While Ford’s square new Fairmont/Zephyr was beloved by American buff book writers for its engaging handling and functional persona, the U.S. car market in 1978 was still dominated by the Personal Luxury phenomenon, with highly styled 2-door coupes topping the sales charts. So Ford’s “Better Idea” was to transform the frumpy Fairmont/Zephyr into the slightly more rakish Futura/Z-7. Car and Driver was happy to sample the Z-7, Mercury’s version of the “specialty” 2-door in March 1978. How did it fare as an updated take on Personal Luxury?
First, a bit of context on the tumultuous state of the American car market in 1978, as downsizing tore up conventional wisdom about product size and product attributes. General Motors was leading the charge with a new generation of smaller mid-sized cars, including reduced-scale personal luxury coupes, which turned out to be roughly the same size as Ford’s new “compact” Fairmont Futura/Zephyr Z-7.
|78 Monte Carlo||78 Futura/Z-7||78 Thunderbird|
|Cargo Capacity (cubic feet)||16.1||16.1||15.6|
|* All dimensions in inches unless otherwise noted|
The 1978 T-Bird, which had been dimensionally close to the ’77 Monte Carlo, was suddenly huge and impractical in comparison. Downsizing definitely served-up packaging benefits.
However, despite the new smaller size of its cars, GM continued with the traditional formula for Personal Luxury differentiation. While utilizing the same A-Body platform, stylists at each of the GM divisions worked overtime to craft flashy Personal Luxury 2-door variants, with looks that would justify their corresponding higher prices. By design, no one was going to mistake a ’78 Monte Carlo for a ’78 Malibu.
Ford also tried to inject some Personal Luxury style onto its new Fox-Body cars, but they didn’t go nearly as far. The roofline of the ’77 downsized (but still large) Thunderbird served as inspiration for the redesigned rear-quarters on the Fairmont/Zephyr. But something was definitely lost in translation: the Futura/Z-7 looked like stubby, cheap knock-offs of the larger, sleeker Thunderbird.
Around front, however, not much was changed for the modified “high-style” Fox 2-doors. The Ford Futura did get quad headlamps in place of the duals on the Fairmont, but the Mercury versions, which all carried quad lights, offered identical frontal appearance between the Zephy and Z-7. The net effect was a half-baked Personal Luxury car that lost some of the pragmatism of the sedan variants without offering enough in the way of true styling differentiation.
However, buff books like Car and Driver loved the new Fairmont/Zephyr, and generally were less enthused about the trade-offs associated with Personal Luxury cars. So maybe this combination of a “bit” of style with the already well-received Fairmont/Zephyr attributes would prove to be just the ticket.
Sure enough, Car and Driver’s editors did indeed enjoy the new Z-7, though primarily because it didn’t muck up the Fox-Body performance and handling attributes. Hidden in the praise, however, were all the realities that would indicate why the Futura/Z-7 coupes would be less than a stellar success.
Styling was obviously one area where the Z-7 was a bit clunky, which would prove to be a liability for Personal Luxury shoppers. Likewise, the rather spartan interior carried over from the Farimont/Zephyr, which proved to be less appealing than the interior trim upgrades that came along with GM’s mid-sized Personal Luxury coupes. Plus, for pragmatic buyers, the loss of interior room for the sake of style didn’t sit too well. So the Z-7 and Futura wound up being neither fish nor fowl, not really pleasing any of the intended audiences.
Sales were good but not outstanding for the Fairmont/Zephyr-based specialty coupes. With sales of 116,966 in 1978, the Futura accounted for a full 25% of Ford Division’s Fox-Body model mix, while the 44,569 Z-7 sales at Mercury represented 29% of that division’s “Foxes.” So, as “plus” sales for the pragmatic compacts, they did OK. But they didn’t make much of a dent in the overall Personal Luxury market, which continued to be GM’s dominion (and ultimate albatross). And despite their praise, I bet none of Car and Driver’s editors even considered buying a Z-7 or Futura coupe…. which pretty much sums of the reality of this half-step car.
COAL: 1978 Mercury Zephyr Z-7 – My First COAL by James Pastor