The Personal Luxury car first emerged as a phenomenon with the introduction of the Ford Thunderbird in 1955. Often considered a competitor to the Chevrolet Corvette, the Thunderbird was, in fact, different car entirely- one focused on luxury and image rather than performance. The addition of a rear seat in 1958 underscored the differences between Thunderbird and the Corvette as they positioned themselves in the marketplace entering the 1960s.
Ford held the Personal Luxury segment to itself for several years. Only Studebaker, with its achingly beautiful (but doomed) Avanti coupé could claim a spot in the personal luxury space.
GM and Chrysler had no answer to the Thunderbird until the introduction of the Buick Riviera in 1963. But over the next few years GM would introduce the Oldsmobile Toronado, the Cadillac Eldorado and the Pontiac Grand Prix, all strong sellers, proving that Ford’s instincts about the Personal Luxury format had been correct.
Meanwhile, Chrysler still had nothing to offer. Some of the coupé versions of its large cars like the Imperial could just about compete in this segment, but they weren’t designed for it.
Finally Chrysler’s leadership decided to try placing a concept car before the public in an attempt to declare themselves at least capable of creating a personal luxury car. The result, designed under the leadership of arch-moderniser Elwood P. Engel, was the Plymouth VIP of 1965.
The concept of this ‘idea car’ was supposed to be the Personal Luxury car taken to the next level. It was meant to be not only a personal automotive statement but also an expression of executive class luxury – a rolling lounge for the ‘Mad Men’ set. Introduced at the Chicago Auto Show in February 1965, the car drew crowds to the Plymouth stand. What they saw there was familiar yet futuristic.
Viewing the VIP from the side, it was immediately recognizable to show attendees as a variation on a production Plymouth, a touchpoint of familiarity that grounded the design in the real world. The form was boxy, typical of Chrysler offerings of the mid-1960s, with plenty of horizontal creases to draw the eye along its flanks. The rear wheel covers gave the design an upscale feel.
Not as upscale, but equally intriguing, was the paint scheme. Although the black and white photos show a car that could have been brown or dark grey, the actual color of the car was a deep, iridescent magenta. Tiny glass beads suspended in the gloss top coat refracted light in interesting ways. The car could look pink or red in some light conditions, in others orange or brown. The one rather poor-quality colour photo we have, however (below), shows it as a rather flat pink/magenta, possibly due to the limitations of photographic reproduction in those days.
The front was an oddly simplified and squared-off version of the production design. To many, then and now, it looked more like the rear of the car, prompting a revival of the old Studebaker Champion joke, “Is it coming or going?”
The roof was meant to be the dramatic point of the exterior design. A T-shaped roll bar framed the windscreen and also ran longitudinally over the centre of the car back to the rear deck.
Flanking this roll bar was a glass roof that would retract into the rear deck . The windows were supposed to rise electronically to meet this roof and form a glass canopy. Overheating in the cabin would be mitigated by the use of photochromic glass, which would darken in the sunlight.
However, it is not known if a working version of the roof was ever installed in the car – it is only shown in renderings. Whether real or not, getting all those panels to lock into each other, and remain sealed for weatherproofing, would have been a nightmare.
Still, it was interesting fiction, and seemed an update of the GM Firebird ‘bubble car’ aesthetic and the Ford retractable hardtop, both of the late 1950s. And, with the glass retracted, as it was always shown, it was a dramatically open convertible with the added safety of a roll bar.
The side of the VIP grounded the design in reality, the front gave it a little concept car weirdness, and the retractable roof lent a bit of science fiction to the composition. But it was the interior that seemed to be the best part of the whole car – unusual in a decade where interior design often got short shrift from automotive design departments.
The VIP interior was meant to be a conceptual answer to the interiors of competing personal luxury cars. With four seats – ideal for two couples, the classic personal luxury brief – the VIP was designed to bring a new level of sophisticated cruising to driver and passengers.
The driver enjoyed a cockpit-like seat with wraparound instrument panel. Electronic instrumentation and engine diagnostics, along with a rear-view camera and access to a telephone and radio gave the driver a feeling of command in the cabin.
Command had to be shared however, with the front passenger, who had the best access to all the electronic gadgetry and entertainment. The VIP featured a television, the aforementioned radio, a hand held (rotary) phone, a reel-to-reel tape answering machine, a coffee bar and a host of environmental controls.
Better still many of the gadgets, like television and radio volume, could also be controlled from the rear seats, giving the passengers unprecedented power in the all-too-delicate balance of entertainment options.
The seating was four buckets, with adjustable features like headrests that emerged from the shell, and in the rear, the option of a raised or reclined seat back.
Most of the gadgetry and creature comforts described above had been seen on concept cars for about a decade, so there was nothing really new here. But Engel’s team presented the features in a way that truly seemed like they could appear on next year’s model, not in some far-flung future. The VIP seemed more like a production preview than a true concept car.
But the VIP, at least in dramatic personal luxury coupe form, would remain a concept. There would be a Plymouth VIP production model in coming years, but it did not break any new ground, in part because Chrysler did not want any internal competition with its top-of-the-line Imperial. Only with the 1968 VIP would some of the personal luxury touches begin to be introduced.
Chrysler at the time was considered an engineer’s car, and the design of engines and transmissions was a real priority. There were some fearsome performance cars from Chrysler in those years, but no real attempt to catch the Ford or GM Personal Luxury cars. Only in the 1970s would Chrysler at last bring a true Personal Luxury car, the Cordoba (below), to production.
Chrysler would revisit the personal luxury car in 1969 and 1970s with the Chrysler 70X and the Cordoba Del Oro concepts. Here was executive class luxury on a massive scale, in Elwood Engel’s signature Fuselage Style.
The Plymouth VIP can be seen today as a sort of transitional car, as were many of Chrysler’s mid-1960s cars. Engel’s own Fuselage Style, and the development of the massive horsepower Chrysler would become known for were both still in development. But the VIP still has something to say to us today both as a personal lounge and as a luxurious community space – a vision of shared executive travel.