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Ford Thunderbird (1967)

A personal luxury car is a highly styled, luxury vehicle with an emphasis on image over practicality. Accenting the comfort and satisfaction of its owner and driver above all else, the personal luxury car sometimes sacrifices passenger capacity, cargo room, and fuel economy in favor of style and perceived cachet, as well as offering a high level of features and trim.[1] Typically mass produced by employing a two-door platform with common mechanical components beneath their distinctive exteriors, these vehicles were a lucrative segment of the post-World War II automotive marketplace.


Personal luxury cars are characteristically two-door coupés or convertibles with two-passenger or 2+2 seating. They are distinguished on the performance end from GT and sports cars by their greater emphasis on comfort and convenience; on the luxury end, by appointments, features, and style over actual vehicle performance. With great variability within the market, however, this is not absolute but a general trend.

The vast majority of personal luxury cars are mass produced rather than coach built, and typically share many mechanical components with high volume sedans to reduce production costs. However, they have additional styling elements and sometimes "baroque"[2] designs. They are typically equipped with as many additional features as possible, including special trim packages, power accessories (e.g., windows, locks, seats, antenna), leather upholstery, heated seats, etc.


The antecedents of the modern personal luxury car are the highly expensive, often custom-bodied sporting luxury cars of the 1920s and 1930s. Typically made by Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, Duesenberg, Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln, Cadillac, and others, these extremely stylish prestige cars were favored by film stars, aristocrats, playboys, and gangsters for projecting dashing and extravagant images. Two extreme examples were the Duesenberg Model SJ and Mercedes-Benz SSK, extremely fast and expensive automobiles which eschewed both pure luxury and absolute sports performance in favor of a distinctive combination of style, craftsmanship, and power: these combined to produce cars that became status symbols.

The Great Depression and World War II temporarily eroded the market for these expensive bespoke cars before post-War recovery saw a reemergence in Europe. On the sedate end of the spectrum appeared such erect yet swift two-door sedans as the H.J. Mulliner bodied, straight-6 powered Bentley Continental R Type. On the other, performance oriented GTs, relatively comfortable low-slung cars intended for high-speed, long-distance travel. Italian marques such as Ferrari and Maserati took the GT lead, offering distinctive, often custom-bodied two-seat and 2+2 coupes powered by exotic alloy-lightened engines straight off the race track. In between could be found such combinations of luxury and performance as the Mercedes-Benz 300SL and 190SL, BMW 507, Alfa Romeo 1900 Sprint and DKW 1000Sp.

Luxury and reliability over sport

With both custom luxury cars and GTs beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest, the 1950s saw a growing trend in both the United States and Europe towards mass-market "specialty cars" catering primarily to drivers coveting the image of bespoke machinery without its cost. Joining them were affluent buyers who could afford the genuine article but disliked the inconvenience of complex service and repair, especially in areas where exotic car dealerships were few and far between. Many of both classes were also interested in such modern conveniences as automatic transmission, air conditioning, power steering, and other comfort options not generally offered on GTs or sports cars of the day."[3]

Factory customs

The result was a burgeoning market for so-called "factory customs," models using standard or mostly standard engines and other mechanical components, but with unique styling. A prominent early example was the 1953 open top Cadillac Eldorado, where customized styling gave it a price tag nearly twice that of a standard Cadillac convertible despite nearly identical underpinnings.

The Personal Car

The personal luxury car market segment in the United States was largely defined by the Ford Thunderbird. Joining the Chevrolet Corvette in 1955 as America's only other two-seater, the original "T-bird" was a softly sprung, reasonably powerful auto for its day, available as both a convertible and an open car with removable hardtop. Too large, slow handling, and luxurious to be a sports car, yet lacking the high-performance of a GT, Ford instead coined a new term for the industry to market it, a "personal car."

The model met with reasonable success its first three years. However, since Ford basically defined the "personal luxury" niche, they believed they could also reshape it.[4] As a result of their own surveys, Ford decided the Thunderbird should gain two seats[4] and a permanent hardtop, changes they considered to be refinements of the personal luxury idea even if the car which emerged was considerably less personal than its two-seat forerunner.[4] Only one American car occupied the target marketplace, the Studebaker Golden Hawk, a highly styled two-door performance hardtop in the GT tradition.

