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
The notion of the Designer Car was ALL the rage in the 1970's with ladies charging in to buy Pucci Mark IV's to go with their Gucci handbags. All of the domestic manufacturers were involved to one degree or another, with the near exception of Chrysler Corporation, Chrysler had a handful of offerings at the time, but largely resisted the trend, Perhaps they were in a "been there, done that" mood. They were recalling 1955.
For the Big Three, 1955 was the year to end all years. A fortunate combination of a robust economy, easy financing, and all new models for almost every big three manufacturer combined to create a record setting year. Industry sales were up over 40% from the preceding two years, and spring special editions, especially from Chrysler Corporation, were being well received.
So perhaps it is understandable that Dodge Division decided to market a very special car with a specific target in mind- "Her Majesty-the American Woman." After all, the suburbs were booming, two car households were expanding, and modern features such as power steering and brakes make the full sized American car more manageable for the little woman. So what woman could resist a car designed to be her very own, in Heather Rose and White with an interior of pink rose pattern upholstery and a plethora of accessories- including a stylish rain cape, fisherman's style rain hat and umbrella, a "stunning shoulder bag in soft rose leather.",complete fitted with compact, lighter and cigarette case.
Of course, we're speaking of the Dodge "La Femme", a $143 option package offered on the Dodge Custom Royal Lancer Coupe. And although it included a very unique color scheme, special upholstery, and even gold plated "La Femme" script on the front fenders and glove box door, the package did NOT include power steering or brakes, so Her Majesty was free to jam the gears and sprain her dainty wrists tugging on the steering wheel.
There was sufficient interest to offer a slightly revised edition in 1956, with in a new ensemble of Regal Orchid over Misty Orchid and a revised matching interior, just in case Her Majesty preferred purple. The accessories were slightly different, but the idea remained intact. And Her Majesty remained at home, Only about 2500 examples were sold in two years. including a handful with the high performance D500 engine. Perhaps that's how Shirley Muldowney got her start. And while Her Majesty the American Woman remained unmoved, we are told that the car was quite popular with at least one segment of the population- urban pimps. Approximately 60 of the unique cars have survived, even rarer are the accessories. A complete set of accoutrements might exceed the value of the car needing them.
Did the embarrassment over the failed La Femme cause Chrysler to sit out the Designer wars of the 70's? The world will never know, but think of the loss. We might have all been driving Bille Jean King Dusters.
Last weekend, all eyes in the LBGT collector car world were directed at San Luis Obispo, home of the the West Coast Meet. It's the largest gay and lesbian car show in the world, and happens to be the spot I have spent the second Saturday in July for fifteen of the last eighteen years.
The first two times I attended, I was still living in the Midwest. Now it's in my figurative back yard. This is a time marker for me- a chance to reconnect with longtime friends, check out the cars, and see just how over the top the Queens can be. After all, this is a show where the prizes for Best Display and Best Color are as coveted as Best of Show. And who understands display better than we? Merchandising is everything, and no where more so than here. I love to see what the boys come up with. It's also the one show where the awards banquet most resembles a Broadway opening. Having starred in the musical numbers years back, I offer no criticism.
It's also a time to reflect on years past and those no longer able to join us with a physical presence. Speaking of presence, I was able to hook up with longtime friend Janine, the low carb evangelist herself, for a flourless and sugarless lunch. And truth be told. she ate most of my broccoli.
And speaking of reconnection, I ran into two old friends I did not expect to see- my good friend Phil from Indianapolis, whom I have known since the late eighties, and his Pioneere- a one-off custom 1956 Lincoln station wagon that I not only accidentally inspired him to build, but also drew the "dream car" fifties interior sketch that became design intent, complete with rear picnic tables. He even went with my Pearlescent White and Iridescent Copper color suggestion. So wonderful to see her in the flesh again after all those years, and still looking like new. Now if only I could cash in on my crazy ideas, but there's not much call for a fities dream car design consultant.
This years theme was the staple of middle class suburbia in the postwar decades, the station wagon. Enormous land yachts, often festooned with simulated yacht planking (made of genuine processite!), they pose as the backdrop to the events of our childhood. Each one a symphony of lacquer, chrome, and wood- accessorized with travel decals, vintage luggage, tiaras and furs, and even lesbian girl scouts.
I admired the sweep of the calligraphy proudly announcing the arrival of middle class respectability- Town and Country, Country Squire, Colony Park, Grand Safari- each name bearing the promise of postwar prosperity.
How could life be anything less than perfect with such a handsome beast parked in the circular driveway of one's smart ranch home?