Personal luxury car

Personal luxury car

Personal luxury car is a highly styled, luxurious automobile intended for the comfort and satisfaction of its owner/driver, sacrificing passenger space, cargo capacity, and other practical concerns for the sake of style. The personal luxury car has often been a lucrative market segment of the post-World War II automotive market.


Personal luxury cars are usually, though not necessarily, two-door coupes or convertibles with two-passenger or 2+2 seating capacity, sometimes with more seats. They are distinguished from GT cars or sports cars by their greater emphasis on comfort and convenience than on performance, although the distinction between a luxury GT and a personal luxury car is often hazy. Personal luxury cars are typically mass produced (rather than custom-bodied), sharing their mechanical components with more prosaic sedans to reduce production costs and increase profitability. A modern example is the Ford Thunderbird.


The antecedents of the personal luxury car are the expensive, often custom-bodied sporting luxury cars of the 1920s and 1930s, some of the most prestigious of which were built by Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, Duesenberg, and Mercedes-Benz. Two well-known examples were the Duesenberg SJ and Mercedes SSK: tremendously fast and stratospherically expensive automobiles eschewing the comfort of pure luxury cars while being too large and heavy to be true sports cars. They nonetheless offered distinctive style, impeccable craftsmanship, and strong performance for wealthy buyers (including film and music stars, kings, and gangsters) who wanted to project a dashing image. The Great Depression and World War II eroded the market for these expensive, bespoke cars, but the postwar era still produced noteworthy examples like the Bentley Continental R Type with its fine two-door body built by H.J. Mulliner. A related, primarily postwar phenomenon was the grand tourer (GT), a relatively comfortable, high-performance car intended for high-speed, long-distance travel. Italy became a major producer of GTs, with marques like Ferrari and Maserati offering distinctive, often custom-bodied models of considerable performance. Alfa Romeo never recovered from the Second World War. This void was filled by Ferrari.

Both the bespoke luxury car and the GT were beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest buyers, and the 1950s saw a growing trend in both the United States and Europe towards mass-market "specialty cars" catering to drivers who coveted the image of the bespoke machinery, but who could not afford the cost -- and to wealthier buyers who could afford the genuine article, but disliked the inconvenience and complexity of servicing and repairing it, especially outside of a major urban area where foreign car dealerships were few and far between. Buyers were also interested in automatic transmission, air conditioning, power steering, and other convenience options not generally offered on GTs or sports cars of the day.

In its August, 1967 issue, Motor Trend magazine noted that the domestic "luxury speciality cars" of the day (Ford Thunderbird, Buick Riviera, Oldsmobile Toronado, Cadillac Eldorado and Pontiac Grand Prix) appealed to buyers who wanted reliability and durability not found in the exotic European imports of the 1950s along with those aformentioned American-style options which kept them buying American cars." M/T added that "Motorists of just about every stripe can find a now car with pleasing and distinctive lines, good performance and all the things that go to make a car enjoyable."

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

The personal luxury car market segment in the United States was largely defined by the Ford Thunderbird. The first Thunderbird, launched in 1955 and sold through 1957, was a two-seat convertible, but despite its compact size and respectable performance, Ford made no claims that the softly sprung T-bird was a true sports car, calling it a "personal car." Although some Thunderbirds were quite fast for their time, and some successfully competed in various forms of competition, it was more of a compact luxury car than a GT.

In 1958 Ford transformed the Thunderbird into a bulkier, four-seat model with a large array of comfort features and styling gimmicks and found it a tremendous success, outselling any of the earlier, two-seat T-birds. While the four-seat Thunderbirds had only average performance and mediocre handling, their airplane and rocketship-inspired design cues found a receptive audience.

The personal luxury market emerges

Curiously, other U.S. automakers were slow to react to the success of the Thunderbird. It was not until 1962 when Pontiac offered the Pontiac Grand Prix and Buick offered the Wildcat, followed the next year by the Buick Riviera, that the T-Bird had serious competition. By 1970 the segment was growing, and would achieve even greater success in the later 1970s.

While Europe's slower economic recovery meant that it did not venture as much into this market until the 1960s, there were exceptions like the DKW 1000Sp, the custom-bodied Alfa Romeo 1900 Sprint, BMW 507, and Mercedes 190SL were popular in the personal luxury market, albeit on a smaller scale. By the 1960s models like the Jaguar E-Type, BMW CS coupes, Citroën SM, and Mercedes SL roadsters, while more expensive and somewhat smaller than their U.S. equivalents, were very much aimed at the same type of market. Indeed, the initial 6-series BMW's of 1977 were very comparable to models like the Riviera: they shared most of their mechanical components with contemporary sedans, offering very similar (and even slightly inferior) performance and less practicality at a higher price, but their distinctive style and image made them desirable automobiles.

