By on February 3, 2012

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To provide a little light weekend reading in the months to come, I will be syndicating some of the “Avoidable Contact” columns that I wrote for our friends at SpeedSportLife back in the day. At the same time, I will be restarting the “Avoidable Contact” series and publishing it here. Be aware that these are long posts, running from 2,000 words to twice that. You’ve been warned. Don’t forget to check out the nice folks at Speed:Sport:Life: their current lineup includes some great young writers and the well-known photographic excellence of founder Zerin Dube — JB

Gather ‘round, everybody. I have an epic tale to tell. It’s the story of how Fake Luxury Conquered The World. There are heroes, and villains, and sweeping vistas, and if we don’t exactly have a princess cooped up in a tower, we might have a few sexually liberated young women in airbrush-mural vans. Interested? Follow along with me as we return to the dark days of the early Seventies…

Our story begins with another story. More properly, it’s a legend. Nobody’s sure whether it’s true or not, but if it ain’t true, it ought to be. The legend says that once upon a time there was a General Motors. This General Motors, GM for short, had a car and a brand for every need, along the plan developed by the great Alfred Sloan prior to the Second World War. There were Chevrolets for regular folk, Pontiacs for the cautious old people (and, thanks to John Z. Delorean’s development of the 1964 GTO, for angry young people as well), Buicks and Oldsmobiles for doctors and successful businessmen, and Cadillacs at the very top, for the most successful men in the land. Yes, I said “men”, because this story happened in the time before Nicky Hilton showed that women could run a business just as well as men could. Since the men at the very top levels of the various GM divisions were all very successful men by definition, they all drove Cadillacs, even though they were in the business of making cars which were definitely not Cadillacs. This led to a rather curious situation, because it meant that most of the people at the top of the various GM divisions had no first-hand experience with their own vehicles, but nobody wanted to rock the boat, and that’s the way it stayed, all through the Korean War, and the Fifties, and the Kennedy assassination, and the beginnings of the Vietnam War.

It would have stayed that way forever, but one day a mysterious yet important man at GM had a mysterious yet important idea: Executives should drive cars from their own division! Seems like a good idea, doesn’t it? If you are the business of designing, building, and selling Pontiacs, shouldn’t you drive a Pontiac, or perhaps even – as crazy as this sounds – a Pontiac competitor? And yet it took a long campaign by a very determined fellow to make it happen. His name is lost to history; if you know who it was, write me and let me know. Whoever he was, though, he knew what buttons to push, and he knew how to make his idea a reality. Given the atmosphere at the time inside GM, which John Z. would later go on to skewer in his book On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors, I can only guess that he had Max Mosley-style photos of quite a few important folks, and he used ‘em to overcome the objections.

The interior of a 1968 Cadillac: luxury defined. As they say in the Army, remember this material, because you will see it again.

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And so, some time around 1970, the word went out that, from then on, all GM executives would drive cars from their own brand. I can only imagine that there were a lot of angry faces at the dinner tables of Oakland County when it all went down. Imagine, for a moment, that you are a Vice President at the Chevrolet Division of General Motors. As a GM executive, you lead an unbelievably pampered life. It’s been years since you purchased a car from a dealer, or vacuumed out your carpets, or even pumped your own gas. Instead, you have a top-of-the-line Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special or something similar, which is cleaned, serviced, and fueled during the day while you are working. In the evenings, you put on a dinner jacket, festoon your handsome, socially active wife with expensive jewels, and drive your brand-new Cadillac to posh dinner parties; on the weekends, you glide to church with your perfect children, a shining example of the American dream…

…until one day, at the end of work, when your valet arrives with, not your normal Fleetwood, but a f***ing Chevy Impala! An Impala! The “full-sized” car driven by pipefitters, plumbers, Catholics, and recent immigrants! The official car of poor people! And everybody at that night’s dinner party sees you step out of a car universally driven by losers! Remember, folks, this was back in the early Seventies, before foreign cars had conquered the world. It was an era where the Sloan-created GM hierarchy was as natural as breathing – an era when the gas station attendant could guess everything from your annual income to your graduating rank at university simply by reading the script on your front fender. Cadillac to Chevrolet – there could be no more humiliating disaster for one’s prestige! Think of how a Flying Spur owner would feel if he found a Kia Optima in his parking space, and you’re right there with Mr. Chevrolet Executive as his new Impala rolls up. And that’s not the only thing that’s rolling up – the hero of our tale soon finds something out which he may have known intellectually but not fully understood. The windows in a Chevy roll up! By hand! There are no power windows in a basic early-Seventies Chevrolet. A standard Chevrolet does not have a vinyl accent roof, wire wheel hubcaps, leather upholstery, a soft-touch trunk closer, or a “Twilight Sentinel” automatic headlamp system. It’s a basic car designed to compete on price. It’s not a case of Mr. Exec’s car not having all the options – it’s a case of there being no options to have. Chevrolet wasn’t allowed to have equipment that would step on Oldsmobile’s toes.

Not that Mr. Chevy Exec’s neighbor, Mr. Olds Exec, is feeling much better about his situation. Sure, he’s not driving a Chevrolet, but neither is he driving his old Cadillac. He’s still driving a mid-range car despite being an executive, still short on equipment, still woefully lacking in prestige. To put it back in a modern perspective, he’s got a Lexus instead of a Kia – but who wants to replace a Bentley with a Lexus? He’s angry, his wife is angry, and his relatives are whispering that perhaps he’s been “moved aside” at work. The combined angst in the thickly carpeted halls of GM’s executive levels would have been enough to turn everyone emo, if only they had known what “emo” was. Instead, being men of action, the off-brand GM execs swung into just that – action.

