Vintage Comparison Test: Motor Trend Compares The 1972 Buick Riviera, Ford Thunderbird & Jaguar XJ6 – The Path Diverges For Luxury Specialty Cars

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Expressive Personal Luxury/Specialty Cars were a hot category in the early 1970s, with buyers seeking to flaunt their affluence and taste with a stylish ride.  But what constituted style, and where would the market go?  Yesterday Paul took a comprehensive look at the 1971 Buick Riviera, replete with the controversial boat-tail styling that carried over into the next model year with minimal changes.  For 1972, Ford introduced an all-new Thunderbird that was very nearly a Lincoln Continental Mark IV.  Both were glitzy, gargantuan American isolation chambers, and logical products for a direct comparison test.  But in the December 1971 issue of Motor Trend, the editors threw a high-style 4-door from England into the mix as well, since the cars ostensibly competed in the same price class.  The contrast shows very clearly where the market had been, and gave a glimpse as to where it would go.

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Detroit was still infatuated with longer, lower, wider and heavier in the early 1970s.  As a result, what had once been big, but still slightly nimble cars morphed into enormous barges, at least on the outside, while offering comically small interior and trunk space relative to the overall proportions.  Idiot lights, plenty of plastic trim (often simulating other materials like wood), soft seats, lazy handling and supreme isolation rounded out the packages.  Consider them primitive examples of the driverless car–everything was designed to “spare you” from the rigors of operating a motor vehicle.

In stark contrast, Jaguar served up a remarkably functional and engaging automobile.  There was plenty of interior luxury, of the “Olde English” variety, but the effect was to engage the driver with a dynamic machine.  Where the Jaguar fell short was on some of the creature comforts: while the Brits offered air conditioning, it wasn’t up to the standards of American car A/C units that could freeze Houston with the slide of a lever.

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From the minute the pointed Riviera rump was first backed off the car hauler for public display, the styling was considered controversial.  By 1972, the shock had sunk in and many buyers were scared off.  Traditional, go-with-the-crowd buyers gravitated to more conservatively styled choices, like the Oldsmobile Toronado–which outsold the Riviera for the first time that year, as well as the new Big Bird from Ford.  Suburban conformists showing off their luxury car credentials didn’t want to go too far out on a limb after all…

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Though it seems unimaginable today, Buick and Ford both offered models that competed price-wise in a market segment with a Jaguar.  The Riviera’s as-tested price was the least expensive of the trio, at $7,023 ($41,865 adjusted), while the pricey sunroof option ($518–$3,088 adjusted) bumped the ‘Bird up to $7,589 ($45,239).  The Jaguar, as could be expected for an “exotic” import, was the priciest, at $8,490 ($50,610).  But the cars were legitimately close enough in price that they would appeal to people in the same income bands (though with very different mindsets), and all three would be seen as “expensive” cars that would “impress” the neighbors.  But what kind of impression did they make?

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The Achilles Heel for Jaguar of course would turn out to be quality.  Though tightly assembled and finished in first-rate materials, the XJ6 was notoriously finicky and unreliable in every day use–a temperamental beauty that couldn’t be trusted.  The glitz-mobiles from Detroit, by contrast, were soft, floaty, and layered with the thinnest veneer of superficial luxury, but they ran like clockwork and could be simply repaired at the most remote gas station in America if a problem did arise.

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Even Motor Trend pointed out the market opportunity for Detroit.  The product attributes offered by the Jaguar (quality excepted) would prove to be the future of luxury vehicles for Americans in the coming decades.  Plain to see, but so clearly ignored, as the baronial barges served up glorious profits so there wasn’t much incentive to do anything different.

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Imagine, however, if Detroit had managed to build something more closely resembling a driver’s car for the upper echelons of the Specialty Car ranks.  After all, by 1972 the Personal Luxury market was being flooded with baroquely-styled mid-size cars like the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and Pontiac Grand Prix, offering “class” for the masses.  But at the top of the market, the cognoscenti were looking for something more subtly styled and engaging to drive.  Bill Mitchell’s biggest miss was not crafting a product to appeal more directly to them.  Mitchell would eventually (reluctantly) head in the right direction with the “Sheer Look” first generation Seville, but the market opportunity was apparent long before that “baby” Cadillac hit the roads.  Even then, the Cadillac’s dynamics fell short of European rivals…  And to think, both GM and Ford had some excellent European product platforms in their portfolio at the time that could have served as a basis for an XJ-sized, American-built road machine with more engaging driving characteristics.

The luxury sports sedan would of course prove victorious over time, even though Jaguar itself continues to struggle and the market has shifted once again, with SUVs being the new vehicle of choice for many luxury buyers.  Big luxury coupes?  Well, we all know how that party would end within the next 10-15 years.