Personal luxury car

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1958 four-seat Ford Thunderbird

A personal luxury car is an American car classification describing a highly styled, luxury vehicle with an emphasis on image over practicality. Accenting the comfort and satisfaction of its owner and driver above all else, the personal luxury car sometimes sacrifices passenger capacity, cargo room, and fuel economy in favor of style and perceived cachet, as well as offering a high level of features and trim.[1] Typically mass-produced by employing a two-door platform with common mechanical components beneath their distinctive exteriors, these vehicles were a lucrative segment of the post-World War II automotive marketplace. In the U.S., the four-seat 1958 Ford Thunderbird (second generation) arguably defined the personal luxury car market segment.[2]


A later version of the personal luxury car - 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.

The vast majority of personal luxury cars are mass-produced rather than 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"[3] 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, heated seats, etc.

Pre-Ford Thunderbird[edit]


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."[4]

While not referring to the phrase "personal luxury car", the antecedents of the concept are the highly expensive, often custom-bodied sporting luxury cars of the 1920s and 1930s. Typically made by Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, Duesenberg, Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln, Cadillac, and others, these extremely stylish prestige cars were favored by film stars, aristocrats, playboys, and gangsters for projecting dashing and extravagant images. Two extreme examples were the Duesenberg Model SJ and Mercedes-Benz SSK, extremely fast and expensive automobiles which eschewed both pure luxury and absolute sports performance in favor of a distinctive combination of style, craftsmanship, and power: these combined to produce cars that became status symbols.

Luxury in the 1950's[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 the sedate end of the spectrum appeared such erect yet swift premium Luxury vehicle two-door sedans as the H.J. Mulliner bodied, straight-6 powered Bentley Continental R Type. 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. These were all very high price Veblen goods.

Luxury and reliability over sport[edit]

1953 Packard Caribbean convertible

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" catering primarily to drivers coveting the image of bespoke machinery without its cost. Joining them were affluent buyers who could afford the genuine article but disliked the inconvenience of complex service and repair, especially in areas where exotic car dealerships were few and far between. Many of both classes 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."[5]

Factory customs[edit]

1955 Chrysler C-300

The result was a burgeoning market for so-called "factory customs," models using standard or mostly standard engines and other mechanical components, but with unique styling. A prominent early example was the 1953 open top Cadillac Eldorado, where customized styling gave it a price tag nearly twice that of a standard Cadillac convertible despite nearly identical underpinnings. GM's Buick division also offered the Roadmaster Riviera coupe as its top level luxury coupe in 1954. Packard introduced a large 2-door luxury coupe called the Packard Caribbean in 1953.

In 1955, Chrysler introduced the 300 series 2-door coupe, with a powerful 300bhp engine, giving the car its name.

1955 Ford Thunderbird[edit]

1955 Ford Thunderbird

The personal luxury car market segment in the United States was largely defined by the Ford Thunderbird.

During the Second World War American servicemen stationed in Europe began to experience the benefits of the nimble British sports cars, and many shipped them home on their return.[6] As with future waves of imported cars, this led the US automakers to respond by introducing home grown models, such as the Chevrolet Corvette, a two-seat sports car with few creature comforts, introduced in 1953. In 1955, the competitor Ford Motor Company developed a less sporting, more comfortable two-seat car, the Ford Thunderbird (first generation), using existing components. It was a softly sprung, reasonably powerful auto for its day, available as both a convertible and an open car with removable hardtop. Ford's term for marketing it was a "personal car."

The model met with reasonable success its first three years. Ford basically redefined the "personal luxury" niche, they believed they could also reshape it.[7]

1958 Ford Thunderbird[edit]

As a result of their own surveys, Ford decided the Thunderbird should gain two seats[7] and a permanent hardtop, changes they considered to be refinements of the personal luxury idea even if the car which emerged was considerably less personal than its two-seat forerunner.[7] Only one American car occupied the target marketplace, the Studebaker Golden Hawk, a two-door performance hardtop in the GT tradition.

