(first posted 6/27/2013) For whatever reason, I’ve seen some vehicles recently that have me contemplating the road not taken (ha ha). Here I shall speak of three icons of the Great Brougham Epoch, that I never much cared for back in their heyday but find inexplicably appealing, in a slightly dirty way, now. “Personal Luxury”, how it rolls off the tongue. What sparked this reverie was a momentary glimpse of a well-maintained 1974 Ford Gran Torino Elite, seen on the I-45 feeder road just south of the Woodlands, TX, in February of this year.
I was on my way to work, with the sun just coming up, when a dazzling flash off a vast expanse of chromium in the opposing left turn lane caught my attention. I got ahead and pulled into the forecourt of a convenience store long enough to snap off a shot, then marveled at what the camera captured. A Torino with pretensions. Not quite Grand, maybe, but certainly Gran. Nice condition, innit? If you want to know more, JPCavanaugh has a fine writeup on the Elite here.
Considerably less pristine is this example of the car the Elite was built to compete against: the ’73-‘77 Chevy Monte Carlo. The pictured car was found on a side street in Port Arthur, TX, and in case you have never been there, an unfortunately large proportion of the town has just that sort of hard-times look to it.
Finally, here is a somewhat careworn representative of the Elite’s direct successor: a 1977-79 Thunderbird, seen exiting the parking lot of the 1940 Air Terminal Museum at Hobby Airport. I had just time enough to get a couple shots as the middle-aged driver left the premises. I didn’t want to get too close; the driver seemed in a bit of a hurry and that dog-catching kink in the rear bumper seemed a clear statement that he didn’t much care what got in his way.
Now, to put things in context a bit, none of these were cars I would have ever considered owning when they were new. I hoovered up everything Car & Driver told me in those days, and what it told me, mostly, was that European style and efficiency was where it was at. Thus, during the period represented by these vehicles, my ride of choice was a ’75 Volkswagen Rabbit.
‘Secretly praising’ a lightweight, front-drive three-box sedan Detroit’s engineers may have been, but they certainly weren’t trying too hard to emulate it. My Wascally Wabbit was about as different a car from the parade-float Elite as one could possibly find in vehicles that shared a two-door configuration. It probably weighed half as much, handled rather than wallowed, and although it admittedly turned into a breakdown-prone money sink before it was three years old, it was never less than a complete hoot to drive. The cabin was more office than boudoir, but that was exactly the point, wasn’t it?
Nevertheless, as I edge ever closer to doddering decrepitude, I’ve developed slightly more of an appreciation for the over-the-top wildness of the vinyl-encrusted, opera-windowed sex machines exemplified here. So, I ask you: assuming I wanted to get my disco chains on, which of these old beasts (if any) would I want in my driveway? To be perfectly honest, it might be one that’s conspicuous by its absence: a ’77 Mercury Cougar. Specifically, one in dark blue, with a mirror-smooth finish that perfectly reflects the lights lining the wet, glistening nighttime streets. One that looks more or less like this:
I’m so ashamed. Well, not really.
Doesn’t matter anyway; I haven’t seen one of these Cougars in years, in any condition. Of the cars actually spotted, clearly the Elite is in the best shape, by miles. Problem is, I just can’t get over how irredeemably ugly it is: a turret-topped cartoon of a vehicle, a festival of unresolved lines and pointless, baroque filigree, looking like a notional owner who spends way too much time on the buffet line. It does have twice the number of opera windows as the others, though.
Although the Monte Carlo probably had the best chassis and drivetrain when new, the one I photographed is just a bit too far gone, and the stacked-headlight versions just don’t do it for me anyway. And not even a half-vinyl top, for cryin’ out loud. It’s positively naked.
Thus my vote would go to the Thunderbird. While based (like my object-of-lust Cougar) on an updated version of the weak-kneed platform under the Elite, and not all that wildly different thematically, it seems considerably leaner and less busy, even if it really isn’t. I’ll take it. That rear bumper seriously needs fixing, though.
I’m open to argument, however. I know there are similar vehicles from the ’74-77 period, such as Cordobas and Grands Prix, that haven’t been mentioned (I haven’t seen any to photograph recently, that’s why). So, what say you? Elite, Monte or T-Bird (or something else entirely)?