Strolling through the “car corral” at last weekend’s Spring Jefferson (Wis.) car show I stumbled upon these three vestiges of 1980s styling excess: luxury humpbacks from GM, Ford and Chrysler. Sometimes called bustlebacks, these abominations of creased metal were mercifully short-lived on the U.S. market but left a bad taste in the mouth of a car-buying public that was already becoming disillusioned with Detroit’s offerings.
Cadillac was first out with its 1980 redesign of the popular Seville. Instead of the conservatively elegant lines of the first generation, Seville II reached deep into the archives of automobile design and stole styling cues from mid-century Daimlers and Bentleys. One may argue just how successful the theme was on those earlier saloons, but it was an utter flop on the Seville and it didn’t help that the car looked like it was designed by two separate teams that had quit talking to each other.
The front end was almost indistinguishable from other Cadillacs of the day but as your eyes move back past the B-pillar they are assaulted by this ill-conceived tribute to the past. The result was so unbalanced with its long hood and truncated rear end that at first glance the car looks like it was rear-ended by a truck. Legendary designer Bill Mitchell oversaw this project and one wonders if he retired a couple of years too late.
Chrysler was next with its humpback coupe, the Imperial, which debuted in 1981. Two-door luxury coupes were all the rage in the 1970s and ‘80s and Chrysler produced its share. The Imperial would be the zenith of those efforts.
The Imperial nameplate had a long history at Chrysler and had, at one time, been a stand alone line in the Chrysler family. It became the top of the line model within the Chrysler line around the mid-1960s and disappeared at the end of the 1975 model year. In an attempt to turn the then-ailing automaker’s fortunes around, CEO Lee Iococca brought out a flagship model and called it Imperial in 1981. Interestingly, it did not wear the Chrysler brand although it did proudly wear a Cartier crystal Pentastar hood ornament.
The Imperial was loaded with every conceivable luxury option but shared most of its underpinnings with its lesser siblings, the Dodge Mirada and Chrysler Cordoba. Neither of those cars, however, was offered, as the Imperial was, in a limited edition Frank Sinatra version. Old Blue Eyes’ namesake Imperial was only offered in one color, a light metallic blue that matched the singer’s eyes, and came with special “fs” emblems and a leather caddy full of his music.
Viewed from some angles, the Imperial’s design is actually fairly dramatic and attractive but the styling element everyone remembers is its awkward rear end. You can gaze at it for hours and never quite understand what the designers were trying to do. Apparently, buyers didn’t understand either as the car was a flop in the marketplace barely selling 12,000 copies in its entire three year run.
Lincoln was last out, though not necessarily best dressed, with its humpback offering, the 1982 Continental. The Continental name had a very long history with Lincoln going back to the late 1930s. After being attached to Lincoln’s main line for a number of years, the name was moved to this new, smaller model in 1982. While it was based on a lengthened Fox chassis, Ford took great pains to give it styling that would set it apart from the lowly Ford Fairmont and Mercury Zephyr. Give them credit, the designers did manage to make it look different.
By the time the Continental hit the showrooms, it was already clear that the humpback styling was destined to be a very short-lived fad. Sales of Cadillac’s Seville dropped sharply after the redesign and the Imperial never did find an audience. Ford had no choice but to bring out the Continental anyway but tried to disguise the new look with cleverly placed chrome moldings and two-tone paint jobs. After five years and a minor facelift Ford abandoned the styling affectation altogether and brought out an entirely new Continental on a front-wheel-drive chassis in 1988.
All three cars had other problems working against them. Tastes were changing rapidly and interest in Detroit’s traditional interpretation of “luxury” was waning. It also didn’t help that some new technologies that the car makers were bringing to these models just didn’t work very well. GM’s experiments in the 1980s with diesel engines and variable engine displacement probably tarnished the Seville’s reputation as much as its tasteless styling. Long lines at gas stations and steadily rising fuel prices stifled demand for bigger, thirstier cars and Japanese manufacturers were making greater inroads in the U.S. market.
In hindsight, it seems that the automotive market is a lot more serious today than it was back then. No car maker would dream of trying anything as whimsical as the styling that these three cars exhibit, and can you imagine a Justin Timberlake edition the Chrysler 300? Eminem maybe? Sergio, are you listening?