(first posted 6/20/2017) If one were to look for the most representative car of the 1970s, this may be it – a mid-sized, mid-priced, moderately-equipped sedan made in the middle of the decade. But typical doesn’t always mean dull. The 1970s US car market was pulled in often conflicting directions: Demands for luxury battled with those for economy; sportiness was in vogue, but performance fizzled; imports surged in popularity, though domestics were more American-feeling than ever. Ford’s Torino range featured elements of all these conflicts, and pulled off the resultant compromise successfully.
The sight of a Gran Torino sedan is a special treat, as these 4-doors were much less likely to have been preserved than their 2-door counterparts. A recent check of Hemmings.com, for instance, showed that of 44 Torinos listed for sale, just 2 were sedans. Seeing such a survivor warrants a detailed look at how these cars fit into the intermediate marketplace in the turbulent 1970s, and what qualities brought about their relative market success.
Ford’s Torino inherited quite a legacy from its forebears. In fact, the “intermediate” designation among Detroit’s Big Three originated with Ford’s 1962 Fairlane. Ford promoted the intermediate concept as trimming the fat from a full-size car (“As bulk goes out, savings roll in”) – and the concept spawned one of the car market’s most competitive segments. By the late 1960s, intermediates accounted for a quarter of all US car sales.
Fairlanes were heavily redesigned (and enlarged) for 1968, featuring swoopy, contemporary styling, and including a top-of-the line version called Torino – a name new to Ford consumers, but not necessarily to management. “Torino” had been the runner-up name for what became the Mustang. Eventually, Mustang prevailed, likely for several reasons, but Ford VP Lee Iacocca later remarked that it sounded too foreign and exotic for areas – as he put it – “west of the Hudson River.” That sentiment must have changed quickly, for there was little resistance to Torino in 1968.
Fairlane and Torino competed in an increasingly contested market segment. Maintaining customers’ interest required a good deal of work on Ford’s part, including a redesigned car for 1970, and renaming the entire range Torino for 1971. But even as the 1970 car was introduced, Ford was working on its replacement – not just a reskinned update, but a completely new approach.
Ford introduced its next iteration of the Torino for 1972, responding to several concurrent trends in the intermediate marketplace. Car buyers expected a greater luxury feel, even for mid-size cars. At the same time, consumers gravitated towards cars with sporty or muscular designs. Comfort and sport may seem like contradictory goals, but success among intermediate cars in the early 1970s depended on satisfying both objectives.
To achieve a more luxurious impression, Ford not only made the Torino bigger yet again, but also shifted from unibody to body-on-frame construction for more of a big-car feel. 4-door and wagon models now rode on a longer wheelbase than their 2-door counterparts (118” compared to 114”), and increasingly, Torino came to resemble a slightly miniaturized LTD.
Another focus of the 1972 redesign was handling, with Ford striving for a stable, as well as comfortable ride. For example, Torino’s roll center lowered from 14” to 8” above ground level – done by mounting the frame relatively low, and using oddly-shaped control arms. Front and rear suspensions were all new for 1972 as well, and featured coil, rather than leaf springs for the rear. Due to these changes, ride and handling both improved significantly over the previous Torino.
Style-wise, Ford took the previous generation’s coke-bottle styling and amplified it. Voluptuous fenders (“flowing side contours,” in Ford-speak) and plenty of curves highlighted a design evoking the sporty image that buyers coveted.
One gets a sense of the Torino’s low, wide and rounded profile by seeing it in a modern setting, such as when compared to this 2004 Focus. The “low” characteristic stands out most in this photo, as the Torino is 3” lower than the Focus. Torino’s shape and curves (not to mention the saddle bronze color) certainly stand out in a crowd nowadays. But as Raymond Loewy once said, “The loveliest curve I know is the sales curve.” So how did consumers respond to the redesigned Torino?
First-year sales of nearly 500,000 units appear impressive – a 50% increase from the previous model year. However, this fell somewhat short of Ford’s target for 1972, and sales were adequate, but not exceptional, throughout this generation’s 5 model years. Not a disappointment by any means, the Torino wasn’t a wild sales success, either.
Though hard to believe today (given the virtual disappearance of large coupes), 2-door intermediate-size cars often outsold their 4-door counterparts. This held true with Torino – among the 2 million Torinos produced between 1972 and 1976, 56% were 2-door models. Overall Torino sales generally softened as the model aged, but even in each of its last two years, Torinos found homes with over 300,000 customers.
The 1972-76 Torino sedans came in three forms – a base Torino, a Gran Torino and a Gran Torino Brougham – all with increasing levels of trim. Most sedans (about two-thirds) wound up being Gran Torinos like our featured car. Coupes and wagons, though, carried some different model designations, and the Torino family’s sales champ when our featured car was built was the Thunderbird-esque Elite, a high-end 2-door sold from 1974 to 1976 that capitalized on the rising popularity of specialty intermediate coupes.
