Grab your leisure suit, put on your Qiana top and grab your Christopher Cross and Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers 8-tracks, because we’re headed to the marina for a party on our friends’ new 52-footer. They’ll have a fondue spread and chilled Mateus, so it should be pretty righteous.
Now, if you actually were headed to such a sumptuous bash in the “yacht rock” era of the 70s and 80s, the perfect ride would be a personal luxury coupe. By the mid-70s, just about every make offered a two-door with small rear-quarter (or “opera”) windows, an available "Landau" vinyl top covering half the roof, an interior featuring soft velvet-like upholstery and a signature stance with a long hood and a short rear deck. Here are ten of our picks from the “me decade” and what made them special.
10 Lincoln Mark V
Ford’s luxury brand sold what may have been the first “personal luxury coupe:” the 1940 Continental. Lincoln’s “yacht rock” aesthetic reached its zenith with the 19-foot-long 1977-79 Continental Mark V coupes. Every Mark oozed excess, but none were more excessive than the Designer Series editions, with their distinctive color schemes and interior finishes. Rolling up to the valet stand in a blue-and-white Bill Blass Edition Mark with carriage roof guaranteed you front-row status at every fern bar.
Future Marks were smaller and better to drive (the Mark VII is a modern classic), but none represented the “yacht rock” ethos better than the last-of-its-breed Mark Vs.
9 Buick Riviera
Buick’s sensational 1963 Riviera helped define the personal luxury coupe niche, but the Riv was foundering by the mid-70s, thanks to polarizing styling and terrible fuel economy. However, right around the time Rupert Holmes first sang about pina coladas and getting caught in the rain, the Riviera’s 1979 redesign made the big Buick a sales standout again.
The platform shared with Cadillac and Oldsmobile brought front-wheel drive, smooth and sculpted looks and an available turbocharged V6. The last new Riviera was produced in 1999, and while the name still shows up on a concept car from time to time, there’s no indication that Buick has one in its future.
8 Pontiac Grand Prix
If the Buick Riviera helped establish the modern “personal luxury coupe” segment, then Pontiac’s 1969 Grand Prix lined it up for mainstream success. The first midsize GP combined baroque styling, a six-foot-long hood and a cockpit-themed interior with the basic running gear of a GTO.
By the time Steely Dan’s “Peg” came out in 1977, the Grand Prix had lost much of its sporting edge, adopting the crushed-velour upholstery, opera windows and Landau tops of its competitors, to great sales success. Eventually, the GP would become Pontiac’s mass-market midsize name, until the eventual demise of the brand.
7 Ford Thunderbird
Like a lot of people in the 70s, the Thunderbird went through an identity crisis as the “yacht rock” era dawned. Ford’s personal luxury coupe began the decade on the same platform as Lincoln’s Continental Mark series, which made it too big and expensive to compete with the major players from GM and Chrysler.
Ford’s solution for 1977 was to drop the T-bird down to its midsize platform and give it dramatic new looks, including a basket handle roof and hidden headlamps. The result set sales records and took the Thunderbird out of the “no-wake” zone.
6 Cadillac Eldorado
A mid-70s Eldorado almost feels like a parody of old-school luxury cars: an 18 1/2-foot-long land yacht with just two doors, tiny opera windows, lurid upholstery patterns and colors that recall a mobile bordello. Walking by an Eldo now, you can almost smell the Paco Rabanne of its gold-chained owner.
A stylish and popular 1979 redesign shrunk the big coupe to an almost-rational size, but the market was moving on by the mid-80s. The Eldorado hung on until 2002, at which point people in its target demographic were already buying Escalades.
5 Chrysler Cordoba
Chrysler Corporation’s flagship brand had sold only full-sized cars until rolling out the midsize Cordoba in 1975, as a response both to the rising cost of gas and the rising popularity of personal luxury coupes.
The Cordoba was a smash in its first year, thanks in no small part to the now-famous Ricardo Montalban commercials in which he touted the car’s “fine Corinthian leather” in his smoother-than-butter voice. Future re-designs, especially a razor-edged 1980 update, were less well-received, and Cordoba was gone one year after Chrysler began re-badging K-cars and selling them as LeBarons.
4 Buick Regal
The Regal began life in 1973 as a top trim level in Buick’s then-new Century midsize range, sporting GM’s semi-formal “colonnade” roofline. As society dropped the needle on the "yacht rock" era, the Regal increasingly stepped out on its own, adopting more distinctive styling and Buick’s adaptation of the “loose-pillow” interior look that was the fashion of the time.
Eventually, the Regal would become the basis for the awesome Grand National that represented the height of malaise-era GM performance. Before that, though, the popularity of the Regal helped drive Buick’s success in the 70s and 80s. Notably, it’s the only model name on this list that still exists, though on a very different car.
3 Ford Elite
The 1974 Gran Torino Elite (later just the Ford Elite) was a short-term solution to Ford misjudging the popularity of midsize personal coupes, especially GM’s “colonnade” hardtops. Eventually, Ford’s better idea was to move the Thunderbird from the large Lincoln Mark platform to the midsize Torino-based chassis, but that would take a few years.
In the meantime, Ford created the Elite by slapping a chrome-ier front end on the Gran Torino coupe and unveiling an innovation in "yacht rock"-era technology: dual opera windows. Sadly, the inclusion of 100% more opera windows did nothing to slow the competition, and they disappeared along with the Elite when the resized Thunderbird arrived in 1977.
2 AMC Matador Barcelona II
Considering the fact that American Motors operated largely on a shoestring budget, the debut of the 1974 Matador Coupe was a shock. The swoopy and expressive two-door attracted a lot of attention, and became a modest hit for AMC in its inaugural year.
After dabbling in designer editions with the help of Oleg Cassini, AMC went full-on “yacht rock” with 1977’s Matador Barcelona II. Its exclusive two-tone color schemes, padded Landau top with opera-style windows and gathered velour seats were aimed right at the personal luxury sweet spot. Alas, it was a bigger flop than Bertie Higgins’ second album, and the Matador was gone by 1979.
1 Olds Cutlass Supreme
If you were to pick one car that most embodied the “yacht rock” era, it would have to be the Cutlass Supreme. This was America’s most popular car in the mid-70s through the early 80s, on the strength of handsome good looks, a quiet and comfortable ride, and available crushed-velour “loose pillow” seats that were an Oldsmobile hallmark. For barely more money than a Chevrolet Malibu Classic, you could own a car with an interior like a 98 Regency.
Sales plummeted in the mid-80s when Olds — in an ill-fated drive to attract younger buyers — moved its marquee brand to a front-drive platform and gave it rounder “aero” looks. That meant no Landau top and no loose-pillow seats. The “yacht rock” era was over.