Luxo performance, ‘80s Detroit style
Imported luxury performance coupes like the Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC and BMW 630 CSi were becoming commonplace by the mid-1970s. They could even be spotted at bastions of automotive conservatism like the Grosse Pointe, Mich., yacht and country clubs frequented by Big Three auto execs. As was customary of a crowd that the legendary Brock Yates famously called out in 1968 in a column called “The Grosse Pointe Myopics,” it took them a long time to respond—nearly ten years to be exact. But by the mid-1980s, Detroit had fired its first salvos at Bimmer and Benz. Following are five notable attempts to compete in the high-end performance, personal luxury space:
1982-85 Cadillac Eldorado Touring Coupe– The Cadillac Eldorado’s eighth generation has yet to get the love it deserves. It’s a genuinely handsome, sharp-lined design that lost the bloated ridiculousness of the huge 1971-79 car and regained some of the elegance and swagger of the high-water mark 1967-70 Eldo. It should receive more attention, particularly the lovely and rare ASC-built convertible. Even more ignored is the Touring Coupe. For the TC, Cadillac started by removing the glitzy trim from the car like the hood ornament and bright rocker trim as well as the vinyl roof. And heresy of heresies, the whitewall tires were eliminated too in favor of wide, raised white letter Goodyear radials mounted on alloy wheels. The real difference was in the suspension—larger diameter front and rear sway bars, stiffer springs, shocks, bushings and torsion bars banished the usual period Cadillac wallow. Sadly (and unsurprisingly), the number of people cross-shopping Cadillacs and BMW 633s was essentially zero. Touring Coupes accounted for just about 4,500 of over 76,000 Eldos built from 1982-85. Fewer than 600 were sold in its final year.
1981-85 Buick Riviera T-type– Like its platform mate, the Cadillac Eldorado, the Buick Riviera got a huge lift from its 1979 re-design. It’s a very good-looking and underrated big Detroit coupe. In many ways, the T-type Riv, particularly in black, channels some of the mojo of the later Buick Regal Grand National. While its turbo V-6 wasn’t as fierce (190 hp) and it was a front-driver, it wasn’t a slouch. Like the Eldorado Touring Coupe, legitimate effort was made to stiffen the suspension and remove the double dose of Novocain from the steering. Later cars (1982 and on) are more desirable because four-wheel disc brakes were added. Production numbers are tough to come by, but surviving Riviera T-types are scarce indeed.
1984-92 Lincoln MK VII LSC– Of all the cars on this list, the MK VII LSC (Luxury Sport Coupe) probably represents Detroit’s most sincere effort to defeat the Germans. With the MK VII, Lincoln finally gave up on previous Mark’s pimptastic styling—blaxploitation films would never be the same. Although clearly sharing much with the era’s Thunderbird, the MK VII was handsome with its flush, composite headlamps and clean aero style. The one nod to previous Marks was the vestigial Continental kit bulge on the rear deck. In spite of the fact that it employed a live rear axle in comparison to the fully independent setups favored by the Germans, Road & Track found its performance and ride to match the Germans at half the price. Later LSCs, from 1990 on, are the ones to own as they feature better seats, a re-designed dash and the 225 hp 5.0-liter V-8 from the Mustang GT. All have anti-lock brakes, and the MK VII was actually the first American car to feature them.
1983-88 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe– I’m actually old enough to remember when these cars debuted, and they were a pretty big deal. The NASCAR aero-inspired design by the very talented (and underrated) Jack Telnack generated its share of double-takes. It also didn’t hurt that its Ford Fairmont-derived predecessor was widely regarded as the absolute nadir of the Thunderbird nameplate, it was the Mustang II of T-Birds. Alone among the cars on this list, the T-Bird Turbo Coupe came standard with a five-speed manual transmission and a limited slip differential. It’s by far the most sporting and edgiest car here. Like most mid-‘80s American cars, things improved as the decade wound down, particularly in the horsepower department. The Turbo Coupe inherited the SVO Mustang’s engine in 1987, the 190 hp version of the 2.3L Ford turbo four. Combined with the car’s even now impressive aerodynamics, it was good enough for a 143 mph top speed, sufficient to threaten a Porsche 911. Unfortunately, the collector car market essentially ignores this surprisingly good, near-luxury GT because, other than the Buick Regal Grand National, Americans just don’t care about performance cars with fewer than eight cylinders.
1986-92 Oldsmobile Toronado Trofeo– The Toronado’s fourth generation is the car that finally killed the Toro nameplate. It wouldn’t live even to see the end of the Oldsmobile division in 2004. The car wasn’t without its issues—poorly executed downsizing that saw the car finally go to a unibody platform made it look far too similar to cheaper offerings from Oldsmobile and Pontiac. But the monochromatic Trofeo wasn’t really a bad looker. A stiffer F33 suspension made it handle acceptably well, but the naturally aspirated Buick 231-cid V-6 was nothing to shout about. The Trofeo got a modest restyle in 1990 and the nameplate was split off from the Toronado. Few seemed to care. The last one was built in 1992. Of all the cars on the list, the Oldsmobile effort was the least compelling and probably at least partially explains why the division is no longer around.