(first posted 3/16/2011). Headline superlatives are a slippery slope, but I’m standing on pretty solid ground here: This is the car that completely changed the marketplace, the car that launched what I have dubbed the Great Brougham Epoch. Hail what may well be the single most influential American car of the whole modern era.
Pretty strong words, and our featured CC two-door without the vinyl roof doesn’t make the best example (this four door is more representative), but hear me out. Prior to the LTD’s arrival in 1965, “luxury” was just not an overtly promoted quality in the low price brands, largely in deference to the more expansive brands in the Big Three’s portfolios. That’s what Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Imperials were for.
Sure, the word “luxurious” might have made it into the ads for the high-trim models to separate them from the strippers, but that was a very relative term of the use. Up until 1965, all the top trim models usually sported shiny vinyl upholstery, preferably in the shape of bucket seats, like this 1964 Galaxie XL; and that includes the top line Pontiac Bonneville and most Buicks and Olds, except for their very top sedans. In 1964, vinyl roofs were still mighty scarce.
That largely reflected the times: in the late fifties and early sixties lots of folks were sitting on vinyl chairs and couches at home too. The 1959 Cadillac De Ville brings that home: very casual, if not downright sporty, in the golf club sense of the word. Of course, there was the Fleetwood Sixty Special sedan and such by Lincoln and Imperial. But suddenly in 1965, here comes Lee Iaccoca pushing a radical notion indeed: a new definition of luxury, one that was way ahead of its times. Or just reflected the changing taste of the times.
This notion of affordable luxury was a huge cultural shift that deeply influenced design for decades to come. That included our houses, interior furnishings, and so much else. This came to bloom in the seventies and the seeds really popped in the eighties. And it really hasn’t fully ended yet: let’s face it, today’s Lincolns are much more of a true successor to the Ford LTD than the 1961 Continental, which is why I called the ’65 Conti “The Last Great Luxury Car,” even if it didn’t have a padded vinyl roof or velour upholstery.
The 1965 LTD was not really a separate model until 1967; it started as a trim package available for the Galaxie 500. And not a cheap one: for an extra 20% over the price of the Galaxie 500, one got different upholstery in a peculiarly sheer and softly-textured synthetic fabric that’s commonly been referred to as “panty cloth”; nothing like the re-upholstered seats in this car.
This may be another car for which it might be difficult to ever find an exact replacement fabric.
Past the softer seats, some extra sound padding and the standard 289 (4.7 L) V8 and automatic, the LTD’s additional content was heavy on the badging. The important thing was to let your neighbor know you’d bought an LTD, not just any old Ford.
And Ford brazenly started comparing the LTD with the Rolls Royce, including the famous “Quieter than a Rolls Royce” tv ad.
Here’s a more flattering picture of that rear seat. Now that could look straight out of a Lincoln or Cadillac brochure. Yes, this was a whole new ball game. And what relevant role was Mercury ever to play again in Ford’s future? The LTD was Mercury’s death sentence.
The direct competition instantly knew what they had to do: rush out their own LTD packages, as quick as possible. Chevrolet’s Caprice package arrived as a mid-year option for the Impala, and Plymouth trotted out their VIP, and even AMC trotted out a DPL. The acronyms of success were rolling off the marketing men’s lips like schoolboys reciting the ABC.
But that was just the opening salvo. The ’65 LTD marked the great turning point, when sporty became passe, or just the playthings of guys who knew the difference. Sure, the final days of the golden sixties performance era were still just ahead in 1965, but the LTD was already looking beyond that, right into the mid-seventies. A true visionary.
It foreshadowed the era when emission controls and high insurance rates all but killed true performance cars. But that wasn’t the real market anyway; the overwhelming majority of Mustangs and Camaros had low level V8s or sixes. It was all about the image. And the sporty image is what had increasingly predominated since the early fifties.
That started with the little MGs and such the GIs brought home after the war. Within a few years, it couldn’t be ignored, hence the Corvette and original two-passenger Thunderbird. And by 1961, it was in full bloom: bucket seats and floor shifts were everywhere, even if it was for a two-speed Powerglide hooked to a six.
The popular 1961 Corvair Monza gets a big helping of credit. Right on its heels, Chevrolet released the SS option for its big cars: buckets, console, etc.. and a six was still the base engine. And everyone else plunged in too. The Mustang was the explosion. Ironically, the LTD arrived only some six months after the Mustang. All too quickly, it upset the sporty applecart, and the trappings of luxury were the thing to have in your driveway.
