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Forgotten Luxury: 20 Best American Personal Luxury Coupes and Convertibles

Vukasin Herbez June 26, 2018

Today, luxury SUVs pickup trucks and foreign cars seem to rule the premium segments on the domestic car market, but it wasn’t always like that. Back in the glory days of the U.S. car industry, the most respected and sought-after status symbols were not Japanese hybrids with terrible designs. They were American luxury coupes with chrome trim, soft suspensions and comfortable interiors. Car makers made those luxury cars to cruise with ease and look good doing it. They called those cars “personal luxury coupes,” but today, they are practically gone.

This list contains some of the best American personal luxury cars Detroit ever produced. Although luxury coupes and convertibles have been around since the car age started, it was only in the early ’50s this class became noticeable. Arguably, the first personal luxury car was the 1953 Cadillac Eldorado. After that, the other American car manufacturers introduced their vision of luxury two-door models to the market.

They came with high price tags, more power and much more prestige than the rest of the model lineup. Some were even serious performance models or rare high-class cars. Personal luxury coupes and convertibles were in high demand from the late ’50s to ’70s, but in the ’80s their appeal started to fade. The last decade of the 20th century had only a couple of models and now this glorious segment is dead. Read on to learn about the great two-door models and some of the best U.S. luxury cars of all times.

  1. Cadillac Eldorado 1953

The 1950’s brought post-war optimism and rising standards. Although Detroit responded with fresh models and more power, 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. It was also the most expensive Cadillac with a price $2,000 above the rest of the lineup.

The main features included the advanced one-piece wrap-around windshield and an interesting belt line with a slight dip before the rear fenders. It also had raised tail lights, which were the announcement for the chromed fins, which arrived just a few years after. The power came from the same 5.4-liter V8 as the rest of the models for 1953. Cadillac only made 532 Eldorados that year, but despite its limited availability, the Eldorado name became popular. In fact, it stayed in Cadillac’s portfolio for 50 years.

  1. Chrysler 300 “Letter Series” Cars

Even before muscle cars were a thing, Chrysler produced a series of high-performance luxury coupes and convertibles with unbelievable performance and unmistakable style. They called the model the 300, followed by the letters of the alphabet. The C300 was the first model in 1955. People called them the Letter Series, and those upscale cruisers were some of the fastest and most powerful models ever. Chrysler produced them between 1955 and 1965 when they discontinued the series.

They equipped the first models with early Hemi engines that could produce 300 horses; hence the name. The early Chrysler “Letter Series” models were the first American made cars with 300 HP ratings. With the introduction of advanced intake setups, different engine power levels rose so these big, heavy cars achieved some impressive acceleration times. However, the “Letter Series” models were always expensive, and they produced them in limited numbers.

Throughout the years, Chrysler’s “Letter cars” combined luxury and limited availability with fantastic performance and style, making them the best examples of the personal luxury class. During its 10-year production run, Chrysler made few of these cars, often less than 1,000 per model year. This means that 300 Letter Series cars are expensive and highly sought after. Also, they are quite hard to restore since parts are scarce.

  1. Studebaker Golden Hawk

The Studebaker brand disappeared in 1966 after years of trying to stay relevant on the American market, but in the mid-50s, it was still one of the best names in the business with a lineup of interesting models. And one of the best Studebakers they ever built was the elegant and fast 1956 Golden Hawk.

Studebaker conceived the Golden Hawk as a cool-looking personal luxury coupe. It 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 time of fewer than nine seconds.

The Golden Hawk showed the market that Studebaker was still capable of producing interesting cars with a premium feel and looks. Unfortunately, that was one of the last successful Studebaker models and they closed the company.

  1. Ford Thunderbird 1955

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, the model proved extremely successful for promotional purposes. It was also valuable as a halo car for all of General Motors. So Ford wanted their own version to capitalize on the trend.

So, in 1955, Ford introduced the Thunderbird. Even though Ford tried to present 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. Ford filled the interior with all the creature comforts. The Thunderbird was Ford’s first personal luxury car with others to follow it later.

Ford may have missed the mark with the Thunderbird by failing to introduce a proper sports car to rival the Corvette. However, they created a sales hit because the T-Bird outsold the Corvette easily. It went on to become one of Ford’s best earners in the late 50’s. This sealed the fate of the Thunderbird, so Ford turned it into one of the biggest personal luxury legends of the American industry.

