Vintage Reviews: 1983 – 1986 Ford LTD, LTD/LX & LTD Brougham – Lethargic, Tuned or Dutiful?

(first posted 5/17/2018)        Last week, Paul covered the 1983 generation Fairmont-based LTD and its challenging mission of bridging between the “Brougham” and “Aero” eras at Ford.  The resulting car did not set the world on fire, though it wound up as a decent success during a tumultuous period for U.S. automakers.  However, engine and equipment choice played a huge role in determining how good the car was for everyday transportation—period reviews from Consumer Guide Auto Test and Car and Driver help pinpoint the good, the bad and the ugly when it came to the “Fairmont LTDs.”

The brief for the Ford LTD (and companion Mercury Marquis) was a tough one.  The 2nd Oil Shock had thrown a monkey wrench into Motown’s product planning machine, and suddenly makers were scrambling to flee big cars while still retaining big car customers.  It was common knowledge around Detroit that GM would once again be downsizing its full-sized fleet and converting to front-wheel-drive—the originally expected timing was 1983 (GM missed that by a mile as deep corporate rot set in).  So for 1983, FoMoCo would have wanted to be ready with “smaller full-sized” rivals—hence the reskinning and rebadging of the former “compact” Fairmont.

Plus, the precedent had already been set.  Pontiac, for example, dumped its full-sized B-Body Catalina/Bonneville and gave a nose job to the mid-sized LeMans to create the “new” Bonneville Model G for 1982.  It wasn’t really a full-sized car, but it carried a full-sized name, so maybe fuel-price-shocked buyers would take the bait.

Chrysler deployed the same strategy with the New Yorker by applying the storied name to the former rear-wheel-drive LeBaron line for 1982.  Voila!  Instant big car!  But in a more rational size, in keeping with the tone of the energy-conscious times.

Aero-fever had taken hold at Ford, so the “new” LTD would get its dose of the new look.  The design was not as comprehensively well-executed as on the Thunderbird (which effectively masked its Fox-Body origins by deploying a redesigned cowl with hidden wipers, aircraft style doors and a very slick body), the LTD was nonetheless a move in a more modern direction, though it did still look quite a lot like the outgoing “compact” Fairmont, especially around the greenhouse.

So where to place the ’83 LTD in the competitive set?  That was the challenge facing Consumer Guide.  Despite the “big car” name on a platform originally marketed as a “compact,” the LTD was lumped in with mid-sized rivals (mostly fwd).  Reflecting this schizophrenia between large and small, the car evaluated in Auto Test 1983 carried an odd mix of equipment.

That’s right, Consumer Guide drove an LTD with Brougham trim, wire wheel covers and the woefully underpowered 2.3L I4 and 3-speed auto.  As you would expect, this powertrain combo was terrible for the car, being very sluggish but not offering the sort of fuel efficiency that would have been expected from a 4-cylinder.  Calling it “lethargic” was a compliment.  Proof that with the technology available in the early 1980s, larger cars with smaller, normally-aspirated engines were not a satisfactory combination. And I can only imagine how the propane-fueled 4-cylinder worked out….

But stuffing a bigger engine in a reasonably sized car was always a Detroit favorite, and the LTD got that treatment as well.  However, rather than just offering the 4.9L V8 (known as the 5.0L V8 in Ford marketing-speak) as an option on any LTD, it only came with the “Euro-inspired” performance model introduced in mid-1984 as the LTD LX.  Naturally, Car and Driver had to spend some wheel time with this one.

There was “like” but not “love.”  The compromises that went into creating the “Fairmont LTD” were still on display, though FoMoCo was given credit for making a lot out of a little.  However, the car looked almost clichéd with the blackout trim, satisfying neither the European crowd nor the American crowd.  Though the anticipated price of $12,000 ($29,388 adjusted) was aggressive, Ford may have been better served by offering both the V8 and the LX package as standalone options.  The brutal truth was the market was not interested in the “performance” LTD, as only 3,260 were produced for 1984 and 1985 combined.  The Mercury Marquis LTS mentioned in the article turned out to be a Canadian offering only, and a mere 134 were produced (thanks to mercury6768 and VinceC (Bill Mitchell) for this data).  These “tuned” old-school family cars just weren’t what the market wanted in the mid-1980s.

But there was one variant of the LTD that was “just right” for the car’s mission as unassuming middle class “quasi-brougham, quasi-modern” transportation.  Consumer Guide Auto Test 1985 took a spin in a more “typical” LTD of the period and found a lot to like (enough to even bestow the LTD with a “Best Buy” designation).

The 1985 test LTD came in Brougham trim (this time with the “sail cloth canvas” roof covering—so much “classier” than vinyl…but note the CG content error: this roof treatment was optional on any LTD, but not standard on the Brougham.) and finally the right engine for most of the car’s owners: the 3.8L V6.  This “dutiful” engine provided enough pep for the average buyer, with decent (but not outstanding) fuel economy.  Basically “just right” for traditional customers easing into the expectations of the 1980s.  Without a doubt, the majority of the 647,509 Fox-Body LTDs (plus 307,950 Marquis) sold from 1983 through 1986 carried this engine.

So there you have it, from back in the day, the best way to have your Fox LTD—a transitional car at its finest!