If the Buick man couldn’t have a Cadillac – and he couldn’t, at least not now – there was nothing to stop him from building his own Cadillac. Why not build a Buick with a Cadillac’s level of equipment and poshness? And so the Buick Electra 225 – the famed “deuce-and-a-quarter” – became available with a “Park Avenue” trim level. That’s right! Park Avenue! Suck on that, Mr. Cadillac Executive! The Park Avenue had everything a Cadillac had, from a monster chrome grille to – don’t tell anybody – the infamous Twilight Sentinel. Before long, our self-satisfied Buick exec was rolling up to church in style… only to see that his friendly rival from Oldsmobile had arrived in a Ninety-Eight “Regency”, named after the famous hotel on… well, on Park Avenue! The “Regency” was to the Ninety-Eight what the “Park Avenue” was to the Electra. And no sooner does Mr. Buick recover from the shock than the man from Pontiac arrives in the new “Gran Ville”! It’s just as chrome-laden and luxed-up as a “Regency” is! And as the three men stare at each other in the church parking lot – shocked beyond belief that the “other guys” had also managed to create ersatz Cadillacs from their brand’s full-size cars – what do they see coming down the road? It’s a bright-grille, vinyl-roofed Chevrolet “Caprice Classic”! Can you believe it? Even the man from Chevy managed to build himself a Cadillac! The Caprice Classic even had its own badge – which looked kind of like a Cadillac badge redrawn by a fellow high on LSD and limited to one color of paint. And thus the tableau was complete; denied their own Cadillacs, each division had managed to create a Fakeillac to serve in place of the Standard of the World.

A late-Seventies Caprice Classic interior. Gosh, where’d they get the idea?

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Meanwhile, the men from each division’s marketing office were sweating bullets, having received strong orders to make sure the new chrome boats sold in volumes sufficient to justify their existence. For the Buick and Oldsmobile people, it wasn’t too tough; there were plenty of people out there successful enough to buy a Cadillac but afraid of the social implications. For Pontiac and Chevy it was much tougher, and the way it was done helped bring about the eventual collapse of GM’s carefully orchestrated brand hierarchy. The ads for the Caprice hinted – just barely suggested – that the Caprice was pretty much the same as a Cadillac, and people listened. They didn’t buy Caprices – virtually nobody did – but they did understand something: that luxury wasn’t just for rich people any more, and that Cadillacs couldn’t be all that special, if you could get all the Cadillac stuff on a Chevy.

At the same time as the fellows from Pontiac and Chevrolet were busy designing new variants of tufted-pillow seats and woodgrain shift knobs, the EPA and the insurance companies were busy nailing the coffin shut on the musclecar era. Big power was all gone. I’ll tell you a secret, though: all of those Hemis, Six-Packs, and SS396es mostly existed in the imagination anyway. The man on the street couldn’t really afford ‘em, so he ended up buying a cheaper model with a detuned small-block V8 and a few racy stripes, and that’s what really sold in the Sixties. When that tumultuous decade came to a close, the average buyer was ready to relax in a genuinely comfortable car – and thanks to their new obsession with affordable luxury, GM, and their perennial imitators at Ford and Chrysler, found themselves ready to provide it.

What’s the definition of luxury? That’s a tough question, and one which keeps a lot of people very well-employed, but I would suggest that luxury is simply something beyond what the common man can afford. So what do we make of the 1975-1985 era, where every car from the monstrous Cadillac Fleetwood to the compact X-body Buick Skylark, advertised as “the little limousine”, could be had with puffy velour seats, cruise control, power accessories, and a vinyl top? Let’s call it Fake Luxury – luxury for everybody, which by definition is not luxury at all. When every car on your street has wire-wheel hubcaps, there’s nothing luxurious about ‘em. And when a Buick Skylark can be equipped the same way as a Cadillac de Ville, people are going to start to wonder whether it’s worth buying a de Ville, and that started a long downward spiral for Cadillac.

The Buick Skylark was the “little limousine”, sporting a very Cadillac-esque set of seats.

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By 1981, ten long years after that original, mysterious decision at GM, Fake Luxury had taken complete and utter control of the market, to the point where a “personal luxury car”, the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, was moving over half a million units a year and regularly winning the title of America’s Best-Selling Car. The man on the street no longer wanted rally stripes and a Positraction diff; he wanted a Landau top and faux-woodgrain door pulls. It took a practiced eye to tell the difference between the Caprice Classic, Park Avenue, Ninety-Eight Regency, and Fleetwood Brougham, as they were all vaguely prestigious-looking boxes that looked more like each other than anything else. Every GM brand sold a full line of cars. The Sloan hierarchy had been destroyed. When a yacht-esque Olds Ninety-Eight Regency met a tiny Cadillac Cimarron in the church parking lot, who was the more successful owner? Was it better to have a Caprice Classic Brougham than a basic Caddy de Ville? For that matter, where did the Ford LTD Crown Victoria stand in relation to the base Lincoln Continental?

At the time, it didn’t seem important. All that mattered was moving the metal, and that was being done tolerably well even in light of rising fuel prices and the aftereffects of Jimmy Carter and his “malaise” economy. There was plenty of alarm about “foreign cars”, but they didn’t account for all that much of the market. In ’81, GM still held nearly a sixty percent share of the US auto market, which meant that in reality it was mostly competing with itself.

The Park Avenue was a dead ringer for the Cadillac… including the fins.

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1981. I remember it well. It was in 1981 that Honda finished the expansion of its Marysville plant. For the first time, a “Japanese” car – the 1982 Accord – would be built on American soil. The unbelievable success of the Accord and its successors would trigger a firestorm of change in the auto industry that would eventually result in Toyota’s becoming the largest automaker in the world, but for the purposes of this story, there was another 1981 introduction which deserves attention: the 1982 BMW 528e. With that new “E28” model, BMW would soon write a success story of its own, one which would end with the death of Fake Luxury and the introduction of Rich Corinthian Swaybars – and that, my friends, is a tale for another time.

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70 Comments on “Avoidable Contact: How Fake Luxury Conquered The World...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    And in 1982 that beauty debuted. My first car was very similar save the vinyl roof and luggage rack. “The small car with the big car ride!” (Yes that was an actual advertising tag-line.)

    I know this is when GM started to really jump the shark. I agree with you BTW but god all mighty give me a 98 or a 225.

    • 0 avatar

      Oh, I don’t know Educator_Dan, but in my opinion (and others in the almost two years I’ve been on here), GM (and others a bit later) jumped the shark when the 1973 models were designed, probably in 1969-70. At least that’s my impression, but you had to be there to fully appreciate what was going down in those years.

