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Personal luxury car

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.


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"[2] 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.


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.

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 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. 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.

Luxury and reliability over sport

File:1956 Chrysler New Yorker.JPG
1956 Chrysler New Yorker 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."[3]

Factory customs

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.

The personal car

The personal luxury car market segment in the United States was largely defined by the Ford Thunderbird. Joining the Chevrolet Corvette in 1955 as America's only other two-seater, the original "T-bird" was a softly sprung, reasonably powerful auto for its day, available as both a convertible and an open car with removable hardtop. Too large, slow handling, and luxurious to be a sports car, yet lacking the high-performance of a GT, Ford instead coined a new term for the industry to market it, a "personal car."

The model met with reasonable success its first three years. However, since Ford basically defined the "personal luxury" niche, they believed they could also reshape it.[4] As a result of their own surveys, Ford decided the Thunderbird should gain two seats[4] 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.[4] Only one American car occupied the target marketplace, the Studebaker Golden Hawk, a highly styled two-door performance hardtop in the GT tradition.

The bulkier, four-seat 1958 Thunderbird which emerged, arrayed with comfort features and weighed down with styling gimmicks, nevertheless found tremendous success, outselling any of its predecessors. Its merely above-average performance and mediocre handling proved no daunt: the marketplace had spoken. The Continental Mark II of 1956 and 1957 was also a personal luxury coupe of the time, sold through Lincoln dealers.

Expanding market

The four-seat Thunderbird's sales increases, but the other American auto manufacturers were inexplicably 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 unique design formula.

The breakthrough was 1963, Buick serving up a true "personal luxury car" with its well-received Riviera and Studebaker with the powerful and futuristic Avanti. Where the Grand Prix and Wildcat were little more than trim variations on standard full-size sedans, the Riviera was a striking new design squarely aimed at the four-place sports coupe marketplace,[5] while the Avanti offered near-GT styling and performance in an American-built car. The Thunderbird had competition.

Chrysler was not to be left out of this burgeoning market, and offered the updated Imperial Crown and the Chrysler New Yorker coupes with optional convertible bodystyles.

Within three years GM's Oldsmobile had rolled out an ahead of its time front-wheel drive Toronado and Cadillac reintroduced its exclusive Eldorado as a long-nose, short-tail 2+2 design. With so many "entries in the personal-luxury-car class" ... "to meet this competition, Thunderbird, long predominant in the field", was "sharply restyled and has added a four-door model for the first time."[6] Other personal luxury car influenced "sports" models such as Dodge's Charger and American Motors' Marlin,[6] both full-sized fastbacks based on an intermediate platform, as well as the Mercury Cougar, made their appearance.

In Europe, smaller-bodied and more expensive models such as the BMW CS coupes, Citroën SM, and second-generation Mercedes SL roadsters aimed at the personal luxury car market. Some began to join Mercedes as imports available in America.

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."[3]

The decline of the muscle car in the early 1970s coincided with a strong upswing in the personal luxury segment, as buyers shifted emphasis from performance to comfort. By 1974, the personal luxury market segment became highly competitive and the Ford Thunderbird was the heaviest and most expensive against a tested of competitors that included the Riviera, Toronado, Grand Prix, Cougar, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, AMC's Oleg Cassini Matador, and even Ford's own Torino Elite.[7] Chrysler had very publicly declared that there would "never" be a smaller Chrysler, but in 1975 introduced the Cordoba, the company's first coupe produced specifically for the personal luxury market.[8] 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.

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 very popular to Japanese buyers.


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 renewed emphasis on utility over image began to winnow their ranks during the early 1980s.

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.[9]

After several years of lacking such a car, GM now offers the Cadillac CTS-V, and the Buick Cascada a more modern take on the personal luxury car. Imported personal luxury cars from European marques such as BMW 4 Series, Audi A5 and Mercedes-Benz CL-Class have been recently introduced, and Japanese manufacturers have added the Lexus RC, and the Infiniti G37 Coupe.


  1. ^ Gartman, David (1994). Auto opium: a social history of American automobile design. Taylor & Francis. p. 180. ISBN 978-0-415-10572-9. 
  2. ^ Harless, Robert (2004). Horsepower War: Our Way of Life. iUniverse. p. 193. ISBN 0-595-30296-3. 
  3. ^ a b Motor Trend, August 1967
  4. ^ a b c Mueller, Mike; Batio, Christopher (1999). Thunderbird Milestones. MotorBooks/MBI Publishing. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-7603-0474-7. Retrieved 25 December 2011. 
  5. ^ [1][dead link] See "The SCM Analysis" section. Retrieved on July 8, 2007.
  6. ^ a b "Why auto prices are going up" 61. U.S. News & World Report. 1966. p. 85. 
  7. ^ Gunnell, John (2004). Standard Catalog of Thunderbird: 1955-2004. Krause Publications. p. 110. ISBN 978-0-87349-756-5. Retrieved 25 December 2011. 
  8. ^ Hyde, Charles K. (2003). Riding the Roller Coaster: A History of the Chrysler Corporation. Wayne State University Press. p. 223. ISBN 978-0-8143-3091-3. Retrieved 25 December 2011. 
  9. ^ "The Decline of the Personal Luxury Coupe". Retrieved 25 December 2011.