If you get misty-eyed over the last tapir, then head on over to Lexus to catch a glimpse of the Lexus LC Convertible, as it might be the last of its kind. And I don’t mean last “Lexus luxury convertible with a folding hardtop”. I mean, “last luxury two-door from a mainstream manufacturer”.
If you like big posh cats, then the news from around the world isn’t very encouraging. Sales of the BMW 8 Series is reportedly stalling in the United States, with reports from Europe claiming that BMW will discontinue the 8 Series’ two-door variants altogether.
Mercedes-Benz isn’t even bothering to return to the segment with a new-generation S-Class Coupe and Convertible. Instead, the luxury carmaker will be cutting down its model range to focus on electric Maybach SUVs.
And since we are talking about Lexus. Rumours from Japan has it that Toyota has stopped development of a high-performance LC F variant.
Of course, the likes of Aston Martin, Bentley, and Rolls-Royce, will continue to build big luxury coupes. These brands have always done so since the dawn of the car industry. But these high-end carmakers aren’t ideal barometers for what is going on in the car industry.
Two-door? Too little to be in the game
To get a grasp on where the car industry is heading, you’d need to look at the mainstream makers. And from what they are showing, the road ahead is devoid of big coupes.
Manufacturers are either sticking to the “four-door coupe” trend like Audi would with the all-electric e-tron GT slated to be its next big “sporty flagship”. Or not bother at all as is the case with the deteriorating Infiniti or the ascendent Genesis brands.
Now before you grab your torches and start burning SUV effigies, hear me out. SUVs aren’t entirely to blame for the demise of big luxury coupes.
I’d argue that big luxury coupes have never been a success since the 1980s. That is why only small-scale luxury manufacturers like Aston Martin and Bentley have been able to justify its existence. As for the rest of the car industry where numbers matter, luxury coupes have been nothing but an indulgence.
Driven solely by North America
Right up until the 1980s, the United States was the main driver in the big luxury coupe market. Back then, affluent buyers weren’t short of choice. The Americans had the Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Continental. Whereas Europe brought over such delights as the BMW 6 Series, Jaguar XJS, and Mercedes-Benz C126 coupe.
It would be the follow-up act for these cars that ultimately proved unsustainable. A course set, not by legislators or market demands, but the aspirations of its designers.
As the 1990s approached, car manufacturers were eager to implement new computer and electronic technologies into their next models. Many of these technologies like computer-aided design and active suspension are commonplace today, but back then, it required military-grade budgets to execute.
The new game in town
BMW spent over 1.5 billion marks developing the 8 Series with then cutting-edge computer-aided design. Mercedes-Benz spent much more in developing the W140 S-Class, which served as the base for the first-generation CL-Class coupe. And Toyota would pack the Soarer, the first-generation Lexus SC coupe, with state-of-the-art features like active air suspension, four-wheel steering, and touchscreen infotainment.
This technological leap meant those big luxury coupes weren’t the traditional big simple cars with wood panels nailed to the dash. It had to be a tour de force. Land-bound business jets. V12-powered lounges. You get the idea.
The Americans, swollen and fat from their complacency, stayed on its course of building rudimentary coupes with extra leather. Whereas the broke and disorganised Brits simply called it quits and bowed the rickety old Jaguar XJS out.
With the Anglo-world brands not putting in any effort, the market was left to the Germans and Japanese to reshape the big luxury coupe game in their image.
It should have been easy pickings for the newcomers. Or it would have if it wasn’t for the 1990s economic recession.
The wrong bet at the wrong time
The tumultuous economic conditions of the 1990s torpedoed BMW and Lexus’ hopes for its 8 Series and SC. For all the money spent and acclaim received, both models could not live up to sales expectations.
The 8 Series was remembered as being prohibitively expensive, particularly for an emergent brand. Development costs of the W140 not only cost its chief engineer his job but made the car 25 per cent more expensive than its predecessor. And the Lexus SC had yet to convince the market of its prestige stripes.
Crushingly, the European and Japanese tech showcases couldn’t even beat its less sophisticated American counterparts in sales. It was as humiliating as losing an armed conflict to flightless emus.
Because of how they sent the standard into space only to see its sales in the segment crater, carmakers decided the whole affair wasn’t worth another shot.
With expectations so high, there was no turning back apart from raising the bar again with successive models. How much further could the designers push it? Will giving more guarantee more sales? Nobody was willing to bite the bullet and give it a second shot.
All dressed up with nowhere to go
By the turn of the millennium, the 8 Series, Continental, Eldorado, SC, and XJS, were no more. Only Mercedes' big CL coupe emerged as the sole survivor - weathering the troubled times thanks to its shared development with the more popular S-Class.
Strangely, while we always assumed that there is a market for big luxury coupes, the genre wouldn’t make a return to the forecourts for a decade and a half. And none would repeat the ambition and audacity seen in the 1990s till the debut of the Lexus LC.
The LC itself could only have existed with Toyota's head honcho, Akio Toyoda being the driving force behind it. Toyoda wanted to create a Lexus flagship that would be worthy of appearing at the upscale Pebble Beach Concours classic car show.
Though the LC delivers on that respect, there isn't really a strong reason for it to be around once the novelty of it dies down. Unfortunately, for Lexus' two-door flagship, its time of reckoning has come.
With every major car manufacturer piling its budgets into electric car development, they need sure sellers to sustain themselves through this transitional period. Hence the focus on SUVs.
As elaborated elsewhere, demographic changes and evolving market conditions meant that the big luxury coupe’s existence is untenable. Today’s customers can’t justify buying such a big, impractical luxury car when an SUV offers far more practicality with a similar level of luxury at a lower price point.
The big luxury coupe has always been the ultimate symbol of individuality and exceptionalism. The purest form of indulgence. With tough and uncertain times ahead, it is an indulgence mainstream manufacturers can ill afford.