The bulkier, four-seat 1958 Thunderbird which emerged, arrayed with comfort features and weighed down with styling gimmicks, nevertheless found tremendous success, outselling any of its predecessors. Its merely above-average performance and mediocre handling proved no daunt: the marketplace had spoken. The Continental Mark II of 1956 and 1957 was also a personal luxury coupe of the time, sold through Lincoln dealers.

The personal luxury market expands

The four-seat Thunderbird's sales increases, but the other American auto manufacturers were inexplicably slow to react. Four years into the larger-sized design, GM's Pontiac finally offered the 1962 Grand Prix and Buick its Wildcat, but neither was an attempt to fully replicate the Thunderbird "luxury" and unique design formula.

The breakthrough was 1963, Buick serving up a true "personal luxury car" with its well-received Riviera and Studebaker with the powerful and futuristic Avanti. Where the Grand Prix and Wildcat were little more than trim variations on standard full-size sedans, the Riviera was a striking new design squarely aimed at the four-place sports coupe marketplace,[5] while the Avanti offered near-GT styling and performance in an American-built car. The Thunderbird had competition.

Within three years GM's Oldsmobile had rolled out an ahead of its time front-wheel drive Toronado and Cadillac reintroduced its exclusive Eldorado as a long-nose, short-tail 2+2 design. With so many "entries in the personal-luxury-car class" ... "to meet this competition, Thunderbird, long predominant in the field", was "sharply restyled and has added a four-door model for the first time."[6] Other personal luxury car influenced "sports" models such as Dodge's Charger and American Motors' Marlin,[6] both full-sized fastbacks based on an intermediate platform, as well as the Mercury Cougar, made their appearance.

In Europe, smaller-bodied and more expensive models such as the BMW CS coupes, Citroën SM, and second-generation Mercedes SL roadsters aimed at the personal luxury car market. Some began to join Mercedes as imports available in America.

By 1967, Motor Trend magazine was able to state: "Motorists of just about every stripe can now find a car with pleasing and distinctive lines, good performance and all the things that go to make a car enjoyable."[3]

The decline of the muscle car in the early 1970s coincided with a strong upswing in the personal luxury segment, as buyers shifted emphasis from performance to comfort. Models such as the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, Ford Elite, Mercury Marquis, and Chrysler Cordoba racked up impressive sales figures in the mid-1970s with their intimate, luxury-oriented feel, plush interiors, and vintage styling cues like Rolls Royce-style radiator grilles, opera windows, and vinyl roofs.


American 'personal luxury' cars grew ever larger, heavier, and more luxurious, and were typically equipped with either a V6 of moderate performance or a massive V8. Poor fuel economy, an industry switch to smaller cars and front-drive architecture, and renewed emphasis on utility over image began to winnow their ranks during the early 1980s.

By the 1990s, younger buyers had moved either toward imported European and Japanese cars or sport utility vehicles. After years of steadily declining sales, the Oldsmobile Toronado was discontinued after 1992, the Lincoln Mark series after 1998, the Buick Riviera after 1999 and the Cadillac Eldorado after 2002. An effort by Ford to reintroduce a small, two-seat, retro-themed Thunderbird in 2002 was discontinued after three years of slow sales. [7]

Imported personal luxury cars from European marques such as BMW and Mercedes, and Japanese manufacturers Lexus, Infiniti and Acura, are still marketed in the United States while domestic production of personal luxury resurfaced with the introduction of the Cadillac CTS Coupe for the 2011 model year.[8]