      For the record, I HATED the 1973 Monte Carlo, not only because the pillarless hardtop was replaced by a Colonnade, but the poshness. Why? All I wanted was a car like dad’s 1966 Impala – fancy, but not pretentious. Compare a 1972 MC with an equally equipped 1973 MC and the difference went from sporty to – well – bordello-quality.

      An Olympic ski jump downhill slope from there. At least your first car was light-years ahead of the Citation, although a close relative!

      • 0 avatar

        Zackman: As you might already know, the 1973 GM intermediates (and their “personal luxury” offshoots, the Grand Prix/Monte Carlo/formal Cutlass 2-door) were to have been ’72s, but a strike delayed them and so the ’72s we did get were almost entirely unaltered from the ’71s. The ’73s were therefore probably designed in 1968-69. (It would have been nice to see the ’73 designs without the 5-mph front bumpers – perhaps Collectible Automobile has run photos of the prototypes.)

        What bothers me about the ’73s is not only their horribly space-inefficient body designs and the ridiculously long and heavy doors of the coupes, but also their sheer cheapness: the widespread introduction of plastichrome and other cheaper types of trim, fixed windows in wagon tailgates and rear quarters of coupes, the elimination of convertibles, etc.

        Actually I’m glad that the previous models had a run of 5 years instead of 4 (or 4 instead of 3 in the case of the Grand Prix; 3 instead of 2 for the Monte Carlo). By the standards of what followed, they were really good cars. However, the 1973-78s did start to include radial tires as standard equipment, which improved handling somewhat.

      • 0 avatar

        Actually, the 1973 was superior to the previous generation, especially in handling as DeLorean reversed engineered Mercedes suspension components. The interiors were largely the same.

  • avatar

    I believe it. And something like this, Jack, was the reason why you got a Phaeton ….

  • avatar

    Can you imagine a Park Ave or 225 today with a modern powerplant? I betcha it would sell like hotcakes! Still great looking cars. Not so much to drive, but still!

  • avatar

    I always thought the “Personal Luxury” explosion was a conspiracy between the advertising and accounting departments. A collection of options that cost the factory $200, but ordered separately would charge $1,400. When ordered as a pregrouped package it only costs $800. So you see, the nice salesman is actually saving you $600. If the math seems odd ask your wife/girlfriend about buy one get one half off shoe sales.

    • 0 avatar

      Buy one get one half… DAMNIT. I knew I was getting scammed somewhere along the line. No wonder I’m “the best husband in the world.” ‘Best’ should be replaced with ‘dumbest.’

    • 0 avatar

      Probably true, but that was just the harbinger of things to come. Put a piece of animal excrement in a pretty package, put a stylized T on it, and people will line up to buy it.
      Kids today demand $120 Nike runners. Carrie Bradshaw, a mythical icon to many women in America, would drop $800 on a purse, yet lived in a so-so building.
      I think the name itself, “personal luxury,’ says it all: I’m important, I deserve this, I’m going to have it. And I’m putting it on credit.
      I doubt very much the department heads in the late ’60s and early ’70s realized that their splintering of the market into a thousand pieces was only sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

  • avatar

    Further reading:

  • avatar

    Interesting approach, this article. The question of “What’s the definition of luxury?” remains unanswered. Since the 70’s I still wonder why a cheap, plushy, brothel-red interior ever made it to an indicator of “luxury”. Might have to do something with bad taste? (Not that I’m against brothels; but the owners of such places might have faced the similar difficult problem to solve as GM “how to make it look cozy and nice without costing too much, as our customers wouldn’t pay for this”.)

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t think this is really an article about fake versus real luxury, as it is about the zeitgeist of any particular era. That era is much less segmented than today, where I can think of several absurd “luxury” segments (horsepower, N-ring lap times, AWD traction, tow ratings, fuel economy and the infamous gold plated/jewel encrusted car).

      The luxury of this decade is that you can pick 4 or more of the above in a single vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      Occasionally, fashion and style design does actually make sense, based on technological advancements of their day. Remember when ‘vinyl’ seats were an upgrade? Then time proved they just cracked in the cold, burned you in the heat and weren’t very pleasant to sit on in any weather. Plus those old cars couldn’t do a half G on the course, so sliding around wasn’t going to be a problem!
      I suspect those velour seats were a rebellion against the very stodgy nylon weave patterns that preceded the velour.
      Again, revisionist history is everything. I remember looking at the overstuffed sofa seats in the ’74 Imperial and, as a 13 year old kid, thought they were amazing and cool. (But I also wore platform shoes, a cream polyester leisure suit and lapels a Harrier could land on to my graduation: it was the ’70s, the ‘ugliest f&*%ing decade in history,’ to coin Bobcat Goldthwaite.) We also now know that those seats dated badly, both in wear and appearance. So did the harvest gold appliances in the kitchens and the avocado fixtures in the bathrooms back then. But they were waaaay cool in 1975!
      Frankly, I’d rather have the overstuffed velour then the cheap vinyl posing as leather seats in most vehicles today.

  • avatar

    Jack, this didn’t start in 1970, or in the way you charmingly hypothesize. It started with the 1965 Ford LTD, which was a huge hit, and had Chevy scrambling to come out with a response, the 1965 1/2 Caprice.

    Lee Iaccoca started the whole Great Brougham Epoch, with the groundbreaking 1965 LTD, which featured “panty-cloth” fabric on its seats.

    I’d include the link to my article on this pioneer of the Great Brougham Epoch (a CC trademark), but links are now a no-no here. But I think folks know where to find it.

    Where did you read about your theory; at Motor Trend?

    • 0 avatar

      As Paul said, the LTD was the originator of this trend. When the 65 models were introduced in the fall of 64, my young friends and I made the rounds of the local dealerships to see the new metal. In those days, the intros were all done the same week. When we arrived at the local Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, where we knew everyone, the salesmen literally grilled us on our first impressions of the new LTD. They considered the LTD the most significant new entry of the year, and were apprehensive, to say the least, that they had no competitor in their showroom. By 66, Chevy had the Caprice, and Plymouth had the VIP. This trend forced the mid-priced brands to go farther up-market, and Fake Luxury was in full bloom.

