Curbside Classic: 1977 Ford Thunderbird – Mark Jr, or It’s All In The Suspension

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Although we like to think of ourselves as complex and multi-dimensional creatures, ultimately we all have one song to sing, one story to tell, one great love of our lives, or in the case of Lee Iaccoca, one car to build. No, that wasn’t the original 1965 Mustang; that was just the warm-up act, although the Mustang’s basic proportions clearly struck a chord with Lee.

The Mustang was a rather short-lived phenomenon, and there were bigger fish to fry, once the final recipe was found. That came along just a few years later, and once Lee saw it, he knew this was it, and spent the rest of his career building it in endless permutations. And this particular Iaccoca-mobile is arguably the most successful of them all.

Mustang 1964.5 -02-03

The Mustang’s long-hood, short-deck proportions topped by a variation of the now-classic Ford coupe roof redefined the American car stylistically more than just about anything else since WWII. It harked back to the classics of the pre-war era, the collective memory of which was still very much alive, if suppressed by the giant finned wonders of the late 50s. And it still lived on in the sports cars of the time. Those proportions were deeply ingrained (if not consciously) into the American psyche, and the Mustang awoke them in a gusher of emotion and dollars.

Although the Mustang had a lasting impact, the pony car/sporty-coupe market quickly settled down to a fairly modest-sized niche, and folks (and Lido) soon hankered for something a bit bigger and age-appropriate.

Lincoln 1968 Conti-Mark-III

In the 1968 Lincoln Continental Mark III, Lee found his true love, or automotive alter-ego, and would spend the rest of his career building variations of it until he was unceremoniously dragged out of Chrysler’s executive suite.  The Mark super-sized the Mustang’s proportions, and crowned it with what would become the signature “Ford Face”, until Ford fell on it and nearly bankrupted itself.

Lincoln 1968 Mark-III-top

It encompassed a prominent faux-classical grill, with dual headlights on each side (hidden, preferably), and bladed fenders that protruded to various degrees. This face would soon adorn just about every Ford, Mercury and Lincoln, short of the smallest economy and sporty cars.

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And never more faithfully than on the ’77 Thunderbird, except for the texture of the grille and the mandatory five-mile bumpers. Lee might have just as well shut down the Ford Design Department and handed the job over to his gaggle of secretaries: cut and paste; stick it into the copier and reduce or expand by x percent. And a bit of snipping on the big C-Pillar, to create the suggestion of variety, if not creativity.

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Girls, now how about we change it up a bit? Let’s move the side window to the back some, and cut out a little opera window into that big B-Pillar.

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No; put a bit of lean to it, before the glue dries. Yes, that’s it! Perfect. We’ll give that one to the Thunderbird, to carry on its tradition of leading-edge design.

Thunderbird 1979 sports decor group

Now girls, last night I had this wild dream about fake luggage straps on the trunk, to give the T-Bird some real design distinction, for a hefty mark-up, of course. Here, take my belt and glue it on there. Go down the hall and grab the first exec you see and grab his. Bingo! We’ll call it…hmm..The Sports Décor package. It is mighty sporty, eh gals?

Thunderbird 1979 Heritage roof

Do you have some bigger vinyl scraps? Oh yea; there’s plenty o’ vinyl layin’ around here. In fact, it’s hard not to trip over it, ever since we fired all the designers and modelers. But Hanky boy does love the effect on the bottom line….Here’s a nice wide chunk; you two drape it over that rear side window; it’s looking a bit too airy for my taste. Ah; perfect! We’ll call it….The Heritage Edition, since it does so evoke the T-Bird Heritage of fine design and big, wide C-Pillars.

Thunderbird 1979 Heritage side-vert 2

Hmm; nice, if I say so myself— which I usually do. But it is getting mighty similar looking to the real Mark. That could be a bit of a pricing problem, given that the base T-Bird is now going for some $5k, and the Mark for two-and-a-half times as much. Shoot, gals; let’s just double the price for this Heritage version, even if it does push it just over the $10k barrier. But look at it positively: Folks’ll think they’re getting a Mark V for 25% off; what a deal! And the money we’ll save by eliminating that rear side window…the profit margin on the Heritage will shoot right through the vinyl roof!

Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca at a News Conference

I’m thinking the time’s right to bring up the idea to Hank about changing the name on the building to Ford & Iaccoca Motors. My sales and profit projections for 1979 and 1980 are out of this world. Time for Hank to get real about who’s really running the show here.

Girls; I am just thrilled about today’s work, especially that Sports Decor package; I’m going to take you all out for drinks and a really nice dinner tonight. …Ford & Iaccoca…hmm…I can see it now…

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Ok; back to reality. Well, I’m not sure we really want to go that far, since suspension of reality was what these cars were all about. Step into one, and the world was suddenly quiet, safe, secure, soft and as far removed from the real world as possible. That suspension included any sensation of the actual road, thanks to Ford’s highly advanced Float-O-Matic suspension system. Ford’s PR folks even came up with a clever line to promote it: Float-O-Matic: putting a whole new meaning into the word suspension. Just best to avoid corners and curves; Ford never did quite figure out how to deal with those annoyances in the seventies.

The stark reality was that the “downsized” 1977 Thunderbird lost 6.4” of wheelbase as well as some 900 lbs from its predecessor, which truly was a Mark IV with a bit of Iaccoca redecorating. Of course, the 1977 Mark V also lost some 500 lbs, despite staying on the 120.4” wheelbase, so the difference between the V and the ’77 T-Bird wasn’t all that great. Fifteen inches in over-all length, and some 600 lbs separated them.

