When I was in my late teens I became friends with a peer who’s father was a highly paid tradesman; working a steady job at a local newspaper, keeping the presses going during the nightly production run. Their home was nicer than average, but not opulent. The driveway, however, was a different story. In the driveway was a 1970 Ford Thunderbird, one year old at the time. This was back in the day when a T-Bird was a huge two-door luxury car with a massive, torque monster of a V-8, opulence on wheels, a Fat Cat Car.
I take ownership of that term, but anyone that lived through the ’60s or ’70s will know what I’m talking about. For the purposes of my definition, a Fat Cat Car refers to a luxury oriented two door coupe or convertible and powered by an engine that is capable of making all that bulk steel feel nimble; at least with regard to acceleration. More formally, these cars are sometimes known as Personal Luxury Cars. The point, at least as I see it, was not simply a luxury car, but a luxury coupe that was limited in passenger capacity and utility; a rolling palace, but with limited seating.
The 1970 Thunderbird is certainly not the only example, but it’s a good starting point when discussing the genre. The engine was a Ford 429 with 480 lbs feet of torque. It would hit 60 MPH in less than 8 seconds and do it with dignity. This is no mean feat for a car that weighs over 4,500 pounds. It guzzled leaded premium gasoline at somewhere around 10 MPG, but anyone that could afford one of these automotive behemoths was not likely to be keeping track.
I would imagine that the first Fat Cat Car came along early in the history of the automobile. Even when cars were spindly devices rolling on wooden spoked wheels I’m certain that someone decided to design their car to be lower, longer, wider and more powerful than the next fellow’s, and it’s been so ever since. The Jordan Playboy, famed for the “Somewhere West of Laramie” ad in the June 1923 Saturday Evening Post, was certainly a good candidate for an early example. Likewise the Cord 810/812 of the 1930s. WW II made hedonistic opulence a bit less fashionable but in the postwar period the genre developed as a separate strain, branching off from the more mundane luxury sedans with which they shared at least some componentry.
In the fifties the Chrysler 300 was a two door Chrysler sedan with a vicious Hemi V-8 engine which leaned more to the sport side of the equation. These are highly desired by collectors in our day, but were appreciated in their own day as well. It is but one example of the continuation of the Fat Cat genre as the postwar economy developed, but it was still a very close relative of the standard full-sized Chrysler. In fact, in the fifties most of personal luxury coupes were merely 2 door versions of the standard luxury sedans of the day and did not have the low slung appearance of their forebears or their descendants in later decades. The original Thunderbird of the mid fifties was more of a Corvette fighter than a luxury car, although by 1958 it took a decided turn away from any sporting pretensions and became a personal luxury coupe. It’s good to keep in mind that performance is a relative term. The earliest T-Birds were absolute stones by today’s performance standards, but the original Corvette had an inline six and a two speed automatic transmission, so it was hardly a barnburner by today’s standards.
Sophistication And Middle Aged Spread
In the early sixties, the Thunderbird was a highly regarded personal luxury car, worthy of the fattest of cats, but there was serious competition on the way. The 1963 Buick Riviera set a new standard for the breed. It was said to be designed as a cross between a Rolls Royce and a Ferrari. An adventurous uncle owned one back in the day and I can state from personal experience that the ’63 Riviera was quite impressive when it was new. Black leather upholstery, bucket seats, a floor mounted shifter for the automatic transmission and body styling that was angular and lean. A 401 cubic inch “nailhead” V-8 had 445 lbs feet of torque to haul 3,900 + pounds up to speed effortlessly and the Riviera was actually lighter than a full sized Buick, so there was at least some substance to backup its sporting pretensions.
Ten years later, a friend bought a used 1967 Riviera with an even larger, 425 cubic inch nailhead which applied its power through a three speed GM Turbo-Hydramatic transmission. The Buick nailhead V-8 was a torque motor, concentrating its muscle in the lower RPM range. It wasn’t a classic muscle car engine, but it provided surprisingly good acceleration. There are streets in Denver that may still reverberate with the roar of that particular nailhead as it wound to its modest redline and expel its exhaust through a set of Thrush mufflers. I feel privileged just to have been there.
In the 1965 there was a lot of press attention to the subject of front wheel drive. Front drive was projected to be the ultimate in handling, tractive ability and sophistication. Some of these notions were spot on, some were exaggerated, and the handling predictions were a bit off the mark. The reason for all of this speculation was the upcoming release of the 1966 Olds Toronado, a futuristic looking cousin, so to speak, of the Buick Riviera. It’s hard to imagine in our day, but in 1966 the Toronado was the only front wheel drive made in the U.S. In fact, it was the first FWD car made in the U.S. since the demise of Cord in 1937. It is only fitting that FWD made its American reappearance in the same genre it had last been seen; the personal luxury segment.
The next model year saw the introduction of a Cadillac version of the same car, the iconic Eldorado. It shared many mechanical/structural components with the Toronado but had a 429 cubic inch Cadillac V-8 under the hood. By 1970 the engine had grown into a massive 500 cubic inch power plant. Performance was never the Eldo’s highest priority, but at that level of luxury it probably wasn’t much of a concern for the average buyer.
In 1971 the Eldorado grew even larger. I drove one of these and can state that it was one of the most solid feeling vehicles I ever drove, albeit in a yacht like manner.. Any pretense of sport was long gone by this point, but it would have been a great vehicle for a long trip at freeway speeds. The big Eldorado became an icon of sorts and all the more so in its convertible version. More than a few Fat Cat movie characters were portrayed as driving an Eldorado convertible, sometimes with steer horns and all the cowboy glitz it could carry.