    • 0 avatar

      Paul beat me to it. I would add, though, that GM’s low-end divisions had been aggressively ‘deluxe-ying’ their cars for more than a decade before the LTD (witness, for example, the 1953 Pontiac Star Chief), with the fairly explicit intention of eating their more expensive siblings’ lunch. The significance of the LTD — and to a lesser extent, the earlier Falcon Futura — was in its merchandising approach; Ford marketed it as a luxury car, rather than just a luxurious model.

      It is an engaging and well-told yarn, in any case.

    • 0 avatar

      And GM’s market share in 1981 was more like 45%, not 60%.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Motor Trend CLASSIC, obviously.

      This story was told to me about twenty years ago by a fellow who had been a multiple GM dealer principal in the Seventies. Since I have no correlating proof other than the timeline of when the ultra-lux models were introduced, I refer to it as a “tale” that may or not be true.

      As far as Skor’s story goes, I am not certain that anything I wrote contradicts any of his “Jew canoe” business. Black people and Jews drove Cadillacs well before 1970, and they were entitled to a luxury car as well, but since I was born in 1971 I will take his word as to anti-Semitism of the northeast.

      • 0 avatar

        My point being that Cadillac was far from an “exclusive” upscale car by 1970. By 1970, the old money of the Northeast…the kind of people who vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard…..wouldn’t be caught dead in a Cadillac.

        As to the anti-Catholic bigotry of GM management, I’ll take your word for it.

    • 0 avatar

      Paul, I saw your comment above after I finished my reply to Educator_Dan, and as we were about out the door, I didn’t have time to change it.

      You made me think about the first Caprice and I recalled how I felt at the time at age 14, as I all but worshipped my dad’s 1960 Chevy Impala and I thought: “How DARE them to try to usurp the glorious Impala with a fake Cadillac! The nerve!”

      So I have to at least agree that the seeds were sown at that time, only to blossom by 1973!

      I could talk about this forever!

    • 0 avatar

      Yep, good friends once had a ’67 Caprice and it had electric windows and perhaps power door locks.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re right about the LTD bringing luxury to a low brand, but Chrysler in 1963-4 had the “Salon” New Yorker, which basically put the Imperial trim level in the New Yorker. But it also cost almost as much as an Imperial.

  • avatar

    Boy, does this bring back memories. We owned a 1984 98 Regency, purchased for the princely sum of 4400.00 on a used car lot in Monterey. It was 7 years old, having slid in value from its 25-27K sticker when new. Reeking of cigarette smoke, it took 2 years to make that smell go away. It was our “nice” family car for the next 7 years, and the 307, though wheezy, was pretty reliable except when the fiber timing gear let go on the way to LA. We had to get towed home, xfer our stuff to the Cordoba and start off again, knowing I would need to fix the beast after cutting a vacation short.

    It was a time of 3 deaths in the family in rapid succession, so the casket handle door pulls and the formal roofline seemed right for the time. It made a great car to ride to a funeral.

    What gave the lie to the “luxury” was the awful decision to make the upper inside of the door panels out of some faux-woodgrained plastic that broke down extremely quickly. By the time we had the car, all 4 were trashed from sun exposure. Every time I drove the car, it nagged at me that this dark brown velour-upholstered living room on wheels with fiber optic bulb indicators (front and back)and three cigar lighters would never really look right inside.

    There was also a spring in the driver’s seatback that came undone from the frame and poked its way into my back, so I had to drag a cushion with me to keep my clothes from getting holes in them.

    The good?

    1) It got 20-22MPG on the highway (overdrive), but the car was geared to do 75 without breaking a sweat and we were still required to do 55- so it kept hunting back and forth between 3rd and OD all the way down Interstate 5. It was pure agony.

    2) It has the extended wheelbase common to all Ninety-Eights, so one day, I kid you not, we took a Hon extra deep file cabinet home from Staples and it fit in the back seat and both doors could still close.

    It came to its end when the Rochester Qjet refused to respond to a rebuild, and word was getting out that many of these were failing emissions tets due to a bad computer. The writing was on the wall and it was time to let go.

    The big impression it made on me was that luxury at GM was only skin deep, and the choice of materials and overall fit and finish had taken a huge slide since the early 60’s. We gave GM another whirl in buying a 2001 LeSabre, and got bit again. Badly. The previous series buick was by most accounts a very good car for the time, and once again they grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory with the 2001-2005 models.
    How the mighty has fallen!

    • 0 avatar

      There was a joke that the 98 was usually the age of the driver (at least by the end of olds)
      My suspect for making execs drive the cars made by the division they were in charge of; The Cadillac boss.

  • avatar

    Can’t wait for Jack to demolish my Lexus.

  • avatar

    This is far more compelling writing than the ridiculous faux-pissing contest with Motor Trend.

    I still don’t buy the premise, though. Ever since Sloan used features and branding to take on Ford’s dominance that had been driven by mass production, this idea of using options to increase margins has been part of GM’s strategy, and has greatly impacted the rest of the industry.

    When company brands are managed by brand managers and the segments are not distinctive, then it’s a matter of time that they will begin to cannibalize each other. The Sloan model had already started to fail by the 60’s, when all of the divisions started trying to expand their own individual turfs by increasing the number of nameplates to the point that they were overlapping and competing against each other.

    The Sloan branding system could work when a brand was something more akin to a nameplate, with a limited lineup under each brand. It was doomed to fail when it resulted in the GM lineup having 70 or 80 different nameplates in the same market.

    There is simply no way on this planet for any car maker to make that many models and to maintain their distinctiveness. Badge engineering becomes a fait accompli, as it’s the only way to manage the costs, but that further destroys the brands, and they’ll inevitably have enough price overlaps to kill off any system that is based on price tiering. This would have happened regardless of what kind of company cars that the executives would be given to drive home at night.

    • 0 avatar

      As far as I know, the premise of the article is fundamentally true. Enforced from the start of the 1966 model year, there was a GM edict passed that management would drive cars from the divisions that they ran and the result was special top level models that hadn’t previously existed like the Caprice and Ninety-Eight Luxury Sedan. Brock Yates sites it on pages 190-191 of “The Decline & Fall of the American Automobile Industry.”

      One point I disagree with. GM’s US market share peaked at 51% in 1962. In 1981, GM had about 40% of the US market.

      • 0 avatar

        Right; the Caprice was brought into being for that reason, and not because of the ’65 Ford LTD. Brock was a great scriptwriter, you know.

