Personal luxury car

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The four-seat 1958 Ford Thunderbird

A personal luxury car is an American car classification describing a highly styled, mass produced, luxury vehicle with an emphasis on image over practicality. Effectively high priced Veblen goods,[citation needed] personal luxury cars favor style and perceived cachet while accenting the comfort and satisfaction of their owner and driver above all else. A high level of features and trim is offered,[1] typically at the expense of passenger capacity, cargo room, and fuel economy. Characteristically built on a two-door platform with distinctive exteriors, they often share mechanical components in common with their manufacturers' popular mass market vehicles, as a result these vehicles were a profitable segment of the post-World War II automotive marketplace.

In the U.S., the four-seat 1958 Ford Thunderbird expanded the personal luxury car into a major market segment.[2][3][4]


1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible

Personal luxury cars are characteristically two-door coupés or convertibles with two-passenger or 2+2 seating. They are distinguished on the performance end from GT and sports cars by their greater emphasis on comfort and convenience. Even though they usually contain higher horsepower engines and the necessary support systems for the higher horsepower output (transmissions, tires, brakes, steering, etc.); these larger power trains usually only bring these vehicles back to the power-to-weight ratios that they would have had if their gross vehicle weights had not been increased to accommodate the installation of their luxury features and accessories. On the luxury scale, by their appointments, features, and style, there is great variability within the market; however, this is not absolute but merely a general trend.

Personal luxury cars are mass-produced, not coach built, and typically share all of their chassis, power train and all other major mechanical components with high volume sedans to reduce production costs, and to ensure that their per unit profitability is extremely high; to both the manufacturer and the selling dealer. Typically, the per unit profit of the sale of a new personal luxury vehicle is measured in thousands of dollars to both the manufacturer and the dealer, while the sale of a new compact or intermediate sedan yields only a few hundred dollars in profit per unit. However, they have additional styling elements and sometimes "baroque"[5] designs. They are typically equipped with as many additional features as possible, including power accessories such as windows, locks, seats, antenna, as well as special trim packages, leather upholstery, and heated seats.


Pre-WW2 - personal or specialty cars[edit]

During the 1910s, "the personal car took the form of a low-slung runabout, relatively light in construction, but relatively powerful in nature; in the Twenties, these runabouts became roadsters, still with the light-but-powerful connotation."[6]

In the ultra-luxury segment, antecedents of the concept are the highly expensive, often custom-bodied sporting luxury cars of the 1920s and 1930s. Typically made by Alfa Romeo, Bentley, Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, Duesenberg, Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln, Cadillac, Packard, and others, these cars were favored by film stars, aristocrats, playboys, and gangsters for projecting dashing and extravagant images. An example is the Duesenberg Model SJ, a fast and expensive automobile with a distinctive combination of style, craftsmanship, and power: combinations that became status symbols.[7]

Luxury in the 1950s[edit]

The Great Depression and World War II temporarily eroded the market for these expensive bespoke cars before post-War recovery saw a reemergence in Europe. On one end of the spectrum appeared ultra luxury two-door sedans, such as the H.J. Mulliner bodied, straight-6 powered Bentley Continental R Type.[citation needed] On the other, performance oriented GTs, relatively comfortable low-slung cars intended for high-speed, long-distance travel. France, successful in this segment before the war, chose to exit the market by applying strict tax horsepower regulations. Italian marques such as Ferrari and Maserati took the GT lead, offering distinctive, often custom-bodied two-seat and 2+2 coupes powered by exotic alloy-lightened engines straight off the race track; in between could be found such combinations of luxury and performance as the Mercedes-Benz 300SL and 190SL, BMW 507, Alfa Romeo 1900 Sprint, and DKW 1000Sp.[citation needed]

1956 Bentley S1 Continental by H J Mulliner
1956 Packard Caribbean convertible

Luxury and reliability over sport[edit]

