Benchmarks come and then they go. Personal luxury coupes occupied the hottest sector of the American car market in the late ’70s and early ’80s. What were they?
Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared as part of the Benchmarks Theme on DTW in March 2015.
A personal luxury coupe is understood as a two door, four seat car with at least a V6 or ideally a V8. Whilst the advertising for these may have suggested sporting capability, the body-on-frame and bench seat reality spoke of cars whose main talent lay in getting quickly up to 65 mph and staying there from Baker, Ca. to Frederick, Md.
The image above is my idea of the archetype of this car. I don’t think Europe had equivalents of the PLC. Two-door Ford Granadas (such as the 1975 example owned by our stalwart contributor Myles Gorfe) don’t strike the same note. Whether with two doors or four they retain their Granada-ness (the Ghia fastback came a bit closer to the concept). The Opel Monza offered a sporty experience and isn’t formal enough. BMW’s 1976 633 CSi also promised and provided athletic capabilities. Perhaps Mercedes 450 SLC came closest of all as it was certainly luxurious, it had a V8 and the back seats were cramped for occasional use, despite the car’s length.
In the US, Oldsmobile’s Cutlass came to be a benchmark in this class of cars before the world changed and people discovered SUVs. Typical features were upright C-pillars, thickly upholstered interiors and badging to suggest the car led a fantastic secret life in Europe: the international flag badging, for example, or the use of Detroit French. ‘Salon’ was thought to be French for ‘saloon’ and ‘saloon’ is a British (and posh) way to say sedan. Another pseudo-French reference was the Calais name. There’s a whole other article on cod-foreign names used in Detroit waiting to be done, isn’t there?
But back to the main thread. The coupe faded away. Instead of a car making a statement by only serving two people, having more room than you needed became the means of expressing your status.
The Oldsmobile Cutlass came in a dizzying variety of versions, with trim variants becoming model lines and model lines becoming trim variants as time passed. The Cutlass began life as the top trim variant of a monococque car, the F-85, but as the years went by Cutlass became a successful sub-brand. GM attached the Cutlass name to several vehicle lines: Cutlass Calais compact, the Cutlass Ciera (a medium-sized car), an estate, and the rather fancy Cutlass Supreme.
We need to understand how the Cutlass gained its place in the sales charts. A gap emerged that allowed the Cutlass in the direction of its success, the downsizing phase of the mid-70s. As other marques switched to shorter wheelbase cars and front-wheel drive, GM put the Cutlass on a body-on-frame chassis with rear wheel drive. At the time monococque vehicles could not match the refinement of body-on-frame cars, not at the prices the US market would withstand. Many buyers flocked to the Cutlass as a result.
Around 1975 the Cutlass Supreme coupe became Oldsmobile’s best-selling car and took the place of the Delta 88 at the top of their model hierarchy. The car struck a chord with buyers and outsold the Ford Torino and Chevrolet’s Chevelle and was the second best-selling car in 1975. In 1976 it became the US’s best-seller, pushing the Chevrolet Caprice off its podium. It remained a strong seller until the middle of the 1980s, and could be seen as an American Golf in that it was the median car, providing more people with most of what they wanted than other cars.
But which of all these cars was the real Cutlass? Oldsmobile’s money spinner could be seen more as a set of benchmarks: marketing, pricing, packaging, performance, styling all blurred together. Unlike other notable cars such as the 1962 Alfa Giulia (the first true sports saloon), the Porsche 911, the 1974 VV Golf, the 1968 Jaguar XJ, the 1980 Morris Ital and any Mercedes S-class, there is no essence of Cutlass. It could be anything the customer wanted though they seemed to want the personal coupe version most of all.
Oldsmobile’s fall from top seller to extinction took 20 years. The last ones rolled off the lines in 2004. One might think that if Oldsmobile was so malleable a brand it could have morphed to suit the times. It seems in retrospect that the success of the Cutlass as a personal luxury coupe had more to do with a particular alignment of factors. First, it was able to vacuum up conservative buyers fleeing the horrors of the monococque driving experience. Second, the Japanese makers had not figured out how to best sell their superior vehicles. Third, GM’s marketing talent was on top form and their planners had a knack for providing what customers wanted.