      • 0 avatar

        …As far as I know, the premise of the article is fundamentally true….

        Agreed, the basics are there and correct. However, Jack’s blaming Carter alone for the Malaise Era is dead wrong. Could he have done a better job fighting it, sure. But stagflation pretty much rendered the usual economic correction weapons useless.

        Even as a kid I wondered why buy a Cadillac when my friend ’78 98 Regency offered all the Detroit luxury you could want, including a built in CB radio. My dad had his first Mercedes by then, which provided an interesting contrast…

      • 0 avatar

        “the premise of the article is fundamentally true”

        I didn’t deny that the executives didn’t face this requirement. What I said was that this brand destruction was doomed to happen, anyway.

        There is a much broader, deeper business problem at work here. As the auto market evolved, it was inevitable that Sloan’s strategy of having multiple tiers would eventually fail.

        It is natural that brand managers who are put in situations to compete against each other will eventually cannibalize each other. Allowing them drive whichever company car that they want would not have stopped that desire of brand managers to compete against each other.

        In today’s market, there are basically three tiers: mainstream, luxury and exotic. Most automakers play just in the first two. If the branding is going to be driven strictly by pricing, then no one needs more than two brands for that.

        There can be room for more than two brands if some of the extra brands are oriented around different niches, rather than just pricing. But the Chevrolet/ Pontiac/ Buick/ Oldsmobile/ Cadillac ladder of five was oriented around pricing, therefore making it three too many. If they wanted to keep all of the brands, then the brands should have repositioned so that they weren’t tiered strictly along a pricing model.

    • 0 avatar
      Firestorm 500

      It was actually Chevrolet-Pontiac-Oldsmobile-Buick-Cadillac. You can tell by looking at their VINs. Chevrolet had a 1, Pontiac a 2, Oldsmobile a 3, Buick a 4, and Cadillac a 6. What happened to 5? It was a LaSalle.

  • avatar

    Sorry, Jack, but your article clearly shows you have no knowledge of American auto history. The above reads like a term paper….a badly researched term paper…C- at best.

    I’m not going to pick this thing apart line by line because we’ll be here all day, so I’m only going to focus on Cadillac…of which you apparently know nothing about.

    Cadillac was founded by Henry Ford as the Henry Ford Company. Crazy Henry soon fell out with his financial backers and went off to form the Ford Motor Company. The financial backers of the Henry Ford Company called in engineer Henry Leland to help them liquidate the tooling and machinery of the company. Leland persuaded the owners to continue the manufacture of luxury autos, and took over as CEO. Leland renamed the company the Cadillac Automobile Company.

    Leland was a better engineer than businessman and the company was soon in a difficult financial position…Cadillac was sold to GM in 1909 and became GM’s flagship division.

    Cadillac cars made before Depression 1.0 were nothing like the cars produced after. Those early Cadillacs used top quality engines and chassis made on assembly lines from interchangeable parts, but unique to Cadillac. The coach work was largely a custom affair. Those early Cadillacs were the equals of any high quality, handmade autos offered anywhere. A pre-Depression Cadillac was just as good, and cost as much, as a Rolls Royce of that era.

    So exclusive were pre-Depression Cadillacs that you couldn’t just walk into a Cadillac showroom and buy one off the lot. An appointment was necessary to talk to a Cadillac salesman, and Cadillac made sure only “quality” clients would be admitted to Cadillac dealerships. Jews, Italians and Negroes were not welcome.

    Along comes Depression 1.0 and America was soon teetering on the brink of a Bolshevik style revolution. The old money blue-bloods still had money, but were now worried about conspicuous consumption, and demand for super high end cars cratered, Cadillac included.

    Cadillac sales were so bad at the height of the Depression that GM was going to close down the Cadillac Division. The management of Cadillac Division convinced the people at corporate that they could save Cadillac by dragging it down to “near luxury” and targeting the very people they had previously excluded. Gone was the custom coach work and soon the V-16’s and V-12’s would be gone as well.

    After WWII, Cadillac completely replaced fine engineering and build quality with garish body styles, gadgets, and bright chrome plating. These cars were specifically targeted at the postwar nouveau riche and suburban petit bourgeoisie: Vinny the trash hauling king, Myron the accountant, and various showbiz and sports celebrities.

    By 1970, most of the old money in the Northeast had long since abandoned Cadillac. Even the well to do of Southern California were staying away. I grew up in a Suburb of NYC back in the 70’s, Cadillacs were derisively referred to as “pimp wagons” and “Jew canoes”.

    You’ve got it backward, it wasn’t that GM execs were trying to bring the plebeian brands up to “Cadillac standards”. By the 1970’s GM no longer produced any car that was of high quality and unique.

  • avatar

    I try to read what I can about the sixties and seventies because I wasn’t here and frankly was too busy to care at the time. Now that I have read it I am confused.

    I like the idea of driving your own stuff and can see how egos could have that sort of effect. However, it sort of seems to me that the luxury stuff started happening in the fifties. 58 in particular. Oldsmobility seems to be sticking in my mind from somewhere. I don’t know which was bigger or had more “stick on” goodies but it seems to me that the industry picked that year to go to h**l. I felt it was hard to find a winner unless you went with strict sales.


  • avatar

    The blurring of Alfred Sloan’s carefully planned product hierarchy began starting in the 1950’s. The same social climbing instincts that the GM divisions sought to instill in their customers also affected the division managers. None of the GM divisions were content to remain in their allotted slot-each coveted the prestiege of the divisions above them and the volume of the ones below. So Buick offered vehicles like the Buick Special and Chevrolet created the Impala which moved Chevrolet into Pontiac and Oldsmobile territory.

    In 1965 Ford Created the LTD which was hugely successful and shortly afterward Chevrolet was selling the Caprice and Plymouth the VIP. AMC even got into the act with the Ambassador DPL. As the 60’s progressed and models proliferated, compacts, intermediates, personal luxury makes; if one GM division got a new vehicle, the others usually wanted one as well. By the late 70’s there were sdo many vehicles in the GM lineup and buted against each other and overlapped, Sloan’s model had fir all purposes ceased to exist.