  1. Continental Mark II

If you think that Edsel is the only Ford failed luxury attempt, you are mistaken. In the mid-’50s, Ford decided to establish a separate brand they called their Continental Division to produce luxury cars positioned above the Lincoln brand. The success of the original Thunderbird showed the way. So, Ford decided they should build a bigger, more advanced, expensive prestigious luxury coupe. The first and only car was the famed Continental Mark II, which they introduced in 1955.

Ford’s idea was to present a superb luxury coupe with the finest technology and comfort and market it as a separate brand. The idea sounded well, but the market response was poor, so they shut down the Continental Divison in five years. The sales of the Mark II coupe were disappointing despite it being one of the finest American cars they ever made. It was also the ultimate American personal luxury coupe.

  1. Buick Riviera

Back in the early ’60s, Buick had some tough times on the market. It seemed like their combination of affordable luxury and elegant styling was not interesting to car buyers. Sales were declining, so GM knew Buick needed help in the marketing department. The answer was logical: introduce an upscale modern luxury model to attract attention and draw people back into the Buick showrooms.

GM green-lighted Buick for the development of the Riviera, which they based on a successful concept car they called the Silver Arrow. The production model debuted in 1963 and immediately became a sales hit, as well as one of the best cars of the early ’60s.

They built the Riviera on a special frame and chassis not shared with other GM products. It had an advanced, sophisticated design and interior with a central console that was unheard of at the time. The power came from Buick’s 425 Wildcat engine and despite the looks, the Rivera delivered a great performance, especially in GS trim. The Buick Riviera became one of the best GM personal luxury cars that stayed in production until 1999.

  1. Oldsmobile Toronado

Today’s car enthusiasts may not remember Oldsmobile since they retired the brand in 2000. But back in the ’60s, this company enjoyed a reputation for inventive technology, style, and luxury. Oldsmobile represented the cutting edge of GM at one point in time, presenting models that were far ahead of their time. They also displayed power and style on the global market. And one such car was the Oldsmobile Toronado from 1966.

This was a big, powerful personal luxury coupe with a twist since it was front wheel drive. In those days, only a few imports were front wheel drive while all domestic cars, regardless of the class or engine, were rear wheel drive. However, Oldsmobile wanted to introduce something else and constructed an ingenious FWD system. Designers drew a fantastic looking shape with a low roof and hidden headlights.

The power came from a big block 455 V8 with 385 HP. The Toronado was a success because it introduced superb driving characteristics which left its competitors in the dust. The first two generations were the best, while the later Toronado was just a Cadillac Eldorado with a different grille.

  1. Cadillac Eldorado 1967

The 1967 model year marked a revolution for the Eldorado model. It had a new design, as well as technology and drivetrain improvements. The Eldorado model served for years as a top of the line personal luxury model from Cadillac. However, by the mid-60s, almost all other GM brands developed similar cars to compete with the Eldorado. Cadillac needed a new model and something to make a statement to keep the Eldorado on top of the segment.

This was the 1967 model that featured gorgeous new coupe styling with hide-away headlights, a long hood, and an elegant rear end. The new Eldorado looked gorgeous. Even though they discontinued the convertible option sales went through the roof. But the biggest change was the switch to a front wheel drive layout. In those days, FWD cars were rare foreign models.

So when Oldsmobile introduced front-wheel drive on its 1966 Toronado, Cadillac took the patent and slightly improved it for use on the Eldorado. With this feature, the Eldorado had almost perfect handling and better driving dynamics, while still retaining the mighty 340 HP engine and all classic Cadillac characteristics.

  1. Pontiac Grand Prix

Back in the ’60s, Pontiac was GM’s performance brand, so it is no coincidence that they conceived the GTO. The allure of powerful engines and aggressive designs was Pontiac’s trademark. However, their management wanted to widen their appeal beyond regular muscle cars like the GTO and the Firebird. To enter the world of luxury muscle cars, Pontiac had a perfect candidate in form of the Grand Prix.

The Grand Prix was a personal luxury car they introduced in 1962 in a coupe body style with powerful engines and a long list of options. This model was put against the Ford Thunderbird and Oldsmobile 98 as a so-called gentleman’s express. However, with the restyling of the Grand Prix for 1969 model year, Pontiac introduced a special car.

First, there was a cool-looking new design with a long hood and short rear end and an interesting, driver-oriented dashboard. The 1969 Grand Prix looked different than the competitors, so sales immediately jumped. Second, there was a cool trim option they called the SJ which featured a high output 428 V8 engine delivering 390 HP and a host of other performance options.

They borrowed the moniker, “SJ” from the legendary Duesenberg brand. The SJ insignia was on the most powerful Duesenberg cars back then so Pontiac wanted to get a piece of that legend with the Grand Prix SJ.