I don’t have the resources to do a full cultural survey, but I can’t help but wonder if the 1965 LTD’s influence was even greater than we give it credit for in the automotive realm. Did the whole cultural shift from sparse and modern design…
…to the seventies’ growing taste for velour, dark wood paneling, and other trappings of luxury in our homes and offices start right here? Was Lee Iaccoca that much of a genius? Or did he just feel the earliest winds blowing in that direction and set sail sooner than anyone else? It was in the air, but brilliant, either way.
And not without its danger, as the LTD upset the traditional “Sloanian Ladder” as had been practiced by all of the Big Three since the late thirties.
Obviously, the LTD didn’t bequeath its actual name to the Great Brougham Epoch; the “LTD Epoch” just doesn’t have the right ring. And of course, the brougham name had long been used by Cadillac for its very top sedans.
Even Nash used it during the its bathtub era; possibly others. But the name was revived in the true sense of the modern word by no less than Pontiac, who started using it on their top-tier Bonneville in 1964. But that car didn’t make any significant impact; in fact, I’d long forgotten that it existed until recently. It was just a case of Pontiac reaching up even further into Olds 98 and Electra 225 territory. Let’s call it the prophet of the Great Brougham Epoch.
But the fact that the long-exclusive Brougham name soon graced the most pedestrian of cars is what this Epoch is all about. So now we also have to define when it ended; vinyl roofs are no longer available from the factory for current cars. Certainly, the Lincoln Town Car was the last living dinosaur of the Brougham Epoch.
Of course, in certain parts of the country (I’m looking at you, Florida), dealer installed vinyl-roofs are still selling.
The ’65 LTD is an excellent precursor to our CC Complete Cutlasss Chronicles, because the Cutlass Supreme appeared just two years after the LTD, and was perhaps the first overtly luxurious mid-size car model, and went on to dominate the Brougham Epoch. Stay tuned…
The mechanical details of the LTD are boring and largely irrelevant. It seems (from memory) that the biggest majority of them came with the first-step optional 250 hp 352 FE (5.8 L) V8, due to Ford’s inability to keep up with 289 V8 production thanks to the Mustang’s unexpected sales success. Along with the Cruise-O-Matic, the combination suited the LTD well enough in a way, as Ford’s major efforts to soften and hush the ride of its all-new ’65 full-sized cars resulted in the beginning of another era: the Great Wallowing Big Fords Epoch. A driver’s car the LTD was not.
The 240 six was not available on the LTD, but in addition to the standard 289 and optional 352 and 390 FEs, the very gnarly 425hp 427 was also available, only with a four-speed stick. Now that would be the one to have gotten.
Maybe that’s the real reason the LTD was created; trying to sell the sport qualities of the new ’65s would have been a stretch. The Ford Total Performance Era was already fragmenting before it reached its peak. And the Great Brougham Epoch wouldn’t need all that expensive racing to make its point. Charging 20% more for a different upholstery and a handful of badges was a hell of a lot more profitable too; Ford sold over 100k of the LTD packages in that first year alone. No wonder the whole industry piled in, and quickly. It didn’t take a genius to see that the profit margins were intoxicating.
Well, that was my original theory. Having had a bit more time to reflect on the LTD’s creation, the answer is pretty obvious: after having exploded the Ford line-up with the compact Falcon, intermediate Fairlane and sport Mustang, Lee Iacocca must have had concerns about the waning desirability of the full size cars in this era of fragmentation. Full-size cars had always been the bread-and-butter, and undoubtedly the most profitable. Despite the obvious impact to Mercury, Ford undoubtedly felt that the LTD would put the shine back on its full-size cars.
And unlike GM, Ford could only hurt Mercury, whereas Chevy’s Caprice would step on the toes of Pontiac, Olds and Buick; even Cadillac, to some extent. Of course, this strategy worked for a while, but all too soon, big cars lost their luster, and permanently. The Brougham crown would soon be passed to mid-size cars like the Cutlass Supreme. But the LTD’s impact would be felt for decades; has it truly ended?
All hail Lee Iaccoca, Sir LTD and Emperor of the Great Brougham Epoch!