8 January 2014

Instant Car-ma: How Detroit created the ‘personal luxury’ boom on the cheap

Some of Detroit’s past efforts to build luxury cars from mainstream models – a.k.a. “badge engineering” -- produced clunkers like the Cadillac Cimarron and Lincoln Versailles. But when engineering, design and marketing came together with well thought-out “platform sharing” models, the results were far more pleasing – and profitable.

1969 Continental Mk. III

As Ford was developing the 1967 Thunderbird, Ford Vice President Lee Iacocca is said to have asked designer Gene Bordinat to “put a Rolls-Royce grille on it” to create a new prestige coupe for Lincoln.

The resulting Continental Mk. III was pitched as the successor to the limited-production 1956-1957 Continental Mk. II and aped its forbearer’s long-hood, short decklid proportions. Pressed into the Mk. III’s decklid, the faux spare tire “hump” copied from the Mk. II was an affectation that would adorn all Mark models to the last, the 1998 Mk. VIII.

The big two-door Mk. III used the 117.2-inch wheelbase from the four-door Thunderbird model (the two-door T-Bird was on a 115-inch wheelbase). Anyone who saw the new Lincoln’s design as a bit gauche and overwrought underestimated Iacocca’s penchant for anticipating automotive trends.

1969 Pontiac Grand Prix

In the 1960s, Pontiac had mastered the art of creating multiple models from the same basic body shell, exemplified by the 1962 Grand Prix. But trends changed, and customers wanted greater distinction between models, especially in the burgeoning personal luxury field. Pontiac’s next move in this growing segment was sheer brilliance.

The midsize A-body chassis was stretched to a 118-inch wheelbase, compared to 112 inches for the two-door Tempest/LeMans coupes and 116 inches for the four-door. A stunning new body was designed for the resulting “G-body,” anchored by a prominent V-shaped “beak” grille and a formal, Thunderbird-like roofline. Nothing visible betrayed the car’s A-body roots.

Pontiac put the added wheelbase inches ahead of the firewall, giving the new Grand Prix one of the longest hoods in the industry but adding nothing to rear seat room. This was, after all, a “personal” car, not a family car. A luxurious bucket-seat interior, standard 400-cubic-inch V-8 and a base price that undercut Thunderbird by $900 assured success. Pontiac made more than 112,000 for 1969. That was 80,000 more than the 1968 model, although another new GM entry was about to put the brakes on the Grand Prix’s momentum.

1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo

Chevy’s “G-body” coupe arrived for 1970, following a similar pattern as the new “smaller” Grand Prix and wearing an equally international name, Monte Carlo.
Under an elegant Cadillac Eldorado-inspired body, Chevy used a stretched (116-inch wheelbase) version of the Chevelle Malibu chassis. As on the Grand Prix, the extra inches went to the hood, not the cabin.

The Monte Carlo used a number of Malibu exterior and interior parts – including the rear window, decklid and dashboard – to keep production costs and showroom pricing low. The interior trim was more upscale than the Malibu’s, and the faux dashboard wood inlay was said to have been based on a photo of the real thing in a Rolls-Royce. Priced just about $300 more than a base V-8 Malibu coupe, the Monte Carlo was an instant success with nearly 132,000 sold that first year. Sales zoomed from there.

1974 Ford Gran Torino Elite

After watching Chevy rake in Monte Carlo profits, Ford finally responded with the 1974 Gran Torino Elite, billed as a “midsize luxury car in the Thunderbird tradition.” Sharing its body style with the newly enlarged Mercury Cougar, the luxury Ford stretched 212 inches long and weighed two tons. The long hood, stand-up grille and formal roofline with “opera windows” had become staples for the segment.

Ford built under 100,000 Gran Torino Elites in a year that saw Monte Carlo production rise to 312,000. The Elite dropped its Gran Torino badge for 1975, and then Ford dropped the model after 1976 – the name, at least. The same basic car, with new styling, returned for 1977 as the “downsized” and down-priced Thunderbird. Sales exploded to 318,000, but the Monte Carlo was still the middle class luxury champ at 411,000 that year.

1975 Chrysler Cordoba

Dodge Charger fans were likely disappointed that Chrysler had turned their muscle coupe into a Monte Carlo-esque personal luxury car for 1975, and Dodge was likely disappointed with sales of just under 31,000 Chargers. But there was celebration in Chrysler dealerships, which sold five times as many of the new Cordoba, even though it was the same car as the Charger with minor design differences. Advertising proudly touted the two-ton coupe as “the small Chrysler.”