This personal luxury car was popular with the automotive press and car fans, so the Grand Prix sold well. The powerful V8 propelled this big coupe to some respectable acceleration times and despite being an executive transport, the Grand Prix SJ was a respectable street machine.

  1. Lincoln Continental Mark III

The Lincoln division of the Ford Motor Company was enjoying considerable success during the ’60s. This was mostly thanks to the Continental sedan, which they introduced in 1961. It was a landmark model in many aspects. With healthy sales numbers, Lincoln turned to the personal luxury market with the innovative, advanced 1969 Mark III Coupe. It proved to be one of the best personal luxury cars Ford Motor Company ever made.

Ford introduced the Continental in late 1968, Mark III, building it on a Thunderbird chassis. It also had the new and powerful 460 V8 engine. Since the new model used most of the existing mechanics, Lincoln concentrated on the design and equipment. The front had a big chrome grille, reminiscent of Rolls Royce models and hideaway headlights. The trunk had a cool-looking spare wheel hump with Continental lettering.

In combination with the vinyl top, the wheel hump made the Mark III’s design unique and special. Buyers had a long list of optional extras to choose from, too. This was also the first U.S.-made car with standard radial tires. Ford replaced the Mark III with the Mark IV in 1972. It remains one of the finest personal luxury automobiles of the period.

  1. Chevrolet Monte Carlo

Back in the late ’60s, Chevrolet product planners wanted to enter the personal luxury segment with a new model. Since Chevrolet was primarily a mid-priced car brand, moving up the ladder was a big deal. Chevy knew they needed a fresh design, name and powerful engine. So, in 1970, they introduced the Monte Carlo.

They built the Monte Carlo on a modified Chevelle platform. It was a handsome coupe-only car with a V8 engine, a nice interior and decent performance. Although most Monte Carlos came with smaller V8 engines because of the luxury aspect of this model, there was one muscle option with the SS 454 package. However, most of the cars had smaller 350 and 396 V8 engines.

  1. Cadillac Eldorado 1976

The 1976 Eldorado was an automotive dinosaur in many ways. It was the last Cadillac with the enormous 500 CID V8 engine, which was one of the biggest car engines ever. It was the last Cadillac convertible for over 10 years since the late ’70s safety laws almost killed the convertible class. The Eldorado was also the last truly big land yacht that dominated the domestic car industry in the ’70s.

Even during the production of the Eldorado, it was obvious the industry was changing. Cadillac had to rethink its strategy to stay on top of the game. However, the glorious 1976 Eldorado was the perfect way to end the era of excess and monstrous engines. It had chrome trim, providing a soft ride and a plush interior. There has never been was such a big, opulent personal luxury car on the market.

Despite the mighty 500 CID engine, the 1976 Eldorado delivered only 190 HP and a pathetic performance. However, it proved to be a popular choice, so people fondly remember this behemoth of a personal luxury coupe.

  1. Imperial 1981

To resurrect Chrysler’s luxury division, Imperial, the company presented an interesting personal luxury coupe in 1981. In fact, this was the project of Lee Iacocca who came to Chrysler from Ford in the late ’70s and saved the company from bankruptcy. He wanted to do the same thing for Chrysler as he did with Lincoln with the successful Mark coupe series.

So, in 1981, they presented the Imperial as a stylish two-door coupe they built on the Chrysler Cordoba or Dodge Mirada chassis with a 318 V8 engine. The design was contemporary with several classic cues like the slant buck rear end and hideaway headlights. All in all, it was an aesthetically pleasing luxury car.

Chrysler invested a lot in marketing and even used Frank Sinatra as the spokesperson for the new model, but sales were slim. In just three years on the market, they only made about 12,000 Imperials. This is a shame since the car was special and highly-equipped.

  1. Ford Thunderbird 2002

In the late ’90s, the car industry experienced retro-futurism, a design fashion that resurrected classic shapes and turned them into modern vehicles. It looked like every retro-styled vehicle on the market was an instant hit with car buyers. Ford understood the trend and capitalized on it by launching the new, 11th generation of their venerable personal luxury coupe, the Thunderbird.

The previous model had served for years and was constantly battling declining sales. So it was the perfect time to introduce a new model and spark some interest in the personal luxury coupe segment. So, in 2002, Ford introduced their new T-bird with fantastic retro-inspired styling reminiscent of the 1955 to 1957 models. It had a two-seat configuration and 3.9-liter V8 in the front. The Thunderbird also had a stylish interior and delivered a decent performance.

