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20 Luxury Coupes From the ’50s

Vukasin HerbezOctober 18, 2018

The American luxury car market was booming in the 1920s and 1930s, despite the Great Depression and the worst economic recession the world had ever seen. The Duesenberg, Packard, Stutz, Cadillac and Cord companies represented the pinnacle of American engineering as well as style with their sculptured bodies and appeal. However, by the early 1940s, the luxury market died, and America was involved in World War II.

So, after the war, the industry concentrated on producing military vehicles and planes. After the war, Detroit realized the market needed some new, inexpensive cars. Across the industry, car manufacturers presented such models. Soon, new car sales jumped. People enjoyed modern machines with powerful engines, automatic transmissions and whitewall tires.

However, with the rise of domestic production, Detroit’s marketing managers saw there wasn’t a luxury model to offer to the most discriminating customers. Cadillac, Packard, Lincoln and Imperial all sold well. But of those companies didn’t have anything to match the uniqueness or exclusivity of the Bentley Continental R or Mercedes 300 S Convertible. So, during the ’50s, several American manufacturers introduced exclusive and expensive models to rival the European luxury coupes and sports cars.

So, keep reading to learn about all of them. You’ll revisit some familiar models and also some cars you never knew existed. Take an exciting ride with the best American luxury coupes and sports convertibles from a decade that brought rock and roll, the small block V8 and chrome fins.

  1. Nash Healy

The story of the Nash Healey is an interesting one. Some people called the car the original American sports car because it debuted two years before the Corvette in 1951. The project started when the head of Nash Car Company met with Donald Healey, British engineer and constructor on a cruise ship. They decided to make the proper sports car that America didn’t have at the moment.

The idea was to take the Nash Ambassador platform and a six-cylinder engine. They wanted to cover it with an elegant roadster or coupe body consisting of aluminum for a lower weight. They presented the first cars in 1951. And despite the 125 to 140 HP from 3.2-liter straight six engine, the Nash Healey delivered a respectable performance.

They unveiled their redesign by Italian design house, Pininfarina, in 1952. And in 1953, they introduced the closed coupe. The Nash Healey was an accomplished car and even had several highly publicized racing wins. However, the high price and lack of brand recognition killed the project in 1954 after they make only 506 of them.

  1. Muntz Jet

The growing interest of wealthy American buyers for European sports cars in the early ‘50s inspired some entrepreneurs to produce cars of equal appeal and performance. And one of those attempts was the Muntz Jet Earl “Madman” Muntz built. He was a well-known California used car dealer and electronics retailer. With the help of the famous Frank Curtis, he produced 400 Muntz Jets. And they were one of the first American sports cars.

All the cars were convertibles. They featured numerous unique features, along with the choice of Cadillac or Lincoln V8 engines. Unfortunately, the market wasn’t ready for an expensive, limited production American sports car. So in a couple of years, they discontinued the Muntz Jet. Out of approximately 400 cars they built, there are only about 45 left today.

  1. Dodge Storm Zeder Z-250

You probably never heard about the Storm Zeder Z-250, but it was a true sports car from the early ’50s. They built it as a pet project for Chrysler engineer, Fred Zeder Jr. In those days, only Chevrolet had a sports car in the Corvette. But Dodge could have had an even better car if the Zeder Z-250 made it into production. And the idea behind this car was straightforward.

They wanted to use common mechanical components, a powerful Chrysler engine and a body by Bertone. They were a famous design house from Italy. Dodge envisioned creating a comfortable yet fast sports car. And the Z-250 had one interesting feature. Car fans could remove the entire body and replace it with a lightweight fiberglass one. The reason for this was to offer two cars for the price of one.

When owners wanted to drive on the street, they would use the regular metal body. But if they wanted to go racing, they could put the light fiberglass body and have even better performance and handling. Unfortunately, Chrysler decided it would be too costly to produce, so they scrapped the idea. However, Fred Zeder Jr., built approximately nine, selling them to his friends.

  1. Kaiser Darrin

One of the most interesting but short-lived sports car attempts of the 1950s was the beautiful Kaiser Darrin. It was an advanced roadster they produced for only one model year, in 1954. The idea behind the Darrin was to introduce a lightweight sports roadster. The goal was to battle those powerful European models with homegrown elegance.

