Monday, July 26, 2010

Couture Cars- Designer Wheels and Special Editions of the 70's- by Jeff Stork

Part One: In The Beginning

It was probably inevitable that the decade which saw the meteoric rise of designer jeans and conspicuously branded handbags would also see the birth of the designer automobile. The wonderfully outrageous design sensibility of the label obsessed 70’s practically demanded such a creation. But how did such a wonderfully audacious marriage first take place? The answer may not be what one would assume.

While it is well established that all of the domestic producers were actively engaged in producing ever more luxurious (and thus more profitable) upgraded trim packages for the status conscious consumer, the stroke of Genius (or possibly the Fickle Finger of Fate) in this case goes to those dapper fellows at little old AMC.

Like many marriages both then and now, this one began in the back seat-literally in this particular case. In the fall of 1971, for the grand sum of $142, AMC spontaneously created a new class of automobile with the introduction of the Hornet Sportabout by Gucci. The cute yet humble little grocery getter was transformed by a totally unique interior featuring hunter green and beige deluxe vinyl seats and door panels. The Gucci signature red and green striping, generously applied, accented the interior trim. A full Gucci striped headliner was fitted as a finishing touch. The special Sportabout was offered in four distinctive exterior colors- White, Stardust Silver, Yucca Tan and Grasshopper Green. A total of 2,583 customers added the Gucci touch to their little Sportabouts.

AMC was sufficiently buoyed by the results to take the next step. They followed up at mid-year with their next entry, the Pierre Cardin Javelin. It featured an avant garde interior of Chinese red, plum, white and silver stripes on a black background. Cardin striping raced down the headliner as well. It featured silver striping on the exterior and was offered with several exterior shades, although it was most commonly paired with Wild Plum. A total of 4,152 fashion mavens plunked down an additional $85 each for the Cardin makeover.

The year 1973 brought yet another AMC designer edition, this time pairing up with a name more widely known to the American public- Levi’s. The Levi’s edition Gremlin bowed to polite yet denim-clad society, featuring spun nylon denim-esque fabric on its seats, door panels and map pockets. It also featured the famous flame orange stitching and copper rivets, Levi’s tags on the seats and Levi’s exterior ornamentation. It was the most costly AMC designer package to date, listing for $277 (but included a deluxe interior with luxurious touches like insulation and a glove box door), and was so successful that it was offered through the 1978 model year and even expanded to other AMC models. The Gucci Sportabout and Pierre Cardin Javelin were continued for 1973 as well. Clearly, AMC had taken the lead.

Bless those dear souls at General Motors- they almost got there so many times. They thought about it when they offered an upgraded velour interior as a 70th anniversary option on the 1972 Cadillac Fleetwood, but it bore no signature. Their first near miss happened in May of 1972, when they affixed a Tiffany clock key ring to the special edition 1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency. The car had a gorgeous pillowed interior, rear seat back pockets, special door panels and came in a special color, Tiffany Gold, but they stopped short of labeling it as a designer edition. Instead they resisted the addition of anyone else’s name to their products and ignited the Battle of the Broughams-almost every series would soon be offered in an upgraded Limited, Brougham, or d’Elegance. Luxurious velours and plaid fabrics were everywhere and some pretty plebian nameplates were enriched- like the Luxury LeMans and later the Luxury Nova. You’ll know you’ve made it when it’s written on your fender in a calligraphic sweep of chrome. From here a few unique editions were only a small step.

Enter Hank the Deuce, over at Ford. Those dears from Dearborn decided to stick their toes into the water, rather boldly at first, with bicentennial themed Sprint décor option packages offered on Ford Maverick, Mustang and Pinto. A field of white inside and out with bold blue accents and red pinstriping, they were set off with USA flag decals on the rear quarters which looked as it they had literally been purchased at a truck stop in I-80. But the cars were bright and youthful, and it was a start. Their next move was considerably more soigné- an elegant triple silver luxury group for the 1973 Continental Mark IV: special metallic silver exterior finish with a special silver finish long grain roof. Inside, silver metallic leather or rouge red velour. It was remarkably handsome, and profitable at an additional $400 MSRP.

The trend continued to build momentum in 1974 and 1975. AMC’s popular Levi’s trim was expanded to the Hornet carline. Silver Luxury Group Mark IV’s were supplanted by the Gold Luxury Group in 1974, and the launch of Continental Designer Groups in 1975 in a bevy of colors including the popular Lipstick and White.

GM ventured further into special editions with its Spirit of America Impala, Nova and Vega models. They featured a Navy Blue or white exterior with white vinyl roof, white vinyl interior accented by blue, color matched wheels, and special striping and ornamentation. Tres Bicentennial, indeed. Cadillac debuted its special d’Elegance De Villes (with striped Mardi Gras velour interiors) and the ultra swank four-passenger Fleetwood Talisman, featuring front and rear bucket seating and two consoles with locking storage compartments. That particular option cost approximately the same as a new base Vega.

Over at AMC, the Cardin Javelin was retired and the youthful coupe market was being captured by an all new 1974 Matador coupe. To keep the momentum going, an Oleg Cassini Matador was offered in 74 and 75, featuring copper carpeting, seat buttons, and even gauge faces fitted to a black knit fabric interior. The exterior choices were Black and White, each with copper painted accents (grille background, rear cove, wheel covers) and usually fitted with a Copper vinyl roof. Of course appropriate badges rounded out the package. AMC owned the game at the moment, but a major competitor was about to shift into high gear

Coming Next: Part II- Hitting the Stride


  1. Wonderful to learn so much about these cars Jeff! Do you know whether the Mustang's houndstooth vinyl top was part of any sort of designer package?

  2. Great article! Was glad to see the rich coverage of American Motors models which got the designer treatments. Will have my '73 AMX Pierre Cardin at the Rancho Santa Fe pool party.

  3. Fabulous article. I just love me some Oleg Cassini Matador!!

  4. Speaking of 1970 Mercury offered a special mid-year edition of the Cougar, with houndstooth vinyl top and cloth interior, in a variety of colors--accompanied by a matching woman's cloak from designer Pauline Trigere.