Loaded entry brands battle their Big Three lux siblings
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Our four $40,000 comparisons seek to answer the question “Is Luxury Worth It?” by looking at different pairings of similar-mission vehicles that pit optioned-up mainstream brand offerings against base-model lux-brand competitors. We undertook a similar mission in May 1968 when we asked “Can the lowly family sedan attain the stature of the majestic marques?” in a feature titled “Luxury: The great American dream.” That time we chose three pairings, one each from Detroit’s Big Three, with a loaded entry brand taking on its flagship stablemate: Chevrolet Caprice versus Cadillac Coupe de Ville, Ford LTD versus Lincoln Continental, and Plymouth VIP versus Chrysler Imperial LeBaron.
Read our $40,000 comparisons here:
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Not Even Close
This month’s comparisons managed to get the as-tested prices reasonably close between our entry and lux brands entrants, with the higher-priced models penciling out between 1 and 20 percent spendier than their lower-tier rivals. In 1968 that price premium was far greater—comparing base prices, the fancy car price premium ranged from 67 to 108 percent. Optioning the mass-market models up closed the gaps to 48 percent for the GM pairing, 51 percent for the Ford/Lincoln duo, and a 77 percent from Plymouth to Imperial. It’s interesting to note that the base price of luxury in 1968 isn’t far off our price cap, when converting to 2018 dollars—$40,515 for the Caddy, $41,653 for the Lincoln, and $50,730 for the Imperial.
It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but in 1968, your mainstream full-size family sedan came standard with a manual transmission and manual steering! The automatic added between $216.20 (Plymouth) and $237.00 (Chevrolet), or $1,500-$1,700 today. Air conditioning was still optional even on the luxury cars (which at least tossed in the slushboxes for free), and A/C represented the biggest ticket item on all six cars. Prices ranged from $350.25 on the Plymouth to $515.74 on the Cadillac (an early automatic climate-control version). That’s $2,500-$3,700 today.
Leather, Pleather, and Cloth
“All three big cars had leather seats, a priceless luxury touch. Our Caprice had ‘leather-like’ vinyl that was obviously vinyl and not too leather-like. Both LTD and VIP were upholstered in black nylon, which, when tufted, as in the LTD, gives a more eye appealing, luxury look in the lower priced car at much less cost.” Our team found the Cadillac’s six-way power bench to be “massive and luxuriously comfortable,” and the LTD’s bench to be “closest to the big cars in this area.” But it was the Imperial’s split, power-operated bench seat with armrests that was judged superior in terms of comfort. “One staffer summed up the LeBaron succinctly: ‘It’s like driving your living room down the highway.’”
The Year of Stereo
Author Bill Sanders was quite taken by the revolutionary new concept of two-channel audio. “Stereo. This is the year of stereo. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that zing. Stereo. FM multiplex or tape deck. Take your choice or take both. Speakers in the front, speakers in the back, speakers in the doors: surround yourself with sound. Electric seats and windows are passé. Stereo makes a luxury car in 1968 … or does it?” Indeed sound system upgrades were the second-priciest options on each of the lux-brand cars, but the one in the Chevy Caprice was singled out for its sound quality.
“Cadillac has a unique, but complicated speed control system mounted on the dash that allows you to set a pre-determined speed. We liked the system used on the Caprice much better as it involves only a button on the turn indicator lever and is far simpler to operate. Also well-known and offered only on the Cad is the time-delay light switch, which turns the lights off automatically after you leave the car. Both Chrysler cars have a convenient ignition light that operates on a time delay, it comes on when you open the driver’s door and goes off after a brief interval. A tilting steering wheel is an absolute must. Our only car without that appendage was the LTD, and the wheel was positioned at such a crazy angle you almost seemed to be steering with arms over your head.”
Smoke ‘em if You Got ‘em
Today it’s getting hard to even find an optional smokers’ package on a new car but smoking was practically compulsory in the ’60s, so the lighter and ash tray configurations warranted comment. “All three top cars have individual rear seat cigarette lighters—items not found on the lower priced models. And, Imperial goes one better with individual lighters on all four doors.” And in those days, few users were was powering or recharging anything from those lighter sockets. The Chevy’s “hidden ash tray design and placement on the console” drew a “Like,” as did the Cadillac’s “lighter, ash tray in one unit.”
The Verdict on Options…
“The two groups come closest in convenience. You can add most of the electric and vacuum gadgets, power accessories, and stereo to the intermediate cars and still get a car for $2,000 to $3,000 less. Of course the question, ‘What constitutes a luxury car?’ still remains, but if the options alone turn you on, you’re better off buying the loaded intermediate.”
Which of the Big Three Does Lux Best?
“Chevrolet tried valiantly with Caprice, but it doesn’t come close to the Coupe de Ville, even with vinyl roof and flashy wheel covers. With the VIP, Plymouth has produced a car of nondescript, movie-type elegance. It looks like a limousine, but what is it? It comes closest to its big car counterpart in ‘image,’ but, rather than elevating the VIP in stature, the close resemblance only impairs the prestige of the Imperial. Ford’s LTD is relatively close to the Continental—you know they are from the same maker—but Continental still has its own mystique.”
“Big engines are used in all the cars we tested. And, big engines are a vital necessity to power all the accessory equipment running off the mill. Surprisingly, there was little difference in acceleration times, on all cars we tested, when running with and without air conditioners on. In other cars we have tested, especilly the big bombs, we noticed a considerable drain on power with air conditioning in operation. Peraps that fact is taken into consideration on the luxury models and compensated for.”