Historiography: The Fine Car Era

How do you define luxury in an automobile?

For starters, your definition may be different than the next person’s. Luxury is subjective to the beholder. How you define it depends on your expectations of what luxury means to you. Also, how luxury feels to you.

We are a visual society. We always have been. Our eyes can spot something that attracts us and is locked in our memory bank for life. We can capture it with a camera and view the image anytime we want. To us, luxury is to be seen, first and foremost.

All of this goes back to the very beginning of the automobile. We must be reminded that the first such vehicles were toys of the upper classes. The idea of putting an automobile at a price point for the masses came later, but that never deterred the idea that the upper classes wanted something more special than, for example, a Ford Model T.

They came with nameplates and distinctive radiator ornaments that are easily recognized as a luxury automobile. These names endured early on – Packard, Duesenberg, Rolls-Royce, Pierce-Arrow, Marmon, Delahaye, Auburn, Cord, Cadillac, Lincoln, Maybach, Horch, and so forth. These were the names that defined luxury for half a century.

Coming out of World War II, the global economy was on reset. The spoils of victory were celebrated where mass production of the automobile was born – the USA. Our audacity as a nation helped define an extroverted form of luxury, something that was still true before World War II.

That did not exclude Europe from the economic equation. The industrial machines on both the former Allied and Axis nations to retool for a postwar world. With some help from the USA, Europe went back to work on building a transportation infrastructure that would welcome the rebirth of the continent.

Back in the USA, the list of luxury car brands has dwindled because of the Great Depression and World War II. Packard went from an aspirational brand to a more attainable one. In order for Packard to survive the Depression, they had to offer cars at a lower price point to offset volume losses from their “senior” series. By the time they restarted production after the war, some models in the Packard line was priced and positioned lower than the remaining luxury stalwarts of the era – Cadillac, and Lincoln. Still, Packard was determined to stay in the marketplace and continue to have models competing with the big two top-shelf brands.

They had a term for the space occupied by Cadillac, Lincoln, and Packard – the "fine car field." It seems very audacious and American to call these cars as such. "Fine" had a different meaning in the late 1940s and 1950s. The term took its cue from the word "finest" – an overused word in advertising and marketing to define the very best in anything of the era.

The G.I. Bill and a flourishing economy set the stage for tremendous growth in the fine car field. Their influence and engineering prowess may have been shared by other brands in their respective OEM companies, but only the finest cars set the trends for those looking upmarket and beyond.

General Motors and Ford were given the license to create the finest of the fine. By 1948, Cadillac began to introduce new performance advancements, such as the overhead-valve, high compression V8 engine. They also were the first to start creating the tail fin affect on the rear fenders. Cadillac also was among the first to offer a pillarless hardtop two-door model, kicking off a trend that would take the automotive industry by storm.

Lincoln introduced its postwar models for 1949 to much less fanfare. While sleeker and more streamlined than prior Lincoln models, the new lineup essentially set aside many of the attributes that defined Ford’s luxury car. The V12 was gone, as were the Zephyr and Continental names. There was the Cosmopolitan, but it had a more robust version of Ford's flathead V8 under the hood. Lincoln went for a more subtle approach to luxury, which they thought would deter buyers from Cadillac and Packard.

Over at Packard, they were riding on the success of their Ultramatic transmission. This transmission was considered less reliable than GM’s own Hydramatic, mainly because they were connected to an old eight-cylinder engine design that was a carryover from before World War II. automatics. Packard also did not have a true postwar automobile until the 1951 model year, because they had to run out the old architecture despite adding on some “bathtub” elements to the exterior design.

The 1951 Packard was seen as simply "too late" in the eyes of the fine car customer. While the Patrician now held the distinction as the top trim level for the new model lineup, the company retained the old in-line eight-cylinder engine connected to the Ultramatic transmission. Though it was a smooth-driving drivetrain, Packard was seen as a car for an older buyer – one who traded in their old Packard for a new one. Younger buyers went elsewhere for their fine car – namely Cadillac.

