(how is it that in almost ten years we’ve never covered this car?)
In 1965, the Ford LTD launched The Great Brougham Epoch. And those iconic three letters—whose true origins or meaning will never be divined because they are of an occult nature—came to stand for all the symbology of that era: big, heavy, wallowing, boxy sedans sitting on frames and topped with poofy vinyl wigs, interiors upholstered in “panty-cloth” or tufted velour upholstery and slathered with faux wood, and commonly sporting Pep Boys-grade fake wire wheel covers. Yet in 1983, the LTD moniker was suddenly kidnapped from that dying dinosaur and grafted onto something altogether different: a rather compact, lithe and decidedly Euro-inspired unibody sedan with very obvious aerodynamic aspirations.
Let’s just say the winds of change were blowing, all the way to Dearborn.
The 1965 LTD launched a turning point in the history of the American car, and was one of Lee Iaccoca’s greatest and most influential hits. The packaging of the blatant visual cues of luxury on and in what had always been a low-cost sedan line was a breakthrough, and its characteristics would come to utterly dominate the American market, as well as influence the global one.
It was a very astute business move, as it pulled Ford’s big sedans out of the sales slump they were in all during the early 60s, and brought them significantly closer to parity with the full-size Chevrolet, even surpassing it in 1970 and 1971. The LTD name came to stand for the most desirable full-size affordable sedan, knocking the Impala nameplate out of its long-held throne.
And the LTD’s hallmarks would soon be seen all through the Ford line, even in Iaccoca’s other great hit, the Mustang, in the form of the Mustang II Ghia. If there’s any doubt, this confirms that the LTD was the more influential of the two.
Before we talk about how the LTD name was cleft from the breast of its true namesake, let’s make sure we’re perfectly clear about what the 1983-1985 Fox-LTD is: a Fairmont that had a quick trip through the wind tunnel on the way to the sound-deadening shop. But the 1978 Fairmont was conceived with a very different mission than the LTD; one could say quite the opposite. It was a rather bare-bones and lightweight Volvo/Euro Ford-inspired update on the original Falcon concept, designed to compete in the compact class against the more modern FWD compacts about to be spewed by the millions from GM’s (with an assist by Chrysler) factories until Ford could build its own FWD compact. Which meant that its original brief was a bit transitory.
It did stick around through 1983, after which it was replaced by the FWD Tempo. But its sales, which had been very strong in its first two years, were rather modest by that time. The smaller FWD Escort had already made some of its original brief redundant.
The 1975 Granada, which was essentially the LTD concept downsized, was another feather in Iaccoca’s rapidly-swelling cap. We recently crowned it as “The Most Malaise Car Ever”, thanks to its 1960 Falcon underpinnings, feeble six, and poor performance and handling. But it was a hot seller in its first couple of years, like almost all new Lido-mobiles. By 1980 though, its sales had shriveled up to under 100k.
Since the Granada was anything but space or fuel efficient, in 1981 it was reincarnated on the Fairmont’s Fox platform. And Iaccoca finally had his broughamy-way with the Fairmont, whose clean Euro-inspired styling undoubtedly was foisted on him by the Euro-centric executive wing at the glass house. “Built for a changing world”? 1970s brougham styling grafted onto a boxy RWD Fairmont? Sure, except the world was changing in a very different direction.
The Fox-Granada’s rather gruesome re-style, an almost perfect 9/10 version of the genuine (Panther-platform) LTD, was not well received. But then the Panther LTD wasn’t exactly a hit in its early years either. Ford’s top-heavy, small-footed styling was in as deep a funk as was Ford stock, which hit 68 cents in 1981, the year Ford almost went bankrupt.
Iaccoca had been determined to keep pushing the boxy LTD look, but during Ford’s downsizing it came off as clumsy. GM’s downsized ’77 B/C and ’78 A Bodies were boxy out of necessity too, but came of much better; we’ve covered that contentious issue here. If a Fox platform car ever deserved to wear the LTD moniker, it was this mini-me version. The Granada name was presumed to still have some brand equity, and Lee was still at the helm when these decisions were made.