The Kaiser Car Company was an economy manufacturer in Toledo, Ohio. And they produced dependable yet affordable cars for years. In the early ’50s they decided to build a performance roadster, so they contacted designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin. He designed a stylish roadster body of fiberglass. And it came with one unusual feature: doors that slid to the fenders to open.

The car debuted in 1954, but its high price tag and modest power from 90 HP engine failed to attract car customers. It was only when they added the optional Cadillac engine that it got the performance it deserved. However, it was too late to revive the image of the model. So, they only made 435 cars, all of which are desirable classics today.

  1. Cunningham C-3 Vignale

Briggs Cunningham was a world-famous entrepreneur, racer and constructor who introduced American cars to the European sports car scene in the 1950s. His dream was to build a racing car to dominate both sides of the ocean. He wanted to win Le Mans with an all-American machine, driver and crew. So, from 1952 to 1955, Cunningham entered the Le Mans race with several cars of his own design.

However, at the same time, he produced the beautiful Cunningham C-3, a road-going sports car. The C-3 was a two-door coupe or convertible he produced in his West Palm Beach facility. It used the Cunningham C-2 R racing chassis, but they converted it for street use. Vignale designed and produced the body in Italy. Under the hood was a Chrysler 331 Hemi engine they tuned to produce 300 HP.

And the C-3 was a luxury sports car that could easily rival any Ferrari or Maserati. But it was also expensive with prices close to a Rolls-Royce of the day. So, that is why Briggs Cunningham produced only 25, 20 coupes and five convertibles; all of which still exist today.

  1. Gaylord Gladiator

The Gaylord Brothers of Chicago established their car company in the early ’50s. They were set to produce bespoke, luxurious sports cars for the wealthiest clientele. And because the brothers inherited a fortune, they wanted to invest it in a car company under their own name.

So they called their first and only project the Gladiator. It debuted in the 1955 Paris Motor Show, causing quite a stir among car enthusiasts. The Gaylord Gladiator featured a 300 HP V8 with a Chrysler Hemi or Cadillac. It hit top speeds of 120 mph and had 0 to 60 mph times of eight seconds. And these numbers were spectacular by the standards of the day.

Also, the car had an ingenious automatic folding roof and a host of other luxury features years ahead of their time. But the Gladiator had an astronomical price of $17,500, which was almost three times as much as the most expensive Cadillac. The price was so high because the famous engineering and design company, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, in Friedrichshafen assembled and built it in Germany.

Despite the interest from the world’s rich and famous, including actress and the Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly, the Gaylord brothers only made two cars. However, there is a legend that they made a third car, but no one has confirmed that. Afterward, the Gaylord Gladiator fell into obscurity yet it still is one of the rarest American cars they ever built.

  1. Dual Ghia

Not many people know about Dual Ghia. It was an exclusive American car company they founded in 1956. But it was defunct two years later in 1958. Businessman, Eugene Casaroll started the company. Dual Ghia was the producer of high powered, custom built convertibles.

And they came with Chrysler platforms and 315 V8 engines. But the selling point was the body and luxury appointments. Casaroll sent the chassis to Italy so the famous Italian design house Ghia could re-body it; hence, the name.

The Dual Ghia appeared in 1956. And it was the most expensive American car at that time. They only built 117 of them. Interestingly, some A-list celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Richard Nixon bought them.

  1. Continental Mark II

If you think Edsel is Ford’s only failed luxury attempt, think again. In the mid-50s, Ford decided to establish a separate brand they called the Continental Division. The goal was to produce new luxury cars above the Lincoln brand. The success of the original Thunderbird showed the way. So, Ford decided they should build a bigger, more advanced and expensive prestigious luxury coupe.

And the first and only car they produced was the famed Continental Mark II in 1955. Ford wanted to present a superb luxury coupe with the finest technology and comfort to market as a separate brand. The idea sounded viable, but the market response was disappointing. So, Ford shut down their Continental Division in just five years.

The sales of the Mark II coupe were low, despite being one of the finest American cars Ford ever made. Today, most car fans remember the Continental Mark II as the ultimate American personal luxury coupe.

  1. Cadillac Eldorado

The 1950s brought post-war optimism and rising standards, so Detroit responded with fresh models and more power. But nothing could match the highly exclusive Cadillac Eldorado in 1953. They based it on the Series 62 convertible model. And the Eldorado was the first true personal luxury car as well as the most expensive Cadillac at the time.

