The upper-middle class coupé is almost extinct. We trace its demise.
Large upper-middle class coupés only made commercial sense if they could be produced to appeal to both domestic and US audiences. Mercedes-Benz, BMW and the Japanese manufacturers alone seemed to understand this, ensuring they could export their offerings to the sector’s natural habitat. Success in automotive terms had traditionally been predicated on success in America and for that, a luxury coupé was highly desirable. For those who could derive a comely shape from more prosaic underpinnings and sell it successfully in the U.S, riches awaited. Those who by choice (or circumstance) remained Euro-centric found the situation considerably less clear-cut. Large coupés tended to be produced for Europe during times of plenty, when manufacturers felt expansive and customers had money to spend on such trinkets. But when economies take dives, these cars fall out of favour and automotive sackcloth is donned – at least until the cordite clears.
For example, the Lancia Gamma coupé was conceived prior to the 1973 oil crisis but by the time it was launched, the European market for such cars had all but dried up. Now it’s fair to say the Gamma’s problems ran deeper than this, but when it was discontinued in 1984, Italy’s sole offering in the segment went with it. France also abandoned the luxury coupé by then; the elegant Peugeot 504 coupé discontinued two years earlier. Opel took longer to admit defeat, ceasing production of its Senator-based Monza in 1986, leaving the market to Mercedes and BMW.
It was left to Volvo to fly the upper-middle class coupé banner. Volvo had Mercedes squarely in its sights when they launched the 780 ES in 1985. Visually, a bit of a throwback with its distinctly angular silhouette, Bertone however did an excellent job of creating a dignified, elegant, proportional shape. To little avail since Volvo could hardly be said to have made waves or indeed much profit on a model which sold a mere 8000 units in five years.
Clearly, it was also Mercedes and BMW that ARG were after when the 800 coupé was first schemed in the early ’80s. Mid-size coupés had proven to be a lucrative profit centre for the Stuttgart firm and like Volvo, ARG believed it would be possible to grab a bit of that action if Rover could be placed further upmarket. In 1985, they displayed the handsome (if hardly production-feasible) CCV concept as a precursor to the 800 saloon. A production version was to follow, but by the time the funds had been cobbled together, its push across the Atlantic had foundered – the Sterling débâcle having already reached its messy climax. The 800 Coupé struggled along for four years. It’s inconceivable that they sold more than a few thousand.
ARG’s onetime partner, Honda, had by contrast made serious inroads with the jointly-designed Legend, which in its first two series, was also made as a coupé. The second series Legend Coupé was a fine looking car, (and a successful one in the US at least), but Honda’s lack of prestige hamstrung the model elsewhere and by the time the third series was launched in 1996, a coupé derivation was notably absent. Future Honda coupés were based on the more compact Accord platform, Honda surmising that if they couldn’t sell a large coupé with an upmarket Acura badge, it was probably best to call the whole thing off.
Perversely, when the Lancia Kappa Coupé was launched in 1997, most of its rivals had already packed up and left the field. For Fiat, the Kappa was their first attempt at such a vehicle since the Gamma, which as everybody knows was a marketing disaster, but its Pininfarina styling was almost universally fêted. Sadly for Lancia, Fiat centro stile was unable to come up with anything as alluring – damnably, its Berlina counterpart presented a better looking, more harmonious visage. It doesn’t take an Einstein to work out that the Kappa turned out to be a bit of a commercial damp squib. Since the coupé was virtually hand-built by Maggiorra, the final production tally of slightly over 3000 could hardly come as a shock. There was to be no further Lancia coupés.
However, the wonders of photo-shop suggests what could, in an alternate universe have followed. I don’t consider myself much of a fan of Lancia’s Thesis, but whatever other qualities it may lack, gravitas is not one of them. As a putative rival for a large Mercedes coupé, this digital render has something going for it.
Today, only Mercedes offer four-seater saloon-biased two-door coupés. To find anything else of this ilk, you need to go looking amongst the exotica. But then, the very notion of what constitutes a coupé now seems to be open to interpretation. We have four-door coupés, SUV coupés, a failed attempt at a coupé MPV and more recently, a five door hatchback masquerading as a coupé. So the waters are considerably muddier now. One thing is clear though – the mainstream upper-middle class coupé is as good as dead – largely because the automotive upper-middle class itself is facing extinction.