Curbside Classic: 1976 Ford Elite – A Highfalutin’ Hash

(first posted 7/20/2014)      Elite (n):  The most powerful, rich, gifted, or educated members of a group, community, etc.   Synonyms include upper crust, intelligentsia or nobility.  When Ford chose this name for a new car in 1974, it must have been affixed to a truly special and desirable automobile.  Or not.

If we were to head for the sidewalk and ask random passers by to list the names of all of the mid 1970s Fords that come to mind, we would be awash in LTDs, Mustang IIs, Pintos, Mavericks and Granadas.  Would anyone remember the Ford Elite?  Probably not many.

Chevrolet’s introduction of the 1970 Monte Carlo marked a trading of places for the two biggest brands in America.  Although Chevrolet had been the perennial top seller, it was Ford that had identified and exploited market after market, causing Chevrolet to react like a punchdrunk fighter.  The personal luxury car (1958 Thunderbird).  The basic, simple compact (1960 Falcon).  The intermediate (1962 Fairlane).  The pony car (1964 1/2 Mustang).  The popularly priced luxury sedan (1965 LTD).  Aside from whole models and segments, the 1960s at Ford saw other innovations like the station wagon “doorgate”, the early popularization of disc brakes, reversible keys and convertibles with glass rear windows.

That was the established order in the 1960s:  Ford would innovate and lead, while Chevrolet would respond a year or two later, usually (if not right away) building a more competent (if not more inspired) version of Ford’s better idea.

It was into this world that Chevrolet introduced the Monte Carlo.  Suddenly, for the first time in over a decade, Chevrolet found a new niche: Personal luxury for the masses.  Chevrolet mined this niche very well, too.  By 1970, Ford’s Thunderbird had dwindled in popularity to about 50,000 units annually.  The Monte Carlo nearly tripled the Bird’s volume in its inaugural year.

The Monte Carlo caught Ford napping.  By 1972, the Monte was approaching 200,000 units a year and clearly could not be ignored.  The new Gran Torino was not enough to put a damper on the Monte, and when the new ’72 Thunderbird failed to hit 60,000 units, it was clear that the Thunderbird was still hanging out at the supper club while the crowd was heading for the disco.  Something more would be required.  The Monte Carlo must have been a bitter pill to swallow for the company that had invented both the personal luxury and the intermediate segments a decade or more earlier.

Ford’s Anti-Monte would not arrive until midway into the 1974 model year.  We have all occasionally had to try to make something appetizing for dinner out of whatever odds and ends may be in the pantry, and this is how Ford cooked up the Elite.  First, the company started with a ’74 Cougar XR-7.  Fool a bit with the opera window and add a new grille flanked by big single sealed beams, and there it was – the 1974 Ford Gran Torino Elite.  At least Ford beat the Cordoba by six months.

The conventional wisdom is that the second generation Monte Carlo was a runaway success, while the Elite was a poorly selling stopgap.  The conventional wisdom is pretty much true.  In roughly half a model year (1974) the Elite sold under 97,000 cars while the Monte Carlo’s full year production was a bit over 312,000.

The Elite may not have lit the world on fire, but it certainly sold better than the Gran Torino Brougham coupe, of which Ford only managed to sell about 26,000 cars.

The pattern held for 1975 and 1976 (when the Gran Torino badges were stripped from the car, now just known as the Ford Elite).  The two combatants settled into a pattern for 1975 and 1976, with the Elite selling at about half the rate of the Monte Carlo (1975: 123,372 to 258,309, 1976 146,475 to 353,272).

The Elite did its job – it held the fort until reinforcements arrived, which came in the form of the new 1977 Thunderbird.  Although the new Bird was nothing more than a heavily restyled Elite, there was still some magic left in the Thunderbird name, because it sold over 300,000 units in its inaugural year, a figure not far from what the Elite sold over its entire two and a half year life cycle.  Although the ’77 T-Bird was a big improvement, it was still about 100,000 units short of the hugely popular Monte Carlo.

But back to the Elite.  I still remember the first one that I saw.  One evening in early 1974, the national news was on TV and there was a story about auto sales, which were in the tank during the recession that started that year.  The background video was from a Ford assembly plant.  I suddenly realized that the front end of the cars being assembled were unlike any of the Gran Torinos that I had seen at my local auto show a month or two earlier.  I checked my stash of literature, and nothing from Ford with those big single headlights.  Only later did I realize that I got a sneak peek of this car that night on the news.

Ford made a lot of variants out of a single, basic car in the eight years from 1972 through 1979.  Torinos, Montegos, Cougars, Thunderbirds, LTD IIs, and this Elite.  Although the Elite never really did much for me when it was new (the 1977-79 Cougar XR-7 was my fave at that time) this car has grown on me as time has passed.  It is a curious mixture of the voluptuous early ’70s and the squared off and tucked in late ’70s all in one car.  Somehow, it kind of works, in its unique way.

It has been eons since I have seen one of these in the midwest.  These cars were extremely susceptible to infestation by rust mites, which was generally fatal.  (You can always tell a case of rust mite infestation by the trail of iron oxide droppings.) This was not one of Ford’s better eras for quality, and most of these were long gone by the time cash for clunkers came around.

Mrs. JPC and I were on the way to a movie early one evening last summer when this particular example gave my retinas a big old slap.  How deliciously 1970s, white vinyl upholstery, green vinyl roof and all.  And how long has it been since we could buy tires with that inch-and-a-half whitewall?  Weren’t those briefly popular around 1980 or so?  This one lacks the Gran Torino badges, so it must be a 1975 or 76.  I couldn’t tell the difference then, and I still can’t.  Let’s call it a ’76 – Ford made more of them that year.  In any case, it is a beautiful example of a now-uncommon car.  I cannot recall the seller’s asking price, but I remember that that it was a bit stiff.

When getting ready to write this piece, my son Jimmy saw these pictures and started regretting his Grand Marquis purchase.  I reminded him about gas mileage in the low teens and he felt better.  I always thought of these as bloated, wallowy barges that drove more like ships than cars.  But for today’s kids, no such thing has ever existed in their memories, which gives the car a certain cachet.

Ford did a pretty passable job taking a lot of leftovers and cobbling together a decent stew.  It was better than it had any right to be.  And after another thirty five years at the back of the fridge, it’s actually kind of appetizing.  If you like stew.