With both custom luxury cars and GTs beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest, the 1950s saw a growing trend in both the United States and Europe towards mass-market "specialty cars". Affluent consumers sought a combination of luxury and reliability of a regular car along with distinctive or sporty styling,[8] they were also interested in such modern conveniences as automatic transmission, air conditioning, power steering, and other comfort options not generally offered on GTs or sports cars of the day.[9]

Market development[edit]

1955 Ford Thunderbird[edit]

1955 Ford Thunderbird

The first step to the evolution of the personal luxury car as a mass market segment in the United States was Ford Motor Company's two-seat 1955 Thunderbird. Ford termed the 1955 model a "personal car." [10]

During the Second World War American servicemen stationed in Europe began to experience the benefits of the nimble sports cars, particularly in Britain, and many shipped them home on their return.[11] US automakers responded with a pair of home grown two-seat models, the sporting Chevrolet Corvette, a fiberglass-bodied 6-cylinder roadster with few creature comforts introduced in 1953, and the larger, more comfortable, existing component-based Ford Thunderbird.[3] The Thunderbird was a softly sprung car, with a powerful V8 engine, that came both as a convertible and roadster with removable hardtop.

The model sold 53,000 units over three years, achieving niche success for a two-seat car.[3]

1956 Continental Mark II[edit]

Ford Motor Company developed an ultra-luxury vehicle with the 1955 introduction of the Continental Mark II. Available only as a two-door hardtop, it came equipped with power steering, power brakes, power windows, power seats, power vent windows, leather interior, a tachometer, and many other features, the only option was air conditioning for $595.[12] Nearly handmade, the Mark II sold for around $10,000[13] or the equivalent of a new Rolls-Royce or two Cadillacs. Approximately 3,000 Mark IIs were sold over three years from 1955 to 1957.[citation needed]

1958 Ford Thunderbird[edit]

1959 Ford Thunderbird

Market surveys conducted by Ford indicated the two-seat layout of its original personal car was limiting sales, so the 1958 second generation Thunderbird gained rear seats and a permanent hardtop for non-convertible models.[14] Weighing 800 lb (360 kg) more,[14] the new mid-size four-seat model that resulted received additional comfort, luxury, and convenience features that were available on full-size cars in a vehicle that was easier to park and manipulate in congested areas.[4] In spite of the added bulk, its standard 300 hp (220 kW) V8 was swift in traffic.[4]

This combination of luxury in a "personal car" found nearly 200,000 customers over three years - four times the two-seat model's sales [3] - dramatically expanding the market segment[4][14] This milestone in automotive marketing also earned the car the 1958 Motor Trend Car of the Year award.[4]

Early competitors[edit]

Competitors did not respond immediately to the marketplace success of the four-seat Thunderbird.

In 1962, GM's Pontiac introduced mildly sporty cars - the full-size Grand Prix and Buick the Wildcat, but they were unique trim versions of standard platform and neither replicated the unique styling and features of the mid-sized Thunderbird.

In 1962, Studebaker introduced the Avanti, featuring an exotic Raymond Loewy designed fiberglass body and an optional supercharged engine using a modified 109-inch convertible chassis and featuring innovations such as front disc brakes. The automaker marketed the Avanti as America's only 4 passenger high-performance personal car.[15] The company build 4,647 Avantis before production ended in 1963, after which most of the Studebaker dealerships switched to carrying Mercedes-Benz.[16][17]

In 1963, Buick introduced a new 2+2 coupé, the evocatively named Riviera, which "set new heights for a personal luxury car."[18]

In 1964, Ford introduced compact-sized "personal" hardtop, convertible, and fastback models based on its economical Ford Falcon, the Ford Mustang, it established a new market segment that became known as the pony cars. The sporty Mustang was based on a high volume front engine live rear axle platform, but given distinctive styling, sporty features features, and interior room for just four passengers.[2]

Offering more interior room as well as numerous luxury features and options were two intermediate-sized fastbacks: the 1965 Marlin and Dodge's 1966 Charger.[19] Both were "unusual, distinctive and in a class by themselves."[20]

Marketplace success of the specialty models soon spawned new luxury rivals from GM: the long-hood, short-trunk front-wheel drive Oldsmobile Toronado appearing in 1966 and a similarly reconfigured Cadillac Eldorado that was introduced in 1967.