In fact, the price of $2,000 was well above the rest of the lineup. The main features included an advanced one-piece wrap-around windshield. It also had an interesting belt line with a slight dip before the rear fenders. The raised tail lights were the announcement for the chrome fins which arrived a few years later.

The power came from the same 5.4-liter V8 as the rest of the models for 1953. But Cadillac only made 532 Eldorados that year. However, in spite of the limited availability, the Eldorado was popular and stayed in the Cadillac portfolio for 50 years.

  1. Chrysler C-300

The fastest, most powerful American production model for 1955 that shook the car scene was the mighty Chrysler C-300. This was the start of a 10-year production run for Chrysler’s famous “Letter cars.” They were a series of exclusive, fast and expensive coupes and convertibles with maximum power, comfort and luxury.

And the first car in that glorious lineup was the ’55 C-300. The car got its name for the 331 V8 Hemi engine. It came with an 8.5:1 compression, race camshaft and twin four-barrel carburetors. And the C-300 delivered 300 HP, which was a magical figure for the mid-50s.

The performance was outstanding with a 0 to 60 acceleration time of nine seconds and 130 mph top speeds. The car was expensive and full of luxury items. But it proved successful on the race tracks, winning 37 stock car events. Today, the Chrysler C-300 is a valuable early muscle machine and extremely rare, too. Chrysler built just over 1,700 of those Hemi-powered cruisers.

  1. Ford Thunderbird

Ford was caught off guard when Chevrolet introduced the Corvette in 1953. Although the Corvette was a commercial failure and didn’t earn any money for GM, it was extremely successful for promotional purposes. Also, it was a valuable as a halo car for General Motors. And that is why Ford wanted their own version to capitalize on the trend.

So, in 1955, Ford presented the Thunderbird. Even though Ford presented it as a sports car, it was clear the Thunderbird was not one. The car had two seats and sporty looks, but it rode on a standard platform with a comfortable suspension. And Ford filled the interior with lots of creature comforts. This was Ford’s first personal luxury car, but others would follow.

However, Ford missed the mark with the Thunderbird. They failed to introduce a proper sports car to rival the Corvette but managed to create a sales hit. In fact, the T-Bird outsold the Corvette, becoming one of Ford’s best earners in the late ‘50s.

  1. Hudson Italia

Today, just a small percentage of car enthusiasts know about the Hudson car company. But it was one of the dominant forces in the economy car class during the 1950s. Hudson was one of the companies that formed AMC in the late ‘50s. However, before the merger, Hudson tried to offer the Italia, which was a luxury car to American buyers.

The famous company, Carrozzeria Touring, designed and manufactured the car in Milan, Italy. And the Hudson Italia was a luxury coupe they built on a standard Hudson Hornet platform. It even featured the same suspension and drivetrain. But Carrozzeria Touring gave it a specific look with its signature “superleggera” construction technique. This technique made it lighter and more nimble than the Hornet.

Unfortunately, the finished product was expensive at over $4,000. That price was more than the Cadillac Coupe DeVille. However, its limited production, long waiting period to ship from Italy, and lack reputation on the luxury car marked sealed its fate. The company only made 26 and the production lasted from 1953 to 1954.

  1. Chrysler Ghia Specials

The story of those Chrysler Specials the Italian coach building company Ghia built is interesting and unique in automotive history. In the early ’50s, the American car industry was just starting to promote those wild concept cars. They were busy introducing new jet-influenced shapes in their production models.

But Chrysler wanted to offer some several elegant concepts, all of which drew attention from the crowds. Interestingly, those Chryslers were fully operational prototypes they built on standard car chassis and drivetrains. Several of Chrysler’s top managers realized there was potential for a limited production of those prestigious coupes.

However, they need to work with Ghia because they had already designed and produced several concept cars. So, in 1951 they presented the first Chrysler Special they called the K-301. And it continued with several other models until 1955. But Chrysler Specials from the early ‘50s weren’t production models since Ghia produced and assembled them at the request of wealthy owners.

And Chrysler sold its concept cars with regular technology to people mesmerized by the sensual lines. So, in four years, they build just 18 cars. But they highly customized them to each customer’s wishes. Also, they built all of them in Italy.

  1. Chevrolet Corvette C1

The introduction of the Chevrolet Corvette was the biggest automotive news for 1953. After all, nobody expected Chevrolet to build and market such an exotic car. Suddenly, there was a new roadster with incredible features from a mid-class manufacturer with no sports car experience. But despite all that, the first Corvette was a well-designed and executed model.