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, although there were some muscle cars that could be classified as personal luxury, such as the Dodge Charger (SE models). The models of that time, including the Lincoln Continental Mark series, Cadillac Eldorado, and Ford Thunderbird, largely abandoned any pretense of sport for a more intimate, luxury-oriented feel, with plush interiors and vintage styling cues like Rolls Royce-style radiator grilles, opera windows, and vinyl tops. They were mechanically uninspired other than the occasional gimmick, but despite high prices and poor fuel economy, they sold well.


American 'personal luxury' cars began to die out in the late 1980s as younger buyers moved toward imported European and Japanese cars, or toward sport utility vehicles. After years of steadily declining sales, the Oldsmobile Toronado died after 1992, the Lincoln Mark after 1998, the Buick Riviera after 1999 and the Cadillac Eldorado after 2002.

Nevertheless, conceptually similar imports from Japanese manufacturers like Lexus SC and Infiniti and European marques like BMW and Mercedes continue to sell well, even though their vehicles tend to be higher priced than their former American counterparts.

Partial list

While the vast majority of personal luxury cars came from the United States in the past, most of today's personal luxury cars are sold under German nameplates.

American vehicles

The Lincoln Mark IV is one of the most iconic American personal luxury cars.
The Ford Thunderbird was one of the first American personal luxury cars and arguably the last with production ending for the 2004 model year.

American made cars that can be included in the Personal Luxury Car sector include the following. Note that not all model years with cars bearing these names count, since automobile manufacturers often re-use names, sometimes on very different types of car:

  • Ford Thunderbird - The original personal luxury car, and always one of the best sellers
  • Ford Elite - The company's first intermediate personal luxury car, obsoleted when the Thunderbird was downsized in 1977
  • Oldsmobile Starfire - Until the arrival of the Toronado in 1966
  • Oldsmobile Toronado - The first modern American front wheel drive car and one of the first to feature airbags
  • Buick Riviera - Considered as one of the most beautiful American cars of the 1960s. The 1971-73 models featured a boattail rear end with a wraparound rear window similar to the 1964-67 Corvette Sting Ray and 1964-66 Plymouth Barracuda.
  • Buick Regal - Was originally an intermediate-sized personal luxury car from 1973 until 1988
  • Pontiac Grand Prix - Introduced in 1962, early models are based on the full-sized Pontiac Catalina and Bonneville body but they were always had sportier and more luxurious interiors with bucket seats and featured distinctive styling cues such as different rooflines and cleaner body with a virtual absence of chrome. Beginning in 1969, it shared a platform with the intermediate-sized Pontiac LeMans and GTO, utilizing the intermediate sized car's chassis with a longer wheelbase to permit a longer hood plus more squared off styling.
  • Chrysler Cordoba - Late to market in 1975, but for several years phenomenally successful
  • Mercury Cougar - Originally based on the Ford Mustang as a ponycar from 1967 to 1973, the Cougar became a personal-luxury car based on the intermediate platform used for the Ford Torino and Mercury Montego in 1974, then became related to the Ford Thunderbird when that car was downsized to the intermediate Torino chassis in 1977.
  • Chevrolet Monte Carlo - Introduced in 1970 with the same bodyshell as the Pontiac Grand Prix and related to the Chevrolet Chevelle; again, a much more luxurious car than its stablemate, but considerably smaller and cheaper than the following cars from luxury car brands, which fitted in at the very top end of the personal luxury car market:
  • Cadillac Eldorado - From 1967 onwards, it shared the front wheel drive drivetrain and other characteristics of the Oldsmobile Toronado
  • Lincoln Continental Mark Series - From 1968 to 1983, usually sharing the chassis, drivetrain and other parts of the Ford Thunderbird
  • Imperial - In 1981, this venerable name was briefly resurrected to compete in the personal luxury car market

European vehicles

  • The Alfa Romeo GT appeals to the driver, while still luxurious.
  • A8 Coupe is an example of a European Personal Luxury Car.
  • Alfa Romeo GTV
  • Alfa Romeo Spider
  • Aston Martin Vanquish
  • Aston Martin DB9
  • Bentley Continental GT
  • Bentley Azure
  • BMW 6-Series
  • BMW 8-Series
  • Jaguar XK
  • Maserati Coupe
  • Mercedes-Benz CLK
  • Mercedes-Benz CLS
  • Mercedes-Benz CL
  • Mercedes-Benz SL
  • Mercedes-Benz SLK

Japanese vehicles

  • Lexus SC
Personal luxury car


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