Personal Luxury Cars of the 1970s, Part 1

by Dick Nesbitt

mk-iv-1972

As rising insurance cost and increased emissions control concerns gradually phased out the exciting high-performance cars of the late 1960’s, high-image “personal-luxury” style became the new emphasis for the 1970s. From the “entry-level” Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Ford Elite, to the “mid-range” Pontiac Grand Prix, Mercury Cougar, Dodge Daytona and Chrysler Cordoba, sales were exploding into the hundreds of thousands. An upper-level range was represented by the traditional and larger Ford Thunderbird, Oldsmobile Toronado and Buick Riviera.

The personal-luxury category had it’s initial roots in this context based on Ford’s original Thunderbird from 1955, which was created to compete with the two-passenger 1953-1954 Chevrolet Corvette. GM’s Motorama-inspired Corvette was intended to compete with popular British sports cars of the early 1950’s, but missed that mark by a wide margin with the first 1953-1954 version. By 1956, the Corvette was more focused, extensively redesigned and well on it’s way to achieving exceptional sports car performance standards.

Ford’s intention was to define and develop the original Thunderbird as a “personal” 2-3 passenger car, and not as a sports car. Thunderbird emphasized luxury oriented convenience options like power steering and brakes plus power windows, seat and top features combined with elegant styling and spirited V-8 performance. After three years of surprisingly good sales for a 2-3 passenger car, Ford redirected the Thunderbird “personal” concept to “personal luxury” for 1958.

GM had created a great deal of excitement and interest with the exotic, glamorous Motorama “dream cars” on display at selected U.S. cities during the early and mid 1950s. Each GM division would create a futuristic dream car, usually with compact, low-height exterior dimensions. The interiors usually had four bucket seats combined with a highly styled central console dividing the front and back seats. GM never built a production car based on these Motorama dream car concept ideas, but Ford decided they would!

The 1958 Thunderbird was a totally new car inside and out, now with seating for four. It was larger and heavier and would be assembled in a newly constructed purpose-built factory in Wixom, Michigan designed for its sophisticated unit-body construction along with the much bigger unit-body Lincoln and Continental. This new Thunderbird styling was glamorous, unique and totally original. The interior was also as exotic and exciting as the GM Motorama show cars, with front bucket seats, a high central mounted full-length floor console and sculptured double-brow instrument panel. Originally available only as a two-door hardtop coupe, a striking convertible version was added after the first of the year. The convertible top was fully concealed and stored under the rear deck in a similar design to the innovative Ford Skyliner retractable hardtop.

Sales were way down for the American auto industry in1958 due to a severe, year-long economic recession. Two very notable exceptions were Thunderbird and Rambler! The Thunderbird was now a much admired personal-luxury car, and an unqualified success, generating very impressive profit earnings for Ford Motor Company. Thunderbird sales and profits continued to increase, and Ford would have exclusive benefit of this lucrative market until the arrival of GM’s Buick Riviera in 1963.

In 1968, Ford launched the Lincoln Continental Mark III based on the longer four-door Thunderbird chassis wheelbase combined with the Thunderbird two-door inner body structure and floorpan. With its unique new body styling, the Mark III Continental had the longest, most impressive hood length in the industry.

The high-end level of personal-luxury in the disco-decade 1970s era was represented by just two marques, the Cadillac Eldorado and the Continental “Mark” series, and even Bill Mitchell, General Motor’s fabled design boss, greatly admired the Continental Marks. From it’s imposing classic-era radiator grille to the iconic rear deck “Continental Kit,” the Mark series represented the absolute pinnacle of aspirational prestige in this crowded arena.

Lee Iacocca, Ford Motor Company President, would assign and “challenge” two different and separate design studios to compete for a single final design of various important all-new programs to get a more dramatic, intense
and focused design effort.

In 1973, I was assigned by Gayle Halderman, Lincoln-Mercury Advanced Design Studio Director, to create a special Continental Mark V design presentation for review by Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca at the Ford Advanced Strategy Conference in Boca Raton, Florida. I was instructed to create an extensive selection of very advanced, bolder and more aggressive concepts for the new Continental Mark V generation as compared to the Continental MK IV or the Cadillac Eldorado. The louvered hood proposals anticipated an “LSC” supercharged high-performance touring variation. This version was inspired by the 1929 supercharged 4.5 Litre Le Mans “Blower Bentley”,and incorporated a mesh grille texture similar to this Bentley. Other versions drew on inspiration from the legendary and classic 1956-1957 Continental Mark II heritage. Halderman was very pleased with several proposals I had created for other Lincoln Continental design programs and I was privileged and honored to be selected for this special assignment.

The Continental Mark V was produced from 1977 to 1979, and became one of the most successful, well-received editions of all the Continental “Mark” series.

17 Comments on “Personal Luxury Cars of the 1970s, Part 1

  1.  by  Paul Aitchison

    I have often wondered how the designers reacted to the often bland productionizing of their grand and proportionally significant interpretations of their unique designs, as outline in this article. It must have been disheartening.

  2.  by  Jack Marchese

    An enjoyable read about stuff I didn’t know.
    Thanks Gary.

  3.  by  Mark Wayne Gregory

    Most enjoyable! My list of my favoroite all-time designs are those of the Continental Marks III, IV, and V. Thank you for sharing these wonderful sketches with us.

