Curbside Classic: 1969 Ford XL SportsRoof – Expanded Width, Length, Sales and Consciousness

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(first posted 4/3/2015)    The Big Three used to dance together so well. 1969 was one of those well-orchestrated moves when all of their full-size models were scheduled to be “new”. The last time that happened was 1965, when GM blew the other two off the dance floor with its dramatic ‘Coke-bottle’ semi-fastback cars, while Ford and Chrysler’s new ’65s were pale and boxy imitations of the 1963 Pontiac. Four years later, there was a lot anticipation as to how it would play out this time. Ford was determined to not be left in GM’s dust, and pulled out all the stops on an all-new car and chassis. Chrysler’s dramatic fuselage cars sat on familiar underpinnings, but the styling was all-new. And GM? It pulled a very clever trick on them both.

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It bunted. The Impala and Caprice coupes may have convinced buyers that it really was ‘new’, but it was just a very successful re-skin, and some new roof-lines on the coupes, as the swoopy fastbacks gave way to a more formal look, anticipating successfully the full blossoming of the Great Brougham Epoch in the 70s.

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But a comparison of the more prosaic Chevy sedans made it all-too obvious that under the fender blisters and Toronado-esque integrated C-pillar, it was essentially the same car, sitting on the same 119″ wheelbase chassis, and as it would through 1970. GM upset the four-year cycle applecart, choosing to hold their big-car ammo for 1971, when they unleashed the biggest big cars ever. And created a big problem for Ford and especially Chrysler.

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Ford’s ambitions in 1969 were pretty serious too, as these cars now sat on a 121″ wheelbase, had wider tracks front and rear, and were some 216″ long. Ford stated that it now had the Pontiac Catalina solidly in its visor, especially so with its popular LTD. It was a new styling direction for Ford: wide, rounded, substantial, and decidedly more upscale looking than its predecessor.

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The new frame and chassis would go on to have a long life, as a 124″ wheelbase version not only underpinned the 1969 Mercury, but a further stretch to 127″ would underpin the 1970 Lincoln. Looking at these two coupes makes the family resemblance all-too obvious; Ford’s decision to use the same basic platform and body for all of its large cars was undoubtedly a huge cost saving, but there’s no doubt it also led to the debasement of the classic suicide-door Continental.

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Ironically, as forward-looking as the new 1969 Fords were, the decision to continue with a fast-back SportsRoof version is a bit questionable. The whole sporty big-car segment had been withering for a few years, as the center of gravity for sporty coupes shifted to the mid-size cars, and smaller.

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But unlike its previous fastbacks as applied all across its line of cars, the ’69 SportsRoof adopted a tunnel-back roof, which GM had popularized back in 1966, and the Dodge Charger had adopted in 1968. It was a fad that was quickly running out of time. That’s not to say the XL doesn’t have a certain charm, but it’s just a bit out of context on a car designed to preview the 1970s.  And perhaps was even more out of context on the similar but more extravagant Mercury Marauder X-100.

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Speaking of debasement, both the XL and LTD had quite a bit of that in 1968 and 1969.

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Whereas the XL once came with delicious bucket seats and a big chrome console, now its interior looked very basic. The so-called ‘Front Room’ clustered the dashboard close to the driver, including the radio and ventilation controls, giving the passenger nothing but an unbroken expanse of vinyl to gaze at.

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Yes, these were wide, and the front room was very roomy. Looking at it brings back some vivid memories. I used to finagle a 1970 LTD coupe for week-end use when I worked at Towson Ford, and three girls from my neighborhood and high school used to pile in next to me for long summer evening drives out in the country to the Gunpowder River, including the first skinny dip in its waters for all of us. A groundbreaking car, in so many ways. But it should have had four sets of seat belts, not that we would have used them. Wait a minute; now that I look at those seat belts, I’m a bit confused: why are there so many? Oh, right; those miserable early shoulder belts had their own attachment buckle. They were a fixed length, and made any movement impossible. I can’t remember anyone using them, even if they did use the seat belts.


One night we were all going to drop some acid, but then the girls had something else to do, so my only partner was the LTD. I drove out to the Gunpowder Falls Friends Meeting house, and stretched out on the grass in the cemetery, staring up at the stars for hours. I was motionless and thoughtless for several hours, just being there, and had what would commonly be called a mystical experience. I felt one with the universe and all those that had been buried there, and lost my fear of death. And I stopped taking drugs after that night, and within a few months, took up meditation. I wanted to experience that again without any external aids.

Around three or so in the morning, I became aware of my body again and felt myself returning to earth. And the earth I was lying on was a bit chilly, so I walked over to the big Ford and snuggled up on that wide front seat, and just laid there in the Front Room, taking in that dashboard (which was not quite a mystical experience), and eventually fell asleep. I woke up in the morning with the windows all fogged up.

It felt good to start up its smooth V8, barely audible in the distant engine room. The sunrise drive home through the windy country roads was a gentle re-entry into the real world, thanks to the Ford’s plush ride and profound silence. These were qualities I would typically have lambasted it for, but on this morning I was in no rush, and the LTD was my magic carpet ride. And I’ve had a soft spot for these ’69-’70 big Fords ever since. Just think how different I would feel about the ’71-’72 Ford if one of those had been my ride into the unbounded absolute that night.

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Back to more mundane earthly matters. The LTD went through the same de-contenting as the LX; the only thing they both shared that really separated them from the prosaic Galaxie was their hidden-headlight front end. Which of course rarely still work after all these decades; they are vacuum operated, but have a hefty spring to keep them open as the default position.

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This one is obviously blessed with the optional 265 (gross) hp 390 a mildly-tuned two-barrel version of the FE V8 that was a happy companion to those looking for some decent low-end grunt but had no expectations of genuine performance. The perfect mill for a Country Squire.

The 240 six was technically the base standard engine in all ’69 Fords except the LTD and Country Squire, but I suspect that quite few made their way into an XL SportsRoof. The three-speed manual was also standard.

I’ve already told it before, but that same summer I drove a ’69 LTD four door that a service department customer dropped off with a 390, the three-speed on the column, manual steering and un-assisted brakes. But it had the padded roof and upgraded Brougham interior. Someone was insistent when they ordered that. It made for an odd ride, quite utterly defeating the purpose of an otherwise such a comfortable and effortless ride.

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For those wanting more, two versions of the brand new 429 “Thunder-Jet” V8 were available; a 320 hp two-barrel carb version, and a 360 hp four barrel, dual exhaust job. Ford finally had a brand new big-block V8 to go along with its brand new big-block car. A happy mating. But they weren’t all-too common.

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The XL SportsRoof soldiered on through 1970, in fairly modest numbers. Despite the weak XL sales, Ford’s bold 1969 move with an all-new car increased its sales over 1968 by a healthy margin (+17%).  Meanwhile Chevy big car sales were about even. So Ford’s big move paid off. But GM must have saved a huge pile of cash by holding over their 1965-based big cars across all of their divisions for two more years.

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1969 Ford sightings have become rare; this is my first since the CC treasure hunt began. I hear they were notorious rusters. This one is enjoying the healing rains of Eugene, which the tin worm is allergic to. Not having a vinyl top doesn’t hurt either; this one sports a rather unusual two-tone paint job. Or was its vinyl top removed along the way? More likely so.



Related reading:

CC 1970 Mercury Marauder X-100: Bootylicious

CC 1969 Ford LTD: My Father’s Day Present