The new four-seat 1958 Thunderbird was equipped with numerous comfort features and offered unique styling, found success in the marketplace, outselling all its two-seater predecessors. The Continental Mark II of 1956 and 1957 was also a personal luxury coupe of the time, sold through Lincoln dealers.

Expanding market in the United States[edit]

Early competitors[edit]

The four-seat Thunderbird's sales increased, but the other American auto manufacturers were slow to react. Four years into the larger-sized design, GM's Pontiac finally offered the 1962 Grand Prix and Buick its Wildcat, but neither was an attempt to fully replicate the Thunderbird "luxury" and design formula.

In 1963, Buick introduced a new four seat Coupé design, the Riviera, which "set new heights for a personal luxury car."[8] Studebaker's new Avanti featured a fiberglass body design mounted on a modified 109-inch convertible chassis featuring innovations that included front disc brakes.

The expanding specialty car demand influenced "sports" models such as American Motors' 1965 Marlin and Dodge's 1966 Charger.[9] Both of these fastbacks were based on an intermediate platform offering distinctive styling features with room for four passengers.[2]

Initially, industry sources such as Ward's Automotive Yearbook classified these models as "specialty cars" and "the class grew from eight makes in 1966 to twelve in 1967 — Corvette, Camaro, Riviera, Eldorado, Mustang, Thunderbird, Cougar, Barracuda, Charger, Marlin, Toronado, and Firebird."[10]

Wider number of segments - from mid-range to top-range[edit]

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.

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).[9] Filling in the Ford range, the 1967 Mercury Cougar was based on a stretched Ford Mustang pony car class platform, with focus on luxury and unique styling features, that included hidden headlamps and sequential rear turn signal lamps.

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."[5]

Oldsmobile introduced the 1966 front-wheel drive Toronado and in 1967 Cadillac introduced the Eldorado (sixth generation) as a long-hood, short-trunk 2+2 design.

In 1969, the upscale Lincoln 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.[11]

European competitors - Grand Turismo[edit]

Imported vehicles were a very small segment of the US market until the late 1960s. In 1966, the Big Three (GM, Ford, Chrysler) had market share of 89.6% (44.5% in 2014).[12] From 1966 to 1969, net imports increased at an average annual rate of 84%.[13]

The 1973 and 1979 energy crisis impacted demand for cars with relatively poor fuel economy.[14]

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 SL and SLC models sold between 1971 and 1989, 2/3 of those sales in North America.[15]

New models in the 1970's[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.[16]

Chevrolet introduced the 1970 Monte Carlo using an intermediate-sized chassis, which was "scaled down in opulence from the similarly-bodied Pontiac Grand Prix offering buyers elegance and prestige".[17] "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."[18]

By 1972, the Ford Thunderbird (sixth generation) was heavier and more expensive than competitors that included the Riviera, Toronado, Grand Prix, Cougar, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, AMC's Oleg Cassini Matador, and even Ford's own Torino Elite.[19]

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.[20] These models enjoyed impressive 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.[21]


1979 Toyota Crown hardtop coupe

This marketing approach was also used in Japan, where in 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 to Japanese buyers.


Ford Thunderbird (2005)

American 'personal luxury' cars grew ever larger, heavier, and more luxurious, and were typically equipped with either a V6 of moderate performance, or a V8 engine. Poor fuel economy, an industry switch to smaller cars and front-drive architecture, and consumers renewed their emphasis on utility over image during the early 1980s. Moreover, Ford stumbled "with stodgy-looking 1980-1982 Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar personal luxury cars."[22]

By the 1990s, younger buyers had moved either toward imported European and Japanese cars or sport utility vehicles. After years of steadily declining sales, the Oldsmobile Toronado was discontinued after 1992, the Lincoln Mark series 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 discontinued after three years of slow sales.[23]


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  15. ^ Retrieved May 11, 2016
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