Personal Luxury Cars of the 1970s, Part 1
by Dick Nesbitt
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.