Bloated, overweight, slow, wallowing. These are the words often used to describe Ford’s full-size cars of the 1970s. They have been described as being the poster child for the malaise era. If one reads about these big Fords, the general commentary is that these dinosaurs have few redeeming qualities. People today must think that no one in their right mind would have willingly bought a full-size Ford from this era. Yet, these cars actually sold pretty well, right up until they were replaced by the new Panther cars in 1979. So what gives? Are these cars really that bad?
We’ve beaten the dead horse of disparaging these big Fords, and we here at CC like to look at cars from all different viewpoints. Thanks to Jason Shafer’s excellent post last week, we know some people have fond memories of these big 70s Fords. Reading his post instantly reminded me of an article on a road test of a 1976 Ford LTD that Patrick Bedard of Car and Driver wrote. His article was an interesting take on things and definitely not taken from the standard viewpoint of most Car and Driver articles. Instead of lambasting the car for its lack of driving dynamics and monstrous size, he focussed on the positives of these big Fords and the big American car in general.
Car and Driver was noted to be an enthusiast magazine generally preferring well balanced driver’s cars. However, the buff magazines have viewpoints that only align with a small percentage of the population, the car enthusiasts that love cars and love to drive. The buff magazine’s values often differ from the vast majority of the driving public both then and now. Most of the general public buy cars to use as a transportation appliance. How fast it can go from 0-60 and how many G’s it can pull on the skid pad isn’t all that important to parents just trying to shuttle kids around, or Grandpa and Grandma who just want something comfortable to get them to Florida for the winter.
I think that’s why this particular article stood out for me. Patrick Bedard took off his driving enthusiast hat for a moment, and took a look at the 1976 Ford LTD from the perspective of the people who actually purchased these cars. He focuses on what Ford did right on these cars. He describes that these Fords are the ultimate isolation chambers, loaded with (pseudo?) luxury features and comforts. Like many other things in America, these cars were taken to the extreme; these Fords were the big American car taken to the extreme. They had maximum size, maximum luxury, and maximum comfort. Ford quite frankly didn’t give a damn about metrics that weren’t part of the big American car model because they sold lots of them as is with healthy margins.
To really examine these 1970s Fords, we need to go back to its 1965 ancestor. The 1965 Ford was truly an all-new car, and it was a significant shift in Ford’s full size car design direction. The 1965 Ford had an all new stiff body structure was affixed to a light weight somewhat flexible perimeter chassis. Really the new body and chassis were essentially a unitized body sitting on two subframes connected by side rails. This was a cheap and easy solution to maximize road isolation. Road isolation had become one of Ford’s top priorities and this new body and chassis design allowed the frame to flex at the torque boxes to absorb road shock before it hit the body structure. Chevrolet had a very similar body and frame design for its 1965 cars, but most agree that 1965 Ford was the leader in its class when it came to a smooth, isolated and quiet ride. Ford continued on this trajectory as the full-size Fords evolved into these big mid-1970s versions and Ford generally remained the most smooth riding and quiet cars in its class. In fact the chassis for the 1971-78 Fords was really just an evolution of the 1965 design.
1965 also marked the year that Ford introduced the LTD. The LTD brought a big blow to the formerly well-established brand hierarchy. These Ford LTDs brought “brougham” luxury to the low price bracket and was a great way to boost profit margins on the high volume Fords. Through the introduction of the Ford LTD, no longer did one have to move up to a more expensive brand to get a luxurious car.
With the success of the LTD, Ford continued to evolve the model into the 1970s with more luxury and isolation. Of course things didn’t execute perfectly according to plan. Bean counters and safety regulations cut back the quality of materials. Plastics would replace formerly steel parts, and plastic wood was lathered on thick. The body structures weren’t as stiff as in the past, but soft springs and shocks helped with that. Ford’s Band-Aid solutions to meeting emission standards resulted in poor driveability, lesser performance and increased fuel consumption. Nevertheless, Ford wasn’t the only American car cutting these corners or facing these regulatory rules. Have you ever compared a 1965 to 1975 Cadillac? If anything, by 1975 these Fords were much closer to being a Cadillac competitor than ever before.