However, since the Cutlass Supreme idea was so nebulous all it took was for someone else to find something, anything, more appealing for customers to take their money elsewhere. The USP of the Cutlass coupe, its body-on-frame design and large engine, did not have a future. The cars’ appearance down the years lacked a distinctive element for people to latch on to. GM’s policy of frequent re-styling and the fact the cars shared large elements of their architecture meant the Cutlass lacked a visible identity even if in some years it represented plausible and attractive expressions of the American car ideal. The underlying engineering remained ordinary. The one characteristic element, the Rocket V8, was eventually dropped. Has any car line ever survived on the strength of a particular engine?
Once the Cutlass migrated back into the monococque A-body in 1978 and then to the G-body, the ending began. Under Irv Rybicki, GM’s chief designer, the mid-size cars became troublingly uniform. Cutlass customers still bought the cars but in ever decreasing numbers. The brand didn’t stand for anything and Oldsmobile could not distinguish itself, let alone its once high-flying nameplate. Even if the aero-styled Cutlass Supreme coupe of the ’90s looked rather good, people had begun moving away from two-door, four-seat cars.
And the Cutlass name remained attached at the same time to the epicentre of ordinariness, the Cutlass Ciera, an archetypically plain four door saloon of considerable practical merit but of zero visual distinction. Think of it as the US version of the Passat but without the apparent design integrity.
The Cutlass name died in 1999, attached to a car of even less styling appeal than the Cutlass Ciera. Ironically, this happened despite GM’s discovery of brandscape, little more than a modern version of Billy Durant’s “a car for every purse” philosophy. The last Cutlass, a front drive V6 saloon, resembled a bad imitation of Japanese cars which by this stage had a loyal audience and incredibly reliable and smooth engineering to compensate for the sometimes bland style. Thus the Cutlass had the worst of GM’s indifferent engineering and the worst of Japan’s diluted styling. And so the benchmark was erased as the century closed.
65 thoughts on “Benchmarks – Personal Luxury Coupés”
“BMW´s 1976 635 also promised and provided athletic capabilities. Perhaps Mercedes 450 SLC came closest of all”
These were likely way more expensive and in a different league altogether. As a European equivalent I think MB’s 230/280 CE is probably closer.
Nothing beats a C126 SEC in the PLC stakes. but is ’84 too late?
You’re right there, those are far more expensive. Even the CE cost much more. A direct equivalent might have been a Cortina 2-door with a V6. In Europe the hot hatch was taking off but was never as popular as the personal luxury coupe.
I meant to post a photo of a Mercury Cougar or Ford Thunderbird. Those were also very PLC.
Looking at the Oldsmobile timeline on Wikipedia, they have the Cutlass as a ‘mid-size’ coupe/saloon, with the Toronado the PLC in the Olds’ range, competing the Ford T-Bird in particular.
In the mid-size segment today’s European equivalent would consist of the Audi A5, BMW 4-series and Merc-Benz C-coupe, but it’s still something of a novelty on this side of the Atlantic. Not sure what you’re trying to say about hot hatches. Surely there’s no direct comparison?
I was trying to think of a comparably popular car rather than a direct equivalent. Hot hatches are two door four seat cars so might be similar in that regard. These new German coupes are probably closer physically to PLCs but in the wrong price class. Ford would need to make a 2 door Mondeo with a fatter engine to really seem comparable. They should anyway. Silly billies.
I’m not convinced. I think you would need to look at the price lists to be more conclusive with your comparison. It’s all about brand positioning and the price of the coupe relative to the 4-door model, no?
Actually if you want examples outside the so-called ‘premium’ european manufacturers, Peugeot is a good one: 404, 504 and 406 coupés probably fit the bill, although the pretence of luxury was minimal (however good the seats of the 406 looked).
Those are reasonable examples. I´ll take those.
I think I’m getting closer – how about this:
My thoughts exactly.
