The story of the American luxury car through the decades had always been one of long, wide, sleek, shiny cars rolling down the boulevard or speeding silently along the highway. Inside, the privileged and pampered passengers were insulated in a world separate from everyone else. Seated on top grain genuine leather or the finest fabrics available in the world, they knew their surroundings were better than those of the people they passed by.
Bigger was better, and Americans have always appreciated room to spread out. When four door sedans and station wagons were no longer big enough, we bought SUVs. When those weren't big enough for some, they went out and bought vehicles designed to serve the military. And the car makers were making what people were buying, and that was big cars.
This policy worked well for a very long time, with each decade showing production increases over the previous one. The U.S. auto industry had a record setting year in 1973, as did Lincoln. No one buying luxury cars really thought much about gas mileage. After all, if their finances were going to be stretched to the breaking point by a tank of gas, they really had no business looking at a luxury car in the first place, right? But even as early as 1970, there were signs that trouble was looming ahead. U.S. oil consumption was increasing at this time, while U.S. production of oil was declining. In 1970, foreign oil accounted for 22 percent of U.S. consumption. By 1973, it accounted for 36 percent.
Everyone had been expecting another record sales year in 1974, but events in other parts of the world changed everything. On October 17, 1973, an oil crisis officially began when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) announced that any country supporting Israel in the ongoing Yom Kippur war (an Arab-Israeli conflict), would be subject to limits on oil shipments to their country. The month before the conflict began—September 1973—the U.S. imported 6 million barrels of oil. In November, it dropped to 5 million barrels. By December, the price per barrel of oil had risen 130 percent. Prices at the pump began to go up, and people began to hoard gasoline. Long lines formed at stations that had a supply of fuel, and the crisis was among the top stories on the news every night.
The crisis ended on March 18, 1974 and the gas was soon flowing again. But many people retained the memories of the long lines and closed gas stations and decided it was time to buy smaller, more fuel efficient cars. And that included luxury car customers. If people had to give up the big cars they loved, they certainly didn't want to have to also give up luxury. Sales of luxury imports began to increase, Mercedes Benz and BMW among them. Some manufacturers were better prepared than others. Ford had just down sized its popular Mustang for 1974, and named it Mustang II to reflect the major change in the model. Ford was in the right place at the right time on that one. But Lincoln had nothing to offer other than the big luxury cars it was known for.
Lincoln was very much aware of the increasing popularity of the foreign luxury imports, as was Cadillac. But Lincoln had another reason to be worried. Cadillac was well ahead of Lincoln in designing its first smaller luxury car, and that required Lincoln to act quickly. Cadillac's "international sized" Seville was introduced late in the model year in April 1975. It was in dealer showrooms by May 1, and between that time and the end of the model year Cadillac sold 16,355 copies at a base price of $12,479! The Seville was aggressively priced over $2,000 higher than the top of the line Fleetwood Brougham. Obviously, Lincoln had to respond. And it had to respond quickly.
Enter the Versailles. Named after a wealthy suburb about 11 miles west-southwest of Paris, France, an area known for its beautiful gardens and ornate architecture, it has been a popular tourist destination for a long time, and is the center for many area public services and festivals. The choice of this name was likely intentional, as its main competitor was also named after a famous city in Spain.
There wasn't time to start from scratch on a new platform to support the model, nor was there the ability to spend a lot of design money up front, either. Absent anything small in the Lincoln line to use as a starting point, the division had to look to other Ford lines to locate an appropriate platform. Cadillac started off with the GM "X" car platform, which was a front engine/rear drive design used by the Chevrolet Nova, Pontiac Ventura, Oldsmobile Omega, and Buick Apollo. The exterior body panels were all unique to the Seville, as were the interior fittings, a significant difference between the two cars. Standard equipment levels were high even by traditional Cadillac standards. The Seville was powered by a 350 CID V-8 engine built by Oldsmobile, to which Cadillac added electronic fuel injection.
In its search for a suitable platform, Lincoln determined the new-for-1975 Ford Granada/Mercury Monarch was the correct size, and would provide the division with a good starting point. The smaller car would be priced at the very top of the line, and would include a wide assortment of conveniences and luxuries as standard equipment. Due to the short time frame between design and production, the Versailles would not receive unique body panels as the Seville did. It would share the roof structure with the Granada/Monarch, as well as front and rear doors and other related components. The hood and deck lid would be unique, as would the exterior trim, front and rear bumpers, and interior. Measuring 200.9 inches in overall length, which was 29.4 inches shorter than the Mark V, sitting on a 109.9 inch wheelbase, which was a total of 10.5 inches shorter, the difference in size was very apparent.
Up front, the classic vertical bar grille design used on the big Lincolns was fitted to the new baby in the group, complete with a stand-up spring-loaded Continental star hood ornament. The spare tire deck lid hump from the Continental Mark series was also used. These two design traits alone immediately made the car identifiable as a Lincoln. Quad rectangular headlamps appeared on either side of the grille, above clear quad parking and turn signal lamps. The side marker lamps were fitted to the forward edge of the front fenders, and had a clear wrap-around lens with amber insert on the outboard sides. To disguise the roof line a bit, a fully padded vinyl roof with a "frenched" rear window treatment was fitted. The rear tail lamps were horizontal and wrapped around the rear fenders to also serve as side marker lights. Between the front and rear doors, Coach lights appeared on the B pillar.
The Versailles was a very good looking car in its own right, and it was the right size to compete with the small Cadillac. There was just one issue with it. No matter how much extra trim was added to the exterior...no matter how elegant and luxurious the interior was...or how long the list of standard equipment was...or how advanced the technology used to build the car was...and no matter how rigid the quality control might have been...when viewed from the side, it still looked like a Granada.