In the meantime, Chrysler had something up their sleeve. For years, the Chrysler brand had a top-of-the-line model, the Imperial. This model rivaled anything sold by Cadillac, Lincoln, and Packard in terms of luxury, but they shared a lot with other Chrysler models. The Windsor and New Yorker were positioned against Buick and Packard, while the Imperial was offered with a lot of amenities with minimal visual distinction with other Chrysler models. It would be difficult to distinguish a 1950 New Yorker from a 1950 Imperial from a distance.  

The stage was set for the next wave of fine cars by the mid-1950s. Lincolns were seen as overdesigned Mercurys sharing showroom space with each other. The same was said about Chrysler, as it tried to further distinguish Imperials from New Yorkers. The winner of the sales wars of the early 1950s went to Cadillac with its P-38 bomber-inspired tail fins and a more powerful and efficient engine.

Then, came the creation of the Imperial brand at Chrysler Corporation for the 1955 model year. This was planned as a direct hit to Cadillac's bow. By spinning off the Chrysler Imperial onto its own brand gave the company more license to distinguish the car above all offerings by the company.

Chrysler's Forward Look design was a perfect starting point for the new Imperial. The design team gave it a distinctive grille (though shared by the Chrysler C-300), its own eagle badge, a new rear design topped off with gunsight lamps at the edge of each tail fin. Imperial received the most lavish interiors in Chrysler's history – more so than in past decades. It got its own version of the HEMI V8 and some more care towards construction rigidity and chassis engineering to go along with its new 250-horsepower HEMI V8.

The result was a car that wore that "fine car" label proudly. Imperial stoked the fire across the fine car category. However, one wondered if American luxury cars can go further upmarket than what was being offered in 1955?

Was there a need to go into the $10,000-plus segment (that would be over $95,000 in today’s money) that only was occupied by Rolls-Royce?

In the early 1950s, Ford explored a way to create an exclusive car that would be positioned well above Lincoln. It was to be a modern interpretation of the original 1940 Lincoln Continental that catapulted the company into luxury car fame and fortune. Designers went to work on the Continental Mark II by creating everything from scratch – a new division, a new architecture, and a new strategy.

The hand-built Continental Mark II arrived for the 1956 model year as a two-door hardtop coupe. It offered an advanced design, lavish interiors, a larger Y-Block V8, and a hefty starting price of just under $10,000 – inflation-adjusted, around the price of a new Lincoln Navigator Black Label on the extended wheelbase.

The Mark II also ushered in a new era of automotive design. The car was lower, longer, and wider – a sign of the times. Granted, it would not be as sleek as models coming from other American automakers a few months later, but the Continental Mark II made a statement of where the future of the fine car was heading towards the end of the 1950s.

The response to the Continental Mark II came a year later – two-fold. One came from Cadillac in their hand-built 1957 Eldorado Brougham. It was an advancement over the redesigned 1957 Cadillac lineup with an exclusive four-headlamp design and suicide doors for the four-door hardtop body. The car added a brushed stainless roof and self-leveling suspension to the mix. The price of this exclusive Cadillac came out to more than the Continental Mark II and the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud.

Consider this: a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham would cost $17,000 more than a new fully-loaded Escalade ESV 4WD Platinum – the most expensive current model in the Cadillac lineup.

The second came from Imperial in the form of the second-generation Forward Look for 1957. It took the idea of a lower, longer, and wider car and added sleeker to the mix. All divisions of Chrysler Corporation introduced their own interpretation of the second Forward Look to high praise.

There was more to the 1957 Imperial that went beyond its new design. It was their engineering and construction that set this Chrysler Corporation product above the rest in the fine car segment. It was built with high strength materials, including a rigid cross-member frame design. This was designed to be the strongest vehicle on the road and the hardest car to crash into. With the introduction of the "Torsion-Aire" suspension, the Imperial showed off new technology when it came to creating a ride that was smooth, but not as floaty as its competitors.  

What was Packard’s response to all of this? In 1954, the company merged with Studebaker to form a combined company made to survive the automobile market of the 1950s. A new Packard was introduced for 1955, giving it a more modern-for-the-time look. The 1955 Packard line caused such a sensation that there were many observers that thought Packard would be in the fight among its fine car rivals.