But he was long gone by the time these final Iaccoca-mobiles hit the market. On July 13, 1978, Henry Ford II fired him after Lee got a bit to presumptuous, and replaced him with Phillip Caldwell as President (middle), and with Donald Petersen as COO (right). By 1980, Petersen was president, and Caldwell had replaced HFII as CEO (in 1979), and even as chairman in 1980. Hank was finally ready to hand the reins of the family company to a non-Ford, a first since John Gray held them in 1906. And it sure wasn’t going to be to Lee Iaccoca.
Just as well, as desperate Chrysler embraced him and the Iaccoca-look with open arms. There’s no question Lee was the right person at the right time to bully Congress into bailing out the mortally-wounded company with a fat loan guarantee. And the K cars were the right car at the right time, despite them looking like a shrunken LTD. It was the safe way to package such a relatively bold new small FWD American sedan. No more Airflows, thank you.
Meanwhile back at Ford, Petersen, a thoughtful, understated and deliberate engineer, and in every way the opposite of Iaccoca, pursued two primary objectives: First, improved quality through the adoption of Deming’s well-known principles that had long become a religion in Japan. Ford had a lot of catching up to do with the first task, but “Quality is Job 1” came to stand for something, and was a critical component of Ford’s remarkable turnaround in the 80s.
The second, aerodynamics, was of course for the obvious functional benefits of fuel efficiency, but there’s no doubt Petersen and Ford saw it also as a way to make a clean stylistic break with the Iaccoca-brougham era, and redefine Ford for a new decade that emphasized new qualities. (My tribute to how Petersen saved Ford is here)
Of course in Europe aerodynamics had long played a significant role, especially at pioneering companies like Citroen. But when conservative Mercedes adopted a decidedly more aerodynamic form for their new W126 S Class in 1979, the writing was on the wind tunnel wall.
Ford’s Probe 1, built by Ghia and based on a turbocharged Fox-Mustang, came out that same year, and was the first in a line of ever-more slippery Probe concepts. Its Cd of .22 was radical for the time, and allowed it to deliver twice the fuel economy of a typical 2+2 sporty coupe of the time.
The fruition of Ford’s new aero-love showed up in the showrooms a few years later. In September of 1982, the European Sierra, later sold in the US as the Merkur XR4Ti, previewed what we would see on the 1984 Tempo, more or less.
And that same fall in the US, Ford officially launched Aero-Era with the dramatic 1983 Thunderbird. The Great Brougham Epoch was now over, as far as Ford was concerned. Well, not completely, of course.
The brougham formerly known as the LTD was now renamed LTD Crown Victoria, and continued on its boxy way for some more years as a tribute to Lee Iaccoca and the era the original LTD had spawned, until it was finally replaced with the aerodynamic CV in 1992. And that didn’t go over well with its increasingly geriatric clientele, so it soon sported a chrome grille and then a more formal roof line. Those LTD genes were hard to kill.
As a semi-aerodynamic companion to the Thunderbird, Ford gave the boxy Granada the heave-ho, did some aero-tweaks to the Fairmont, ditched the Granada name, and in a questionable move, bestowed the prized LTD moniker on the resulting car. The ad makes it quite clear that Ford was stretching a bit in calling it an LTD. Shrinking, actually.
Just how much of an actual improvement the aerodynamic refinement made is probably academic. But clearly the new LTD was intended to make the most of its time on the EPA dynometer. The standard engine was nothing less (how could it be) than the Lima 2.3 four, now up to 90hp. The ancient Falcon 200 (3.3 L) six making 92hp was optional, as was the brand new 3.8 L V6 (110hp), available with the new AOD Clunk-O-Matic transmission. Some sources show the lo-po 302 V8 as available in 1983, but not the initial brochure. It wasn’t available in ’84 and ’85 either, except in the LX (more on that later). Let’s just say that in 1983 Ford’s Mailase-era drive trains were struggling to keep up with the new dynamic aero look. Or was the idea that they wouldn’t have to struggle quite as hard, thanks to the improved aerodynamics?
As a sop to brougham lovers who weren’t quite ready to go cold turkey, there was even a Brougham version. Americans don’t turn on a dime, when it comes to their cars, as Chrysler found out at its peril in 1934 and 1962.
And digging a bit further, in the 1984 LTD brochure is this throwback. Oh my…the internal battles at Ford between the brougham bros and the aero dudes must have been epic.
But it was obvious who was really winning the war despite losing a few skirmishes. Petersen took driving seriously, and became an avid student of the Bondurant School of High performance driving. Not surprisingly, Bondurant quickly switched to Ford Mustang GTs and the new LTD/LX, a package that was essentially a Mustang GT four door sedan.
