Across North America, automakers large and small have turned out the world’s finest luxury models—sadly, some also made a few that definitely don’t qualify for the title
1953 Cadillac Eldorado
1976 Cadillac Eldorado
Chrysler Imperial Frank Sinatra Edition
Chrysler Imperial Frank Sinatra Edition
1956 Lincoln-Continental Mark II
2006 Lincoln Zephyr
Zimmer Golden Spirit
Zimmer Golden Spirit, Chapter Two
- 1966 Duesenberg
- 1977 Duesenberg
- Stutz Blackhawk
- 1953 Cadillac...
- 1976 Cadillac...
- Chrysler Imperial
- Chrysler Imperial...
- Chrysler Imperial...
- Cadillac Seville
- Lincoln Continental
- Lincoln Premiere
- Lincoln Zephyr
- 2006 Lincoln Zephyr
- Cord L-29
- Auburn Speedster
- Zimmer Quicksilver
- Zimmer Golden Spirit
- Zimmer Golden...
- 1958 Packard
- Cadillac Catera
Considered by many to be the finest American car of all time, and a major contender on the world stage, the Duesenberg was built in Indiana between 1920 and 1937. Its supercharged V8 of 1932 could hit 129 mph (207 km/h) but fast wasn’t cheap. Its chassis alone was $8,500, about $2,500 more than an average house, and then you had to get a coachbuilder to put a body on it. But when you showed up in one, it was all worth it.
Fritz Duesenberg, son of one of the company founders, tried to revive the name in the 1960s. The body was built in Italy by Ghia, and it used a Chrysler 440 V8 engine. Its $19,500 price tag was almost double that of the most expensive Cadillac, and yet some 50 people put their hands up to order one. But the project never got off the ground, and the prototype was the only one ever built.
In the 1980s, a Wisconsin company would make a few expertly-crafted replica copies of the 1932 Duesenberg, barely distinguishable from the original save for a Ford driveline, and get an astonishing $200,000 apiece for them. But that was after grand-nephews of the original Duesenberg founders produced this. Created on a 1977 Cadillac, possibly its worst feature was a bumper that attempted to pay homage to the signature “bowtie” bumper design of the 1920s. The expected price was $75,000, six times the cost of the donor car hidden under it. Fortunately, like the 1966 model, only one was ever built.
Indianapolis-based Stutz got its start in racing, including finishing in eleventh place in the first Indy 500 of 1911. Its consumer cars gradually dipped into the luxury waters, and by 1928 when this beauty was built, you could pay as much as $6,900 for one, when a Ford was around $625. Hit hard by the Depression, Stutz built only six vehicles in 1934, and ceased car production the following year. But the name lived on in the minds of many…
…and so in the 1970s, we got this. In 1968, a New York investment banker grabbed the name, and ex-Chrysler stylist Virgil Exner, to form a new car company. The Blackhawk was based on a modified Pontiac chassis and built in Italy. Elvis Presley bought the first one and then four more, at an average of $40,000 a pop. The last photo taken of him was behind the wheel of one. The Blackhawk ended in 1987, but the company built a few Bearcat convertibles before calling a halt in 1995. It promised an all-new version for 2010, but that’s as far as it got.
In 1953, Cadillac pulled out all the stops to produce one of its most stunning models ever. It included several features that made their way into Cadillacs for the first time that year, including air conditioning and a 12-volt electrical system, and uniquely featured the company’s first wraparound windshield. At $7,750, it was $2,000 more than the brand’s priciest limousine, and only 532 were built. It was one of three limited-edition convertibles from GM that year, along with the Buick Skylark and Oldsmobile Fiesta.
After that first year, Cadillac slipped the Eldorado into its regular production schedule. As changing buyer tastes and rumoured upcoming safety standards pushed other automakers away from ragtops, the 1976 Eldorado was advertised and snapped up by speculators as the “last American convertible”—at least until Chrysler reintroduced one in 1982. The Eldorado lost its lid again two years later to keep up, and GM had to defend itself against an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit by owners of the ’76 versions who claimed the new ragtop devalued theirs. The Eldorado nameplate was discontinued after 2002.
Not long after he founded his company in 1924, Walter Chrysler added a luxury line called Imperial. And it did indeed have all the luxuries of the day, including hydraulic brakes, bumpers, and gas, oil, and air filters, all as standard equipment. You could buy one ready-made for as much as $6,800 in 1931, when this one was built. Or, as with many luxury cars of the day, you could buy a chassis and have a coach company such as LeBaron or Dietrich make a custom body for you.
