After the 1973 Oil Embargo, a buzzword started sweeping through the American automotive industry: “downsizing.” In this case, “less was more” as downsizing introduced a new generation of more rationally-sized vehicles that offered the benefits of their larger predecessors without the added bulk. For the 1977 model year, General Motors was the leader of the movement, with a complete line of downsized full-sized cars. However, Ford also made a major downsizing play for ’77 by shrinking the size—and price—of the Thunderbird. The resulting car, though a stopgap in many ways, was very well received by the press and the public, becoming the most successful ‘Bird ever.
Ford Motor Company was clearly hedging their bets for 1977. The company had enjoyed enormous success with “fancier” small cars in the wake of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. The Mustang II and Granada/Monarch represented profitable repackaging of new “Style” on proven (i.e. older and amortized) platforms. But super-sized cars were still an enormous Detroit cash cow, and Ford was in no mood to go too far out on a limb.
So when it came to time to refresh the Ford Thunderbird and Lincoln Mark IV for 1977, product planners decided on two different directions for FoMoCo’s jumbo personal luxury coupes. The Lincoln Mark V received all-new sheet metal but remained on the XXL body-on-frame platform—a stretched and plumped-up version of the mid-sized chassis—that had been introduced for 1972.
But for the Ford Division’s personal luxury flagship coupe, a new approach—though not too “new”—was deemed to be the best solution. After all, buyers were clamoring for more “efficiency” and the behemoth ‘Bird of ’72 – ’76 had been a relatively slow seller (the Mark IV actually outsold the cheaper Thunderbird in ’75 and ’76). Plus, in the 1970s GM had defined and was dominating the mid-sized Personal Luxury market with top-selling cars like the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
The mammoth ‘Birds from ’72 to ’76 were simply too big and too expensive to effectively compete in the booming mid-sized Personal Luxury class. The smaller and less expensive Chevy Monte Carlo, for example, was outselling the Ford T-Bird by more than 3-to-1 in 1973 (290,693 versus 87,269). Blue Oval dealers were no doubt outraged that their Bowtie competitors were clobbering them in one of the hottest and most profitable market segments of the day.
So for mid-year 1974, Ford fielded a more direct competitor to the GM mid-sized Personal Luxury superstars, a Gran Torino-based coupe replete with a pretentious name—“Elite”—fancy trim and quad opera windows (no better way to one-up the neighbor’s Monte than with two extra “opera” openings). The Elite approach proved to be reasonably successful (as was the very similar Mercury Cougar, which had arrived for the start of 1974 when Mercury’s “Pony Car” moved into the mid-sized category while the Mustang became a puffed-out Pinto and gained a “II” suffix). Ford sold 366,451 Elite coupes from mid-1974 through 1976. Not bad, but nowhere near enough to seriously challenge the GM mid-sized Personal Luxury juggernaut.
But Lee Iacocca, Ford’s maestro of profitable glitz, worked with his minions to sprinkle “magic” on the Personal Luxury segment for 1977. Thus, the Thunderbird was newly reborn as a “trim” mid-sized coupe, serving-up all the expected T-Bird glamour in a more “efficient” package. Unlike GM’s downsized B- and C-Body lines, which were mostly all-new, Ford simply reskinned the Torino Elite, upped the style quotient and slapped on the Thunderbird name. Engine choices for the “new” T-Bird were also familiar fare from smaller Fords, including the base 302 2v V8 and optional 351 2V V8 and 400 2v V8. The larger 460 4V V8, which had been standard on the 1976 Thunderbird, was no longer offered (and no longer needed, due the ‘Bird dropping ~900 pounds). Downsizing at its finest!
Thus the T-Bird became part of Ford’s mid-sized line, which was thoroughly restyled and renamed for 1977. The Torino became the LTD II, including 4-door sedans, 4-door wagons and 2-door coupes. Though the Elite name was gone, the Elite’s face lived on: all LTD II models had frontal styling which closely resembled the earlier car, albeit updated with quad square stacked headlamps—that “oh-so-seventies” styling gimmick.
Dimensionally, the LTD II 2-door hardtop and the Thunderbird were remarkably close, sharing the exact same wheelbase of 114” and the same overall length of 215.5”, though the T-Bird was 0.5” wider (at 78.5”), 0.4” taller (at 53.0”) and about 200 pounds heavier (at 3907 lbs.) than the LTD II. Interior dimensions were also virtually identical, save for trunk space, where the Thunderbird had ~1 cubic foot less room, with a relatively paltry (for the size of the car) 14.2 cubic feet of cargo capacity. These similarities made no difference to buyers, however, for one simple reason: bragging rights. Owners could dazzle their family, friends and co-workers with the proud pronouncement that “I just bought a new Thunderbird!” or they could state “I got an LTD too.” Little wonder that the Thunderbird outsold the LTD II 2-doors by 362%!
In addition to the prestige of the Thunderbird name, the new, smaller ’77 ‘Bird also boasted a smaller price tag. The Thunderbird’s base price dropped a whopping 35%, from $7,790 ($32,337 adjusted) of 1976 to $5,063 ($21,017 adjusted) for 1977. Much of that decrease was due to less luxurious base trim (an austere bench seat became standard, just like the base Monte Carlo), while many features that had been standard in 1976 became optional for 1977. That said, the price cut was actually a brilliant marketing strategy, as the average T-Bird was still likely to be loaded with options (it was a Thunderbird, after all), whether that was bucket seats, and/or Interior and Exterior Décor Groups, or the Interior Luxury Group with velour or leather. Naturally a huge array of comfort and convenience options were on offer, including power windows, power locks, power seats, cruise control, tilt wheel, automatic climate control and fancy (for the time) sound systems and a power moonroof.
