(first posted 4/17/2013) Deception–and self deception–is a very significant factor in the automobile business, maybe the biggest. Unless we buy a stripper Corolla (so conveniently parked here) or the like, we’re happy enough to pay more to feel like we’re not just getting basic transportation, but something that enhances our sense of well-being and social status.
One of the biggest questions for automobile executives forever is how much of a premium folks are willing to pay for that. What’s the upper limit you can charge strictly for the sizzle when there’s no steak? The folks at Ford wondered that too, so they decided to turn this question into a research experiment, using real buyers. The name of the project was called Versailles.
The 1982 Cadillac Cimarron is usually trotted out as the most egregious winner=loser of this category. But lets take a closer look: the Cimarron’s mark up over the price of a base Cavalier was almost exactly 100%. Same basic car and engine, except for a nicer interior, alloy wheels, some exterior trim bits and such. At least the Cimarron was positioned at the bottom of the Cadillac line-up: a small and economical Caddy for those that felt so inclined/suckered. Still, a pretty rich markup (and price, $30k, adjusted) for a wheezy 1.8 liter econo-box with a leather interior.
But the Versailles was decidedly more ambitious than that; in its pricing, that is. Certainly not in the quality of its materials, aesthetics, assembly, handling or performance.
Cadillac had rocked the luxury car market pretty hard with its Seville (CC here) in 1975. For once, GM outfoxed Ford in identifying a new personal luxury car market niche, although with a smaller four door sedan. For some reason, Ford’s biggest hits were almost always coupes. The Seville was a response to the onslaught of the more compact Mercedes sedans, which themselves were pushing the sizzle envelope in relation to what taxi drivers in Germany were paying for theirs. At least some real steak came with the Seville.
The Seville was loosely based on the Nova platform of the times, which it shared with the Camaro. That was considered to be about the best handling domestic platform then. But that was just a jumping off point; the Seville had a longer wheelbase and a completely different body, rather tastefully designed for its intended mission. It also got a unique engine, a fuel injected version of the Olds 350. And it was extensively engineered for a decent ride-to-handling relationship, as well as a completely unique and appropriately upscale interior. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but not many folks likely have guessed it started life as a Nova.
Ford was caught napping with the Seville, which was priced about 20% higher than the most expensive big Fleetwood Brougham. And the Seville did its intended job, selling some 43-55k units per year during its successful first incarnation. So what was Ford’s response? A pig in a poke. (The derivation of that expression goes back to the Middle Ages, when pigs were scarce, but dogs and cats weren’t, and unscrupulous folks would deceive unwary buyers by selling a (non-existent) pig sewn into a poke (burlap bag)). Yup; the Versailles was a dog wrapped in a vinyl bag.
Or more factually, the 1977 Versailles is a 1977 Ford Granada (shown here with its proud daddy), along with a borrowed Continental grille and fake spare-tire hump on its ass, and some leather thrown around inside as well as a few other goodies.
I’m sure some softer suspension bushings and springs were part of that “notable engineering achievement”. The 132 hp carbureted 302 engine certainly wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t unmistakably a Granada, from looking at it.
And there was the Granada’s notoriously mediocre handling, thanks to carrying almost 4000 lbs on its Falcon platform underpinnings. Never mind the build quality.
But if anyone could sell a pig in a poke at unheard of prices, it would be Lee Iaccoca, America’s SuperSalesman. And just how did he price his tarted-up Granada? Exactly three times higher than its lowly donor. $12,529 ($52k in 2017 dollars) was a big piece of change back then, and like the Seville, the Versailles was the most expensive Lincoln money could buy.
Here’s an even more effective picture to put that price in perspective: it’s virtually identical to the inflation-adjusted price of the 1961 Lincoln Continental. There really is a sucker born every minute.
In reality, more like one every 35 minutes, which works out to the 15,000 per year average annual sales the first three years. But by 1980, the jig was up and sales collapsed when word got out that there was no pig in the poke.