See also

American English British English Euro Car Segment[9] Euro NCAP 1997 - 2009 Euro NCAP[10] Examples
Microcar Microcar, Bubble car A-segment mini cars Supermini Passenger car Isetta, Smart Fortwo
Subcompact car City car Fiat 500, Daewoo Matiz, Peugeot 107, Toyota iQ
Supermini B-segment small cars Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Polo, Ford Figo, Opel Corsa, Peugeot 207
Compact car Small family car C-segment medium cars Small family car Ford Focus, Opel Astra, Toyota Auris, Volkswagen Golf, Chevrolet Cruze
Mid-size car Large family car D-segment large cars Large family car Ford Mondeo, Opel Insignia, Volkswagen Passat, Chevrolet Malibu, IKCO Samand
Entry-level luxury car Compact executive car Alfa Romeo 159, BMW 3 Series, Lexus IS, Volvo S60, Audi A4, Cadillac CTS
Full-size car Executive car E-segment executive cars Executive car Ford Crown Victoria, Holden Commodore, Toyota Crown, Chrysler 300C, Chevrolet Impala
Mid-size luxury car Lexus GS, BMW 5 Series, Jaguar XF, Lincoln LS, Audi A6, Volvo S80, Cadillac CTS
Full-size luxury car Luxury car F-segment luxury cars  - Audi A8, Maserati Quattroporte, Lincoln Town Car, Mercedes S-Class, Cadillac DTS
Sports car Sports car S-segment sport coupes  - Chevrolet Corvette, Porsche 911, Ferrari 458 Italia, Nissan Z-car, Lamborghini Gallardo
Grand tourer Grand tourer  - Jaguar XK, Ferrari 612 Scaglietti, Maserati GranTurismo
Supercar Supercar  - Bugatti Veyron, Ferrari Enzo, Pagani Zonda
Convertible Convertible  - BMW 6 Series, Mercedes CLK, Volvo C70, Volkswagen Eos, Chevrolet Camaro
Roadster Roadster Roadster sports Roadster Audi TT, Honda S2000, Lotus Elise, Mazda MX-5, Porsche Boxster,
 - Leisure activity vehicle M-segment multi purpose cars Small MPV MPV Ford Tourneo Connect, Peugeot Partner, Škoda Roomster
 - Mini MPV Opel Meriva, Fiat Idea, Citroen C3 Picasso
Compact minivan Compact MPV, Midi MPV Mazda5, Opel Zafira, Ford C-Max, Volkswagen Touran, Peugeot 5008
Minivan Large MPV Large MPV Chrysler Town and Country, Ford Galaxy, Honda Odyssey, Peugeot 807
Mini SUV Mini 4x4 J-segment sport utility cars (including off-road vehicles) Small Off-Road 4x4 Off-roader Daihatsu Terios, Mitsubishi Pajero iO, Suzuki Jimny, Jeep Wrangler
Compact SUV Compact 4x4 BMW X3, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Chevy Equinox, Jeep Liberty
 - Coupé SUV  - Isuzu VehiCROSS, SsangYong Actyon, BMW X6
Mid-size SUV Large 4x4 Large Off-Road 4x4 Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Volkswagen Touareg, Chevrolet Tahoe
Full-size SUV Cadillac Escalade EXT, Chevrolet Suburban, Range Rover, Toyota Land Cruiser, Jeep Commander
Mini pickup truck Pick-up  - Pick-up Pickup Chevrolet Montana, Fiat Strada, Volkswagen Saveiro
Mid-size pickup truck Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, Mitsubishi Triton/L200, Nissan Navara
Full-size pickup truck Dodge Ram, Ford F-150, GMC Sierra, Nissan Titan, Toyota Tundra
Full-size Heavy Duty pickup truck Chevrolet Silverado , Ford Super Duty


  1. Gartman, David (1994). Auto opium: a social history of American automobile design. Taylor & Francis, Inc, 180. ISBN 9780415105729. 
  2. Harless, Robert (2004). Horsepower War: Our Way of Life. iUniverse, 193. ISBN 0595302963. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Motor Trend, August 1967
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Mueller, Mike (1999). Thunderbird Milestones. MotorBooks/MBI Publishing Company, 38. ISBN 9780760304747. 
  5. [1] See "The SCM Analysis" section. Retrieved on July 8, 2007.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Why auto prices are going up. 61, U.S. News & World Report. 1966. p. 85. 
  7. "LUXURY COUPE - The Decline of the Personal Luxury Coupe". Retrieved on 2011-05-11.
  8. "2011 CTS Luxury Coupe". Cadillac. Retrieved on 2011-05-11.
  9. European Commission classification
  10. NCAP Comparable cars

External links

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