Long-time readers of this little Web column will recall that I have very little patience for people who misuse the phrase “sports car.” For the record, an MGB is a sports car, as is a Boxster; a Mustang is not a sports car, an Aventador is not a sports car, and overpowered chopped-roof minivans like the Macan and Audi SQ5 are absolutely, definitely, not even close to being sports cars. You might not like it, but that’s the truth.
What about “luxury car?” That’s a little tougher, isn’t it? Forty years ago, the definition of “luxury car” was clear-cut and logical. A big car with extra options, a comfortable interior, an “upscale” nameplate, and a lot of chrome was a luxury car. Except there were already cracks appearing the facade. The Mercedes-Benz 240D was nobody’s idea of a “luxury car” in Germany–in fact, it was more like everybody’s idea of a taxi–but in the United States it was a luxury car because it cost a lot of money. The Buick Skylark limited had all the features of a luxury car except size; the Chevrolet Caprice Classic had all of the features except the nameplate; the Cadillac Calais had everything except the features.
The truth of the matter was that the definition of “luxury car” always was, and always will be, based solely on accessibility. Power windows are a luxury feature until a Civic has them; “Twilight Sentinel” is a luxury feature until a Kia minivan has it as standard. The original Cadillac Seville was more of a luxury car than an Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency because it cost more. Luxury is best understood as something that the common people cannot have.
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This idea works very well with luxury homes, luxury yachts, fractional bizjet ownership, and various other items that will never, ever fall through the gossamer ceiling of implied prestige into the dirty, grasping hands of the proletariat. It does not work very well with luxury cars, because with the exception of ultra-rare stuff like the McLaren F1, pretty much every automobile ever built winds up in the possession of someone much poorer and less pretentious than the original owner.
More than a few years ago, when BMW was in the process of reinventing Rolls-Royce from whole cloth, one British auto-wag suggested that the best way to repair the slightly tattered prestige of the Spirit of Ecstasy would be to purchase every rusted out, saggy-suspension Silver Shadow crawling around the low-income areas of the world and send them en masse to the crusher. He had a solid point. It’s hard to convince people to spend a quarter-million dollars on your brand when there is a broken-down example of said brand blocking traffic on the road out of London.
Note that the idea would have very little merit if you applied it to, say, pickup trucks. The sudden absence of every twenty-year-old F-150 in this country would engender distrust, not interest, on the part of would-be F-Series purchasers. Nor is the customer for a new Camry particularly dismayed by the fact that the backlot of his local fast-food restaurant is chock-full of old Toyotas in disreputable condition. The primary value of an F-Series or Camry is usually not the impression of personal wealth and/or success that it engenders in your immediate neighbors.
I would suggest that entry-level sporting sedans, like the 3-Series BMW and the Lexus IS, are also mostly exempt from this phenomenon of disgrace-by-association. Many owners of brand-new 340i sedans and M4s whetted their appetite on earlier examples of the marque. There’s usually a fix-and-repair subculture that grows up around cars like that. The same is true of Corvettes, Porsches, and other occasional-use cars.
You only really get into the meat of the issue when you consider cars like the 7-Series BMW, the Audi A8, and post-W126 examples of the so-called “big-body Benz.” Most of them command six-figure asking prices when they are new, but their resale value tumbles precipitously once they leave the care and custody of their first owners. A fifteen-year-old full-size German sedan is usually worth no more than the compact sedan with which it shared a showroom; five years after that, it’s either in the junkyard or staring forlornly from the dimly-lit Sheol of the buy-here-pay-here lot.
The pilgrim’s process endured by the 7-Series or S-Class terminates in a series of most undignified stations. The “rude Benz” of the British “chavs.” Monstrous wheels and aftermarket grilles painted with a brush. Frequent and unexpected breakdowns, the natural consequence of somebody paying eight thousand dollars for a car filled to the brim with eight-thousand-dollar individual components. Sometimes there is even a season in LeMons or ChumpCar, although I count that as a sort of redemptive period in a particular car’s individual history.
Day and night, these old “big-bodies” are out there stirring up whatever the opposite of goodwill is in the hearts of prospective premier-sedan purchasers. They’re not worth much to anyone, not even their drivers. And they serve as a pointed, irrefutable riposte to the tales of eternal quality and impeccable prestige spun by square-jawed salesmen in well-lit showrooms. No ancient mariner ever troubled a wedding guest the way a taildraggin’ E38 Bimmer worms its way into the thoughts of the man who is on the way to pay three times the national average household income for that car’s modern successor.
This doesn’t seem to happen in Europe; I’m told by people who should know that most upscale cars disappear to Africa or the Middle East, via purchase or midnight requisition, some time before their tenth birthday. The streets of Addid Ababa may be full to bursting with tired examples of the W220, but the average German executive need devote no thought nor time to that fact. Our Continental cousins also have stricter vehicle-inspection regimes that would send half of the American in-service personal-vehicle fleet directly to the jaws of the crusher. Those factors combine to render them blissfully ignorant of what happens to your favorite doggie when it goes away to that special farm in the country.
The average prestige sedan in this country benefits from several thousand dollars’ worth of incentives and marketing support, much of it designed to overcome some of those lingering doubts brought on by exposure to bad examples of previous models. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to devote some of that money to a buy-back program? It wouldn’t cost very much to get every beat-up old big sedan out there off the roads. I have a few personal suggestions for vehicles that should be aggressively targeted: every W220 S430 out there, for example. But the precise mechanics of the program I leave to my fiscal and moral superiors in the marketing departments.
The disappearance of every crummy old 7-Series out there will raise the value of the good ones that remain. That, in turn, will raise the value of lightly-used examples, which will raise the transaction prices of new models. It’s not hard to understand the process. And it would give the manufacturers in this country some of the control over the market that they desperately desire but which has been almost completely stymied by state-level laws regarding dealer franchises.
The first automaker to try this idea will benefit mightily from it. I expect that they will want to compensate me. So I am setting my price right out here in public, because I don’t want any misunderstandings. I don’t want money. I don’t want a job. I just want a mint-condition Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. Make it Brewster Green , with a chocolate brown interior. I don’t care if people think I’m a driver for the Peninsula Hotel. I care naught about prestige, perceived or actual. I leave that sort of thing to the people who need it. I just want a nice luxury car–and I’ll define what that term means to my own satisfaction.
Born in Brooklyn but banished to Ohio, Jack Baruth has won races on four different kinds of bicycles and in seven different kinds of cars. Everything he writes should probably come with a trigger warning. His column, Avoidable Contact, runs twice a week on Road & Track.
Jack Baruth is a writer and competitor who has earned podiums in more than fifteen different classes and sanctions of automotive and cycling competition, in both amateur and professional capacities, as well as an enthusiastic hobbyist musician and audiophile who owns hundreds of musical instruments and audio systems. His work has appeared in Bicycling, Cycle World, Road & Track, WIRED, Wheels Weekly, EVO Malaysia, Esquire, and many other publications. His original design for a guitar, the Melody Burner, has been played by Billy Gibbons, Sheryl Crow, and others.