Wider number of segments[edit]

1969 Ford Thunderbird four door

Initially, industry sources such as Ward's Automotive Yearbook classified the expanding class of widely varying long-hood/short-deck models "specialty cars", which grew by their count from eight makes in 1966 to twelve in 1967 — Corvette, Camaro, Riviera, Eldorado, Mustang, Thunderbird, Cougar, Barracuda, Charger, Marlin, Toronado, and Firebird.[21] Rather than marketing to broad income classes as with their standard models, each of these personal cars was targeted by the automakers to smaller and more specific market niches while offering long lists of options to satisfy consumer demands for individuality.[22]

The personal luxury market became so significant and highly competitive that it was divided into size and price market segments, from moderate price/compact to premium/full-size. By 1967, Motor Trend magazine was able to state: "Motorists of just about every stripe can now find a car with pleasing and distinctive lines, good performance and all the things that go to make a car enjoyable."[9]

In 1967, the Thunderbird, "long predominant in the field", was "sharply restyled and has added a four-door model for the first time" as the Ford Thunderbird (fifth generation).[19] Filling in the Ford range was also the 1967 Mercury Cougar based on a stretched Mustang platform, but focused on luxury and distinguishing styling features such as hidden headlamps and sequential rear turn signal lamps.

The all new 1967 AMC Marlin moved to the full size platform of the Ambassador as a "larger 3+3 family coupe designed to appeal to the market’s trend toward bigger cars with more appointments."[23]

In 1967, GM introduced the pony car twins, the Chevrolet Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird that included additional features and options.[24]

In 1969, the upscale Continental Mark III was introduced, using the Ford Thunderbird (fifth generation) chassis, and was the first American-made vehicle with the technically superior radial tire as standard equipment.[25] By one account, the 1969 Mercury Marauder X-100 defined "personal luxury" by using a shortened wheelbase and body (compared to the full-sized Mercury), but still weighing 4,500 lb (2,000 kg) with a 429 cu in (7.0 L) V8 producing 360 hp (270 kW) with 480 lb⋅ft (650 N⋅m) of torque while riding on bias-ply whitewall tires on five-spoke aluminum wheels.[8]

European competitors[edit]

Imported vehicles were a small segment of the US market until the late 1960s, requiring specialist repair using metric tools not common at the time; in 1966, the Big Three (GM, Ford, Chrysler) had market share of 89.6% (44.5% in 2014).[26] From 1966 to 1969, net automobile imports increased at an average annual rate of 84 percent.[27]

European Gran Turismo or 'GT' cars found increasing U.S. acceptance in the 1970s, as part of this growth, with models like the BMW CS coupes, Citroën SM, and third-generation Mercedes SL roadsters. Mercedes-Benz came to dominate the upper end of the personal luxury sector, with 300,000 R107 SL and C107 SLC models sold between 1971 and 1989, 2/3 in North America.[28]

1970s mass market explosion[edit]

The decline of the muscle car, due to rising insurance costs and emissions standards in the early 1970s, coincided with a strong upswing in the personal luxury segment, as American buyers shifted emphasis from performance to comfort.[29] Offsetting this, the 1973 and 1979 oil crises impacted demand for cars with relatively poor fuel economy.[30] The 1970s personal luxury models were marketed on the basis of luxury, not performance,[31] they were conventional in design and shared many parts with lesser models.[31]

Chevrolet introduced the 1970 Monte Carlo and it was built alongside other Chevelle models using the same intermediate-sized RWD A platform.[32] Chevrolet's new two-door hardtop model was "scaled down in opulence from the similarly-bodied Pontiac Grand Prix offering buyers elegance and prestige".[33] Editors of Motor Trend wrote that "Ford might have created the personal luxury car with the Thunderbird and Continental Mark II, but it took Chevrolet and Pontiac to take personal luxury to the masses."[34]

