(first posted 9/10/2014) There’s been a long-simmering debate here about the respective designs of the all-new downsized Chevy/GM 1977 B-Bodies and Ford’s response-imitation in 1979. It’s time to settle the question once and for all. You say design is subjective; but is it? Saying that it is more than a bit of a cop-out, because it makes it too easy to hide behind. Yes, you’re allowed to prefer Thomas Kinkade’s paintings over Claude Monet’s, but that hardly makes Kinkade’s better.
Perhaps the 1977 Chevrolet isn’t quite a Monet, but it was a largely original and well executed design, some of the last under Bill Mitchell’s direction. It has all the hallmarks of his reign: excellent proportions, and clear lines that manage quite successfully to make it look longer than it is. Undoubtedly that was a key design priority, as Mitchell was not at all happy to have to design shrunken full-size cars, but he made sure they looked good. These were his swan song and his legacy, after all.
There is a cohesive vision behind these cars, and undoubtedly a lot of development of their theme and details went on in the design studios. Given that they were the first downsized big American cars, they had better be right, as GM had literally bet the farm on them. I once read that GM’s downsizing program from 1977-1980 was the greatest industrial investment program in the US since WW2.
One of the best things about them is that they were not designed with big padded vinyl roofs in mind; in fact, they look decidedly better without them. Mitchell was not a Broughamista. Let’s just say that in 1977, my feelings about vinyl roofs were the same as about white shoes, red pants and white belts. Hence my feelings about the Ford when it arrived: old man’s car.
The downsized 1979 Fords were clearly imitations of the GM formula, and as such, they lacked any real inspiration or vision. It’s as if they started with a Chevy and figured out ways to make it look more like a Ford somehow. The Panthers rode on a shorter wheelbase (114″ vs 116″), and it appears those precious two inches were lost by moving the front wheels a bit further back. It’s a bit subtle, but the Chevy has (or certainly conveys) a longer and more elegant nose in profile, with the front wheels further forward, in the classic RWD configuration. The Panther looks like it could have been FWD.
And Ford’s decision to use little 14″ wheels and tires only accentuate its lack of more refined and pleasing proportions. And the particularly tinny and cheap Pep Boys fake wire wheel covers only add insult to that injury. The Chevy’s big 15″ wheels nicely fill its openings; the Ford looks like it’s waiting for a flood (or donks).
The Ford’s B-Pillar is unfortunate too, in that it was clearly designed to work with the tacky opera/coach lamps and a half-vinyl “Landau” roof, even if that didn’t come along the first year. The result is that the steel-top version looks decidedly chunky and, broken up into more boxes. Which the Ford is anyway; decidedly more boxy all the way around.
Let’s jump to the coupe versions. The Panther is actually a Mercury Marquis, but except for a few minor details, it’s the same as the LTD. The difference here is even more stark. Ford was clearly still in deep Brougham consciousness, while Chevrolet was trying to bring a bit of the sportier flair that harked back to the sixties and the golden era of the Impala. The difference is huge.
Let’s take a closer look at the front fenders, wheel wells and wheels. The windshields are in the same respective place, but look how much more dynamic the Chevy front end appears, with its large round wheel opening and decent sized wheels. Even the fake wire wheel covers are much better, for what that’s worth. The Panther’s missing inches in wheelbase are clearly noticeable here; it carries much more of its boxy snout in front of its little wheels. Which conveys the exact opposite of “dynamic”. According to the thesaurus, that would be words like impotent, weak, unexciting, and dull.
The Chevy’s front end design was pretty classic GM of the era, one that of course started with the seminal “sheer-look” 1975 Seville. But it is relatively clean, and does a good job of evoking the Cadillac, Chevy’s perpetual styling big-brother.
The Ford still reflects Lee Iacocca’s endless obsession with the Mercedes grille. And this one is not a particularly good version at that. Whatever; if you like that sort of thing, you probably never got tired of it. I did, right from the get-go.
Lesser LTDs didn’t merit a genuine Mercedes knock-off grille, and had to settle for this rather modest single-headlights version. That was obviously not a good idea, as it went away pretty soon. It just reeks of “fleet car”; or cop car, as the case may be.
But then that’s what these Fords have always come across to me as: the ultimate fleet car. A rather poor knock-off of a handsome automobile, relegated to either fleet use, or dolled up with lots of tacky Brougham heavy make-up in an effort to disguise its intrinsically poorer “bones”. I could go on and on (as I did in my head last night in bed), there’s so many details that make the difference between them rather substantial. But now it’s your turn; which one is the better design?