And then, several decades later, you could opt for the Imperial authorized by Old Blue Eyes himself. Chrysler discontinued the Imperial name after 1975, but brought it back in 1981 with weird “bustleback” styling and a special Frank Sinatra Edition. The singer was a friend of Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca, who thought the tie-in would be irresistible to buyers.
Alas, it wasn’t, despite Frank appearing in television commercials for it. The package included the Imperial’s available Mark Cross leather interior, unique Glacier Blue paint, deep-pile carpeting, and a box of eight Sinatra tapes—cassette or eight-track, whichever you preferred. Frank got the first car, but over two years, not many others did, and only about 500 Sinatra editions were sold for 1981 and 1982. The bustleback Imperial itself lasted only one more year, and without Frank’s name on any of them.
Chrysler wasn’t the only one with a bustle for a tail. Cadillac’s Seville Elegante had beaten it to market a year prior in 1980. The Caddy’s ads said it “looks like no other car,” but whether that was good or bad depended on the eye of the beholder. It came standard with a poorly-designed Oldsmobile diesel engine. You could opt for the company’s “8-6-4” gasoline engine, which could run on eight, six, or four cylinders as needed, but cylinder deactivation was still in its infancy and the system didn’t work very well. The Seville was restyled to a more conventional design for 1986, but not before the indignity of a fake convertible top was offered on it as well.
After Henry Ford purchased Lincoln in 1922 from its founder Henry Leland—who, incidentally, also started Cadillac—he quickly lost interest in it. His son Edsel Ford took it over and turned it into a luxury powerhouse that rivalled the best his competitors had to offer. In 1932, alongside its eight-cylinder offerings, it added a V12, with a price tag of between $4,300 and $7,200.
Edsel Ford often asked his designers to make one-off custom cars for his personal use, and the one he requested in 1938 was along the lines of the luxury cars he’d seen in Europe. It was shipped to his winter home in Florida the following year, where it got enough attention that he decided to put it into production for 1940. Called the Continental, it quickly became a hit. Its rear-mounted spare tire would eventually launch an aftermarket styling craze known as the “Continental kit.”
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright had called the original Continental “the most beautiful car ever designed,” but there was more to come. Production ended in 1948, but the name returned in 1955 at the Paris Auto Show on the stunning Lincoln-Continental Mark II, which went into production the following year. But at nearly $10,000 it was the most expensive car in the U.S., and it only lasted two years.
And then, for 1958, this happened. We’re not sure why or how this ever got out the door, but at least Edsel Ford died in 1943 and didn’t have to see it. Even worse, that front end was plastered on both the Premiere and the new Lincoln-Continental Mark III, and it stuck around until a redesign in 1961.
Edsel’s original Continental was based on the Zephyr, introduced in 1936. Meant as a smaller, lower-priced entry model, it used a V12 derived from a Ford V8, which tended to overheat. In spite of that, it quickly became a bestseller. In 1940, when this one was built, it sold more than 21,000 copies, versus some 400 Continentals. All American car factories closed in 1942 to produce supplies during the Second World War, and when they reopened to build the 1946 models, the Zephyr didn’t return.
When it debuted a luxo-trimmed version of the Ford Fusion for 2006, Lincoln said it was going after younger buyers, but gave it a name only their great-grandparents might remember on a Lincoln. (The name had also surfaced in the late 1970s on a Mercury version of the compact Ford Fairmont). The moniker lasted only one year, and in 2007, the Zephyr became the MKZ.
Introduced for 1929, the Cord was the middle brand of Errett L. Cord’s Indiana-based stable, between the pricier Duesenberg and less-expensive Auburn. It was the first quantity-built American car with front-wheel drive, which gave it a handsome low profile. But the Depression hit hard, and the L-29 was gone by 1932. The company tried again in 1936 with a slab-front version nicknamed the “coffin-nose Cord,” but it and the rest of Cord’s empire crashed to a close a year later.
If you couldn’t afford a real Auburn, you could buy a replica. Perhaps the best-known was from the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Company of Oklahoma, which offered its first in 1968 at an eye-watering starting price of more than $28,000. The company used Ford and Lincoln chassis and transmissions under them. (Photo: Mr. Choppers, Wikimedia Commons)
The Excalibur was by Brooks Stevens, a designer who’d worked with such companies as Studebaker, American Motors, and Alfa Romeo. He’d already built a number of vintage-style race cars in the 1950s, and in 1964 he launched a company to build this model, based on the Mercedes SSK. The first ones were Studebaker-powered, but when that automaker failed, he went with a Chevrolet engine.