The most interesting thing about the new Corvette was the fiberglass body. Back in the early ‘50s, plastic was still the material of the future, so they rarely used it in the industry. In fact, the Corvette was the first car with a fully plastic body. Also, Chevrolet was one of the pioneers of fiberglass construction. This incredible innovation gave the Corvette its lightweight construction.

And from that time onward, they made the `Vette body out of fiberglass. Under the hood was an inline six engine they called the “Blue Flame.” It featured a 3.9-liter displacement and a modest 136 HP rating. The engine came from Chevrolet’s standard lineup although they equipped it with three Carter carburetors.

But, the Chevrolet engineers tried to keep the cost down by borrowing mechanical components from other vehicles to use on the Corvette. With a price of $3,490, the 1953 Corvette was expensive, but it was less than a Jaguar XK120 or a Ferrari 166. Despite the big interest from the public during the first year, they only made 300 Corvettes, all in white with red interiors.

  1. Packard Caribbean

Packard was always a luxury brand, famous for heavy limousines and comfortable sedans. But back in 1956, they tried to enter the personal luxury market with their Caribbean model. In those days, Packard was facing bankruptcy and a loss of sales. So, the company was eager to find new customers any way they could.

For 1956, Packard introduced the biggest V8 engine available in America. It was the 374 V8 with 310 HP it produced with the help of high compression heads and dual quad carburetors. However, despite all the power, the Caribbean wasn’t so fast since the car was heavy and comfort-oriented.

  1. 1959 Lincoln Continental

Despite the failure of the 1956 Continental Mk II, Lincoln continued to offer big, luxurious cars. And for the 1959 model year, they presented the Continental two-door sedan. It came with enormous dimensions and a 430 V8 engine. Interestingly, the car had a huge 130-inch wheelbase.

These dimensions meant it was one of the longest vehicles Ford ever produced. Also, they filled it with all the latest luxury items and creature comforts.

  1. Packard Panther

The Panther was basically a concept car with a stylish fiberglass body. They built it on a regular Packard chassis with an interesting drivetrain configuration. But although Packard had its V8 engines, the Panther used an older style, straight eight motors. However, they added a supercharged set up that helped deliver a hefty 275 HP.

Since the car was a light roadster with a fiberglass body and 275 HP, it delivered a lively performance by the day’s standards. The company made four examples, but only two are known to survive. Unfortunately, this move didn’t help Packard. So, after a few years, this once mighty company closed its doors for good.

  1. Dodge La Femme

The La Femme, which is French for “woman,” was an interesting one year model from Dodge. They designed it for their lady buyers. So, it featured the equipment and color choices other Dodges didn’t have. Basically, the La Femme was a regular 1955 to 1956 Dodge Custom Royal Lancer with a special purse.

The La Femme accommodated makeup, a pack of cigarettes and a mirror because these were the usual contents of a purse back then. The color choices were pastel to match the dresses of the year, as well as women’s tastes. Even the seat upholstery featured a specially-designed feminine pattern.

  1. 1958 Imperial Crown Southampton Coupe

In the late 1950s, Packard was gone, so Lincoln and Cadillac had Chrysler’s Imperial brand as their main rival. Imperials were exquisite cars they built with a high regard to details, fit and finish. And so it was the same for the 1958 Imperial Crown Southampton Coupe.

With its fantastic styling and a long list of standard equipment, the Imperial was one of the best personal luxury cars in 1958. Also, it featured a powerful 413 V8 engine under the hood.

  1. Studebaker Golden Hawk

Studebaker disappeared in 1966 after years of trying to stay relevant on the American market. But in the mid-50s, it was one of the best names in the business featuring a lineup of interesting models. But one of the best Studebakers they ever built was the elegant yet fast 1956 Golden Hawk. This car wasn’t as exclusive as some other models on this list.

However, it was one of the finest examples of the personal luxury class in that period. Conceived as a cool-looking personal luxury coupe, the Golden Hawk had a Packard-derived 352 V8 engine with 275 HP, which was impressive for the day. The performance was also significant with a 0 to 60 mph acceleration time of fewer than nine seconds.

This was a road trip through the exclusive world of American luxury coupes from the ’50s. If you found your favorite, you’d better start looking fast. These classic cars are becoming more rare with each passing day.

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