The 1971 Buick Riviera broke away from "conservative luxury" associated with the brand and was redesigned to be large with an unusually styled rear end - a boat-tail that extended so far out the rear bumper requiring the license plate to be offset - that had to be toned down for 1973.[35]

By 1972, the Ford Thunderbird (sixth generation) was heavier and more expensive than competitors that included the Riviera, Toronado, Grand Prix, Cougar, Monte Carlo, AMC's Oleg Cassini Matador, and even Ford's own Ford Elite.[36] The Elite featured a different roof line than the regular Ford Torino and was marketed on the basis of a lower price than the Thunderbird,[37] the mechanically similar Mercury Cougar XR-7 was priced higher and included more standard features, but sold about 60,000 units compared to almost 125,000 Elites for the 1975 model year.[37]

In 1975, Chrysler introduced the Cordoba, the company's first coupe produced specifically for the personal luxury market, although they had earlier declared that there would "never" be a smaller Chrysler,[38] these models enjoyed large sales figures in the mid-1970s with their intimate, luxury-oriented feel, plush interiors, and mostly vintage styling cues like Rolls Royce-style radiator grilles, opera windows, and vinyl roofs. The new Cordoba finished second to the Chevrolet Monte Carlo in sales for that segment.[39]

The 1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and the Pontiac Grand Prix were among the first of the personal luxury cars to be downsized and they lost more than 900 pounds (408 kg).[40]


1979 Toyota Crown hardtop coupe (Japan)

This marketing approach was also used in Japan, where the early 1970s saw the introduction of the Toyota Crown coupe, followed by the coupe versions of the Nissan Cedric and Nissan Gloria, and the Mazda Luce. In the 1980s the Toyota Soarer, Nissan Leopard, Mazda Cosmo, and the Honda Legend were popular with Japanese buyers.[citation needed]

1980s changing market[edit]

Throughout the 1970s American "personal luxury" cars grew ever larger, heavier, and more luxurious. By the early 1980s, however, they were typically equipped with either a V6 or a dramatically detuned V8 engine in order to comply with increasingly strict vehicle emissions standards; in spite of this they demonstrated poor fuel economy and faced an industry switch to smaller cars and front-drive architecture, reflecting changed consumer demand that emphased utility over image. In 1981, sales of the Cadillac Eldorado were down 40% and Continental Mark VI were down 50%.[41]

Also in 1981, Chrysler re-introduced a competitor - the Imperial, on a Chrysler Cordoba chassis, marking a key milestone in the decline of the 'personal luxury car.' Performance was meager with a 140 PS (100 kW) V8 engine, pricing was 200% higher than the standard Chrysler K platform, and sales were poor. [41] Reception of this "all frosting automobile" was especially vicious in the motoring press.[42]

Moreover, Ford stumbled "with stodgy-looking 1980–1982 Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar personal luxury cars."[43] The downsizing for the 1980 Thunderbird placed it on the Ford Fox platform used by the compact Ford Fairmont, while the similar Cougar became a "5/8-scale version of its former self" and saw a dramatic sales decline.[40]

1990s–2000s discontinuations[edit]

After years of steadily declining sales, the Oldsmobile Toronado was discontinued after 1992. However, in 1994, "the luxury market, including personal luxury, sport luxury, very near luxury, big boat luxury and all of the permutations of the genre outpaced the total car market on a 14% volume gain."[44] New "luxury" competitors and hanging consumer demand for the traditional personal luxury models meant the Lincoln Mark series was discontinued after 1998, the Buick Riviera after 1999, and the Cadillac Eldorado after 2002. An effort by Ford to reintroduce a small, two-seat, retro-themed Thunderbird in 2002 was ended after three years of slow sales.[45]


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