Ford Total performance

You don’t really want to know what was under the hood, do you? Nobody who bought them new cared, so why would you? The years of this generation were the nadir of Ford’s (Total Lack of) Performance era. Ok, no need to point out the obvious or rub Ford’s nose with the fact that their legendary engines now had the lowest hp/displacement ratios in the industry. Who cared; it was still a Thunderbird, even without the thunder, right?

The standard 302 (4.9 L) V8 was rated variously at 130, 133 and 134 net hp. The optional 351 had 135 hp in 1977 and a bump up to 152 for 1978. Two versions of the 351 are listed in my Encyclopedia for 1979, 135 and 151 hp. And the 400 was available in 1977 (173 hp) and 1978 (166 hp). See, that wasn’t so bad after all.

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The Marks and these “mid-sized” Fords all shared the same basic frame design, suspension and undoubtedly parts of their inner body structure. Looking at them suggests that the Mark had longer doors, and probably some extra rear leg room. That was probably a welcome relief to anyone asked to sit back there, as this whole family of Iaccoca-mobile coupes had truly miserable space utilization.

If you were of average height or less, the front was reasonably accommodating. But be tall, and be prepared to be surprised; suddenly you felt like inside a plush ’65 Mustang. Ok, a bit wider, but compared to modern cars these were surprisingly snug. Was Lee short?

Ford design 1955

And I really do feel sorry for the Ford designers who slaved away at the Art Center College of Design creating sleek automotive renderings and models, only to spend the best years of their lives designing faux luggage straps for the back ends of Thunderbirds. If they survived the ordeal, their abilities would soon be uncorked on Ford’s aero-Bird and Taurus.

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The Thunderbird’s shape-shifting ways was a response to market conditions and the fact that its sales had been in descent mode for some years. After a spectacular 100k year in 1960, sales drifted lower, although still in a healthy range, roughly 50-80k. But starting in 1969, sales became weaker and less consistent, dropping to a very poor 36k in 1971. The bigger Mark-ish 1972 and 1973 blipped up some, but that soon dropped off again with the energy crisis.

The T-Bird needed a new major conceptional make-over, as the old one was clearly out of gas. In its glory days, the t-Bird was an aspirational car, both in its design as well as for its buyers. But a watered-down big Mark wasn’t cutting it anymore.

GM had totally upended the whole personal coupe market anyway, with its 1969 Grand Prix and 1970 Monte Carlo—along with the comparable Olds and Buick versions–that quickly dominated this explosively growing segment. By the time the ’77 T-Bird came along, the Olds Cutlass Supreme was the best selling car in the land, selling to the tune of some half million units per year. Iaccoca, the great segment inventor of the sixties got caught with his pants down this time.

Ford 1977 LTD II-01

So the 1977 Thunderbird got its wings trimmed a bit, and its starting price even more so, dropping almost 40%. Of course, a basic 1977 Thunderbird was essentially an LTD II coupe with the Iaccoca T-Bird Décor Package.

Thunderbird 1979 heritage-06

The days of glamorous interiors, bucket seats all-round and giant chromed consoles were long gone. The optional high-trim packages slathered on the plush velour and marshmallow padding, at a hefty price. And then only For the discerning collector.

The result was explosive: 318k in 1977; over 350k in 1978; and a still strong 284k in 1979. These cars were by far the most successful Thunderbirds ever, in terms of sales. The very pathetically styled 1980 Box Fox Bird that followed was an unmitigated disaster; by 1982, some 45k were sold, begged off, or given away. Even the aero-Bird couldn’t come close to matching the Mark Jr’s numbers, selling some 150-170k in its best years.

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Iaccoca just caught the tail end of the mid-sized premium personal coupe boom, and held on to it for too long, at Ford’s great peril. GM’s heroic downsizing meant substantially smaller cars in this segment for 1978, which actually may well be why the T-Bird sold so well that year, as some buyers wanted to stick with the old size a bit longer. Nevertheless, the ’78 Monte Carlo alone outsold the T-Bird that year, never mind the other four GM G-Bodies. And when the huge run-up in gas prices hit in 1980, and high interest rates triggered a nasty recession, Ford’s line-up of Iaccoca-mobiles fell off a cliff, pushing Ford to near bankruptcy.

Lee should count his lucky stars that Hank didn’t like his idea of adding his name to the Blue Oval (or whatever it really was) and gave him the boot, on July 13, 1978 (too bad it wasn’t a Friday too). Ford minted $2 billion in profits that year, on the strength of the Diamond Jubilee Edition (also twice the price of a base T-Bird) and the other Iaccoca-mobiles. But then it all collapsed, and Henry II had to scramble to keep the lights on and his own name on the building.

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The Ford baroque era soon gave way to the aero era, the designers were let out of the closet, and the company managed not only to right itself under the able leadership of Donald Petersen, but soon became a profit machine and a Wall Street darling. But in that final blow-out of the Ford Iaccoca-mobiles, this Thunderbird played a special role: It epitomized the genre in both its best and worst aspects: It was eminently affordable, made Ford tons of money, and had absolutely no future. But wafting down the straight open road in one, it could suspend reality: honey, this might as well be a Mark V! And isn’t that the whole point?