  4.  by  Bill Howell

    This is an interesting article that covers a lot of ground! I especially loved the renderings because they were firsthand illustrations of the design development. My only concern is that I really think the 1953 Buick Skylark and the Cadillac Eldorado of the same time were innovative leading efforts in this field which should have received more attention. Certainly the 1956 Lincoln Mark II and the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham were also distinctive frontrunners in this field, even though expensive and of limited production. But, these latter cars served to show the public and Detroit what was possible and to set a standard.

  5.  by  Bryan Hancock

    Great article! I often lament the demise of the personal luxury cars, as I would love to buy a new one today to use as my daily driver, but they simply don’t make them anymore. Let’s see … take a new Mustang and “Cougar-ize” it with a formal roofline and luxurious interior while keeping the high-performance V8. Now that’s something I could get excited about!

    To Paul Aitchison’s point above: I am not a designer, but I have often wondered about the wisdom of creating dramatic, exaggerated concepts, and then productionizing them. It seems like something is always lost in the translation. Why not design a car as “productionized” from the very beginning, so nothing has to be compromised? Just a thought.

    Bryan

  6.  by  Michael Sorbera

    I own a 70 Mk III – those sketches are amazing! Hey Jay Leno, build one of the sketches! I think I’ll find someone to build me that louvered hood – very cool!

  7.  by  David Ferguson

    Great background information on the evolution of personal luxury cars! The Lincoln Continental Mark III, IV, and V were definitely the pinnacle personal luxury cars of that era. Their design have stood the test of time….exciting, unique, and they have presence…boy, do they have presence!

    And the Dick Nesbitt design sketches are awesome! Super WOW!

  8.  by  allen ornes

    The concept for the Mark V might have been derived from your sketches as you protend but there were many others that were involved. I think Ray Everts and Don DeLorasa did the show model which was a much smaller car, perhaps you were involved in that effort.

    During that time I was the design manager with John Aiken as the executive, Gale Halderman as director, and of course Gene Bordinet ran the place. We ended having to use a large car chassis rather than the the mid size of the show model, which made it a more than a bit longer/larger. Made it a totally different proportion. On the first version we were able to have the grill run behind the bumber as the original Continentals. The later versions were truncated at the bumper. It is still an impressive vehicle. Weight and length were no big concerns at that point in the US. For a short time.

  9.  by  Dick Nesbitt

    John VanTilburg was the executive and Jim Sherburne was the manager in the studio I was assigned to in 1973. The sketch presentation I developed for the Mark V was created to explore various design direction possibilities as an overall size similar to the Mark IV. The five-mile-an-hour speed impact bar bumpers would of course have been required, but I was instructed to retain more traditional design themes at this point. There were certainly many others involved in the development of the Mark V, and it was my understanding much of the final design direction was done in Don DeLaRossa’s studio .

    Dick Nesbitt

  10.  by  Walter Gomez

    Yeah, thanks! We’ve owned a both a Mark III and IV in the past ten years.

  11.  by  Eddie Mitchell

    Wonderful story and elegant, beautiful designs. Seems in retrospect the FoMoCo products of the 70’s, particularly the Lincolns and Mercurys, have ages best both in looks and also quality as compared to the products of GM and Mopar.

  12.  by  Leon Dixon

    Ahhh! Thanks for posting the images. I still have my beautiful maroon 1969 Mark III and still ADORE it! I have also owned three Mark Vs (one purchased new) including a Collector’s Series and just really loved those cars!

  13.  by  Dick Nesbitt

    In response to comments from Paul Aitchison and Bryan Hancock regarding the sketch techniques of that era, this presentation style was influenced by many and various factors.

    At Ford design in the 1970’s , the most common paper size we worked with was 18″ by 24″. In a typical studio situation when a new design program was released, several designers involved would create hundreds of idea sketches for review in the time allocated.

    With designers being very competitive by nature, and because of the relatively small illustration size for each proposal, bold, graphic use of color and distorted, exaggerated drawing technique were very effective devises to help stand out and “draw” attention to their presentation ideas.

    The various corporate decision makers reviewing these massive presentations were often preoccupied with other concerns, and also concerned about making a “wrong” selection or selections.

    The dramatic illustration techniques were vital in trying to win over and “sell” the viewer for selection consideration.

    It was very important to each designer to have their design theme contributions stand out and be considered for interpretation in three-dimensional form as the clay model phase developed following sketch design selection.

    Although extreme, this “enhanced” sketch technique was very effective in capturing exciting new design exploration ideas in a dramatic way to create a high level of enthusiasm and reached out as far as possible before being brought back to the real world.

    The design theme selection phase with the various and numerous decision makers involved was a very “mysterious” process at best.

    Dick Nesbitt

  14.  by  allen ornes

    Dick, your work was always outstanding and, working with Jim Sherburne would have been an inspiration for you as well.

    Thanks for putting these images out for all of us. Brings many memories of the time for me.

    Allen Ornes

  15.  by  Dick Nesbitt

    Allen
    Thank you very much for your kind and thoughtful comments…

    -Yes, Jim Sherburne was a tremendous influence and inspiration, his illustration talent was absolutely brilliant and it was a real privilege to work with him.

    Dick Nesbitt

  16.  by  David McIntosh

    I loved the personal luxury cars of the ’70’s and have been sorry to see the collector activity mainly focused on muscle cars. These cars were styled for elegance in a way that other cars couldn’t touch. Great sketches. I proposed a Grand Prix for 1978 but the production and money realities destroyed the proportions that made it interesting. It was designed in an advanced studio ahead of the final program definition and was a victim of the policies and economics of the time

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