The American personal luxury car, as a concept, is generally understood to have been invented by the Ford Motor Company with the Ford Thunderbird, not so much the 2-seater 'pseudo sports cars' of 1955-1957 but more with the 4-seaters introduced in 1958. With the sales success of the Thunderbird, other manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon of this new market niche and before long, there were quite a few choices available.
So, what exactly was a 'personal luxury car'? It's a luxurious but practical automobile designed primarily for the pleasure of its driver and owner, rather than the comfort of its passengers. A full-size luxury car places the comfort of its passengers (both front and rear seat) at least as highly as the driver's; after all, many people with the means to buy such a car might choose to be driven by someone else. A personal luxury car, on the other hand, was designed to appeal to those who wanted a vehicle mostly for their own personal transportation. Most such cars had only two doors, showing that carrying rear seat passengers was not a priority and the car was not chosen by or for them. Seating for four or more was provided in reasonable comfort, of course, since most buyers who could afford such a car had families and a two-seater like the original Thunderbirds couldn't be justified.
While not a true performance car, a personal luxury car had to have power and speed. Part of its market were those who couldn't afford a full-size luxury car, but another part of its market were people looking for something more enjoyable to drive. While acceleration was always decent, the personal luxury car's forté was highway and freeway cruising, long-distance mile-eating rather than stoplight wars, which were not its owner's style. The suspension was tuned for comfortable high-speed driving on the highway, being rather too soft for negotiating winding roads at speed, and the steering was generally lazy, slow-turning and fingertip-easy in the manner of a Cadillac rather than a Corvette. Top speeds were high, thanks to the high gearing used to give smoothness at lower speed, and the large engines fitted for the same reason. Engines were generally big V8 lumps of Detroit iron, towards the top end of the manufacturer's size range, though not performance-tuned models. Transmission choices were few and automatic transmission de rigeur.
Internally, these cars were well-appointed, offering nearly the appointments of a luxury car. Wood-grain vinyl was more likely than real wood accents, but drivers of these cars were reasonably pampered. Fitting of a multitude of power accessories was common; power seats, power windows, radio antenna, door locks, remote trunk release, and much more.
The era of the true American personal luxury car lasted until around 1980, though many of the same models continued in much shrunken form for quite a while. Today, this market segment is dead, or nearly so, among domestic cars, but very similar imports from Japanese manufacturers like Lexus and European marques like BMW and Mercedes sell well.
Today, old American personal luxury cars are a good buy if you're in the market for a classic car. Everyone wants a muscle car or pony car, and personal luxury cars, more expensive then, are now cheaper - and rarer, and in the opinions of some a classier ride. The exceptions to this are Ford Thunderbirds of 1966 and earlier, and a select few high-performance editions, which fetch more money. Doing a major restoration on one of these cars will be harder since parts availability is much worse, but mechanically they share many parts with full-size cars or muscle cars of the period. On the upside, these cars will generally be in much better condition than unrestored muscle cars or pony cars, since they were generally bought by older individuals and have never been raced or used hard.
Cars that can be included in the Personal Luxury Car sector include the following. Note that not all model years with cars bearing these names count, since automobile manufacturers often re-use names, sometimes on very different types of car:
- Ford Thunderbird - the original personal luxury car, and always one of the best sellers.
- Oldsmobile Starfire - until the arrival of the Toronado in 1966.
- Oldsmobile Toronado - the first large American front wheel drive car.
- Buick Riviera - considered one of the most beautiful American cars of the 1960s.
- Pontiac Grand Prix - Introduced in 1962, early models are similar to the Pontiac GTO in looks but they were always more luxurious. A top seller.
- Chevrolet Monte Carlo - Introduced in 1970, and easily mistaken for a Chevrolet Chevelle; again, a much more luxurious car.
- Cadillac Eldorado - from the late 60s sharing the front wheel drive and other characteristics of the Oldsmobile Toronado
- Lincoln Continental Mark Series - from 1969 sharing the chassis, drivetrain and other parts of the Ford Thunderbird