Remembering the Traditional American Luxury Car: Defining Style of Classic Land Yachts

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Vintage Luxury Cars: Styling Cues You Will Never Find on a Modern Luxury Vehicle

As with the fashion world, the luxury car market is no stranger to fleeting trends. The ’80smarked a paradigm shift in the way that luxury, or at least perceived luxury, was defined by the consumer. Up until the ’80s, the notion of a luxury car in America had largely remained the same for a half-century – the cars were big, outfitted with what we now view as gaudy ornamentation and styling cues, and often had superfluous design language. When Mercedes-Benz and BMW started to sell in large numbers in the land of the Yankee, luxury car style in America changed forever. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, there was a distinct difference between luxury cars from European and American carmakers; the Americans favored audacious styling cues drawn from eras that had long passed us by, while the European cars favored a more austere design language. As the war waged on, the German luxury brands became the preferred brand of luxury in America, with many seeing the American-made Lincolns and Cadillacs as gauche in terms of style. Fast forward to 2013, Cadillac created a true BMW 3-Series competitor with its compact ATS sport sedan, and Lincoln’s MKZ is devoid of the flashy styling cues that defined the brand for decades. As America’s luxury makers adopted the more restrained European concept of luxury style and design, many styling cues that were once ubiquitous in the luxury car segment are just features of “back in my day” stories told by old-timers at “cars and coffee” events.

Vinyl Landau Tops

Vinyl landau tops gave American luxury sedans like the Lincoln Town Car an air of luxury, but they also allowed water to form between the surface material and the structural metal, creating rust. All that shimmers is sure to fad away.

 

Opera Windows

The opera window, that small glass opening in the luxury vehicle’s C-pillar, was a ubiquitous feature that denoted personal luxury on vehicles like the Cadillac Eldorado, Cadillac Seville, Oldsmobile Toronado, and the Lincoln Mark and Continental series. The trend was so ubiquitous that it became passé and started to adorn vehicles like the woeful Dodge Mirada and Ford Mustang II Ghia. To my knowledge, the last known appearance of the opera window was on the 1991 Chrysler TC by Maserati. Just sayin’

 

Hood Ornaments

There was a time when nearly every premium car was defined by its decorative hood ornament, but when the once exclusive hood ornament found its way to the hood of pickup trucks, its days were numbered. Sure, Rolls Royce and Mercedes-Benz keep the tradition going, but no other brand would dare adorn their vehicle with a hood ornament today.

Corinthian Leather

Chrysler coined the term “Corinthian leather” during the ’70s, and while the term may have helped sell a few vehicles to uninformed consumers, it mostly became to the automotive world what Comic Sans font is to graphic designers.

 

Button-Tuft Quilted Seats

Modern luxury cars are noted for their taut seats with firm side bolsters that hold occupants in their seats as the vehicle accelerates from 0-60 mph in a manner that was the exclusive realm of exotic sports cars during the Reagan-era. Fittingly, American luxury cars from the ’90s and before featured button-tuft quilted seats that gave off the sensation of driving a rolling La-Z-Boy, a trait exacerbated by the floaty ride of the car’s suspension. These seats, especially when covered in velour upholstery, evoke images of what I imagine the seats of a Storyville establishment would have looked like.

Exterior-Mounted Continental Spare Tire

An external mounted spare tire, often covered with an expensive decorative cover, was the ultimate status symbol on luxury sedans and coupes for decades. What is more decadent than such a flashy display applied to such a utilitarian item? I guess the proliferation of full-size spares left sales of cars with the so-called Continental tire flat. The luxury car styling cue enjoyed a brief resurgence during the ’90s thanks to the SUV. Because of course it did.

Fender Skirts

This classic luxury car styling cue offered aesthetic flair and functional benefits in the form of aerodynamics but the ubiquity led to it becoming passé by the ’70s. A few of General Motors’ premium brands retained the design throughout most of the disco era, but they died off as Jimmy Carter took office and enjoyed a brief resurgence on a few Cadillac models through the ’80s and ’90s.