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.

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