suspension that lowered the car at speed. Cadillac’s Eldorado was front wheel drive to the last, and had a chunky, hunkered down appeal all its own.
There wasn’t a vinyl roof or opera window to be seen on these last PLC’s. Sometimes the wood trim was even genuine, as in the Eldorado, or absent altogether like the Riviera’s art moderne passenger compartment. Suspension was independent on all of these cars too. While none of them could dance like a Bimmer, they were a far cry from the wallowing yachts of the 70’s. All of this was still not enough to keep pace with rapidly changing public taste.
The personal luxury car was tailor made for that optimistic postwar generation. It matured and grew comfortable with them, they both suffered from middle age spread in the 70’s then took up aerobics and trimmed down in the 80’s . These were cars with a lot of comfort and a dash of style, built for folks for whom a split level ranch was their castle and a Chrysler Cordoba was a their own Walter Mitty Rolls-Royce. It didn’t really matter that the burl wood applique was as genuine as a tellevangelist’s smile and the chrome trim was plastic underneath, after all, the seats were genuine Corinthian leather !
By the dawn of the 21st century, largish 5 seat coupes were seen as rather old hat. It was your father’s Oldsmobile and it stank of mothballs. Will we see the likes of a Continental MKIX from Lincoln ? Will Chrysler blow the cobwebs off the Cordoba moniker and digitally resurrect Ricardo Montalban to extol its virtues with his exotic accent ? I doubt it. The folks who bought those cars are the wane. Subsequent generations have adopted the SUV as their lifestyle statement vehicle, even though most of them are based on prosaic passenger car platforms and not designed to negotiate anything more treacherous than a pothole. By the time the SUV’s day has passed there’s every chance we’ll be trading them in on autonomous transportation pods. More’s the pity, technology may be great, but it’ll never take the place of opera windows or having more ashtrays than seat belts.
*Author’s Note: This is not a comprehensive catalog of every personal luxury car, merely a cross section to illustrate the arc that the genre has traversed over the years between 1958 and the present day. It is also meant to simply express this writer’s observations and not to be construed as an incontestable statement of fact. I have used the terms “car” and “coupe” interchangeably. For if it is personal, it is a Coop-Ay !