Vintage Comparison Test: 1969 Buick Riviera, Ford Thunderbird, Mercury Marauder X-100, Oldsmobile Toronado, Pontiac Grand Prix – The Personal Luxury Wars Heat Up

(first posted 3/14/2017)   As the 1960s came to a close, ever increasing numbers of upwardly mobile Americans were looking to make a style statement with a new Personal Luxury car.  Detroit was more than happy to serve-up swanky, semi-sporty 2-doors to fill those desires, and 1969 welcomed back familiar faces from Buick, Ford and Oldsmobile, as well as a totally revamped entrant—the Pontiac Grand Prix, along with a new offering from Mercury—the Marauder.  Motor Trend put each of these through the paces in February 1969, and ranked the upscale Personal Luxury players.

Absent from the comparison test were the “ultra-high-end” Personal Luxury cars from Cadillac and Lincoln.  Though both the Eldorado and Continental Mark III were highly successful, they were also noticeably more expensive, with base prices around 39% higher than the more “mainstream” personal luxury cars—equating to a $1,900 price bump before options (~$12,500 adjusted).

The Thunderbird of course was the one that “started it all” in the Personal Luxury category, when the 4-seat “Square Birds” were introduced for 1958.  For 1969, the most premium Ford available was in the 3rd (and final) year of the 5th Generation “Glamour Birds.”  While the overall design wasn’t brand new, the Thunderbird Motor Trend tested did have a key new feature introduced for 1969: the sliding sunroof.  Less desirable were the newly enclosed c-pillars on the Landau 2-door that eliminated the rear quarter windows and made for one of the biggest blind spots imaginable.  However, the cocoon-like interior laden with gizmos was exactly on target for the segment, and there was no doubt that the T-Bird still came across as a unique suburban status symbol.  With sales of 33,577 for the 2-door models (the 4-door accounted for an additional 15,650 units), the Thunderbird remained a key player in the segment and undoubtedly feathered Ford’s profit nest.

The ongoing success of the Thunderbird in the “Upper Middle” market must have irked Mercury, especially since the division had nothing comparable to serve up in the booming Personal Luxury segment.  So for 1969, the division responded with the Marauder, a variation of the full-size line that combined Marquis styling and interior cues with the more aggressive roofline from the Ford Galaxie 500 XL SportsRoof.  The result was sort of a jumbo semi-sporty 2-door hardtop, with market positioning similar to that of the relatively slow-selling ’68 Pontiac Grand Prix.  Motor Trend’s test car was the X-100 model, which looked like a bit like super-sized Muscle Car in formal garb, with flat black paint on the rear deck.  Despite featuring a standard “handling suspension,” MT editors opined that the Mercury felt massive and not particularly “special” inside—a lethal combination for a Personal Luxury car.  Sales for 1969 reflected this miss: just 14,666 Marauders were produced, of which only 5,635 were the X-100 variant.

The Riviera was GM’s successful answer to Ford’s Thunderbird, and the Personal Luxury Buick enjoyed healthy sales each year after its 1963 launch.  Much of the Riviera’s success was due to swanky styling and the upscale imagery associated with the Buick brand at the time—the car was undemanding, comfortable and fashionable, perfect for conventional status seekers.  For 1969 the formula continued pretty much unchanged, with minor styling tweaks compared to the 1968 models.   Motor Trend may have yawned, but buyers continued to swoon, as the Riviera found 52,872 homes for 1969.

The sexy new superstar of the Personal Luxury category came from Pontiac, with the striking Grand Prix.  Unlike previous years, when the GP utilized the platform from the full-sized Catalina, the 1969 model rode on a stretched mid-sized chassis.  John Z. DeLorean and the Pontiac team spiced up the Grand Prix image with aggressive “formal” styling and an ultra-long hood, creating a car that offered a trendsetting blend of luxury and sportiness.  Inside, bucket seats were standard, with a driver-centered instrument panel and a center console.  Though not positioned as a performance car, the Grand Prix still acquitted itself well in the handling department, and the 400 CID V8 in Motor Trend’s test car was found to be quite spritely.  The biggest gripe: the brakes, at least on the sampled car, were subpar.  All in, the ’69 Grand Prix was far and away the Personal Luxury sales leader with 112,486 sold (up 255% versus 1968!), representing almost half of the segment volume.

The Oldsmobile Toronado shared GM’s E-Body with the Riviera, but was unique in featuring front wheel drive and the 455 CID V8.  Olds still halfheartedly tried to position the Toronado as an engineering triumph, but other than better traction in inclement weather, there wasn’t much else to recommend the FWD set-up in such a large car.  After all, what did a flat floor for center seating positions matter when the car was marketed as a 4-place specialty car?  As for the styling, Olds was trying to “formalize” the original Toronado design for the coming Brougham Epoch, but the heavy-handed grille simply looked ponderous grafted onto the dramatically curved body sides.  In this case, Motor Trend swooned but buyers yawned: Olds only delivered 28,494 Toronados for 1969.

When it came time to pick a winner, Motor Trend went with the original, choosing the Ford Thunderbird as the best of the Personal Luxury cars tested.  It was also the most expensive car tested, at $6,940 ($45,921 adjusted), though a sizable chunk of that price premium could be attributed to the sunroof option, which added $453 ($2,997 adjusted) to the T-Bird’s sticker.

FoMoCo also took last place, with the Mercury Marauder X-100.  Frankly, the Marauder really couldn’t qualify as a Personal Luxury car, it was more of a “sporty” full size coupe in the style of Big 3 offerings from earlier in the 1960s.  At $4,600 ($30,348 adjusted) the Mercury’s price was significantly lower than the others as well, in part due to a lack of options.  The test car did not have Air Conditioning, for example, which would have been a tough sell in the sybaritic Personal Luxury category.

Motor Trend grouped the GM offerings in 2nd (Grand Prix), 3rd (Toronado) and 4th (Riviera), while expressing a strong preference for the Pontiac.  Among the GM cars tested, the Grand Prix also boasted an aggressively low price for the category ($5,810–$38,444 adjusted), even though it was nicely equipped.  The E-Body cars, as expected, were fairly close in price, with the test Toronado checking in at $6,231 ($41,230 adjusted), while the Riviera was $6,556 ($43,477 adjusted).

For any of these cars, however, the sales represented a profit bonanza for their makers.  Given that the average price of a new car in 1969 was $3,400 ($22,497 adjusted), the Personal Luxury cars–typically dripping with options–went out the door for close to twice the price!  No wonder Detroit loved their “upper-middle” products in the 1960s!

So imagine that you were looking to indulge with a Personal Luxury Car for 1969, which one of these would it be?  Easy for me: hands-down I’d take a Grand Prix!  The eye-catching style, dramatic interior, ample performance, youthful image and fair price make the GP a winner—and it was a trendsetter to boot, ushering in the new era of mid-sized Personal Luxury cars.

So that’s my pick, what’s yours?