  • avatar

    …and I’ll chime to remind us that the dealers were also part of the problem. Each dealer wanted a new car to sell to anyone who came in the door, and so there came to exist cars like the Mercury Bobcat, the Pontiac T-1000, the Cadillac Cimarron, as well as the luxury editions Jack mentioned. Needless to say this trend did additional violence to the old Sloan “trade-up” hierarchy.

    • 0 avatar

      It has always seemed short sighted to have all these different brands coming from the same company selling the same stuff. Even today. Get rid of the overlap, sell them all at the GM dealer and make some money.

  • avatar

    I have this story bookmarked from the original site that Jack posted it to some time ago, and I can’t help but think that it was written at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

    While not entirely true, it still made for an entertaining read. Thanks for sharing Jack!

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Part of writing for the Internet is that, even when you explicitly state that something is a “tale” which “may not be true”, there is someone waiting to crucify you because it doesn’t match their recollection.

      Presumably the grandparents of these people wrote letters like,

      dear cs lewis, lions can’t talk so I didn’t enjoy your narnia chronicals. Yours sincearly, little timmy. Ps my wardroab at hom has a solid back.

  • avatar

    At least in the late 50’s there was still clarity to the Sloan stacked heirarchy. My great -uncle who made a pile in the stock market, drove a 58 Olds that was the most elegant car I’d ever seen. However it would have seemed presumptious of him to drive a Caddy or a Lincoln. His money wasn’t that kind of money. It was earned money, not family money. However by 1970 – a little more than 10 years later Caddy didn’t mean anything any more.. and that was BEFORE the Cimmaron, which was merely piss on the grave.

    • 0 avatar

      Be sure to check out Curbside Classic – it’s ’58 Olds day over there today…

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks for that. I went over and had a look. Although I was kind of young at the time, the car was definitely a 58 88. I can still see those chrome ribs on the rear quarters vividly. Or maybe not as I seem to remember that there was a -stainless steel- (brushed metal anyhow) panel UNDER those cheome stripes.

        However I’ve never seen a picture of a car with that trim on it, so it may just have been that the overdose of chrome I got led to hallucinations. In in case I was pretty sure that God would have chosen that car for Sunday afternoon cruising. Perhaps Jesus would have driven an old pickup but he was kind of a hippy anyhow, and if you’ve read the Old Testament, you know his old man would have been an Oldsmobile guy.

  • avatar

    These GM cars you talk about here…they are why I grew up hating GM. My family ran through dozens of these as I was growing up, all good examples and well maintained. All of them sucked hard.

    • 0 avatar

      Exactly! Since half the cars on your street were probably GM vehicles (for many years), the malaise era hit GM the hardest because not only did they sell far more cars than anyone else, they had the money and resources to TRY and adapt. As anyone who bought an flat flat panel TV 12 or 13 years ago will tell you – you do NOT want to be the first to buy a new technology.
      So, while the 2 Hondas on your street quietly dissolved into the storm sewers, nobody noticed because they were all whining about their GMs.

  • avatar
    Byron Hurd

    Thanks for the SSL plug, Jack.

  • avatar

    Jack, I think I’m going to like this series. Generally I give your stuff a pass.

    Even if it didn’t happen precisely this way it’s a pretty good summary of how GM lost it’s branding sense. Paul Niedermeyer did a nice series of articles a few years ago, where he showed what cars of various GM divisions cost – back when the hierarchy was still mostly intact. There really was a price hierarchy, at one time.

    Fake lux is an important point, but I think it can’t be separated from all the other branding mistakes going on, both at GM and it’s imitators. Sloan’s hierarchy was being destroyed from the top, the bottom, and sideways. All GMs divisions would eventually sell everything from shit-box econo car to Caddy or psuedo-Caddy.

    I don’t know that the LTD kicked off fake lux. Seems to me the LTD was round II of the Edsel project. An attempt to create something that competes with more prestigious makes at a higher market segment. Second time around they didn’t bother calling it a separate make.

    As others have pointed out, the trend of making “luxury” items available on low end products had already begun decades before. As but one example, it wasn’t long after automatic transmissions were made available by Olds, that all the other divisions had a slush box, and the other Detroit makers offered their own autos, on any brand, any trim level.

    Two of the easiest things to do is take a prestige brand down-market, and offer all the options on basic transportation brands. GM, Ford, and Chrysler all did both, resulting in a mish mash of brands w/o clear identity.

  • avatar

    They were expanding the brand range or enlarging the umbrella. Some of it would have been decoy to keep the competition focused in the wrong area.

  • avatar

    Actually, if you look at the options list of postwar GM cars, you’ll find that you actually could get a lot of Cadillac’s comfort and convenience options on a Chevy as early as 1955. Power windows and power seats were available.

    Problem was, all you had then was a well-equipped Chevy that cost almost as much as an Oldsmobile. The less well-equipped Olds had more prestige.

    I’m not sure the problem was that the mainstream cars became more luxurious. I think it’s more because the higher-end cars lost their quality. It’s been mentioned in these pages before, the 1971 Cadillac was a severely cheapened version of its predecessors, as was the rest of GM’s full-size line.

    So the Sloan product ladder had steps that were too close to each other. Fortunately for GM the public had become so indoctrinated to the system that it held over for at least a generation, thanks also to the amount of independence the divisions still had.

    1971 was also the year the GM Assembly Division was created to run all the plants, which probably had more to do with GM’s decline than most of their “deadly sins.”

  • avatar
    CA Guy

    Power windows and seats were available on 1953-54 Chevrolets. I believe you could get front power windows and rear manual windows, at least I’ve seen 1953-54 Bel Air convertibles so configured at car shows.

    I well remember my first introduction to the 1965 Chevrolet Caprice. I was in high school working at a part-time job with a woman whose husband sold cars for a local Chevrolet dealer. One day she threw me a set of keys and told me to take a look at the new demonstrator she was driving, “a Chevrolet but my gosh, it feels like a Cadillac.” Sure enough, there in the parking lot was a new Impala Caprice (Caprice being a trim level option in 1965) four-door hardtop in midnight blue with a black vinyl top and really fancy cloth and vinyl interior, 396 Turbojet, A/C, full power, a radio with rear speaker and “reverb” – really beautiful car. I recall that it had a chrome tissue dispenser hanging below the dash and special Caprice wheel covers. I started it up, cranked up the radio and A/C and took it for a drive – a nice ride on a hot, humid summer day in the midwest.