A subtle new design was introduced in 1975 and started at $18,900 (a Corvette convertible that year was $6,500). Stevens’ sons were running the company in 1980 when they came out with the fifth and last version, priced close to $40,000. The firm wound down following Stevens’ death in 1995 and its assets were purchased by Camelot Classic Cars of Wisconsin, which still provides parts and service for them.
Brooks Stevens built his Excalibur from the ground up, but Zimmer, another neo-classic company, started with existing cars. It was founded by Paul and Bob Zimmer, a father-and-son team from Pompano Beach, Florida who started out building mobile homes. The Quicksilver, introduced in 1984, was based on a stretched Pontiac Fiero. It was priced at $52,000 but the company, amazingly, still moved about 1,300 of them. (Photo: HSV, Wikimedia Commons)
Possibly better-known, and for all the wrong reasons, was Zimmer’s Golden Spirit. Introduced in 1978, it was based first on a Mercury Cougar and then the Mustang, and cost around $60,000. The company was surprisingly profitable, but closed in 1988 after the elder Zimmer suffered a heart attack. Still, there was yet another chapter to come. (Photo: Pujanak, Wikimedia Commons)
A man named Art Zimmer, no relation to the original family but intrigued that there was a car bearing his name, bought the auto company’s assets in 1996. Now based in New Jersey, it still builds the Golden Spirit on Fords or Cadillacs for the occasional well-heeled customer. Most appear to go to buyers overseas. That’s not always a bad thing. (Photo: Brian Snelson, Wikimedia Commons)
Packard got its start in 1899 when two brothers thought they could build a better car than the one they bought. The company would go on to build some of America’s most beautiful cars, especially in the 1930s, when they were considered a step up from a Lincoln or Cadillac. It was also one of the few to offer a V12, starting in 1932, a choice that could run you as much as $7,750 in the largest models.
Alas, not everyone dies with dignity. Packard’s fortunes fell steadily after the Second World War, and in 1954, it merged with Studebaker in the hopes that the lower-priced automaker’s volumes and production facilities would shore up the teetering luxury marque. It did not, and the Packard name ended its days bolted to a nasty version of Studebaker’s Hawk.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so it’s said, and that’s how Moon built its cars. Based in St. Louis, Missouri, Moon was a buggy company that started making automobiles in 1905. It was an “assembled” car, meaning it was made with supplied components, such as its Continental engine. By 1919 its grille was a copy of Rolls-Royce’s. Legend has it that a stern warning arrived from Britain, and so Moon swapped out the nose from Belgium’s luxury automaker Minerva. Moon lasted until 1930.
Although a few companies made V12 engines, only two American automakers ever offered a V16: Cadillac and Marmon. Built in Indianapolis, Marmon was the brainchild of engineer Howard Marmon, who started his company in 1902 by designing cars with air-cooled V4 engines. By 1914 he’d added a 9.3-litre six-cylinder, and by 1927, a straight-eight. The 8.1-litre V16 arrived in 1931, but sadly, Marmon had been mortally wounded by the Depression and folded in 1933, offering only the sixteen-cylinder in its final year.
Cadillac made a string of poor decisions, starting in 1982 with the Chevy Cavalier-based Cimarron, followed in 1987 by the Allante, a front-wheel-drive convertible whose hefty price tag was jacked up by each one’s plane ride from Italy, where the bodies were built, to Detroit where the cars were assembled. For 1997, it introduced the Opel-based Catera. The car itself received mixed reviews, but everyone hated its head-scratching tag line of “The Caddy that zigs” and strange commercials featuring model Cindy Crawford talking to an animated duck.
Founded in New York in 1915, Brewster was a coachbuilding firm that, in addition to making bodies for other companies, built a handsome and expensive car of its own. Rolls-Royce made cars in Massachusetts for a few years to get around expensive import tariffs, and in 1925 it bought Brewster for its coachwork. Following Rolls-Royce’s U.S. departure, Brewster re-emerged as its own firm in 1934, putting luxury touches and a decidedly wonky front end on Fords, Buicks, and other cars that it then sold under its own name. A Ford that cost $550 would be marked up to $3,500 when Brewster was done with it. It was all part of the greatest and the strangest luxury that American had to offer.