With all of these changes, how well did these 70s Fords hold up to its founding father? Surprisingly, there isn’t as big of a difference, at least on paper, as one would think. In the chart above you can see the test results comparing this 1976 LTD C/D road tested to Car Life’s road test of a 1965 LTD (I also included a 1970 and 79 LTD). The 1965 LTD was equipped with the 390-4V engine pumping out 300 gross horsepower compared to the 180 SAE net hp 400-2V in the 1976 car. Yet the acceleration times don’t differ by as much as one would think, especially considering the 1976 car was carrying 500 lbs of extra weight and had steeper differential gears. Fuel economy was somewhat better for the 1965 car, but the 1965 car was noted to have terrible brakes (only the deceleration rate was measured by Car Life). The 1976 LTD had a respectable stopping distance in comparison. Of course, the exterior dimensions had grown considerably by 1976 with little change to interior space and this paper comparison doesn’t show the loss in driveability.
The mid to late 1970’s was a time in automotive history of great change. The Ford LTD was part of the school of the past. The American market was finally starting to accept that luxury didn’t mean bigger is better. More and more people were willing to sacrifice that ultra-smooth isolated ride for some road feel and driving dynamics. GM was the first of the Big Three to make a big move forward with their downsized 1977 B-Bodies. Ford executives eventually realized that the market was moving in that new direction, they were just a little slower and more reluctant to make a big move like GM. So until it could release the more sensibly sized Panther platform 1979 LTD, Ford did its best to appeal to the traditional buyers of these big American cars.
There were still plenty of these traditional buyers unwilling to move to those new-fangled small boxy GM cars. Many people of the Greatest Generation were at the point in their lives where they could treat themselves to that big comfortable luxurious American car. After all, bigger is better had been long ingrained in many of that generation; have you ever seen a Duesenberg or Pierce Arrow? Growing up in harsh conditions with rough riding basic cars sure makes a big floaty car with velour seats, an AM/FM stereo radio, and automatic climate control sound appealing. Rolling down the interstate in what amounted to a rolling living room didn’t sound so bad. For many, these Fords were an affordable way to treat themselves. After years of hard work and sacrifice, they finally had a car that would allow for effortless consumption of those 55 mph speed limit interstate miles with minimal disturbance within the passenger cabin.
These Fords were the greatest and most exaggerated example of the American dream of owning a big car. Sure the competitors at GM and Chrysler followed suit with their big cars, but Ford was the ticket if this kind of car was your bag.
The Fords had higher quality interiors and a more solid feel than GM’s floppy plastic laden 1971-76 cars, while Chrysler’s cars weren’t even in the game. Yes, the Lincolns of this time had even more brougham luxury, but dollar for dollar it was hard to beat one of these Fords. If one was car shopping and did so by dollar per pound and bang for the buck, Ford delivered better than anyone else.
No longer did you have to pay Cadillac prices to get the buttery smooth ride, luxurious interior and modern luxury options. Hell, even Bedard admits that most people riding in a Rolls Royce, Mercedes and an LTD blindfolded would probably pick the LTD. And the LTD will outperform that fancy Rolls and is not far behind the Mercedes in a straight line. Finally, one could fulfill that dream of the big American luxury car and only pay Ford money!
So for a moment, maybe we can do as Bedard describes in the article. Picture yourself back in 1976 cruising in an LTD across the big open skies of the Midwest. Feel those big soft velour seats, tap the steering wheel cruise control buttons to set it at 55 mph, set the automatic climate control to 72 degrees, and point that hood westward. Now we’re living the dream! Ok, maybe I am getting a little carried away. I know these big Fords will never be on an all-time greatest car list of any sort, and despite the perspective I have taken in this article, they aren’t really my cup of tea either. Nonetheless, for many they served as durable and comfortable transportation that they were proud to own, and for that they will always be a good car in my eyes.
A special thanks to Roger628 for providing a digital copy of the Car and Driver article.