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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.<ref>Template:Citation/core{{#if:|}}</ref> 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"<ref>Template:Citation/core{{#if:|}}</ref> 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, 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-8 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."<ref name="Motor Trend, August 1967">Motor Trend, August 1967</ref>

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.<ref name=Mueller>Template:Citation/core{{#if:|}}</ref> As a result of their own surveys, Ford decided the Thunderbird should gain two seats<ref name=Mueller/> 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.<ref name=Mueller/> 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

In spite of the four-seat Thunderbird's solid success, American auto manufacturers were inexplicably slow to react. Four years into the 2+2's run, GM's Pontiac finally offered the 1962 Grand Prix and Buick its Wildcat, but neither was an attempt to clone the Thunderbird formula.

The breakthrough was 1963, Buick serving up a true "personal luxury car" with its well-received Riviera and Studebaker 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,<ref>[1] See "The SCM Analysis" section. Retrieved on July 8, 2007.</ref> while the Avanti offered near-GT styling and performance in an American-built car. The T-Bird had serious 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. Smaller and less-costly personal luxury car influenced models such as Dodge's Charger and the Mercury Cougar made their appearance. American Motors introduced the Marlin, a full-sized sports fastback that based on an intermediate platform.

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 same basic 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."<ref name="Motor Trend, August 1967"/>

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 '70s 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.

Imported personal luxury cars from European marques such as BMW and Mercedes, and Japanese manufacturers Lexus and Infiniti, are still marketed in the United States while domestic production of personal luxury cars has not resurfaced.