When picturing a luxury car in your mind’s eye, what do you see? Is it a mid- to full-size sedan or coupe with handsome, stately styling and a sumptuous, finely crafted interior? That’s the image we envision, but not every automaker has had that same vision over the years. Some manufacturers have – due to desperation, greed, thinking a little too far out of the box or some cocktail of reasons – released vehicles that, while billed as luxury cars, fail to cut the Grey Poupon. Here are 10 such vehicles that have us scratching our top-hat-capped heads.
Easily the poster child for gussied-up, “How-stupid-do-they-think-we-are?” re-badge jobs, the Cadillac Cimarron initially wasn’t marketed as a Caddy; rather, it was “Cimarron, by Cadillac.” Would you believe that ruse ended after just two model years? Yeah, it was the only one of GM’s J-Body siblings (Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac J2000, Oldsmobile Firenza and Buick Skyhawk being the others for the U.S. market) offered with leather upholstery, but would you have paid roughly double Cavalier money for cowhide seats and a different grille and taillights? Us neither. Cadillac has only recently recovered from the damage wrought by the little sedan, and the brand’s product chief from 2004 to 2010, John Howell, kept a picture of one with the caption, “Lest we forget” at his desk, staring back at him every day.
Vanden Plas 1500
During the 1970s nearly all of England’s major car brands were lumped together under the umbrella of British Leyland. Unsurprisingly, cases of badge engineering were numerous, though the Vanden Plas 1500 almost certainly takes the cake as the most comical and/or cynical. The front-drive 1500 (a larger-engined 1750 was also offered) was, in reality, an Austin Allegro (or as it would come to be derisively known, the “All-agro”) with a fancy grille, leather seats, wood dash trim and a fully-trimmed trunk. All that for 800 Pounds more than an Allegro, back when 800 quid was real money. But (in)famous Lucas electrics, build quality that would make modern Chinese car factory supervisors squeamish and a polarizing design that really was more aerodynamic going backwards than it was forwards were thrown in for free!
For much of the 20th century, Chrysler’s Imperial (whether as a Chrysler model or, as it was from 1955 to ’75 and again from 1981 to ’83, a marque unto itself) epitomized traditional, large-scale American luxury car opulence. So girthsome were the Imperials of the ‘60s and ‘70s that they are and have for many years, by name, been banned from competing in most demolition derbies.
Then there was the Imperial of the early 1990s. As if being a front-wheel-drive, V6-powered middleweight that was dwarfed by its V8, rear-drive Cadillac and Lincoln rivals wasn’t bad enough, it also looked damn-near identical to the cheaper Chrysler New Yorker Fifth Avenue on which it was based. And that Y-Body platform the two sedans shared? It traced its roots back to the lowly (though admittedly company-saving) K-Car. Forget rags to riches; this thing was riches with rags underneath.
During Ford’s star-crossed ownership of Jaguar, the suits in Dearborn spent a lot of time trying to broaden the British brand’s reach in the luxury marketplace. The most extreme example of growing Jag’s footprint (at least, the most extreme that reached production) was the X-Type. Looking like the lovechild of its XJ and S-Type contemporaries, the X-Type came with V6 power and AWD standard, and was offered in sedan and station wagon form.
But the X-Type had one dirty little secret: It shared a lot of structural pieces with the second generation Ford Mondeo, the successor of the car that was sold here as the largely forgettable Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique. It didn’t take long for this to become widely known, but it probably didn’t have as big a chilling effect on sales as Jag’s longstanding reputations for poor reliability and dismal resale value, even though both have improved by leaps (Leapers?) and bounds in the last 5 to 10 years.
Despite being our next door neighbor, Canada’s new car market has seen more than its share of unique and unusual models and variants that have never been offered down here. One such vehicle is an Acura based on the Honda Civic. The first Acura EL appeared in 1997, while the CSX (based on the outgoing eighth generation Civic) premiered as a 2006 model.