The car looked great and it seemed like Ford got the retro feel of the classic Thunderbird right. The initial response from buyers and motoring press was fantastic, but soon, the hype was over and Thunderbird sales were disappointing. Apparently, the new Thunderbird wasn’t the performance car people wanted. It was comfy, heavy and sluggish despite producing 280 HP.

Ford realized the Thunderbird wasn’t the competition for the Mercedes SL. It was just another underperforming, expensive model in a market segment which is gone. The Thunderbird stayed on the market until 2005. Ford built over 66,000 cars in its four-year production run.

  1. Studebaker Avanti

In the early ’60s, the Studebaker management decided to invest into a luxury coupe to fight poor sales. They thought that a new, fancy upscale model would attract more customers and turn the attention of the automotive public back to Studebaker. So, in 1962, they presented the sleek and modern looking Avanti.

The innovative design, construction, and technology were interesting, so the car received praises from the motoring press. The base version was not all that powerful, but soon Studebaker introduced a supercharged R2 option delivering 289 HP. Unfortunately, the Avanti was not a strong seller, which forced Studebaker to close its doors just four years later.

  1. Pontiac Catalina 2+2

The regular Catalina was a great looking and decent selling model. But in 2+2 form, it transformed into a true Gran Turismo with a luxury interior and fire-breathing engine. Since the Catalina was a full-size model, it was eligible for engines over 400 CID according to the GM rules of the time. This meant that the Catalina 2+2 came with the famous 421 V8.

And you could get the Tri-Power intake system, which was the same as on the GTO. It boosted the Catalina’s power to 376 HP. Also, buyers could order limited slip differentials, heavy duty steering, brakes and more. This made the Catalina 2+2 was well appointed, but unfortunately, it was expensive, too.

  1. Cadillac Eldorado 1982

After the enormous and legendary 1978 Eldorado, Cadillac introduced a smaller, more modern ’79 model. The car featured front wheel drive and better ergonomics riding on a much shorter platform. The smaller dimensions brought new driving dynamics. But in 1982, Cadillac introduced an interesting package they called the Eldorado Touring Coupe.

They marketed this car as a driver’s machine with a stiffer suspension and black wall tires. There was a minimal use of chrome and a bucket seat interior, too. Due to major modifications, the 1982 to 1985 Eldorado Touring Coupe was a competent, interesting car.

  1. Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe

Ford presented the 10th generation of the venerable Thunderbird in 1989 with a redesigned platform and more elegant, sleeker body. This was a luxury coupe with no sporty ambitions. However, the Ford engineers managed to sneak an interesting performance model that drivers considered a muscle car. Ant that was the Thunderbird Super Coupe.

Just like the Turbo Coupe, the SC had a smaller engine. But this time, they supercharged it to achieve a higher performance. The 3.8-liter V8 got a supercharger and intercooler as well as a high-tech motor management system. And it delivered 210 HP, which was respectable.

Many car experts praised the SC for its handling and braking capabilities. It also hit high top speeds, courtesy of its aerodynamic shape and clever engineering. Also, the acceleration from 0 to 60 mph was 7.5 seconds.

  1. Cadillac Eldorado ESC

The last and 10th generation of legendary Cadillac Eldorado from 1992 to 2002, marked the end of an era for one of America’s most respected nameplates. The last Eldorado was a quality-built machine filled with luxury and power. However, the market for such cars was dead, and so was this model.

The Eldorado Sport Coupe featured a 4.6-liter V8 engine and a sport-tuned suspension. Also, it had a host of electronic systems and discrete styling cues. Even though those cars are inexpensive today, they will be highly desirable classic in the future.

  1. Cadillac CTS-V Coupe

For years, Cadillac was without a proper performance series to compete with BMW or Mercedes. But finally, the V-Series was born. It was all that Cadillac lovers dreamed of with its powerful engine and world-class handling. Also, it had updated suspension setups and was in exclusive production. But the most successful was the second-generation CTS-V model they produced between 2008 and 2014.

Cadillac offered three body styles, so the CTS-V came as a sedan, a coupe, and interestingly, as a wagon, too. Under the hood was a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 producing 556 HP. This made the CTS-V the most powerful luxury coupe on the market. The suspension and the rest of the drivetrain were advanced and up to the task, so CTS-V was considered a full package and one of the best driver’s cars available.

Did you pick your favorite from this list of the best American personal luxury coupes and convertibles? Some are still rolling down the roads of America, while others have faded away. Maybe someday one of the big car companies will re-introduce one to the car world again.

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