One thing is that these were cars for straightforward folk really, people who didn’t think of themselves as pretentious. Irrespective of price, if they’d parked even a Fiat 130 Coupe on their driveway, that would have looked suspicious. As such, the styling is interesting. I noted it regarding the Mercury featured the other day, and the same with the Oldsmobile. The vinyl/hide covered rear section might be supposed to recall European coachbuilding, but it reminds me more of something closer to Detroit, a coupe pickup in the style of the El Camino/Ranchero. Those were strange devices, ostensibly workhorses, but self-consciously stylish – rather like a country & western cowboy. In the same way, by association did the personal coupe appear suitably ‘manly’ to its owners?
“did the personal coupe appear suitably ‘manly’ to its owners?”
Once they were old enough, probably.
Or rather: they probably no longer cared, or not as much.
It’s hard to tell. I regard them as rather camp, rather like cowboy costumes, but in both cases I doubt their owners generally did. They can’t all have been bought by members of the Liberace Fan Club.
It strikes me that the Isabella Coupe shown at Geneva was a European version of the PLC
Ah, Oldsmobile. One of my dad’s friend had an Oldsmobile Aurora, one of only three in the country or so he claimed. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen the car. I like the idea of personal luxury car. I’d have a ’65 Riviera, I think.
Growing up in Canada, specifically Vancouver, the message of the Cutlass Supreme was ‘I can afford something just a little nicer and more luxurious, and a bit less practical – a car for me, not for hauling the soccer team or going to the lumberyard.’
And as for Salon, no, it has nothing to do with the British ‘saloon’. Salon sounded classy and French, whereas in North America a saloon is where cowboys went to get in a fight. Which is what I still think of every time I hear a Brit use it.
Saloon is a word I associate with pleasant old bars and places to drink in nice hotels. I suppose words shift nuances in the various cultures in which they land.
You’re forgetting the Renault Avantime, which I contend ticks all the boxes defining a personal luxury coupé.
Good morning Richard. If you ignore issues of size, then there was a number of European coupés based on saloon mechanicals that offered the personal coupé experience without being overtly sporting. One thinks of the Renault 15/17 and Fuego and even the Opel Manta A and B in this regard. However, the car that comes closest in my opinion is this, the Ford Taunus TC coupé:
I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that Ford saw a niche for this alongside the Capri. Both were similarly sized coupés but, if the Capri was the sporting one, where did that position the Taunus?
The Taunus TC Coupé simply was a successor to older 12m/15m coupés
I think the Taunus Coupe is a good example of a European PLC.
In my childhood/youth, when these cars were popular, cousins tended to drive a Capri, while the uncles and aunts drove a Taunus Coupe.
The latter could be just as fast when needed, but didn’t shout it out as loud. It signalled wealth, but in a down-to-earth way, without showing off.
The picture is a flashback to my childhood: a couple in our neighbourhood (my memory says “older couple”, but I don’t know how old they were, as a child or teenager everything outside your own generation was considered “old”) drove exactly such a coupe in this shade. They were considered “rich”, whatever that meant to my parents’ generation, and supposedly could have afforded a Mercedes, because “they even had big framed pictures hanging in the living room” they said.
The Ford Taunus TC Coupe does have a certain appeal, quite like the Argentinian spec Ford Taunus Coupé SP.
Could the Ford Granada Mark I coupé also be considered a Europe PLC?
Hi Bob, yes, the Taunus coupé lived on in Argentina, nicely updated to resemble the Taunus TC2 and TC3 (a.k.a. Cortina Mk4 and Cortina ’80):
Maybe its was because the cars that fitted into the category were largely specific to North America though never really got the appeal for the Personal Luxury Coupe.
Perhaps if the Big Three’s model line-up such as their sub-compacts and compacts (not forgetting their larger models) for example had more in common with their European division’s D and E-Segment models (thereby negating the need for post fuel crisis downsizing) instead of growing increasing larger from the mid-1960s onwards?
Hi Richard. Greetings from the future 😁. Slightly off topic: details aside (mad side creases, b-pillar), I think the Cutlass Supreme sedan looks quite nice:
The essence of a true Personal Luxury Coupe is that it squanders space. The clue is in the first word. This is a driver’s car – not in the EVO sense, but in the self-indulgent sybarite driving along with his (generally his) elbow on the door sense. And to be able to squander space, there needs to have been lots of it there in the first place. So really only an old-style US car can be the basis of a true PLC.
