Play COAL: 1977 Ford Thunderbird Town Landau – A Family Matter

(After the very popular “How Does a 1978 Lincoln Town Coupe Drive Compared to Newer Cars“, I asked xequar if he would oblige us with a write-up of its companion car. He has, and it’s a wonderful story.  PN)

It’s probably no secret by now that I have a thing for big brougham-y old land yachts. It certainly isn’t among my friends and family, and it’s a thing that my brilliant companion through this life happens to share.

So, in November of 2013, it was hard to look away when my great-aunt sent word that she was looking to part with her 1977 Thunderbird. Uncle Del had passed back in 2002, she’d been wintering in Florida, and her daughter lived three hours away. The Thunderbird, once a source of pride and enjoyment for my aunt and uncle, had become effectively discarded, relegated to effective abandonment in the far reaches of her brother’s machine shed behind a combine, tractors, and other miscellaneous farm equipment. Aunt Judy, not one to take life sitting down, decided it was time to part ways with the old house, a lot of the old “stuff,” and move closer to her daughter to enjoy life. And it was time for the Thunderbird to find a new home. Uncle Jeff wanted his shed space back, after all.

We went to have a look, and what we saw was the literal barn find. There was a car, covered in a thick layer of dust, dirt, and grime. The tires were nearly flat. The license plate was of a style Michigan no longer used, with the last registration being from 2007. The interior smelled of dead… something (turned out to be a mouse). So the story goes, my great-grandparents ordered the car new from the dealership. After a couple weeks, Grandma Vesta came to hate the car; she’d become accustomed to four-door Cadillacs, and the Thunderbird’s two doors were inconvenient and heavy. She insisted that they get another Cadillac, so they sold the car on to Aunt Judy and Uncle Del. They drove it in the summer some, and Aunt Judy drove it to work sometimes. They parked it for the winters, during which they’d use the 4×4 truck to get around. After Uncle Del passed, Aunt Judy drove the car only a handful of times before she finally just parked it all together.

When we looked at it, Mr. X saw memories where I only saw a neat old car. His first car was a 1978 Thunderbird, in Town Landau spec. The interior was a dead-ringer for his, save for his having the rear-window defroster that only became available in Thunderbirds for 1978. The brown velour, the instrumentation, the radio, and the rest of the interior were an exact match. It was hard to tell through the dirt and grime, but Aunt Judy assured us the exterior was a lovely tan and that she’d give us the family discount on what we all knew was a car worth at least a bit more than the $3,000 she decided was a fine price. We arranged to come back the next weekend with a check, and she arranged to have Uncle Jeff get the car out from the back of the shed so we could collect it.

There was only one caveat: I insisted that it must fit into the unusually tiny garage integral to our 1940-vintage house.

After all, we already had a 1978 Lincoln for which we had to rely on the generosity of friends to store during winter. If it wouldn’t fit, we were not buying the car-I was not going to see such a great car left to the elements to rot away after Aunt Judy and Uncle Del had taken such care of it.

Careful measurements and online sources suggested it would fit, with only about two inches to spare.

On our first trip out after the initial ride home, we got to watch it roll 80,000 miles. Aunt Judy was right about the body-it’s in beautiful shape. There’s no rust, and the Champagne Metallic paint gleams with but a wax job. We know it had some body work done to the rear-end done in 1987 after a fender-bender-Aunt Judy gave us the can of matching paint from the body work. The rest owes to winters and at least seven years in storage.

It needed a rusted brake line redone immediately before even considering a two-hour drive, and of course new oil. Fortunately, the gas gauge was dead on E, since I’d guess what little gas was left in the tank was pumped during the Clinton administration. Once home, we had to go through the shocks and fluids-they were still what Ford installed in 1977 when we got the car. All told, we ended up with a cream-puff of a car!

Driving it, I’m convinced that Ford could have given it a more formal roofline, changed the hood ornament, and called it a Lincoln to great success. The ride’s not much different than the ride of the 1978 Continental that, unfortunately, does not fit in our tiny garage from 1940.

