Sunday, August 11, 2013
As funny as it sounds, there was a time in which there was no unwritten rite of passage that teenagers get a car on their 16th birthdays. Long before the present day where cars are considered a necessity, automobiles were only for the extremely wealthy. In fact, the first recorded production of an automobile was in 1672 when a Jesuit missionary in China built a steam-powered vehicle as a toy for the Chinese Emperor. No, really. It was a toy. The thing couldn’t even carry a driver.
Henry Ford Sets The Stage
Fast-forward a couple hundred years to when Henry Ford’s Model T Ford introduced affordable automobiles to middle class America in 1908. Named the most influential car of the 20th century, the Model T’s production employed the revolutionary tactic of assembly line production, which enabled the mass production of personal vehicles. The car itself contained a 20 horsepower engine capable of reaching speeds up to
In the decades that followed, other auto manufacturers followed in Ford’s footsteps to create vehicles that, in addition to providing the basic functions of the personal automobile, added an extra sense of comfort and style. These became known as the world’s first luxury vehicles, and they were made by several companies that you still recognize today. Alfa Romero, Bugatti, Mercedes-Benz? All pioneers of the luxury car industry.
The Luxury Car Is Born
The Mercedes-Benz SSK is widely regarded as one of the earliest and most revolutionary personal luxury vehicle. First built in 1928, the abbreviation SSK stood for Super Sport Kurz, German for Super Sport Short. It was faster (top speed of
120 mph) and smaller (internal framework
shortened by 19 inches)
and much more expensive than other models of the era. These three
characteristics are certainly consistent with the luxury vehicles of today.
Elsewhere, in Germany, the Austrian-German engineer Ferdinand Porsche established his own auto manufacturer. Initially, Porsche did not manufacture cars under its own name, but rather offered consultations to other manufacturers, mainly Volkswagen. Porsche’s first major assignment handed down by the German government was to aid in the construction of the Volkswagen Beetle, one of the top selling cars of all time. Years later, the Porsche 64, made from many parts that composed the Beetle, became the first car sold under the Porsche moniker. During wartime, Porsche produced several designs for tank destroyers.
Prior to World War II, personal luxury vehicles were an integral part of the American and international economies. Though due to their astronomical price, they could only be purchased by film stars, gangsters and wealthy businessmen or politicians. After the war, some manufacturers like Alfa Romero were severely hurt and replaced by the likes of Ferrari and Bentley, two companies instrumental in introducing the GT (abbreviation for the Italian term “Gran Turismo,”). These cars, designed for high-performance, long-distance travel, employed the two-door, two-seat model that most luxury cars of today follow as well.
In the 1950s, Ford’s Thunderbird created the actual market term “personal luxury vehicle.” In response to Chevrolet’s development of the Corvette, the Thunderbird contained many of the features of the age – flashy head and tail lights, a fake hood scoop and of course increased speed and power – but to distinguish it from its competitor, Ford emphasized its increased comfort and convenience.
In 1958, the Thunderbird added an extra row of seats, further distancing itself from the sports car label. Following suit, American and foreign manufacturers began to make larger and heavier luxury cars to compete with the T-Bird’s rising popularity. Rolls Royce and Lincoln became the face of these newer models with even more extravagantly designed exteriors and more intimate, spacious interiors. Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Buick became key players in the luxury car industry as well.
Pulling Up To The Present
Nowadays, there is less of a demand for personal luxury vehicles due to the economic crisis of the late 2000s and a movement for cleaner, greener cars. However, that said, you’d still be hard pressed to find a manufacturer without its own line of luxury vehicles. While the luxury cars of yesterday were reserved for the extremely rich and famous, the luxury cars of today are usually broken up into four categories: Entry level, mid-luxury, high-end and ultra-luxury.
Entry level and mid-luxury cars are the most affordable of the bunch. They include the likes of the Acura TL, BMW 3-series, Audi A6 and Chrysler 300. High-end luxury cars usually refer to models like the Lincoln Town Car, Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the Porsche Panamera. And then there’s the ultra-luxury cars. That’s where you get into the Maybachs, Rolls Royces, Maseratis and pretty much any other car found in a Lil Wayne rap song.
Luxury cars have come a long way since the age of Henry Ford, and they’re no longer reserved for celebrities. Ride a little faster and relax a little better because no matter your occupation or income, there’s a luxury car out there that suits your needs.
David Cormier is a blogger for the Auto Gallery Porsche, a Los Angeles based Porsche dealer.