    Since those days I’ve repeatedly read the story as Paul tells it: the 1965 Caprice primarily was created in response to the GM corporate edict for divisional execs to drive their own division’s cars rather than as competition for the LTD.

  • avatar

    Loved your post. Very interesting – and entertaining! The Dynasty soundtrack was in my head while reading this. Can’t wait to read more.

  • avatar

    That looks like flower draped coffin on a cart in the background on the first picture.

  • avatar

    One little quibble;

    The Olds 98 had been around since the early ’40s.

    Electra came out in ’59, but it was a model name that simply replaced Roadmaster.

    The Grand Ville came out in ’71 as a rung up from a Bonneville.

    The question – what is luxury- is just as valid today. You can get lot’s of bells and whistles on just about anything today.

  • avatar

    You could get a Buick limousine before the war.

    Buicks back then were considered a cut below Cadillac, but also fulfilled the Bentley role with respect to Rolls-Royce. People of means who thought a Cadillac was too flashy (doctors, for example) bought the high-end Buick Limited. Or the Olds 98. Remember too that in the Depression years and immediately afterward, showing off one’s wealth excessively was frowned upon. Kinda like now.

    However, you were sort of expected to live up to your station. A bank president in a Chevy was a cheapskate. In a Cadillac, he was shady. A Buick would be considered just right.

    All these little marketing niches seem insignificant today until you see the sales volumes. For a company that controlled half the market, filling them was profitable. When you have only 20 percent of the market, they can drag you down.

  • avatar

    Funny. Today, the current scam being waged by Detroit is “Fake Reliability”. Even though Detroit ranks poorly relative to Toyota and Honda in Consumer Reports and JD Powers long term reliability results, they continue to run deceptive ads that claim their reliability is every bit as good or better than Toyota and Honda.

    Also, the “Fake Recall” scam on Toyota should rank. This effort by the Obama administration was designed to distract you from Toyota’s and Honda’s supreme reliability rankings. Notice how the Ford myTouch problem where defrosting functionality is impared is overlooked by NHTSA. Consumer Reports mentioned this problem, but the Obama adminstration refuses to acknowledge it.

    And, how can one forget the current “Fake Recommended” campaign where Detroit uses Consumer Digest recommend awards that deceive people into thinking Consumer Reports recommended. Shame.

    While we are at it, how about the “Fake MPG” story, where so many Detroit vehicles miss the window sticker by a large amount in real world testing. If Toyota or Honda tried this one, they would be called in for a congressional smackdown. I wonder if the Honda Civic lady who sued in small claims court is an effort to distract auto buyers from superior Toyota and Honda real world observed MPG.

    • 0 avatar

      LOL – Thanks for the Laugh of the Weekend!
      (Oh, wait – wasn’t it Honda that just settled with a woman over ‘misleading’ fuel mileage?)
      Of course, if you drive your Civic like most of the secretaries that buy them, then you will get close to the stated numbers. However, if you’re 23 and you’re trading in a 4 year old Mustang GT for a new Cruze, don’t even think about blaming GM when your real world numbers don’t come close.
      Please, the SAE wrapped Honda and Toyota’s knuckles back in 2006 because their published horsepower numbers were from Narnia. Hyundai got sued for that 8 years before.
      And if you look at more than just this year’s JD Power (since it really is the trending that is important, unless you plan on buying a new 2009 today), you will notice that the difference between the GM brands and Honda/Toyota brands is about a HALF PROBLEM PER 100 VEHICLES. That would be what any accountant would call ‘materially insignificant.’ But, yeah – if it floats your boat to brag that Honda is ‘better’ than Chevrolet, knock yourself out.
      One thing is for sure: Japan Inc’s 30 year quest to confuse the public and create the image of invincibility has worked – on some people.
      As to mileage numbers. First off, why don’t you log onto Energuide’s Site: in Canada, the government does the testing and does not accept submitted claims. Secondly, since it is impossible to test for every single possible road condition, air temperature variation, fuel consistency, barometric pressure, neutrino bursts from the sun, etc. – the entire POINT to the mileage tests is that they are done in a laboratory on a dyno for CONSISTENCY. Your Honda may not get 32 MPG any more than an Escort will get 34, but by COMPARISON, one can reasonably expect that (in my totally made up example, BTW) the Escort gets worse mileage than the Civic.
      And the various government agencies don’t really get to choose which complaints they ignore. Look at how fast they jumped on 2 incidents (from a test only, not even real world driving!) involving the Volt. How many complaints were lodged about the Toyota sudden acceleration? It doesn’t matter whether those complaints were bogus, imagined or real, when enough of them land on a bureaucrat’s desk he/she has to do their ‘due diligence.’
      It is not NHTSA’s fault that the media splashes the ‘investigation’ all over the front page. But I’ll bet you didn’t mind it when it was GM and Ford getting all the bad PR, did you?

      • 0 avatar

        “And if you look at more than just this year’s JD Power (since it really is the trending that is important, unless you plan on buying a new 2009 today), you will notice that the difference between the GM brands and Honda/Toyota brands is about a HALF PROBLEM PER 100 VEHICLES.”

        And why can’t the stats differentiate between the little problems like a loose door handle and the 25K mile transmission rebuild.

        I’d love to see those stats broken down into 3-4 classes where everything is defined either by cost or by some pre-set chart. Door handles are a class four fault but a blown engine within the warranty period or the first 50K miles is a class one failure.

        I’m sure the manufacturers know this kind of information but they won’t share them with me.

        To me the JD powers stats are nearly useless. I’m not too worried about failures during the warranty period b/c the manufacturer is paying the freight. I so worry about what condition the car is going to be in at 200K miles b/c I keep cars that long.

        I’m more inclined to watch the success of my social circle and those of forum members who also bought the same car.

  • avatar
    Cavalier Type 10

    I hated these type of cars with deathrays that could melt the sun. We had these Oldsmobuicks in the family. They had the same steering column and ignition as every GM car from the S10 truck to the top of the line Cadillac. The door handles, power locks, power window switches, climate control were all the same. They all had that fake interior chrome, where the fake mylar veneer would peel off leaving a grey strip in place of chrome. After a couple of years, that maroon velour on the interior would fall off, leaving the seats looking like the fur of a mangy dog who picked at his ass too many times.

