Vintage Review: 1975 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, Chrysler Imperial LeBaron Crown Coupe, Lincoln Continental Town Coupe – Battle Of The Behemoths

(first posted 5/9/2017)    Last week, Paul showcased this 1977 Chrysler New Yorker Brougham Coupe, which was really nothing more than a recycled ’74-’75 Imperial LeBaron.  The post generated a lot of Chrysler love, as well as questions on how this car was perceived, relative to its competitive set, back when it was new.  Well, we have an answer: in the May 1975 issue of Road Test Magazine, the editors compared American Luxury Coupes as they entered the twilight years of the Automotive Cretaceous period.  They highlighted what was right–as well as what was wrong–with these biggest-ever luxury cars, and even picked a winner.

In keeping with the buff book mindset of the time, Road Test’s editors had to admit their general disdain for giant American luxury cars, since they did not handle particularly well and were very inefficient with both fuel and space.  That said, RT had to acknowledge the cocooning effect of the big beasts, as well as their impact as status symbols.

By far, the leader in luxury in America, circa 1975, was Cadillac.  Sure, premium European imports were gnawing away at the upper echelons of the luxury market, but for sheer volume, no one beat GM’s prestige division.  In fact, Cadillac’s 1975 sales total of 263,403 was more than the sales of rivals Lincoln, Imperial, Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar and Volvo combined!  The Coupe DeVille was the most popular Cadillac of all, with the whopper 2-door selling a whopping 110,218 units.

Unfortunately for GM, that popularity would prove to be a double-edged sword.  Part of the allure of luxury is exclusivity, and with so many Cadillacs being cranked out, they became boringly commonplace.  Plus, Cadillac was resting on its past laurels—the cars themselves were no longer that special either, with Road Test noting a few too many similarities with the more plebeian Chevrolets.  This cost cutting may have allowed Cadillac to be highly profitable while driving volumes higher, but by 1975 the brand was losing the top end of the market—badly—to Mercedes.  While the as-tested price of RT’s loaded midrange Coupe DeVille of $10,908 ($50,842 adjusted) was far from cheap, it was priced well below Mercedes-Benz’s midrange 280 sedan, which had a base price of $12,756 ($59,456 adjusted).  At the top of the Mercedes line, the 450SLC sold for $22,053 ($102,789 adjusted)—in 1975 Cadillac had nothing remotely close to that price point.  And in places the truly affluent called home—enclaves like Bel Air in Los Angeles, California, River Oaks in Houston, Texas and Upper East Side Manhattan in New York, New York—the Mercedes star instantly telegraphed the high price of the relatively small, functional cars to the status seeking cognoscenti.

Cadillac had once been a player in the super elite market (witness the Eldorado Brougham, for example, which sold for $13,074 in 1958–$111,010 adjusted), but the division gave up on exclusivity and pricing power in the quest for easy profits at high volumes.  The rot wasn’t yet fully apparent in the mid-1970s—Cadillac still had a great deal of cachet, but the damage would be clear within a decade.

Chrysler Corporation had already learned the hard way that a luxury product, no matter how good, cannot be seen as too closely aligned with cheaper cars—that was the sad fate of the flagship Imperial, out for a final hurrah as 1975 came to a close.

The problem with the Imperial, as Road Test pointed out, was the car’s schizophrenic nature.  On the one hand, the Imperial was enormous and featured dramatic styling—but it shared a bit too much commonality with “lesser” Chryslers.  The Imperial offered more responsive handling than the competition from Cadillac and Lincoln, but that was not what most American luxury buyers wanted.  Likewise, buyers seeking engineering excellence and road feel would have been turned-off by the bulk of Chrysler’s flagship.  Therein was perhaps the biggest issue with the Imperial: the brand positioning did not resonate with luxury buyers, nor did the $10,440 price ($48,661 adjusted) seem worth it.  Only 8,830 Imperial were sold for 1975, including 2,728 2-doors, of which 60% (1,641 units) had the Crown Coupe package like the test car.  However, despite low production numbers, the car was simply not exclusive or unique enough to justify its price, and came across as nothing more than a dressed-up Chrysler.  In a market segment where brand image was a critical purchase criterion, the Imperial failed miserably.

Ironically, Chrysler’s Motown rivals did not heed the lesson of the Imperial’s failure.  Both GM and Ford Motor Company ultimately allowed their uppermost brands to become increasingly unfocused with too much commonality with far cheaper cars—the antithesis of true luxury.

Think of Cadillac today: is it the maker of make-believe German high performance sedans; or sleep-inducing soft-roaders to tempt the Lexus RX crowd; or ostentatiously over-priced and minimally differentiated Chevrolet Tahoes/Suburbans?  Would the real Cadillac please stand up?

Lincoln doesn’t get a free pass either…. Or should I say Mercury.  After all, like a 21st Century Marquis, today’s Lincolns are little more than dressed-up Fords–witness the Ford Edge/Lincoln MKX CUVs.  Even the new “flagship” Continental, with its “luxury” seemingly derived from a plethora of powered pushbuttons, is merely a stretched and massaged front-wheel-drive Fusion.

For Lincoln in 1975, however, things were different.  The 1970s had actually been great years for the FoMoCo flagship division.  While the upper-crust elegance of the suicide-door Continentals of the 1960s was long gone, sales soared (doubling between 1970 and 1975, reaching record highs for Lincoln) due to the success of the flashy Continental Mark III and even more flashy Continental Mark IV starting in 1972.  The 2- and 4-door “regular” Continentals also surged in popularity, though just like GM with the Chevy/Caddy connection, the Lincoln sedans had become nothing more than the ultimate LTD.  However, Lincoln (with Kudos to Lee Iacocca) knew how to package showy luxury cues to maximum effect on the ’75 Continental, an accomplishment Road Test’s editors were quick to acknowledge.

