Vintage Article: 1977 Domestic New Car Preview Sketches – Sometimes The Crystal Ball Was Clear, Sometimes It Was Murky


When I was a kid, one of my biggest automotive fascinations was imagining what changes were in store for the upcoming new car model year.  I eagerly awaited the new model preview guides, and loved to pore over the sketches and conjecture about upcoming cars—and then of course I enjoyed seeing what was on target and what was not when the actual cars were released.  So let’s look at some predictions for the 1977 model year as laid out in the August 1976 issue of Road Test Magazine, and see how accurate the forecasts actually were.

Without a doubt, the 1977 model year was expected to be monumental.  Detroit, led by General Motors, was on track to unveil dramatically smaller and more efficient cars.  Would they walk the fine line between big car tradition and the demand for a more pragmatic future?

At Chevrolet, the big news was the big cars: both the Impala and Caprice were thoroughly sketched-out.  Since the Impala had been the sales leader for the full-size Chevrolets, it was very prominently featured.  In actuality, 1977 would turn out to be the year when Caprice sales overtook the B-Body Impala for good.

The predictions were also correct that Pontiac and Chevrolet would share more exterior body panel stampings, like the door skins.  Buick and Olds would also interchange panels these same panels with each other (but not Chevy and Pontiac)—oddly, while they looked very similar to the Chevrolet and Pontiac door skins, the Buick and Olds panels were subtly different.

Overall, these renderings were quite close to the finished product, and clearly showed the crisp new look that would come to define Chevrolet’s “standard” cars.

The perennial Pontiac full-size sales leader had been the Catalina from the the 1960s through 1976, so expectations centered around the series continuing as a major player at Pontiac (in reality, the Bonneville/Brougham would pass Catalina in sales from 1977 onward).  The sketch provided a remarkably accurate sneak peek at the good looking coupe.  Sadly, the clean-lined Catalina did not get much traction in the marketplace: at 14,752 units, it was the slowest selling B-Body 2-door, trailing Bonneville/Brougham coupes (53,518), Impala coupes (58,092), Caprice Coupes (71,973), LeSabre coupes (67,044) and Delta 88 coupes (69,926).

The renderings of the ’77 Ventura facelift were quite close to the final product.  However, the freshened face couldn’t salvage the soft Ventura sales, and the “luxury” Phoenix with a more prominent nose would arrive mid-year in 1977, and then completely replace the Ventura for 1978.

There would in fact be a Sunbird Formula for 1977, with the rear spoiler and bold graphics (though not the fender flares and prominent front air dam), in keeping with Pontiac’s performance imagery.  Don’t open the hood though—the Formula package was served-up on Sunbirds with either the 2.5 Liter “Iron Duke” 4-cylinder or the 3.8 Liter V6.  Not quite Firebird territory…

Speaking of the Firebird, this sketch offered a preview of one of best nose jobs ever—I loved the new 1977 “face” for Pontiac’s Pony Car!

Over at Olds, the renderings quite effectively captured the new look for the full-sized cars.  On the Ninety-Eight, the rear wheel openings were off (the larger openings were used on the Delta 88 series while the Ninety-Eights were lower and and more “formal”) and the roofline looked more B-Body than C-Body.  Spot-on, however, was the Delta 88 coupe roofline with the short landau vinyl top.

The roofline depicted for the ’77 LeSabre Coupe is more formal than the one that would actually grace production cars.  Tail lights on the finished product were not as wide as those shown on the rendering either, but the classic Buick “portholes” were present and accounted for!

Pretty close to reality, though the actual Electra grille would boast ever more “drama,” with chromed rectangles to surround the egg-crate grille openings.

The look of the B-Body wagon would prove to be accurate, along with the assessment that the wagon body would essentially be shared between all divisions from the cowl back.

Cadillac must have been evaluating whether or not to include fender skirts on the downsized DeVille/Fleetwood cars.  At least in these drawings, the skirts enhanced the long, low “traditional” Cadillac look.

The Cadillac Limousine was still an important offering in 1977, so the illustrator took a stab at how the downsized 9-passenger flagship would look.  Frankly, I prefer the roofline depicted in the drawing to the actual finished product that featured the rear quarter “opera” window from the Coupe DeVille.

GM finally coughed up the money to properly finish the metal on the Seville roofline (originally a Frankenstein concoction from the X-Body Nova that initially required a vinyl covering to mask the seams), so that the car could be offered with or without a padded vinyl top.  Good move, as I think the metal roof was cleaner looking.

While the GM preview renderings were pretty accurate for the most part, when it came to Ford Motor Company, the artist’s vision got a bit murkier.

Some products, like the ’77 Pinto, with its new nose and tail, were correctly captured in the sketches.

The ’77 Torino, however, was way off (starting with the name).  Sadly, the drawings for the “cleaned-up” mid-size Ford were much crisper and airier-looking than the actual “still-bloated” LTD II that would ultimately emerge.

The prediction that the Thunderbird would use the mid-size chassis were correct, but the roofline, grille and taillights weren’t right.  This was a case where I think the production TBird, with its basket-handle roofline and dramatic taillights bar, was much better looking than the design renderings.

Also kinda, sorta close, but not quite there, was the illustrator’s interpretation of the restyled Lincoln Mark V.  The crisp bodylines, wheel openings and fender “gills” were correct, but the rear roofline was shorter and rounder than the one that appeared on the production car.

A big departure from reality (unfortunately) was the rendering for the new Lincoln “Small Sedan.”  The illustration shows a car that combines styling cues such as the greenhouse and rectangular wheel openings from the big Lincoln Continental sedan with an almost European crispness to the body sides plus the front and rear treatments.  This car certainly did not look like a Granada, and the design might have been a far more effective Seville competitor had it been produced.  In reality, FoMoCo took the cheap way out on the Lincoln “Small Sedan” with not much more than a revised front clip and decklid on a Granada/Monarch, resulting in the sales-dud Versailles.

Chrysler Corporation apparently released product planner dreams to inform the future model depictions.  Perhaps money troubles prevented the company from actually producing a new generation of Barracuda/Challenger models based on the Volaré/Aspen platform.  While a quasi-muscle car from Mopar probably wouldn’t have challenged GM’s F-Body Camaro/Firebird dominance in the segment, it might have made a dent in sales of Ford’s Pinto-based Mustang II, which was rapidly losing its luster by 1977.

There were also apparently Imperial dreams still swirling around Chrysler headquarters.  The car that would ultimately become the 1977 Chrysler LeBaron is shown looking like a shrunken Cadillac DeVille with an Imperial scipt on the rear fender.  Thankfully, the production LeBaron Coupe with its unique roofline and rear quarters was far better looking than this rather stuffy concept drawing.

Nothing much could have helped the ungainly styling of the AMC Matador—square headlamps included…

The Pacer Wagon, however, did offer a decent-looking variation on the rolling fishbowl style of the original car.

The prediction that was farthest from reality was for the AMC front-wheel-drive car.  Speculation was that AMC would use an engine and FWD components from Audi (!!!) married to a revised Gremlin body shell (!!!).  I am not sure how far along this rather preposterous plan progressed, but even if it had made it to reality I can’t imagine that the result could have saved AMC in the long run.

So there you have it, a fun collection of sketches to set the imagination into motion.  Makes me miss the days when anticipation around future products was based on speculation and illustrations rather than auto show unveilings 2-years before the finished products arrived…