American aspirationals: In the 1970s, Detroit made middle-class luxury personal
Leisure suits. Platform shoes. Farrah Fawcett’s hair. Disco. The transition to the 1970s left America immersed in a weirdly commercialized dilution of the prior decade’s trends and styles. In the automotive world, the extinction of the first wave of muscle cars made room for a new species of midsize model to emerge from Detroit and ooze into the suburbs: personal luxury coupes.
Hurst shifters, shaker hood scoops, and wild graphics were out. “Coach windows,” landau vinyl roofs, velour interiors, and European-sounding name plates fulfilled the new automotive yearnings of the middle class. The extra-long hoods, prominent grilles, and formal rooflines that spoke of affluence on the Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Continental Mk III were migrating to cars that blue-collar America could afford.
Well, if we could put a man on the moon, then why not build him an affordable luxury coupe? General Motors got the trend rolling with the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix and 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, both built on a stretched version of the intermediate A-body chassis that underpinned their Le Mans and Chevelle siblings. The new G-body’s 118-inch wheelbase chassis put its extra inches ahead of the firewall to extend the hood length rather than add rear seat legroom.
Both the Grand Prix and Monte Carlo flaunted neo-classic design themes. The Monte’s fender bulges seemed like an homage to 1940; the Grand Prix’s tall grille was inspired by 1930s luxury cars. The look was uniquely American.
Developed while John Z. Delorean was Pontiac general manager, the Grand Prix echoed his desire to create a kind of modern-day Duesenberg. Pontiac even cribbed the Duesy’s “Model J” and “Model SJ” badges for the base and performance upgrade models, the latter with Pontiac’s hot 428-cid V-8. (It was replaced in 1970 by the 455.) The Grand Prix’s driver-focused dash looked like a GTO piece refined at a European boarding school.
The 1969 Grand Prix was priced about $900 below Ford’s Thunderbird, and sales soared compared to previous full-size Grand Prix models. Also in a Euro state of mind, Chevy borrowed the Monte Carlo name from the city in the Principality of Monaco. (Dodge had already grabbed “Monaco” a few years before.)
The 1970 Monte Carlo started at just $3,123. Chevy, however, made “luxuries” like automatic transmission, air conditioning, and stereo extra-cost options to keep the advertised price artificially low. Most buyers added those features. And many stuck with the 350-cid two-barrel base engine. Options included both the new 400-cid small-block and “400” big block, the latter a 396 bored to 402 cid. An SS 454 package was offered for 1970 and ’71 only, with 5,742 sold. Monte Carlo buyers, Chevy learned, were not looking for muscle. A 1972 brochure called Monte Carlo “America’s most attainable luxury car,” and the copy inside even poked fun at muscle cars:
“You can’t get a Monte Carlo with racing stripes. We don’t offer a 4-speed floorbox. No special hood scoops or louvers. Monte Carlo isn’t that kind of car. It’s a luxury car. A luxury car built for handling.”
(Yes, the brochure really said “floorbox.”)
The 1973 redesigns of both models amped up their neo-classic looks, and sales continued upward. Thanks to DeLorean’s influence and radial tires, the Monte Carlo and Grand Prix handled respectably. GM’s other intermediate coupes of the period—the Buick Regal, Chevy Chevelle, Olds Cutlass Supreme, and Pontiac Grand Am—were also molded in the personal luxury vein.
Welcome to Fantasy Island
Automotive marketers today call cars like the Audi A3 and BMW 2 Series “aspirational,” figuring that some people driving Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys aspire to drive the luxury-brand models. Four decades ago, the Monte Carlo and Grand Prix filled that role—a perceived major step up from the mainstream cars on which they were based. Was their success due to alluring design, genius marketing, or accurate trend spotting? Yes to all.
Just as in the Eldorado’s realm, image and comfort were everything for the “aspirationals.” With its Thunderbird now giant-sized and priced to match, Ford jumped into the new personal luxury fray with the Gran Torino Elite and “upsized” 1974 Cougar. Both were essentially the same car with different front ends and other styling differences. Both had the de rigueur opera windows and stand-up hood ornament.
Ford’s model was simply the “Elite” for 1975 and ’76. Ads called it “a mid-size car in the Thunderbird tradition.” The Elite sold well, but that tagline would prove prophetic: for 1977, the big coupe was redesigned and rebadged Thunderbird. The instant “downsizing” for the T-Bird scored Ford a huge sales increase.
Chrysler made its move into the segment with the 1975 Cordoba, the brand’s first “small” car (“only” 215 inches long!). Originally intended as a Plymouth, the Cordoba was a badge-job on that year’s redesigned Dodge Charger, a design clearly influenced by the second-gen Monte Carlo. The change from the wedgy 1971–74 Charger was radical, to put it mildly. Customers largely ignored it, buying about 30,000. They sure didn’t ignore the Cordoba, the identical car with minor styling differences. It outsold Charger five to one.
Naming the Cordoba after a Spanish city and hiring Mexican-born actor Ricardo Montalban to pitch it with his suave accent made all the difference. Montalban made us believe Corinthian leather was a thing. (Perhaps that helped land him the role of the mysterious Mr. Roarke on ABC TV’s “Fantasy Island” in 1977.)
Formula for success
Some might still lament the 1970s “malaise” cars, but with the personal luxury coupes, there was no malaise in the profit column. Chevy sold just under 290,000 1974 Monte Carlos in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo and moved 411,000 of them in 1977. The Cordoba had its best year in 1977 with 183,146 sold—a whopping 55,000 increase over 1976.
What was it that captivated buyers of all these two-ton coupes? It couldn’t have been the 170-ish horsepower base V-8s or tight rear seat legroom. No, it was a feeling, and not just from the soft, comfy ride. When you drove a Monte Carlo, Grand Prix, Cordoba, or Elite, you were driving a luxury car. Maybe you didn’t make it to the country club, but you sure looked fancy pulling into the shopping mall parking lot.
Customers eventually moved on to new relationships with SUVs. The last surviving member of the group was the Monte Carlo, which returned as a front-driver in 1995 after a seven-year break and lasted until 2007. Still, the “aspirationals” trend had a good run, a genuine automotive love affair between the Big Three and the American public.