Curbside Classic: 1968 Ford LTD – Peak Ford Hate Turns To…

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(first posted 5/23/2016)   In 1968, I was fifteen, rebellious and insolent. I was a smoker, and my intoxicant of choice late that year switched over from alcohol to marijuana, and soon LSD. I had very strong opinions on all sorts of subjects, most of all the Vietnam war and other related socio-political issues. And in terms of cars, my long-simmering anti-Ford bias came into full bloom, directed most of all at their 1968 full size cars. They were ugly, bland, boring, boxy, klutzy, pretentious, slow, dull, out-of date, and just reeked of all the values I was railing against.

Almost fifty years later, it’s time to make amends. I hope I’m finally up to it.

Lamborghini Espade blue side

In terms of aesthetics, I was spoiled by what was coming out of Europe, most of all Italy. Never mind mid-engine sports cars like the Miura or Mangusta. The Lamborghini Espada showed what a full four-seater coupe could look like. Why couldn’t Detroit build this, even with a bit more height so the old folks who were buying LTDs could get in? Seriously; why not?

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Instead we get a blank horizontal void cluttered with floating rectangles grafted unto a car that had been designed to wear stacked headlights years earlier, which were of course just imitations of the 1963 Pontiac. Poor Ford; the stacked headlights had long run out of favor, and they were one year away from the all-new ’69s, which wore a more organic version of this maw. I actually mustered some genuine respect for that effort in 1969, but this attempt to bridge the two different designs was most unfortunate.

Chevrolet 1968 caprice coupe

Putting aside cars like the Espada, my point of comparison was of course its main competitor, the 1968 Chevrolet Caprice (yes, I was still a GM acolyte, despite my loss of faith in other institutions). Although both the big Ford and Chevy were in their fourth year of trying to keep their new-in-1965 bodies looking fresh and relevant, to me it was pretty clear who was winning at that challenge. The Chevy’s skin looks like it’s stretched tight over a firmly-muscular framework, and pointed and chiseled in all the right places, like just above its grille. There’s tension almost everywhere. It looks alive and dynamic, and exudes the potential of its vastly superior top engines (425 hp 427 vs. 340hp 428) under its deftly-sculptured hood. Of course almost nobody bought that version of the 427, but when you’re 15, one can imagine; all too well. And then there was the lack of those old-fashioned vents on the front side windows, and the hidden wipers. And the reprisal of the ’65’s high-mounted floating and delicate front bumper. This is the kind of stuff I obsessed on.

In comparison, the poor Ford looked geriatric, with loose, sallow skin, badly fitting dentures, old-fashioned jewelry, and a bad hairdo or wig, depending on the body style. And of course, there were those sad old plodding FE V8 engines, that dated back to…1958! Veritable antiques, compared to the porcupine-head Chevy 396 and 427.

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Admittedly, those FE’s could make some nice tunes, given a proper dual exhaust system, which they mostly weren’t (not even the four-barrel 390).  But this one has been given some proper pipes with which to play its tunes from the 390 under the hood. I’ve learned to find love for that engine; that’s come easier than to find love for some of the details of this rear end. The ’68’s rear end received very little attention, and was largely a carry-over from 1967, with a few minor differences. More floating rectangles, mainly.

Chevrolet 1968 Caprice coupe rq

Chevrolet reprised not only the ’65’s front end, but also went back to its traditional round tail lights, this time set in the bumper, after two years of deviance form that formula. This was the last year for the curving hips that had rocked the world in 1965. Hips that Ford tried to graft on its angular 1965 body, with very limited success. Chasing GM…into a dead end alley.

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Compared to the Chevy’s delicate, high bumper, the Ford’s looks like a crude battering ram, and is even retrograde from the ’67s.  It would definitely make the Ford more suitable for taxi cab work. Or just getting through almost 50 years on the road. And like so many older folks, one of its eyelids is drooping a bit. Character, now; if not beauty. And one more appreciated at my age than back then.

Ford 1968 custom 500

Of course, that applies to the LTD’s hidden-headlight grille. The Galaxie and Custom 500/Custom wore an utterly generic grille that was perfectly suited to the little fleet of three pastel Custom 500 sedans the nuns at Immaculate Conception got that year. Icing on the Ford-hate cake.

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Ford struggled to find a suitable roof for the LTD coupe during its first few years. The ’65 and ’66 were the same as the Galaxie 500/XL hardtop’s, which probably explains why they seemed to not sell many LTD coupes those years.  The ’67 was still the same semi-fastback as the others, but with a filler panel to cut down the rear side window. But in 1968, Ford decided to follow Chevy’s lead and go with two totally different coupe roofs; the fastback Sportroof and the more formal coupe roof use don the LTD and also available on the Galaxie 500. Something Chevy figured out in 1966 for their formal Caprice coupe roof.

Just like the grill, this was both an imitation of Chevy’s formal coupes and/or a preview of Ford’s design direction for 1969 as well as the coming Continental Mark III. This was more appropriate for the LTD, and heralded the general shift in the market to formal coupes, large and mid-sized. And small too, as on the yet-distant Mustang II.

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The LTD was Ford’s big money maker, and undoubtedly a key to their relative sales strength in the second half of the 60s. Whereas Chevrolet was widening the gap of Ford (in full size cars) during the first half of the 60s, and peaked with a phenomenal 1.67 million in 1965, Chevy’s full size cars then began a mostly steady descent. while Ford stayed fairly steady.

By 1968, Chevrolet’s lead was 1238k to 867k. But Ford’s all-new ’69s had a very healthy surge, and cut Chevy’s lead down to 1227k vs. 1016k. That was also the first year full-sized Ford broke the million barrier since 1959. And the last time. Full-size cars were on a slow descent from then on.

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This car has been re-upholstered, in that ubiquitous fabric I see over and over in all sorts of older cars. But by 1968, the famous LTD “panty cloth” knit nylon upholstery was no longer standard; that was now relegated to the more expensive LTD Brougham. The perpetual game of de-contenting was already in force for the LTD, as it always had been for every new top-line name plate out of Detroit every few years.

Ford used a rather chunky padded steering wheel center in 1968, which did look a bit less odd than the very strange tall round hub used in 1967, as part of the emphasis on safety. That also affected the dash, which was rather dull and dreary compared the unsafe bright dashes of yore.

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This traveler from Colorado is occupying almost the exact same space as the Olds wagon from Florida I shot and posted a couple of weeks earlier. And it had a trailer hitch too. Hmm.  Well, keep them coming; the more the merrier. And I do love these now, really. Have I convinced you of that? Or will it take another 50 years before I can really gush over a ’68 Ford?

Here’s Jason Shafer’s more sympathetic story about a ’68 Galaxie 500 Fastback He grew up loving these big Fords. And he and JPC have helped me to get where I am today, and for that I’m thankful. It’s never too late, hopefully.