At the top of the line was the Patrician. It would be the only true Packard to compete against Cadillac, Lincoln, and Imperial. All other models, including the Clipper lineup, would be seen as rivals for Buick, Chrysler, and Mercury. The mighty has not fallen, but under the merger with Studebaker, the signs were already on the wall. With Continental and Cadillac playing in a very lofty segment, Packard simply could not catch up. Nor could they match the offerings by its primary fine car rivals.

In 1958, Packard produced their final models. The Big Three will continue to rule over all fine cars for decades to come.

There was another reason for Packard’s fall. A recession in 1958 slowed the pos-World War II economy down. It appeared to be more of an economic adjustment rather than a catastrophe similar to the Great Depression some two-and-a-half decades prior. All automobile sales were affected – including the fine car segment.

The recession of 1958 sparked some projects that were on the drawing boards throughout the decade. You might say these projects were seen as course corrections into both the decade ahead and as a response to changing economic conditions.

Ford had already instituted a sleeker design language since 1957. With the end of the Continental Mark II in 1957, Lincoln concentrated on a singular design language the was lower, longer, and wider. They are seen as less lean compared to the Imperial, but they were sharper looking than Cadillac. For 1958, the Continental was moved to this new architecture as a higher model above Lincoln. This body style would sustain Lincoln through 1960, when the shorter, sleeker, and iconic 1961 Lincoln Continental arrived.

Cadillac would undergo its own transformation towards longer, lower, and wider with its iconic 1959 models.  This was part of a new design strategy at GM where all divisions would finally embrace the future, as their rivals have done for the past couple of years. Cadillac took this basic design language to the extreme with the largest fins of the year and an extremely bold level of detail that stunned Lincoln and Imperial when it came to customer acceptance.

The year 1960 would signify the end of many things. It would mark the final year of the tailfin as a design feature. From that point, they would soon regress into the rear fenders. It was also the final year of the Eisenhower presidency. It would be under his administration that we saw a level of American supremacy that was exhibited into the automobiles this country produced.

Yet, that supremacy was being challenged. Foreign cars were starting to grow from a cottage industry of independent importers bringing vehicles from Great Britain, France, Sweden, West Germany, Italy, and Japan across the oceans to our market. The manufacturers wanted a greater piece of the automotive pie. By the end of the 1950s, many of these foreign brands either established their own distribution offices in the USA or tied their wagons to their Detroit-based owners.

It also meant that Europe's finest automobiles would vie for the same customer as Cadillac, Imperial, and Lincoln. Rolls-Royce already established a small operation putting their finest British luxury cars into the hands of tycoons and big-name entertainers. Jaguar gained a reputation as a purveyor of sporting machines to the wealthy. A few other smaller brands from France and Italy also had a presence in the fine car field.

The 1960s was a decade of change. The American three remained strong, as they changed the look of their vehicles while maintaining their signature engineering underneath. Their sales leadership in the fine car field remained unchallenged, as more European brands would establish their presence attracting their well-heeled clientele.

The first twenty-five years after the end of World War II was a great time to be an American luxury car brand. While some brands fell off by 1958, the remaining three – Cadillac, Imperial, and Lincoln – held a stranglehold among its customer base.

As Imperial was no longer sold as a stand-alone brand by 1974, we saw the emergence of a new class of luxury cars for a new moneyed customer. Mercedes-Benz took advantage of the OPEC Oil Crisis and the largess of its American competitors and began to gnaw at their sales leadership. The three-pointed star leads a pack of luxury brands from Europe to become the standard for which all "fine cars" would follow.

In the 1950s, the fine car field defined luxury for a post-World War II world. Brand names, such as Cadillac, Continental, Imperial, Lincoln, and Packard, showed us the way towards a world where the low points of the past were miles behind in the rearview mirror. It was the audacity of these fine cars that set the stage for a world ruled by American tastes above all others.

All photos by Randy Stern

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