As you can imagine, an expensive luxury car that looks like a less expensive car is not a good thing. It didn't work well in this case, nor did it work well when GM tried it a decade later with the restyle of its personal luxury cars, which consisted of the Cadillac Eldorado, Buick Riviera, and Oldsmobile Toronado. All were down sized for 1986, and when they did so, the Toronado looked a little too much like the Calais Coupe, an Oldsmobile compact introduced in 1985. Sales of the newly redesigned Toronado dropped a whopping 62.3 percent! The Riviera also resembled a lower priced Buick compact. The Eldorado, despite not having a lower priced, smaller sibling to be compared with, didn't fare any better. In 1985, Eldorado production totaled 76,401, and for 1986 it was just 21,342! A decline of 55,059 cars! GM knew immediately it had a problem.
The symptoms weren't as immediate with the Versailles, as it had no history upon which to base a determination of success or failure. Lincoln could only look to Seville's numbers to see its car was receiving a somewhat cool reception in the marketplace. Thus, the process of determining exactly what the problem was began. Despite the Versailles' somewhat humble origins, it was a state of the art car at the time. Most of Lincoln's array of standard and optional equipment was included in the base price, and extra steps were taken during manufacture to ensure a quality automobile that could compete with any other car in the world when it came to fit and finish, absence of rattles and squeaks, and performance of mechanical parts.
One inspection pioneered by Versailles was the Vehicle Electrical Test System or VETS. This advanced computer driven test enabled the electrical system and every electrical component in the car to be tested for proper operation. It was so sophisticated that should a loose connection or binding condition in a power window circuit exist, it could be identified and pinpointed long before any trouble could occur. Repairs could be made before the car left the factory, and eliminate a service trip after delivery. And every vehicle was required to pass this test and many others before leaving the factory.
Versailles got off to a promising start with 1977 model year production of 15,434, not far short of the Seville's first year (keeping in mind Seville was also a mid-year introduction). The real cause for concern happened during 1978, when production during its first full year dropped to 8,931 due to slow sales. Lincoln knew it needed to do something, and didn't have much time to do it in. It was obvious the close resemblance in profile to the lower priced Granada was an issue for buyers in the compact luxury market, and something needed to be done to change the look. Enter Heinz Prechter of American Sunroof Corporation (ASC). ASC had been working with manufacturers to produce special edition versions of production cars as well as install power sunroofs, Moonroofs, Astroroofs, T-Tops, etc.
Senior Ford executives personally requested Prechter's involvement in updating the appearance of the Versailles, specifically in the door and roof area, where the resemblance to the Granada was most pronounced. Prechter and his team had a very short time frame to do their work, and ended up working virtually 24 hours a day over the next 10 days to come up with a new look for the little Lincoln.
The end result was a new roof line that was extended eight inches, with a more formal appearance. The rear door upper frame was modified to allow for a larger stationary rear vent window, which was now squared off. The standard roof design for 1979 featured a vinyl half-roof covered with Lincoln's popular Cavalry Twill material. Customers could also choose a half-vinyl roof in Valino grain vinyl with frenched backlite at no additional charge. A full vinyl roof was also available, but only when the optional Moonroof was ordered.
On half-roof models, a new brushed stainless steel wrap over molding ran from B-pillar to B-pillar, and included redesigned integral Coach lamps. The deck lid hump was also covered in padded matching vinyl, just like the Collector's Series Continental Mark V models. The end result was really quite stunning, and when the prototype was completed, Prechter himself drove it to Ford design chief Gene Bourdinat's house, where a party was being held. Ford executives attending the party were pleased with the updated look, and approval for the design proposal was given on the spot.
The styling updates were effective, and production for 1979 rebounded to 21,007 cars, a huge increase over 1978 and it would become the Versailles best year for production and sales. For 1980, the big Lincoln Continentals shed nearly 800 pounds and over a foot in length. The new Continental Mark VI lost almost 700 pounds and 14 inches in length. Both retained the Lincoln look that had been so carefully crafted since 1961. Sales for all Lincolns dropped for 1980, a total of around 42 percent on the year. 1980 would the the final year for the Versailles, as Cadillac had unveiled a new body style for its Seville in 1980, and Lincoln was preparing a new model for replacement with a 1982 target for introduction.
The new Seville was a radical design, with bustleback rear deck styling inspired by Hooper and Vanden Plas Rolls-Royces. The razor-edge styling was a sensation, and people either loved it or hated it. Sales of the 1980 Seville fell far short of the 1979 models, so some of Cadillac's customers were rejecting the new design. In fact, sales of the bustleback Seville would never quite reach those of its predecessor during the six years it was in production.
In its final year, the 1980 Versailles would account for just 4,784 units, making them the rarest of them all. Changes were minor, although five new body colors were introduced as well as three new vinyl roof colors to create interest and keep up with current color trends. A padded deck lid appliqué delete was offered at no charge, as a few customers didn't like the look. Ultimately what hurt it most was its timing. Had it been introduced before its lower-priced siblings, it would have likely been a big hit. Most agree quality control was in top form on these cars, and they were just as quiet inside as their bigger siblings. Fuel economy was better than the big Lincolns, but the Versailles was still thirsty in comparison to other cars, including the new smaller Lincolns for 1980.
We believe the Versailles story is an interesting one, worthy of inclusion on this site. It plays an important role in explaining what was happening in the American luxury car market during the late seventies, which is generally the period when many say the American manufacturers gave away their supremacy in the industry with poor design, poor quality control, and cars that just didn't meet the needs of what people really wanted. We don't necessarily agree with that viewpoint, and we will attempt to explain our attitude about it within the pages in this section.
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