    My mom drove a 1978 Regal, which I thought was pretty cool when I was a 2nd grader in 1978. It had the mag wheel with white letter tires and an FM radio. What was there not to like? Fast forward to 18 years later to when I got my first job out of college. They issued me a Buick Century company car. It had the same peeling chrome, mangy velour, door handles, steering column, heating/AC controls and power door/window controls as the car that came almost 20 years before.

    Not only were these “luxury” cars made with subpar materials in the places the owners look at all day, but they kept the same subpar looking materials for 20+ years. It’s little wonder luxury car buyers left GM by the boatload.

    • 0 avatar

      And you forgot to mention the drooping headliner cloth material that separated from the head liner until it either ripped to shreds due to children or wind damage or was thumbtacked back up into the head liner in a manner to still use the rear view mirror…

      • 0 avatar

        And why has GM had that same headliner problem for most of my life?

        If it was my car company I’d certainly change my headliner design or go backwards to the 60s style headliners with bows and material stretched tight across the ceiling.

        Other brands I’ve had have never had headliner problems even well after 200K miles or 20 years.

  • avatar

    How about tale of Camry XLE and Lexus ES. or 2013 Ford Fusion Platinum and 2013 Lincoln MKZ? Or Honda whatever and Acura whatever? There were handmade Cadillacs and Continentals in 50s costing as much as RR. I also interested what old money owned in 50s and 60s? Are Mercedes/Audi/BMW also faux luxury? They are not in same league as RR or even Porsche. I know modest mean people who drive Mercedes/Audi/BMW (lease). What is luxury after all? All engines these days are smooth and interiors – pretty luxurious. Is it rip-off, snobbism?

  • avatar

    Very interesting debate. My family owned many of these vehicles , including a blue 1967 Caprice 2 door, with console and bucket seats! If only that one hadn’t spent its life in Ontario, it would be worth a few bucks today.
    I used to keep a photo of a Lexus ES300 on my desk with a MS Publisher caption of, ‘A Camry for $5,000 more” until my boss made me remove it (they owned 2 Toyota stores.) But, it’s more fun to bash things GM did 20 or 30 years ago.
    Branding is not new and certainly not exclusive to Detroit. It amazes me how people will whinge about the price of cars in the past few years – have you looked at your grocery bill lately?
    I don’t think most people appreciate how expensive it is to offer extra cost options. For example, during an Oshawa plant tour several years back, they explained to us that items like power windows are becoming standard more and more because if Jane Smith’s job is to install the wiring harness in the door of vehicles equipped with power windows, and 2/3 of the vehicles that go by her on the line were not ordered with power windows, then those 2/3 of the customers are subsidizing Jane to stand around and wait until a vehicle comes to her that does need the wiring harness.
    You can easily see why Henry Ford resisted the idea of ‘allowing’ customer choice. First off, most customers are idiots and don’t know what they want, and secondly the costs of providing said choices are mostly hidden and not well understood.
    A simple explanation, but coupled with the high cost of labor and cheaper cost of parts, ‘upscale’ items are increasingly becoming standard.

  • avatar

    I got my first car in 1975, and I remember my Dad (he was born in 1909) telling me how the level of cars worked at GM, so my Chevy Camaro was, in his eyes, the bottom of the GM barrel. I think years later he realized they were all the same with just the names changed.

    Fast forward to 2010 and my daughter gets a Madza 3, GT 2.5 with everything but Nav, and I tell her about my 1972 Camaro with power nothing and she thinks I’m making it up!Sure cars cost more now, but jeez, look how much more stuff you get not to mention how much safer they are.

    When I see people paying huge prices for old restored muscle cars, I just think, God, I am glad they’re going in a collection or warehouse for resell, not out on the street!

  • avatar

    I am, as usual, late to the party, but not too late to take issue with your definition of luxury. You state that “luxury is something beyond what the common man can afford.” My own take is that you left out a very important word. Try it this way: “a luxury is something beyond what the common man can afford.”

    The “a” is very important here, for it separates the rest of the characteristics of the item — here, a car — from its price. From a consumer’s standpoint this is a very important distinction. Here’s what I said about luxury in a Car Lust (Amazon) blog post titled “A Minivan is Better Than What You’re Driving.”

    “But, really, what is a luxury car these days? The old-school signifiers — a/c, power windows, cruise control, et al — no longer apply, and their high-tech replacements are often more trouble than they’re worth. (iDrive or adaptive cruise control, anyone?) You might make try to make a case for exclusivity being tantamount to luxury, but you’d be wrong. It seems hard to believe today, but there were years in which Cadillac sold 250,000 cars. They were all pretty luxurious by the standards of the day, but exclusive? Not so much.

    Luxury, in my world, means a roomy, quiet, and comfortable cabin; a cushy-but-controlled ride; and convenience features that are easy to use and work well. Guess what? Tick the appropriate boxes on the option list, and your minivan will swaddle you in luxury. Four occupants (the maximum that can experience luxury in any vehicle) will be way more comfortable than they would be in a conventional luxury sedan, and when the revolution comes they won’t be lined up against the wall and shot.”

    (Back to now.) By your definition luxury is to be found in a Mercedes SL 65 AMG Black. By mine, ownership of that car would be a luxury, but I wouldn’t call it a luxury car by any stretch of the imagination. My (much missed) ’92 Grand Marquis LS had it beat on all counts.

  • avatar

    Today “luxury” is just a bunch of fancy electronic gadgets. Just view all the Lincoln TV ads with that actor from Mad Men. A Lincoln comes across as just a Ford with more gadgets.

    I now like to use the term “premium” car.

    The 1st generation Lexus cars were all premium cars, even with no gadgets (except for maybe the ES, which was still a premium Camry in many ways).

    Look up the TTAC SC400 capsule review.

    I would even call the IS300 premium because of the engine. The IS300 transmission was from the earlier LS.

    Mercedes has finally started to make premium cars again. They got totally lost after the W123 E class, which was the pinnacle of premium.

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