What I’d say about most of the above European candidates, is that they still generally attempt to give the rear passengers decent accommodation. I don’t think that even the legendary Toyota Crown S60, which would be my suggestion for a non US PLC, qualifies
So of the suggestions so far, only the Borgward Isabella makes it as a PLC candidate in my opinion.
The Toyota Crown Coupe was definitely the non USA equivalent. Of varying models up to the 1980s when the coupe variant was dropped in line with market trends worldwide.
Hi Bristowfuller. The Isabella coupé is pretty, but has wildly unusual proportions, with a rear deck that appears to be much longer than the bonnet. In that regard, it reminds me of another German ‘personal coupé’, the Opel Rekord B:
And these too :
Though I don’t think that ‘luxury’ comes to mind looking at any of these. For me, the unusual proportions are what a PLC is all about.
Fritz B. Busch once compared the Rekord Coupé to a shoebox on which somebody had forgotten a beret basque.
How about a Karmann Ghia coupé which even has the luxury of having no power
Or an Audi 100 Coupé
My other opinion about a true PLC is that it should have a unique bodystyle – Toronado, Riviera, Thunderbird. The Cutlass is a stock sedan with a truncated passenger cabin. It just isn’t special enough to make the compromise worthwhile. Unless, of course, as David suggests above you buy it just as an excuse for not having to do domestic duties.
I guess the Lincoln Continental MKs are the zenith of the PLC. Or a Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
It’s interesting that continental Europe understood the concept of a non-sporty personal coupé better than the British. Perhaps it was a combination of higher living standards and more motorways / longer journeys? Here’s a Taunus Coupé road test.
I nearly forgot – the Fiat 130. Too exclusive?
Charles: In 1974, the 130 Coupé retailed at £6430. That was more expensive (by some margin) than a Mercedes 280 CE (£5758) A Porsche 911 was also cheaper (£6249), as was a Jaguar XJ12C (£5243), a Ferrari 246 GT (£6245) or an Alfa Montreal (£4999). Prices from Autocar w/e 6 April 1974.
So yes, too exclusive.
Peugeot 404 coupé
Benz W114 coupé
Whether a Benz from this age is a luxury car is open to discussion
And too understated, Charles.
My granddad had a Taunus in exactly the same spec as in the video. He loved that car. Unfortunately it got totaled and replaced with a 2 door Taunus TC2.
The 2-door Mk3 Cortina had a fastback shape anyway; the Taunus saloon had a more upright rear screen. There wasn’t really a need for a coupe version.
But this ….
Lol. That Peugeot 404 is lovely, though. I was trying to imagine the Morris Oxford equivalent, which I guess is really an MGB.
There must be a tonne of Japanese models – things like the Toyota Crown coupé, not least because they cater more to US tastes.
I used to loathe those cars when I was young. Having grown up under the influence of car magazines, the personal luxury coupe was the very antithesis of the sporty, dynamic, performance car, or the serious, determined, European Sports Sedan that were doctrine and dogma in said magazines.
Now, whenever I see a personal luxury coupe I get that warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart that can only come from the mellowing and diversification of my automotive preferences, and more importantly, from good old nostalgia. This type of car was very much a part of my childhood, even if no one in my immediate family actually owned one, but they were everywhere in 1970s and early 80s Venezuela, in the form of locally-built Chevrolet Malibu Chevelle, Ford Fairlane 500, Ford Futura, Chrysler LeBaron, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and of course, the recently mentioned Conquistador.
Hi Cesar: The mis-match between the tail lights and the trunk lid cutlines on that 1974 Malibu Coupe Classic is giving me convulsions. This –right there– is where GM totally lost it. Compared with this f-ux pas, the same situation with the ADO71 Princess (highlighted by Daniel a couple of weeks back) is a work of art by Da Vinci.
You’re right! I hadn’t noticed the ill-fitting boot lid!
You’re right, gooddog, I hadn’t noticed it!
Could it be that we European’s didn’t really grasp the nuances and semiotics of the North American market and therefore couldn’t truly grasp the concept of a PLC? Because even those British and European carmakers who attempted to cash in on the USA’s PLC market never quite hit the nail on the head.
It’s an interesting question and I think cultural differences between regions are often both more subtle and larger than we realise.
