Avoidable Contact #11: How Fake Luxury Conquered The World.


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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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Jack Baruth

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