Vintage Reviews: Motor Trend’s 1977 New Car Issue – AMC and Car Sales Results By Category

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American Motors Corporation was in a sad state for 1977.  The radical Pacer was proving to be a bulbous bust, while the rest of the lineup was ancient.  Still Motor Trend did spend a bit of ink highlighting the changes for the new model year.  However, nothing was enough to pull AMC products up from the bottom echelons of any vehicle category.  Read on to see AMC’s sob story along with car sales rankings by category.

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You are looking at the biggest changes from AMC for 1977.  “What?  Where?” you say?  Well, look at that bold new Gremlin grille (unseen in the picture were the revised tail lights and hatch opening)!  The freshening failed to raise sales on the old design, and unit volume dropped 13%.  Still, that was far better than the far newer Pacer, originally intended to be AMC’s savior.  There wasn’t much market for the oxymoronic “wide small car” and the new-for-1977 wagon body style may have helped cargo room but didn’t improve looks or weight.  Buyers stayed away in droves, and annual sales plunged 50% compared to ’76.

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Was older better?  Well, the basically unchanged Hornet, looking much the same as it did when introduced in 1970, was AMC’s biggest selling car line and the only one to post a year-over-year increase (+9%).  Designs for the Matador and the Jeep both dated back to the 1960s.  Still wearing what was possibly the world’s worst facelift ever–the circa-1974 schnoz job–the Matador limped out of 1977 with sales off 26%.  Jeeps were also ancient, but at least they were cool, purpose-built vehicles.  Long is the list of companies that the Jeep division has saved through the years–AMC was but one…

As for car sales in 1977, American Motors could not have been thrilled with the 25% drop.  Here are gory details:

Hornet  77,843
Pacer  58,264
Gremlin  46,171
Matador  30,847

 

Not only did AMC’s 213,125 units trail all Big 3 rivals–the beleaguered 4th place domestic company also ranked behind leading imports in U.S. sales for 1977: Datsun (488,217–includes trucks), Honda (223,633), Toyota (439,048), and VW (262,932).  The ultimate irony, of course, was that during the 1970s the market had shifted to smaller cars, which had been AMC’s primary focus since its inception.  Yet by 1977 the company was so cash-strapped and the products were so dated or unsuccessful (or both) that it failed to take advantage of the trend and continued to falter.

So now that we’ve seen the 1977 new car offerings from the “Detroit 4,” let’s take a look at the sales rankings by category (and look for AMC products at or near the bottom in each…).  In the 1967 New Car Buyers Guide Issue, Motor Trend had grouped the products by category as follows:

  • Specialty (including Personal Luxury, Pony Cars and Corvette)
  • Intermediates
  • Luxury and Full Size
  • Compacts

How would this market mix compare 10 years later?  Well, for starters, we need to make a few adjustments.  First, the Specialty Category as defined by MT in ’67 needs to be further segmented, because Pony Cars–hot in 1967–had withered, while Personal Luxury cars had exploded by 1977.  Also, the 1970s saw U.S. makers entering the Subcompact market in a big way, so that breakout must be added for 1977.  So with those changes made, the following two pie charts contrast share of sales by segment between 1967 and 1977:

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Several key changes stand out.  First off, sales of the biggest cars had declined dramatically, with all of that decline coming from traditional Full Size cars.  Even with the introduction of the all-new downsized GM big cars, that segment remained a fraction of its former size.  The other huge shift was the explosion of the Personal Luxury category, which went from 3% of the market in 1967 to 22% in 1977.  Virtually all of that growth was from mid-sized cars, hence the decline in the Intermediate Category between ’67 and ’77 as buyers shifted to the “high-style” personal luxury intermediates.  The Compact segment enjoyed a renaissance, driven by the dramatic changes in buyer preferences unleashed during the 1970s.  Adding in the Subcompact segment (not a factor in 1967) and the small cars accounted for almost as much of the market as traditional full-size models.  The Pony Car category, another Detroit invention, also shrank, as many buyers opted for more economical imported sporty cars or subcompacts.  Speaking of imports, according to Ward’s Automotive Reports, sales for foreign built cars topped 2 million units for 1977 (most of them small cars), showing even more clearly how the American market was hungry for rationally sized, efficient cars.

Now let’s take a look at sales volume for each of these categories by nameplate.  Some of the results will surprise you!