Differences also may go back further than one may initially expect. For example, I’ve come across the term ‘business coupé’ when looking at older US cars, which I don’t think existed in Europe so much as a classification.
I take Richard’s point about the Opel Monza / Vauxhall Royale Coupé not being formal enough. I think some of the two-door Crowns may be – I find them interesting, in any case.
I think Volvo hit the nail on the head by making the brick a bit broughamnesque. However, the low uptake was probably that the target group for PLCs tended not to look towards Volvo (or other European manufacturers).
But you’re right, Europe didn’t really have that category – we had Taunus Coupe or Fuego, et al, actually something completely different -, which is why European manufacturers struggled to understand PLCs. Here was an entirely different market.
(The market for other “luxury goods” was also entirely different here than on the other side of the Atlantic.)
Looking at all the EOT candidates above, it’s also obvious that the expectations for such modest indulgences also vary varied from country to country within Europe. In the UK we’d have expected leather and wood certainly, and probably a bit of extra chrome – maybe the Sunbeam Rapier was a good example. For a country that espouses good living, aside from Facel Vegas, French cars were usually very comfortable, but at the same time, quite austere. And the German saloon-based coupes are generally good looking but they also shout “I am not frivolous”.
Yes – things like the Rover 800 Coupé (referenced above) and similar are pretty niche vehicles.
The concept of ‘personal indulgence’ is a difficult one in Britain, in any case – “The English take their pleasures sadly, after the fashion of their country” as the quote has it.
At least with a traditional sports car, you can suffer for your pleasure with a terrible ride and poor weatherproofing and a bigger, luxurious car with 4 doors at least implies that you’re not being selfish. A coupé such as a Bentley, Jaguar or Mercedes-Benz hints that you’re wealthy enough to own at least one other (more practical) car.
Very much what I have been asking myself, Eóin. To me this underlines the cultural differences between PLC-era America (and Canada?) and all our other countries. It’s not just a matter of relative affluence or mindset, there seems to have been something else going on, feeding the desire to own a vehicle which, bluntly, defies logic. I’m thinking it’s something I will never understand.
American executives tried introducing local equivalents into their Australian ranges. Perhaps the closest was the VH-series Valiant Regal hardtop of 1971-3. Though based on the sedans, it was on a stretched 292 cm wheelbase and 499.6 cm long. Oh it looked impressive – if you were looking for a coupe that huge. We weren’t. Not as formal as the American PLCs, the roofline was sort of halfway between formal and sport – maybe as a nod to Aussie informality? It was a spectacular flop, as any Australian could have told them it would be. Meanwhile the locally developed decidedly sporty Charger coupe on a shortened 267cm wheelbase nearly outsold the sedans.
(I’d show a photo of this beast, but Imgur won’t let Australians register!)
Peter, you mean Chrysler Australia thought they saw a market for both these, the LWB two door coupe and the SWB Charger, but the SWB Charger just about outsold the whole rest of the Valiant range. It seems that people don’t want an ‘old man’s luxury two door’, they prefer a ‘youthful, sporty’ one.
The Hardtop, on the sedan wheelbase and length.
The super luxury Chrysler by Chrysler 2 door on the standard sedan chassis, the 4 door Chrysler by Chrysler is on a longer wheelbase. Lots of different detailing and standard ‘options’ to justify the higher price. (V8, Air con, electric windows etc.)These cars never sold well and are now very rare.
The Valiant Charger. In 770 luxury sporty form.
The Valiant Charger. In R/T sporty, ‘sporty racing’ form. These cars can go for big money (New Bentley priced) nowadays.
Thank you for the photos, David, and so many of them. It’s a nuisance Imgur won’t let me register.
I wasn’t sure I trusted my memory on Charger popularity, as to whether they actually outsold the sedans or not. They were so common, even in non-performance versions – which was unusual for Australia. But they were a handy size. The LWB hardtops though – they just looked strange and unwieldy. Despite living in inner Melbourne at the time, I don’t think I ever saw one outside a magazine.
The Charger was the biggest seller in NZ.
Thank you for an interesting article. It’s fascinating how these niche segments appear then fade away.