The velour is as nice as the high-spec velour in our Continental, but the seats are not the brilliant Lincoln pillowtop lounge chairs. Instead, they have the slightest bit of contour to the backrests, but they still work out to be quite comfortable.

Even in Town Landau spec, only the driver gets a powered chair, and the Thunderbird’s occupants have to make due with a manual climate controller. Still, to suggest the Thunderbird’s occupants are trapped in the unyielding harshness of poverty or the stoicism of Teutonic design is radically off-base: The ‘Bird’s interior is a comfortable, well-spec’d, lovely place to be that happens to reflect the existence of Lincoln.

Driving around town, it feels pretty spry-pulling away from a light or into average traffic is pretty effortless. Put your foot into it though, and it makes a sensational noise that, alas, doesn’t amount to much in actual acceleration. Being the Town Landau version, it came with the 400 cubic inch V8 (6.6 L) with the 2-barrel Motorcraft 2150, one of the better carbs from Ford in that era but mated to an engine that really needed a 4-barrel. Behind them is the supremely durable and heavy-duty C6 transmission, resulting in a powertrain good for, believe it or not, slightly worse mileage than the Continental with the 460 and a 4-barrel.

Handling is the one area where there is a noticeable difference from the contemporary Lincoln. The steering ratio’s a bit quicker, so it feels a bit sharper on turning response. It doesn’t nose-dive or wallow to the same degree as the contemporary Lincoln Continental, so it’ll take a curve more ably. Even around town, the shorter nose makes maneuvering noticeably easier. But, despite the “sporty” heritage of Thunderbird generally, I can’t imagine anyone then, let alone now, would mistake the Thunderbird for a true sporting car.

That said, I imagine by the standards of 1977 the Thunderbird was a powerful and enjoyable drive-contemporary reviews were pretty favorable, and I can’t imagine a Pinto or Vega offering the throttle response or comfort the ‘Bird does.

I’ve had the opportunity to daily-drive the ‘Bird for a couple weeks. Even by modern standards, it has adequate leg room for the front seat occupants. The handling and brakes are sufficiently responsive that, after a minimal learning curve, it feels completely at ease in suburban traffic on the commute to work. I came away from those couple weeks feeling that, even in this modern era, someone could drive such a “beast” pretty comfortably, save for the duration and monetary costs of visits to the gas station as compared to a modern fuel-efficient car. Driving it back-to-back with the contemporary Lincoln also somewhat illustrates why motorists of that era might have decried the plush voluptuous excesses of the big cars. Around town, it’s, frankly, easier to drive than its bigger, more luxurious relative.

And, during (frequent) visits to the gas station, we’ve heard numerous comments. Broadly speaking, the comments we get about the Thunderbird are notably different in tone from the ones we get about the Continental. Continental comments generally relate to its beauty and often sound envious, but very few talk about their own memories of them. But, it seems that everyone who can recognize the Thunderbird either had one or knows someone that did, and I’ve heard stories ranging from sadness to delight. One commenter lamented his Thunderbird, that was stolen in the late 1980s from his driveway in Detroit. Another cursed his ex-wife, who got the Thunderbird in the divorce and proceeded to smash it. Yet a third remembered a rendezvous that led to a marriage that, as of 2016, was still going strong.

That seems to be, perhaps, the most compelling story of all regarding these, as it pains me to say, forgotten Thunderbirds. It seems like everyone had one or knew someone that had one, and not just as a stop-gap or passing fling. Yet, here we are in 2017 and they’re nearly all gone, forgotten until someone sees one and remembers “back then.” Even Mr. X’s own Pastel Beige Thunderbird likely met its fate in 1988, when rapidly-accumulating problems and the hullabaloo of Chicago compelled him to trade it in to buy a new Ford Tempo.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me, then, that ours is here and in the shape it’s in. Aunt Judy’s a remarkably unconventional soul, not one to easily be affected by or afflicted with the need to conform to the prevailing trends and whims of society. Her homemade wine is potent, her sense of humor as intoxicating as her wine, and her Thunderbird was and is as agnostic toward the trends of society as she is.

So, I’ll take it as a huge compliment that we have the Thunderbird, and I’m the only other person who has her recipe for the wine!