The LTD/LX was a vindication of the Fox Body’s superb adaptability, something that had not been seen ever before to this degree, covering the gamut from economy sedans (Fairmont), sporty cars (Mustang), and luxury sedans (Lincoln Continental and Mark VII), and quite a few iterations in between. The LTD and its LX versions were just two more along the way. Fox enthusiasts have been having fun with its plug-and-play capabilities ever since.
Essentially the Fox-LTD was just a place holder for Ford in the hot mid/large sized sedan segment until its aero-wunder Taurus arrived for 1986. Of course the Taurus redefined that segment, and quickly came to dominate it, until it self-destructed due to the shocking stupidity of Ford’s ugly re-style in 1996. What a way to kill the goose that was laying the golden egg, year after year. But that was long after Petersen was retired.
So that’s the history of how the Fox-LTD came to play the role of the automotive St. John: “Repent brougham-lovers, for the reign of aerodynamics is at hand”. A transitional car, in form, if not in name.
I had a bit of a soft spot for this LTD in its day, but the name sure bugged me, which alone would have kept me from buying one. Me, drive an LTD? In Santa Monica in 1983? Perish the thought. So what would have been a better name for it?
Of course I did buy an ’83 TBird Turbo Coupe, given what a sucker I was for aerodynamics and high-tech turbos at the time. But the minute I opened the door on it, I was faced with a dashboard that was all-too similar to this one. Ford’s renaissance was a bit cash-squeezed, and Fox-body building blocks had to be shared, all over the place.
The back seat area was of course not shared with the Thunderbird, and was a reasonably-comfortable place to be, unless one was spoiled by really big cars. Ford’s upholstery and interior parts were showing signs of improvement, and these cars generally gave the impression of being pretty well screwed together, for the times and country of origin. They certainly felt a bit more substantial than the early Fairmonts, and weighed about 300 lbs more as a consequence. But a base LTD sedan still weighed in at just under 3,000 lbs.
I’m rather amazed at how these cars have disappeared from the street-scape here. I looked in my files, and saw that I did shoot this one back in 2009, which is pretty apparent from the CCs in the background. But I just never got around to writing it up. I think I was waiting to find an LX. Good luck with that.
And it appears to be a Brougham version, too.
Which is confirmed by the interior, although that steering wheel is not stock.
And then there’s this Mercury version which I shot in 2010, and also never posted. Mercury played the same game as Ford, bestowing the prized Marquis name on it, and escalating its donor to Grand Marquis as a consolation.
You will not be surprised to know that the Fox-Marquis wasn’t exactly a roaring success, just barely cracking the 100k mark in its second and third year. But then what Mercuries were? Since you asked, the Sable had some pretty decent years, with sales in the 115k to 130k or so range.
For that matter, the Fox-LTD wasn’t exactly a huge success either, but it certainly helped fill an ugly hole in the line-up after the early demise of the Fox-Granada. Sales amounted to 156k, 205k, and 216k over its three-year run. And that’s only slightly worse than the Taurus in its less-than-full-year maiden 1986 outing, when it sold 237k times. In 1987 Taurus sales really took off.
The youthful owner of this car strolled up as I was shooting, and he told me he has big plans for it, including a “restoration”, and that supposedly he has a buyer who will pay big bucks for it after it’s restored. This gauge was laying on the hood at the time, and somehow I forgot to get the full story on it.
I do know where he bought it, as there is a shot at the Cohort by Curtis Perry of it sitting on a car lot in Portland. The dorky wheel covers were the instant give-away. It’s a small world after all.
I forgot to ask the owner what’s under the hood. Technically, the 2.3 four was still listed as the base engine, but it’s hard to imagine anyone buying one by this time. So undoubtedly it’s the 3.8 Head-Gasket-Blow-O-Matic. Or were these earlier versions of the 3.8 somehow more immune to that terminal contagion?
So there it is, Ford’s transition-mobile, with one wheel in the Brougham Era, one wheel in the Volvo-boxy era, another in the Aero-Era, and the fourth wheel in the V8 performance sedan era. Did I miss another? Fortunately there was someone at the steering wheel that could manage to make it all work as well as it did. Which it sort of did, somehow.