Canadian cars have historically been priced higher than their nearly-identical U.S. equivalents, so it kind of makes sense for Acura to plug a model in below the TSX for the Great White North. But even though these Canuck baby Acuras have stuff like leather seats and a navigation system that you can’t get on a Civic up there, at the end of the day you still have…a Honda Civic. Might be better off buying a Civic and saving your Loonies for seat covers and a TomTom, eh?
When was a Chevrolet Nova not a Nova? When it was a Concours, of course. Offered only in 1976 and ’77 in the same three body styles as the Nova (coupe, hatchback coupe and sedan), the Concours distinguished itself from its plebian brother by way of a unique grille insert, a stand-up hood ornament, woodgrain dashboard trim, and side molding that ran the full length of the body. The ‘77s also had three quadrant taillights rather than the Nova’s two, better connecting the Concours’ styling to the full-size Impala and Caprice. But we have a hard time believing any consumers saw through the charade.
Aston Martin Cygnet
With governments around the world tightening the screws on automakers that build gas guzzlers, such car companies are having to look for ways to bump up their average fuel economy figures. This is a problem for the handful of independents left in the world, who don’t have the other brands or the engineering resources to churn out fuel sippers outside their premium brands.
Aston Martin has decided to tackle this challenge by taking the Toyota (soon to be Scion) iQ, giving it a mild restyle, and decking out the interior in all the fine woods and leathers for which Aston’s sports and GT cars are known. While we applaud Aston Martin’s out-of-the-box thinking, and must confess the end result is kinda cool, the fact remains that the idea of an Aston Martin supermini is as laughable to most of their regular customers as an Armani wifebeater or a Ritz-Carlton in Compton. Gotta keep that brand image consistent, folks.
When Toyota launched the Lexus brand in 1989, it knew that the LS400 alone wouldn’t be enough to help get its luxury division off the ground. It knew it needed a cheaper, more accessible model to get more people on board. It found one in the Japanese market Toyota Vista, which was renamed the Lexus ES250.
While the interior was posh, the 2.5L V6 was standard, and the door glass was frameless to give the illusion of a “pillarless” hardtop roofline (as was fashionable among up-market JDM sedans during that period), some of the styling details and the overall shape loudly betrayed the Vista/ES250’s Toyota Camry origins. All subsequent ES generations have shared underpinnings (and V6 engines) with the contemporary Camry, but have managed to mask the parts commonality pretty well. The original? Not so much.
For the first half of the last century, Packard was one of the most respected names on the American automotive landscape. “Ask the man who owns one,” implored the company’s ad tagline, and chances are the man who did own one would tell you how pleased with it he was. But as the 1950s kicked off, Ford and GM engaged in a sales race the likes of which the industrialized world had never seen. Their brands started siphoning buyers away from comparable independent makes, Packard being one of them.
Studebaker was another independent that was feeling the squeeze, so much so that Studebaker sold out to Packard in 1954. Packard thought it secured its future; instead, it signed its own death warrant. Studebaker was bleeding cash faster than Packard execs were led to believe, but Packard needed redesigned models for 1957. Thus, the ’57 Packards were built alongside Studebakers in South Bend, Indiana using Stude bodies (halfheartedly fitted with Packard styling cues) and drivetrains. The media, the public, and even some dealers were mortified, calling these creations “Packardbakers.” The Packard nameplate soldiered on for one more year before dying with an embarrassed whimper.
Mini Inspired by Goodwood
In what we can only assume is a real world test of the old salesman axiom, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” BMW tasked the designers at Rolls-Royce (one of its British subsidiaries) with making an upper crust version of the Mini (built by its other British subsidiary). The result, which debuted at the recent Shanghai Motor Show, is the Mini Inspired by Goodwood (Goodwood being the town in which Rolls-Royce’s current factory and headquarters are located).
In a nutshell, it’s a Mini Cooper S Hardtop with a hoodscoop delete, lambswool carpets, leather seats and trim, walnut burr paneling, and piano black accents. No word yet on pricing, but only 1,000 will be made, so we expect it to be pretty damn high. High enough, perhaps, to be on par with a well maintained, pre-owned real Rolls-Royce. Which would you rather your friends at the county club see you pull up in? Yeah, we’d take the used Roller too.