Only about a month ago, it was warm enough in Chicago to take a walking tour of historic buildings and neighborhoods sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Center (which featured locales all over the city) and do some window shopping. This ’78 Ford Thunderbird was parked in front of one of the more reasonably priced vintage / thrift stores in my neighborhood on one of those two days, and I had several immediate thoughts as I took in this scene.
First, I’m an insurance professional, and when it comes to my work attire, I stick almost exclusively to nice, business-casual clothing bought from first- or second-tier department stores. However, when it comes to clothing to wear on my own time, I often gravitate to stores like Green Element, pictured above (or others in the area) to find that one, really nice, lightly worn shirt or pair of slacks from decades ago that might originally have cost a bit more money, to mix in with other items in my wardrobe.
I buy these garments for at least as much (sometimes much more) than a new, okay-looking golf or polo shirt or yet another pair of Dockers would cost. I have spent comparatively more on cool, retro pieces that once carried a fair amount of cachet, because as a matter of my personal preference and when within my means, it’s got to be real. Sometimes, I’d like to have something genuinely classic and pre-owned instead of the clothing equivalent of fast food that will last for maybe a few years before it’s faded, worn, or no longer presentable.
The second thought I had, and it may have been what had been playing on my earbuds at some point during that morning, was that the late 1970s seemed like a glorious time to be alive when I was a young kid. I loved the music, my blue Schwinn, watching “The Gong Show” with host Chuck Barris (who also had a loose, curly Afro like I had in the late ’70s), and perhaps the most famous contestant to come from that show, one Lynda Cheryl Smith, also known as the one and only Cheryl Lynn. She could arguably be considered the first successful singer who had first appeared on a reality show competition (even if “The Gong Show” was often silly), ahead of future American Idol contestants who have had lasting success and relevance, like Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson and Carrie Underwood (among a few others).
To abridge Ms. Lynn’s story (and there’s a lot more to it, including her other theatrical roles before appearing on “Gong Show”), her episode of that program was taped in early 1976 (when she may have been but twenty years old), and by the time it aired in the fall of that year, she almost immediately had several major record labels blowing up her (rotary?) phone trying to sign her. She ultimately went with Columbia Records, and went on to record the multi-format success and RIAA Gold-certified smash “Got To Be Real”.
This single was released in August of 1978 (ahead of her eponymous debut album, which also went Gold), and it peaked at #12 (for three weeks) on the Billboard Hot 100, #1 on the Hot Soul Singles Chart (for one week), and as a double A-side along with “You Saved My Day”, charted at #11 on the Dance Club Charts. We all know this song. I’d wager that most of us at least respect it. It has never left rotation in my active music library.
You might be asking yourself if I’ve sneakily really written this essay about music, throwing in a few pictures of a car as a ruse, but there is a connection here. The seventh generation Ford Thunderbird, in production for the ’77 through ’79 model years, was based on the same mid-size platform as the new-for-’72, body-on-frame Ford Torino / Mercury Montego. Later cars based on this platform included the midsize Ford Elite and Mercury Cougar XR-7 personal luxury coupes, while the substantially larger sixth-generation (1972 – ’76) Thunderbird, a near-twin to the Lincoln Continental Mark IV, also remained in production. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus my initial comparison on the Ford Elite, which was an upscale Torino variant with a lot of Cougar in its body panels, and also basically the same size as the seventh-gen T-Bird that would follow.
The Elite was a decent seller, with the initial run of ’74s (officially the “Gran Torino Elite” for that year only) moving 97,000 copies, followed by 123,000 for ’75 and another 146,000 for ’76. Sales of Ford’s midsize personal luxury coupe were trending upward, which was a good thing. The issue was that the Elite was never any sales threat to Chevrolet’s juggernaut Monte Carlo (with 312,000 sold for ’74; 259,000 for ’75; and 353,000 for ’76). Even ’70s-underdog Chrysler was moving significant numbers of their beautiful, “small” Cordoba, with 150,000 units sold for inaugural ’75 and another 120,000 for ’76. To this last comparison, Ford was a much larger-volume make than Chrysler, and the Cordoba carried significantly higher base prices than the Elite (6% for ’75, and 10.5% for ’76). In the meantime, the full-sized Thunderbird was selling in numbers that averaged roughly 51,000 units from between ’74 and ’76.
Then, model year 1977 happened. Ford’s significantly refreshed and restyled midsize platform gave birth to both a new LTD II as the replacement for the Torino, and also a new downsized Thunderbird. We all know how this panned out, as it has been written about here at Curbside Classic. The LTD II sold okay for its first two model years, before sales fell off a cliff for ’79. The Thunderbird, though, positively exploded on the sales charts, selling an average of about 318,000 units over this design’s three model years. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the base price had dropped by over a third from ’76 to the new ’77 models, even if the newer base cars were decontented compared to the previous generation.
I liken this to when famous fashion designer Halston had made a very lucrative deal with department store J.C. Penney in 1983 to design a line bearing his name (“Halston III”) of affordable clothing, accessories and perfumes. Suddenly, women across the United States could afford something by Halston(!), who had been (up to that point) one of the designer darlings of the high fashion world.
That whole thing didn’t end well, but the Halston III line’s initial success could be compared with the reception of the downsized, ’77 Thunderbird – suddenly, many who had always wanted but couldn’t afford one could now slide into the driver’s seat for reasonable money. (For the record, a few of the times that I’ve typed the word “downsized” when composing this essay, I’ve had to chuckle, because these Thunderbirds measured close to 218″ from bumper to bumper and most weighed over two tons.)
Back to the tie-in with Cheryl Lynn and what is arguably her signature song, it could be said that while the LTD II might have been a nice enough car in some forms, the majority of buyers said, “Nope. It’s got to be real,” and chose a Thunderbird instead. My mind now wanders to the late ’70s, when I might have been peddling around on my burgundy tricycle in my family’s driveway, with “Got To Be Real” or its follow up, “Star Love” (note our featured car was nicknamed the “Star Bird”) thumping from the speakers of this very Thunderbird (or one just like it) when new, while it passed our driveway. Goosebumps.
While never my favorite throughout my teens or twenties, the styling of this generation has grown on me substantially over the past few years. I love the accessories on this particular example, including its Cragars, pinstripes and chain-link steering wheel. It is big, brash and beautiful, like the robust and soaring vocals of Cheryl Lynn. The ’77 Thunderbird may have been based on a four-year-old Torino platform, but these newly-downsized, seventh-generation models were, as far as I’m concerned, as real as it gets.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, October 27, 2019.