Road Test found that the Lincoln attracted the most envious glances, was the quietest, the most comfortable and the easiest to operate.  On the flip side, handling was poor, as was braking.  For this class of car at the time, however, status and comfort outweighed skid pad performance, so the Lincoln performed well against the attributes that mattered most to American luxury buyers.   Total Lincoln sales were 101,843, up 8% from 1974.  The Continental accounted for 54,698 of those sales, including 33,513 sedans and 21,185 coupes.  At $11,893 ($55,433 adjusted), the Continental Town Coupe was the most expensive in the test, but it was also loaded with optional goodies.  One interesting note that would prove prophetic: Road Test questioned the long-term reliability of all the electronic gadgets, noting that while the basic engine and body could last for the long haul, the glitch-filled “high tech” gizmos had the potential to infuriate customers and/or prematurely end the life of the car.  True then, even more true now.

Road Test’s conclusions in 1975 regarding the future of the luxury market are interesting to read from today’s perspective with the benefit of hindsight.  The editors completely missed the mark with their prediction that luxury and luxury features would be a temporary phenomenon.  In 1975, luxury brands accounted for 5% of total U.S. sales; in 2016, they represented 12%.  Today, even basic subcompacts are loaded with equipment formerly reserved for the high-priced leagues: Nissan’s 2017 Sentra comes with standard equipment and luxury options that would make a ’75 Cadillac blush.  No wonder the average price of a new car has risen from $4,950 ($23,163 adjusted) in 1975 to $33,560 as of today.

However, the editors were correct in predicting that luxury buyers would increasingly demand more rational cars with better handling, braking and efficiency—that future would arrive within a few years of 1975, ushering in decades when automotive fashion centered around packaging efficiency and higher levels of driver engagement and control.  Ironically, in 2017 the market pendulum has swung firmly back to rolling image statements that emphasize cocooning and disconnectedness.  The major trends currently in play:

Huge trucks as personal-use vehicles, deliberately designed to look as massive and menacing as possible….

Cars masquerading as trucks….

Or rolling iPhones serving as transport pods, allowing operator/occupants to simultaneously surf the web and save the planet (at least in the opinion of their social circle, if not in actuality), enabling an idealistic escape from the annoyance of driving and interacting with real people: perfect individual virtual nirvanas.

So it looks like vehicular isolation is back with a vengeance. Maybe the suit-clad, harried mid-1970s business executive and the sweats-clad, multi-tasking 21st Century tech worker are actually more alike than would initially be apparent?  Perhaps appropriate for our neo-pre-apocalypse era.

But back to 1975.  Road Test didn’t fully come out and anoint a winner of the test, but based on their summary, it’s pretty clear the editors preferred the Lincoln.  The Continental Town Coupe was seen as the car that best met the aspirations of the segment, even if the handling and braking left a lot to be desired.  Cadillac was seen as the best on paper, with the best spec sheet numbers and the best gizmos, but somehow the sum was less than the parts, and it was clear where corners were cut.  Apparently, some things never change at GM: witness Cadillac’s current boasts of “beating” BMW on comparison tables—but not in the minds of actual luxury brand prospects in dealer showrooms.  The Imperial?  The nicest Chrysler would simply be a Chrysler for 1976, with Mopar basically ending its quest to offer a standalone luxury brand (let the debate ensue on whether either of the two Imperial rebirths–the early 1980s or the early 1990s–count as restarts of the flagship brand or simply new, short-lived applications of the flagship nameplate).

Now for our mini-QOTD, tied to this comparison test: if you were a luxury car buyer in 1975, which one of these would you have brought home?

For me, it is a surprisingly difficult question.  When I try to imagine myself back then, I think the domestic luxury car I would have most wanted would have been the newly introduced Cadillac Seville.  Rationally sized but still very American, the Seville’s handsome, chiseled lines would have been quite fresh (before the vertical rear window was slapped onto too many GM products).  An added benefit: Seville was considered a huge status symbol right out of the gate, which was of course the point in the luxury class.  But I digress—we are talking about choosing between the mammoths….

Hmmmm…  Well, I would have wanted a 4-door, since I just can’t fathom handling the cumbersome coupe doors, which collectively would have weighed as much as a Corolla.  Plus, for folks wanting a gargantuan 2-door image machine, the Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Mark IV would have been seen as even more “glamorous” than the sedan-based 2-doors.

So on to my picks in rank order.

In 3rd place would have been the Imperial.  Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think it was a handsome car inside and out, with plenty of compelling attributes for a huge, traditional American sedan.  But by 1975 it was obvious that the Imperial couldn’t cut it in the luxury league, and thus brought up the rear in the snob appeal sweepstakes—a fatal flaw in this market segment.  Rechristened as a New Yorker Brougham for ’76, with a price reduction and repositioning in the Buick Electra/Mercury Grand Marquis/Olds Ninety-Eight class, the flagship Chrysler suddenly made a lot more sense and became a far better choice.

2nd place goes to the Cadillac.  Still the hands-down winner from an image standpoint in 1975, the DeVille tested was something of a letdown, with too much cheap plastic and not enough hedonistic luxury for this type of car.  The biggest, grandest Chevrolet in the land was starting to seem like a lesson from “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” with people seeing the luxury image they wanted in the Cadillac, but not fully recognizing the product reality that actually existed.

So the winner for me in 1975 would have been the Lincoln Continental.  For its mission as a “look-at-me-I’m-rich” isolation chamber, Road Test placed it at the top and so would I.  After all, it seems to me that if you were looking for the biggest, grandest barge of them all, then it made the most sense to get the one that actually was.

So that’s my choice, what’s yours?