The Cordoba started at just $175 more than the Charger but had more upscale interior trim, including of course optional “Corinthian” leather. The bigger difference was in marketing, with actor Ricardo Montalban giving the Cordoba a dose of international flair and making himself one of the car industry’s most memorable pitchmen in the bargain.

10 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Jeffrey Chase Metro Detroit January 15, 2014 at 19:08
    You forgot the Olds Toronado, Buick Rivera, and the greatest of them all--the Cadillac Eldorado--how does a silver and black on black 76 Eldorado drop top sound? At a 100 mph on I-94, it sounds real good! Unfair to GM, the Mark V, Lincolns' greatest personal luxury car!
  • 2
    John Leese Grand Rapids January 16, 2014 at 11:58
    I have a 1974 Gran Torino Elite that I recently purchased. It is triple black with just 17,000 miles. It's probably a better looking car than a '74 Monte Carlo but handles no ware near as well. Many people think that it's a Lincoln Mark!
  • 3
    Anthony Vinezeano Monee Il. January 21, 2014 at 17:17
    I am restoring 1969 Mark 111, that was owned by Jerry E Lewis, cant find the rigth paper work to prove it, the collector that I bought it from passed on. got any sugestions?
  • 4
    Dale Brown Louisville, KY March 5, 2014 at 16:01
    I own a triple black 1971 Lincoln Mark III and it is a great example of the combination of luxury and performance. The 460 V8 is a workhorse and the interior is spacious!! It even has REAL wood trim on the dash and door panels. The Cartier clock still ticks in mine and the AM FM stereo radio, with power antenna, and cruise control still work flawlessly. I fell in love with this car after watching The French Connection with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. My car does not have leather interior, instead vinyl and cloth. However, it is the only example that I have seen without leather interior.
  • 5
    Keith Cincinnati June 25, 2014 at 16:50
    @ Jeffrey Chase - The Toronado was an all-new, ground-up FWD platform for 1966, not a copy of anything. The Eldorado joined it in '67, both still entirely unique from anything else at GM. The Riviera did share the RWD LeSabre platform until '79, but still it was a totally unique body - including a 1-year-only in 1970.
  • 6
    RegularGuy55 Chicago, IL June 26, 2014 at 08:43
    The original Buick Riviera was targeted at the four-seater Ford Thunderbird. The two cars are nearly identical in size, weight, and even engine displacement.
  • 7
    Paul Northern NY November 20, 2014 at 21:04
    My Dad had a Torino Elite. While it was a beautiful car, I felt my first disgust at a car's handling while driving it. This from a very car-savvy 17-year old (NOT!). The first car I called, "slushbucket".
  • 8
    Mac Central FL November 22, 2014 at 09:50
    Regarding the Mark III - Lots of tales now about that grill. Remember that before WWII all cars including Lincoln had a grill of that style. The Rolls Royce grill, like the Packard grill had a distinct shape. The Mark III grill was very different from a Rolls Royce. It was all metal and the most expensive grill on a US made car at the time. The 68 Mark interior was designed by the son of the famous automotive designer, Gordon Buehrig. They were great driving cars with an engine that could spin the tires like a 60's muscle car. Today's gas does not feed the engine with the proper octane to make it happy. They introduced electronic voltage regulators, an early form of ABS brakes called "Sure track", and fully integrated AM/FM stereo radios to the Ford motor company.
  • 9
    Michael Pinellas Park, Fl. April 27, 2016 at 23:19
    I purchased a 1968 Imperial LeBaron Stretch Limousine with a 30 inch center section and another 6 inches added between the rear door jamb so the rear seat wasn't in the way while climbing into to sit in the rear facing seats . 6 where made by Stageway coach builders and sold at Chrysler dealerships . It weights 6300lbs has a front and rear AC and heating units ,dual stereos, electric middle divider window, intercom 440 CI 727 Trans and posi. Rear diff. It sold for a base price of 12 grand in 1968 and I still own it today and rides as nice as my Cadillac Escalade. It looks a lot like a Lincoln from the front and has the true Gangster/ Presidential look to it . I almost bought a Lincoln Mark 3 until I saw this limousine which is why I'm writing about it now . No regrets , my Imperial has treated me well and I've owned it for 31 yrs and I have never been pulled over for speeding yet my drivers have kept it just under 100M.P.H. on interstates . I have owned over 2 dozen Cadillacs and 3 Lincolns but the Imperial has earned the the title of the best American luxury car I have ever been in.
  • 10
    J.C. Earth October 18, 2016 at 19:36
    @Anthony: go to the county courthouse and see if they know a way of doing a title search to show previous owners.

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