While our featured car is a mid-range Gran Torino, this example is relatively sparsely equipped. Few extra frivolities adorn this car; air conditioning (a $470 option, but chosen on over 80% of Torinos) appears to be its only major option.
Our featured car’s level of trim can be more accurately judged by looking inside. This car’s standard bench seat, AM radio, and lack of power accessories (only 20% of Torinos were ordered with power windows) tell the story of a frugal and traditional original owner. Regardless of trim level, Torinos featured a well-designed interior for its day. Deep-set individual gauges presented a more modern interior layout than did much of the Torino’s competition – a design that complemented the stylized exterior.
Rear seat room was adequate, though not exceptional for its class. More problematic than size, though, was visibility. The side window’s upswept design placed the window line at head level for adults and above head level for children. Rear-seat passengers couldn’t see much of the outside world (a condition that was worse with the ’72 models, which featured standard high-back front seats).
Poor outward visibility didn’t just affect passengers. Thick, swooping C-pillars, a high belt line, fastback-type trunk lid, and narrow rear window meant that drivers could only guess at their surroundings on occasion. Ironically, poor rearward visibility like this has become commonplace on cars in recent years, but in the 1970s – when people expected to be able to see out of cars – it was widely criticized.
Overall, the Torino’s design was popular. In a 1972 Popular Mechanics Owners Report, nearly 60% of respondents indicated that they bought their Torinos because of the car’s styling – by far the highest reason cited (size was next at 18%). Rear visibility led the list of complaints, and also led the list of recommended changes.
Consumers liked the big-car ride, with the smoothness and quietness one would expect from a larger car. Contemporary reviews praised the Torino’s low noise levels and suspension comfort, but noted vague steering feel, requiring frequent corrections. Handling was not the Torino’s strong point, though certain low-cost options (such as larger tires or an optional HD suspension) made a noticeable difference in cornering ability.
Our featured car came equipped a 351-cu. in. 2-bbl. V-8 (which became standard in 1974). Rated at 162 hp for 1975, the 351 provided acceptable power for the 4,000-lb Torino, even with ever-growing emissions requirements. Ford’s comically-named SelectShift Cruise-O-Matic transmission was standard. Optional engines of 400 and 460 cid brought noticeable increases in acceleration, but most Torino buyers stuck with the 351 – considered to provide a satisfactory combination of power and efficiency for the times.
During the 5 years for which this generation of Torino was produced, changes came incrementally. The most noticeable changes arrived for 1974 when the car received a new grille (with turn signals embedded just inboard from the headlights), and new bumper designs. According to Ford, the revised bumpers added 100 lbs. to Torino’s curb weight over the 1972 model.
Around back, the 1974 freshening resulted in wrap-around tail lamps and the fuel door being moved to above the bumper (from its former home behind the license plate). Less noticeable was that the fuel tank increased by 4 gallons (to 26.5) – a response to the 1973 oil crisis.
Torino accomplished what Ford had intended – to be a competitive player in the lucrative intermediate market. The niche into which the Torino sedan positioned itself was that of a solid, respectable, practical car. Torinos were archetypical Middle American cars, particularly those examples without the embellishments of the Brougham or Elite models. It is little wonder that an example like our featured car was featured in this long-running Caterpillar ad alongside representatively stoical owners.
Today, Torinos are likely to be remembered more for entertainment references than for the car’s role in Ford’s 1970s model range. The 1975-79 television series Starsky & Hutch could easily have been called Starsky, Hutch & Ford on behalf of David Starsky’s red Gran Torino coupe, with its distinctive white vector stripe. Thirty years later, Ford’s intermediate model found another spotlight with Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film Gran Torino, with the eponymous car being a 1972 coupe.
The Torino coasted into its final year of 1976 with no significant changes, however by that point the car’s rounded styling had overstayed its welcome. But not, apparently, its underpinnings.
Speaking about his company’s 1977 product offerings, Ford VP Walter S. Walla said “We have new styling where it counts the most.” That included the Torino… but the keyword there was styling. Torino’s replacement, the aptly-named LTD II, was simply a Torino reskinned with more angular bodywork, and was produced for another 3 model years.
Ford’s Torino was a relatively successful car in what was perhaps the most convoluted decade in automotive history. Success came to the Torino not by excelling at any one characteristic, but by checking more than enough boxes on buyers’ must-have lists. This was a well-built car with good performance, value and room, and with a stylish design that provided just enough flair to distinguish it in a crowded field. It’s hard to think of a car that symbolizes the 1970s any more than that.
1972 Ford Torino: The Fertile Breeder Jason Shafer
1975 Ford Gran Torino: Isolation Chamber Tom Klockau
Photographed in Fairfax, Virginia in September 2016.