Personal Luxury Car
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Personal Luxury Car
1958 four-seat 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,[] 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, according to most auto historians.[2][3][4]


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.

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

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

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 ultra luxury two-door sedans, such 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.

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

Luxury and reliability over sport

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."[8]

1955 Ford Thunderbird

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." [9]

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.[10] 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

Ford Motor Company also tried creating an ultra-luxury vehicle with the 1955 introduction of the near bespoke Continental Mark II. The Mark II was only available as a 2 door coupé. Nearly handmade, the Mark II sold for around $10,000,[11] the equivalent of a new Rolls-Royce or two Cadillacs. 3,000 Mark IIs were sold over three years from 1955 to 1957.[]

The Mark II was an attempt by the newly created Continental division of Ford Motor Company to offer a car not only to rival the greatest American and European automobiles of the pre-War era but anything built after.[] It came equipped with nearly every conceiveable luxury as standard equipment - power steering, power brakes, power windows, power seats, power vent windows, leather interior, and a tachometer - it had only one option: air conditioning for $595.[12]

1958 Ford Thunderbird

1959 Thunderbird hardtop

Market surveys conducted by Ford indicated the 2 seat layout of the personal car was limiting sales, so the 1958 second generation Thunderbird gained rear seats and a permanent hardtop.[13] Weighing 800 lb (360 kg) more,[13] the new mid-size four-seat model that resulted received additional comfort, luxury and convenience features of a full-size car 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 "personal car" and luxury 2-door coupé sold nearly 200,000 units over three years - four times the two-seat model's sales [3] - dramatically expanding the market segment[4][13] This milestone in automotive marketing earned the car the 1958 Motor Trend Car of the Year award.[4]

Expanding market

Early competitors

Competitors were not able to respond immediately to the success of the four-seat Thunderbird personal luxury car.

In 1962, GM's Pontiac introduced mildly sporty cars - the full-size Grand Prix and Buick the Wildcat, but neither replicated the luxury side of the mid-size Thunderbird formula.

In 1962, Studebaker introduced the Avanti, featuring an exotic Raymond Loewy designed fiberglass body and supercharged engine mounted on a modified 109-inch convertible chassis and innovations such as front disc brakes. The automaker marketed the Avanti as America's Only 4 Passenger High-Performance Personal Car.[14] The company was only able to build 4,100 Avanti cars before it closed in 1963, and sold its dealership network to Mercedes-Benz.

In 1963, Buick introduced a new 2+2 coupé, the evocatively named Riviera, which "set new heights for a personal luxury car."[15]

In 1964, Ford introduced another similar but simpler vehicle, the Ford Mustang, as well as a new market segment, the pony car. This vehicle and it's contemporaries were also based on a generic live rear axle intermediate platform given distinctive styling features and room for just four passengers.[2] Competitors included American Motors' 1965 Marlin, Dodge's 1966 Charger[16] The Filling in the Ford range was the 1967 Mercury Cougar based on a stretched Ford Mustang platform, with focus on luxury and distinguishing styling features such as hidden headlamps and sequential rear turn signal lamps. In 1967, GM introduced the Pontiac Firebird and Chevrolet Camaro.

Wider number of segments - from mid-range to top-range

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.[17]

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).[16]

Success soon spawned other rivals from GM, the long-hood, short-trunk front-wheel drive Oldsmobile Toronado appearing in 1966 and a similarly reconfigured Cadillac Eldorado in 1967. 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."[8]

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.[18]

European competitors - Gran Turismo

Imported vehicles were a very 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).[19] From 1966 to 1969, net automobile imports increased at an average annual rate of 84%.[20]

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.[21]

1970s mass market explosion

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.[22] Offsetting this, the 1973 and 1979 oil crises impacted demand for cars with relatively poor fuel economy.[23]

Chevrolet introduced the 1970 Monte Carlo and it was built alongside other Chevelle models using the same intermediate-sized RWD A platform.[24] Chevrolet's new two-door hardtop model was "scaled down in opulence from the similarly-bodied Pontiac Grand Prix offering buyers elegance and prestige".[25] "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."[26]

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 Torino Elite.[27]

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.[28] 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.[29]


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.

1980s changing market

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 Lincoln Continental Mark VI were down 50%.[30]

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 very poor. [30] Reception of this "all frosting automobile" was especially vicious in the motoring press.[31]

Moreover, Ford stumbled "with stodgy-looking 1980-1982 Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar personal luxury cars."[32]

1990s-2000s discontinuations

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."[33] 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.[34]


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