There is an often-quoted curse that goes something like this: “May you live in interesting times”. That sounds encouraging, but it is not. The implication being that “interesting times” are often tumultuous and filled with uncertainty. If your business is the automotive one, we are certainly living through such times as nobody is certain where it is headed. We may go entirely electric in the next decade or not at all. Our cars will drive themselves, but those in know says it is unlikely. Though one thing is for sure is that big luxury coupes are not part of that future.
All dressed up but nowhere to go
In case you missed it, Ferrari discontinued its GTC4Lusso shooting brake with no intention to have it replaced. An unsurprising fate for a genre-defying model many would argue. More worryingly, over in North America, there is worrying news that BMW’s new 8 Series flying off dealerships as hoped. Meanwhile, unconfirmed reports have come out of Japan that claims Toyota has put the kibosh on the Lexus LC F.
Despite the industry-wide decline, Mercedes-Benz has reconfirmed that it is ploughing ahead in the development of its seventh-generation SL. A seemingly contradictory move that comes amidst Mercedes’ discontinuation of the two-door S-Class model range. However, that isn’t to say that Mercedes-Benz is indulging itself in an entirely new bespoke model.
According to reports, the upcoming SL will share its underpinnings with the next-generation AMG GT. Because of that, Mercedes has handed development responsibilities to AMG, whilst it focuses on developing its electric and autonomous tech. Seems logical enough.
A market in decline
Apart from high-end brands like Bentley and Rolls-Royce, the big players are pulling out from the big luxury coupe game. There doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel.
With the big players pulling out, the big luxury coupe genre is on the brink of being gone for good. Once again, another enthusiast’s favourite faces impending doom. Better light those torches and grab the pitchforks. It looks like it is that time again to lynch everybody’s favourite strawman, the SUV.
Hang on, are SUVs really to blame for this? It is worth pointing out that the big luxury coupe’s existence has always been tenuous. Nowhere is this more apparent than the sea changes brought about during the mid-1990s.
Products of optimistic times
The Nineties was an era awash with optimism. Cold War tensions were winding down, new technology had brought us improvements in daily life, but had yet to upend industries or displace workers, and quality of life around the world was on an upward trend. It was during this time that the automotive world saw an emergence of several iconic big luxury coupes.
Mercedes-Benz not only started the S-Class name in the 1990s but continued its two-door coupe spin-off as the new CL-Class. Its Bavarian rivals, BMW stole the limelight with its immensely expensive tour de force, the first-generation 8 Series.
It wasn’t just the Germans who were strutting around the market in confidence. Lexus exported its excesses of the Japanese bubble economy in the form of its first-generation Lexus SC coupe. Even Honda got in on the action with a big coupe based off its flagship Acura Legend sedan.
The thing is, it wasn’t as though there were plenty of buyers for these sort of cars. Yes, the future looked bright, but that wasn’t the case with the old guard.
Famous big coupes like the Cadillac Eldorado and Jaguar XJS were made even more antiquated and were soon discontinued. These cars became unfortunate victims to the tides of change. Simply outmoded by the complacency of its makers and the new tech and luxury its foreign competitors were introducing.
Burned twice as bright, lived half as long
Even as the German and Japanese players were in the ascendency, its flagship coupes lived a brief and fleeting existence. As it turns out, the public wasn’t ready for a big and expensive BMW coupe. Bavaria’s billion-dollar flagship failed to take sail and sales keeled over.
Elsewhere, the implosion of the Japanese asset bubble sent ripples through the Japanese auto industry. With the downturn hitting home hard, Lexus and Acura watered down its SC and Legend Coupe replacements. Annoyingly, the market had effectively disappeared by the turn of the millennium, stumping a new generation of buyers who were ready to buy into the dream.
Only the two-door offshoot of Mercedes-Benz’s mighty S-Class soldiered on. Though considering the CL-Class’ close relation to the S-Class, it isn’t surprising that it emerged as the sole survivor in this tale. Even so, those who knew where the wind was blowing could already see that this wasn’t to last.
Having gone through a massive product offensive and funding a successful Formula One programme, Mercedes-Benz discovered that it had bitten off more than it could chew. Furthermore, with the rise of Tesla and the hype surrounding the seemingly imminent switch to electric cars and the adoption of autonomous driving tech, the higher-ups in Stuttgart quickly readjusted its priorities. This led to the company culling the numbers in its bloated model line-up, the two-door S-Class being a casualty.
It is the same story with every major car manufacturer worldwide. As the pool of customers shrinks due to various socioeconomic realities, many industry players are reconsidering its product offerings. Hence, the distressing developments that are happening across the industry.
Welcome to the “interesting times”
SUVs are profitable, but it is a mere bogeyman, the genre isn’t replacing the beloved big two-door cats. The truth of the matter is that these coupes were already an endangered species by the turn of the century. All that was needed to kill it off was an interruption in the status quo.
What were the 8 Series and SC coupe but products of rising stars in the market looking to make its mark in the prestige market? When things didn’t work out or the economy floundered, these models disappeared. The same could be said about the aged competitors it usurped, which were phased out by companies in crisis. Nothing much has changed since.
SUVs are a safe bet. It is a product that is a sure-fire profit generator as a four-door family car is to any carmaker. These big luxury coupes on the other hand are something else entirely. They were as much of a brand-building indulgence for its makers as it was an ego-boost for its buyers. A novel concept that many companies can ill-afford in today’s “interesting times”.