Mid-Sized Personal Luxury
The Pontiac Grand Prix had been around since the early sixties, but from its introduction in 1962 through 1968 it was essentially a slightly sportier take on the full-sized Catalina. Starting with the 1969 model year the Grand Prix was based upon the excellent GM A body, a fairly lightweight body on frame design with excellent handling. The mid-sized Grand Prix was able to back up its sporting nature with the performance advantages of lower weight. It was the true beginning of the American mid-sized personal luxury automobile.
In the 1970 model year, Chevrolet introduced the Monte Carlo, another mid-sized personal luxury car based upon its sibling, the hugely popular Chevelle. The Monte Carlo was light enough to be truly nimble and the A body frame was naturally good handling. There was even a Super Sport option with a massive 454 cubic inch V-8. While some Fat Cat Cars were not particularly driver’s cars, with regard to high performance, even the base Monte Carlo was quite a pleasant surprise. In my humble opinion, the first generation Monte Carlo may well have represented the best personal luxury coupe ever designed, although calling it a Fat Cat Car might be a bit of a stretch.
It’s notable that a few years later Ford brought out the Gran Torino Elite, a mid-sized personal luxury car that was almost the perfect counterpoint to the Monte Carlo. Likewise, the Chrysler Córdoba was Mopar’s entry into the market and, once again speaking from personal experience, these were truly a delight to drive.
But Wait, There’s More
Of course, there is always more, somewhere, somehow. Personal luxury cars have been pampering fat cats and fat cat wannabes for decades and not just in the U.S.
The Jaguar XJ-S of the mid ’70s was a low slung 2 door coupe with a V-12 power plant and plenty of performance, not to mention all the luxury of a wealthy British gentleman’s sitting room. A more advanced chassis design aided in bringing the handling into realms never even dreamt of by American manufacturers.
Perhaps the ultimate of the genre would be the Mercedes 450 SLC, a coupe version of the iconic 450 SEL. Two door, full-sized Mercedes seem to be a popular choice among people that can afford literally any car. The chassis design gives them a handling advantage over their American made counterparts, and while it’s 4.5 liter V-8 seems a bit diminutive in comparison with most of the cars I’ve mentioned so far, the advanced OHC engine would whisk a 450 SLC away, outpacing most Fat Cat Cars. In fact, it may be more accurate to think of the SLC as a Lean Cat Car.
As long as we’re on the subject of Mercedes Benz, I’ll mention a car which comprises a class all its own, the Mercedes SL roadster. These are two seat designs (although some of them did have a virtually useless back seat) with a blend of luxury and sportiness that all but defies categorization. The SL roadsters have been around since the mid ’50s in various forms, starting with the 300 SL roadster, an open-topped version of the rapacious 300 SL Gullwing coupe, which was at least as much a racing machine as a street car. My favorite SL roadster I’d the ’63 – ’71 “pagoda” model, the beautiful W113. While these may have been a bit cramped in comparison to the average Fat Cat coupe, they were prestigious and solid performers.
The Mercedes SL grew in the 1972 model year and was sometimes referred to as the Panzer Wagon, but they still handled and rode in a manner that most personal luxury cars could never approach. Subsequent generations of the SL have become heavier but they still offer excellent handling and performance, even though they have definitely moved towards the personal luxury car end of the scale and away from their sports roadster roots.
Let’s Not Forget Bond; James Bond
In the original James Bond movie, Dr. No, Bond drove a Bentley, which was a sporting luxury car from Great Britain. By 1964’s Goldfinger, he was driving an Aston Martin, which is definitely a personal luxury coupe with more than a hint of high performance in the mix. Such vehicles are essentially hand-built and quite few in number, but they represented a very specific niche of old-world craftsmanship and luxury. Neither the Bentley or the Aston were likely to show their taillights to their Mercedes equivalent, but both of these British marques appealed to a very upscale clientele. A Mercedes appeals to the engineer within while the Aston appeals to the artist in my soul.
T-Bird With A Waterfall Grill
The 1967 Eldorado amounted to a sea change for the luxury coupe genre. The notion of sportiness was all but forgotten and luxury was the name of the game. This was not lost on Ford’s Lee Iacocca, and he directed his designers to design a new iteration of the Lincoln Mark II coupe, based upon the Ford Thunderbird platform, but featuring a Rolls Royce inspired waterfall grill. The luxurious Mark III had a 460 cubic inch V-8 engine and a rugged Ford C-6, three speed automatic transmission.
With the Lincoln Mark III I we will end up very close to where we started; literally at the same home. The friend who’s father owned the gorgeous T-Bird bought a used Lincoln Mark III and proceeded to hot rod it. There was a high-lift, long-duration camshaft in the 460, mag wheels with big “meatball” tires on the back and a set of exposed side pipes in place of the stock exhaust system. Perhaps my buddy had listened to Commander Cody’s version of Hot Rod Lincoln one too many times, back when it was a Top 40 hit.
In any event, the personal luxury car has had an impact on my consciousness for a long time now. Such automobiles are not really made these days, unless you can muster the price of a Mercedes, a Bentley or one of its peers. In the middle class market, the Fat Cat Car has been replaced by the Fat Cat Pickup; frequently as luxurious as any coupe and offering the advantage of a higher ride height, which really improves one’s view of traffic. From the Jordan Playboy to a Ford F-250 King Ranch, the Personal Luxury Vehicle seems to be a constant in automotive culture.