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Ford LTD  343,318
Chevrolet Caprice Classic  284,813
Chevrolet Impala  254,916
Cadillac DeVille  234,171
Oldsmobile Delta 88  213,851
Buick LeSabre  190,726
Buick Electra  161,627
Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight  139,423
Mercury Marquis  135,669
Chevrolet Impala/Caprice Wagon  121,932
Pontiac Bonneville  114,880
Lincoln Continental  95,600
Ford LTD Wagon/Country Squire  90,711
Chrysler New Yorker Brougham  62,127
Pontiac Catalina  61,678
Chrysler Newport  57,880
Cadillac Seville  46,212
Dodge Royal Monaco  36,101
Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser  32,827
Pontiac Safari/Grand Safari  31,362
Plymouth Gran Fury  29,929
Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham  28,000
Buick Estate Wagon  25,075
Mercury Marquis Wagon/Colony Park  20,363
Lincoln Versailles  15,434
Chrysler Town & Country  7,275
Plymouth Gran Fury Suburban  6,236
Dodge Royal Monaco Wagon  5,732
Cadillac Fleetwood Limousine  2,614

 

Yes, it’s true–the Ford LTD actually topped the Chevrolet Caprice Classic as the best selling nameplate in the Full Size category for 1977.  No question, Chevrolet dominated the category in terms of total big car sales, but Chevy’s results were divided between two nameplates, not one.  So the LTD nameplate technically won, since all big Ford were dubbed LTDs and there was no such thing as an Impalacaprice.

The other interesting statistic in this category is how well the Cadillac DeVille sold–once again, on a nameplate basis, it ranked just behind the best selling Ford and Chevrolet big cars and ahead of all the other GM B- and C-Bodies.  Arguably too much volume for what was supposed to be an expensive, “exclusive” car, but the short-term profits were no doubt irresistible.

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Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Coupe  424,343
Chevrolet Monte Carlo  411,038
Ford Thunderbird  318,140
Pontiac Grand Prix  288,430
Buick Regal Coupe  174,560
Chrysler Cordoba  163,138
Mercury Cougar XR-7  124,799
Lincoln Continental Mark V  80,321
Chevrolet Corvette  49,213
Cadillac Eldorado  47,344
Dodge Charger SE  36,204
Buick Riviera  26,138
Oldsmobile Toronado  24,304

 

The Cutlass Supreme continued to reign over the Personal Luxury Category, though the Chevrolet Monte Carlo wasn’t far behind.  It it wasn’t for the new, trimmer Ford Thunderbird, GM would have had a clean sweep at the top of the mid-sized personal luxury market.

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Chevrolet Chevelle  328,216
Ford LTD II  232,324
Oldsmobile Cutlass  208,399
Buick Century  153,636
Plymouth Fury  94,813
Pontiac LeMans  81,391
Mercury Cougar  70,024
Dodge Monaco  63,684
AMC Matador  30,847

 

There were plenty of Chevrolet Chevelle models to choose from–including base cars that retained dual round headlamps–which may have accounted for its resounding popularity in the Intermediate segment, well ahead of the “new” LTD II.  Pity poor AMC–the frumpy Matador (pathetically out-of-date by 1977) landed at the bottom of the category.

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Ford Granada  390,579
Chevrolet Nova/Concours  365,264
Plymouth Volare  327,739
Dodge Aspen  266,012
Mercury Monarch  127,697
Buick Skylark  113,472
Ford Maverick  98,506
Pontiac Ventura/Phoenix  90,764
AMC Hornet  77,843
Oldsmobile Omega  63,984
AMC Pacer  58,264
Chrysler LeBaron  46,100
Dodge Diplomat  34,214
Mercury Comet  21,545

 

Even with its sales tumble for 1977, the Granada still ranked at the top of the Compact category, though the  Chevrolet Nova/Concours was quite strong too.  I added the mid-year Chrysler LeBaron and Dodge Diplomat to this category–they were really “tweeners” straddling the Compact and Intermediate segments.  However, by 1977 standards they were considered “small” (ironic since the M-Body Mopar would soon be seen as “mid size” and even “full size” in the 1980s).

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Chevrolet Camaro  218,853
Pontiac Firebird  155,736
Ford Mustang II  153,173
Chevrolet Monza  73,348
Mercury Capri II  60,000
Pontiac Sunbird  55,398
Buick Skyhawk  24,004
Oldsmobile Starfire  19,091

 

Compared with 1967, the Pony Car segment had lost a lot of its “kick” by 1977.  Only the top-selling Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird remained as reminders of the original concept, with a sporty compact body housing an array of powertrains so it could be equipped from “mild” to “wild.”  All the other players in the category, including the Mustang II, were sporty subcompacts and really more “Pony Car Lite” in execution.

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Ford Pinto  202,549
Chevrolet Chevette  133,469
Chevrolet Vega  78,402
Dodge Colt  69,963
Plymouth Arrow  51,849
AMC Gremlin  46,171
Pontiac Astre  32,788
Mercury Bobcat  31,452
Buick Opel  29,065

 

Not even on the radar in 1967, by 1977 the Subcompact segment was growing in importance, as a broad range of buyers continued to seek economical cars.  This chart only shows a few “captive imports” that wore domestic nameplates and were sold in American car dealerships.  If “real” imports sold through imported car dealerships were factored in, this category would be significantly larger.  Given that most of the American subcompacts were pretty pitiful at this point, the great migration away from domestic manufacturers was gaining steam at the low-end of the market.  But Detroit didn’t want to bother paying too much attention to that…