These coupes remind me of the big boxy Japanese domestic market “personal luxury coupes” of the 1980s, of which the Toyota Soarer (Z10/Z20) and Nissan Leopard (F30/F31) were the most popular. They were one step up from the popular “Date Cars”, the likes of the Prelude and Silvia. Through the 1990s and 2000s they slowly faded away… the Leopard became an extremely organically styled saloon in 1992 (the Leopard J Ferie/Infiniti J30) and after 1991 the Soarer (badged as the Lexus SC internationally) also became more organic and slightly sportier. The Soarer badge was dropped after 2005.
There is something I like about those 1980s JDM only models, distinctive forward-leaning B-pillars, two-tone paint and loaded with ridiculously overblown gadgetry…
Most of all, the PLC was an aspirational car for mostly the American middle class. Real luxury was Lincoln, Cadillac, and Mercedes territory. The PLC was the same experience for Ford, Chevrolet, or Dodge money. People wanting real luxury would buy a premium brand, this was ersatz luxury for those that aspired to that lifestyle without having the money. Todays equivalent would be a luxury SUV that could deliver a Porsche/Bentley/Lamborghini experience for Skoda money. Yesterdays equivalent would’ve been a Mercedes coupe experience for Ford Granada money, but there really wasn’t anything in those days that could fit all the boxes. The Volvo Bertone coupe comes closest, but we’re already talking Mercedes money for that car and that’s why it flopped. Europe simply didn’t have the target demographic in the numbers the US market could provide for that kind of car.
Or rather, the American market was a little more stratified. Ford Thunderbird/Lincoln Mark, Cadillac Eldorado/Buick Riviera/Oldsmobile Tornado was real luxury for people that wanted to drive themselves instead of buying an old hat Cadillac or Lincoln sedan. It was seen as a more sporty and youthful alternative for those who “made it”. The ersatz luxury is a step below, with the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme above all, but also the Ford Elite, Mercury Cougar, Chrysler Cordoba, Pontiac Grand Prix, etc. The American Ford Thunderbird demographic really didn’t have a European equivalent, those buyers would buy a Mercedes S-Class, Jaguar XJ6, or BMW 7-series. We’re talking upper middle management that drive their own cars, preferably something with a sporty touch. The ersatz luxury alternative would’ve been a Granada Ghia or an Opel Commodore, all four door cars. Perhaps the Granada Ghia really is the European Personal Luxury Car par excellence?
Exactly! I remember a test some years ago between an early Buick Riviera and a Bentley Continental of the same age, in one of the British classic car magazines.
The Buick, as an import, would have been radically more expensive than it American price and held up well against the Bentley.
The PLCs actively emulated the Rolls-Royce and Bentley coupes of the time, as well as the luxury cars of the twenties and thirties.
Think Packards and original Lincoln Continentals .
How’s this for a European PLC?
Strange but true…
This was not considered to be a PLC:
But this was:
But it gets even stranger, and here is the kicker (if y’all r still with me), have a gander at this:
Nope! not a PLC.
Put simply, the roofline, also shared with the Chevy Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix which were unquestionably considered PLCs makes the difference. I hope this hasn’t upset anyone. It’s the same case for the Buick Regal vs. the Century Coupe, but at least the different model names make that case clearer.
Oh, and I pulled this image up earlier, and…. I don’t know what _category_ it fits in. But it was the best selling Dodge Charger ever.
and while we are here…
Yeah I dunno, it’s the AMC Matador Barcelona. Um, thanks for playing.
Please tell me that’s not a factory paint job on the Matador…
I’m sorry Michael, I’m afraid I can’t do that.
I think they are all Personal Coupes and depending on trim and GM division name, they’re either personal luxury coupes or just personal coupes. Or personal “custom” coupes, in which “custom” is 1970s US car industry speak for “poverty spec”😁, ie, vinyl bench seats, manual windows, AM radio (or optional radio delete for credit, in which you could save all of $32.50 on the final price), wheel covers, and even, gasp!, a six cylinder engine.
The Dodge Charger, by the way, was one of those muscle cars that morphed into personal coupes during the early to mid 70s, in response to emissions controls, oil crisis, and high insurance costs for muscle cars. Some say that there was also a change in demographics, that is, the muscle car owner of the sixties got older, married, had kids, settled down, and just became more “respectable”.