Plus for mid-year 1977, a new top-of-the-line Town Landau was introduced, featuring a chrome and stainless steel “tiara” molding across the roof and a full complement of luxury equipment. The Town Landau was essentially equipped like the 1976 standard Thunderbird and was priced like the old car as well, starting at $7,990 ($33,167 adjusted). So Ford really didn’t give up a thing with the price “reduction”—the 1977 Thunderbird was a clever reskin of a very ordinary mid-sized Ford, no doubt cheaper to build than its predecessor, and was likely to be ordered loaded with pricey options. Margin King Iacocca strikes again!
Without a doubt, “personalization” was the name of the game for the Personal Luxury market, and the T-Bird delivered on that beautifully. The car could be ordered in 17 exterior colors, including 4 extra-cost “Glow” metallic paints, plus 8 two-tone combinations, 12 accent stripe colors and 11 vinyl top colors. Inside, Thunderbird choices included 6 solid color interiors or white seats with 7 contrasting trim and carpet shades. In all, there were 107 different interior trim options available, including cloth, vinyl, velour or leather. The odds of even seeing two identical Thunderbirds was surely quite small, which was of course part of the appeal (and very different than the bland conformity of today’s sea of black/grey/white vehicles).
So the new Thunderbird was clearly a smart marketing exercise, but how was it to drive? Both Road Test Magazine and Car and Driver offered extensive tests of two different cars (naturally, few T-Birds were alike!)—were their conclusions different as well?
The Cover of the April 1977 issue of Road Test Magazine pronounced the new ’77 Thunderbird to be the best ‘Bird in the last 15 years. Actually, a comparison to the “Bullet Birds” of 1961-1963 was interesting, since the ’77 model returned to dimensions similar to its early-1960s forebears, after enduring years of bloat. Like previous Thunderbirds, Road Test found the 1977 to be long on style and high on cushy comfort. Unlike the 1976 “Big Bird,” the ’77 offered more responsiveness, better handling and better fuel economy (“better” being relative—the V8 T-Bird was still neither a handler nor efficient). Steering feel, like most 1970s-era FoMoCo products, was dismal, though passenger compartment isolation was tops. Simply put, for flashy cruising, the new ‘Bird was hard to beat. RT’s test car was “mildly optioned” for a Thunderbird, but still sported a $7,667 ($31,826 adjusted) price-tag, far more than the typical LTD II.
As for Car and Driver, their reaction to the new Thunderbird was as surprising as the vintage “Mikey, he likes it!” TV commercial. Among the most iconic ad campaigns of the 1970s, the Life Cereal commercial featured Mikey, the kid “who hates everything!” Like Mikey with breakfast foods, Car and Driver tended to hate big domestic cars. But, once again, like Mikey—who actually wound up enjoying Life Cereal, Car and Driver was unexpectedly complimentary toward the new ‘Bird. Perhaps they were just getting older—C&D Editor-in-Chief David E. Davis was 47 in 1977—and maybe the writers had mellowed a bit, since they now seemed rather seduced by the Thunderbird’s comfortable charms.
Car and Driver’s praise started with the styling of the new ‘Bird. Indeed, the look was striking for the 1970s, with hidden headlamps, full width taillights and a fresh, glassy roofline (refuting the notion that T-Birds had to have enormous blind spots).
Car and Driver was also remarkably kind when it came to the interior, politely noting that “it still bears a strong resemblance to other Ford models, past and present.” The harsh reality was that the instrument panel was exactly the same one that had been featured in the Ford Torino/Mercury Montego since in 1972…
Like Road Test Magazine, Car and Driver found the new Thunderbird to be far nimbler than the old one, though still hardly qualifying as spry. C&D appreciated the fact that some squishiness and isolation had been removed for 1977, making the T-Bird a bit more of a “driver’s” car. Both magazine’s tested cars featured the optional handling suspension, which undoubtedly firmed things up a bit versus the base set-up. Likewise, both test cars also came with the optional 400 2V V8 with 173 horsepower, though the Road Test car was about 1 second quicker to 60 miles-per-hour than the one evaluated by Car and Driver (10.3 seconds versus 11.5 seconds). Either way, performance was in line with the standards of the day for a Personal Luxury cruiser.
But back to style and individuality: Car and Driver’s test car stickered for $7,946 ($32,985 adjusted)—once again well optioned though not fully loaded, likely the way the majority of Thunderbirds were equipped. And that was the real magic of the car: premium priced but not-too-expensive, fully individualized with a design and nameplate that were highly desirable. Plus, the new smaller ‘Bird was trimmer and more agile at a time when Americans really began to value those attributes. It was a good step toward downsizing, and the Buff Books felt that the T-Bird hit the target well.
Buyers agreed, and Ford sold an astounding 318,140 Thunderbirds for 1977, a one-year total that was more than the combined output of the ’72 – ’76 “Big Birds” (299,146 units sold over 5 years). In fact, the downsized T-Bird of ’77 through ’79 was the best selling Thunderbird generation ever, with 955,032 units sold over three model years. Sales for the 1977 Thunderbird were also ~2 ½ times higher than the 1976 Elite (146,475 units sold).
So less really was more for the 1977 Thunderbird. The car may be overlooked by collectors today, but there’s no question it was one of Ford’s greatest (and most profitable) hits of the 1970s. And if I had been shopping for a mid-sized Personal Luxury coupe in 1977, the Thunderbird would probably have been my pick—loaded to the gills of course, with the biggest engine, exterior décor group, interior luxury group with leather and power everything. A new kind of thunder, indeed!
Curbside Classic: 1976 Ford Elite – A Highfalutin’ Hash by J P Cavanaugh