Deception (and self deception) is a very significant factor in the automobile business. 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 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 little or no steak? It somehow seems fitting that we consider the most extreme real-world test of that question on Honest Abe’s birthday: the Versailles, the ultimate pig in a poke.
The Cadillac Cimarron is usually trotted out as the most egregious winner=loser of the category. But lets take a closer look: the Cimarron’s mark up over the price of a base Cavalier was almost exactly 100%. Same car and engine, except for a nicer interior and some exterior trim. 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, $27k, 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.
Cadillac had rocked the luxury car market pretty hard with its Seville in 1975. For once, GM outfoxed Ford in identifying a new personal luxury car market niche, although with a four door. It seems that Ford’s biggest hits were always coupes. But the Seville was trying to recapture the magic of smaller but more expensive Caddys of the past; the brilliant 60 Special of 1938, and the Eldorado Brougham of 1957, especially in light of the onslaught of the more compact Mercedes sedans, which also were pushing the sizzle envelope in relation to what taxi drivers in Germany were paying for theirs. At least some real steak came with them.
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, tastefully designed for its intended mission. It also got a unique engine, an advanced 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.
Ford was caught napping with the Seville, which was priced about 20% higher than the most expensive big Fleetwood Brougham. And it did its intended job, selling some 43-55k units per year during its successful first incarnation. So what was Ford’s solution? A pig in a poke. (The derivation of that expression goes back to the Middle Ages, when unscrupulous folks would deceive unwary buyers by to selling a (non-existent) pig sewn into a poke (burlap bag)).
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. 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. Or the Granada’s notorious mediocre handling. Never mind the build quality.
If anyone could push the pricing frontier, it would be Lee Iacocca. And just how did he price his tarted-up Granada? Exactly three times higher than its lowly donor. $12,529 ($35k adjusted) was a piece of change back then, and like the Seville, the Versailles was the most expensive Lincoln money could buy. There really is a sucker born every minute.
Maybe not every minute, but enough for Lincoln to move somewhere between 9k and 21k units the first three years. By 1980, the jig was up, there was no pig in the poke (or was there?) and sales collapsed. But there was a replacement in the wings, and this time the Fairmont would be the donor, although somewhat better disguised.