Modern car production is characterized by juggling an increasing number of rules to follow. Market necessities, production costs, corporate plans, regional preferences, emission levels, safety standards… the task of designing a new car is becoming more challenging by the year. However, things have not always been this way.
Decades ago, rules were simpler, competition was limited to each automaker’s home country, technology was scarce, and urban cars were affordable to few. Some countries were also going through a prosperous financial moment, such as the USA, so there was a completely different demand for cars than what we observe now around the world.
This time, we are going to analyze a specific market niche that found space to prosper in such a scenario. The term “land yacht” is commonly used to refer to car models that dictated the luxury market’s tendencies from the 1950s to the early 1970s. The pictures show only some of the multiple examples that were designed and released at the time.
What makes a car a land yacht?
In short, high-end cars with big engines, smooth rides, plush cabins, and large bodies — you guessed it, typically North American. Petrol used to be accessible and cheap there, so many cars used huge V8 engines with enough torque to be paired to automatic transmissions of only three speeds. Fuel consumption was simply not easily mentioned back then.
Smooth ride was another distinctive trait. Most of those cars were available in market segments that prioritized luxury at a time when the idea of luxury was based on sheer ostentation. Makers pursued absolute peace inside by isolating the cabin from any external noise or vibration regardless of how much overall handling and even safety were harmed.
Considering that land yachts targeted wealthy buyers, it is easy to understand how luxury-oriented they were. Cadillac, Imperial, Lincoln, and less relevant rivals applied nothing but the finest materials and paired them to the highest-quality finishing. Besides, those cars were often the first to use items like A/C, power steering, and electronic injection.
What about the large bodies?
This is where it gets intriguing: the excessive size was fashionable! The photos show that the cabins only took around half of the overall length while the low waistline minimized trunk space; land yachts were wide and long just because people enjoyed them that way. Many used visual extensions on front and rear, like tailfins, to look even longer.
Conventions back then welcomed sedans for the city, station wagons for road trips, convertibles for leisure rides, and coupés for personal luxury, which was yet another note-worthy niche. With such long hood and trunk, some of them look quite disproportional for today’s standards, but that was exactly what the people wanted up to the early 1970s.
This trend prospered mostly in North America because of the local culture and the abundance of open roads; in Europe, different demands made automakers invest in fewer models with other goals: the Mercedes-Benz 600 was designed to be driven by its owner, while Rolls-Royce resorted to coachbuilding to offer exclusivity to its customers.
How did things come to an end?
The North American passion for exuberant cars helped land yachts move from the opulent tailfins of the fifties to the futuristic discretion of the sixties and to the boxy shapes of the seventies. That was easy because it consisted of simply adapting to what people wanted. Things became difficult once the problem became what people needed.
The global oil crises forced the automotive industry to save fuel and that had a direct impact on cars’ sizes: smaller bodies have lower weight, require smaller engines, and consume less energy as it had become necessary all of a sudden. People changed their demands and automakers had to adapt as quickly as possible in order to cut their losses.
As if it was not enough, the rise of compact cars made people realize how hard it was to steer land yachts especially in city centers. Besides that, globalization made people interact with cars of all around the country, and that led them to experience how exciting cars can be without anesthetized suspensions such as those in this market niche.
Such a fast sinkage
Companies had to replace those models so quickly that it was even difficult to plan what to do next. Some were replaced with different ones, others had new generations with downsized platforms, and others soldiered on with the land yacht concept. Unfortunately, the latter had the shortest life cycle of them all and were axed in the late 1970s.
Those models lost appeal because people’s needs changed and that happened because they were forced to look for others. Over time, society learned how to embrace other qualities in a high-end car, such as dynamic control, electronic amenities, and balanced external design. The European school became much more influential in the 1980s.
Nowadays, we can say that the “ideal” luxury car is changing again. Energetic efficiency became more relevant than ever, pure ostentation is frowned upon, and there are design trends coming from multiple automakers and countries. North Americans are still fond of large vehicles, but even their taste has gone through many changes over time.
Land yachts are a symbol of how excessive the automotive industry used to be especially in North America. Their slow rise and quick fall are a good example of how the concept of car is nothing but a reflection of the difficulties societies undergo. What else do you know about them? Feel free to share your ideas by using the comment button below!