(first posted 1/17/2018) Few things are more gratifying than seeing greatness rewarded. Especially when the highly coveted recognition comes from a most prestigious entity. Think world renowned scientists earning the Nobel prize, truly talented actors snagging an Oscar, and the 1973 full-size Fords winning Road Test Magazine’s Car of the Year. For ’73 Ford “Super Fans” like Paul and Jason, the Road Test honor is enough to elicit tears of joy.
Or a gag reaction….
Spoiler alert: for many folks, and most especially Paul, the ’73 full-size Fords were a low point for the Blue Oval. Corpulent and sloppy, the big Fords took the worst of Motown to the extreme in one of the final hurrahs of “road hugging weight” for the “everyman” buyer.
And that’s where Road Test Magazine comes in: more than any other U.S. buff book at the time, Road Test devoted a lot of coverage to the everyday cars that were ubiquitous in the 1970s, including the still popular traditional American big cars. While reading Road Test can be cringe-inducing, as the copy is often riddled with typos and content gaffes, it is nonetheless a great time capsule back to another era in automotive tastes and needs.
Strange things happen when you start to judge the full-sized Ford in the context of the times: they actually made some sense for their intended mission. That’s not to say that the big Fords (and their competitors) were logical solutions for everyday transportation needs, and that would ultimately be their undoing. However, as an understandable evolution of an incredibly successful Cash Cow product line, the full-size Ford offered more of everything that American buyers had been conditioned to expect was “better” in a new car. It was the classic Detroit formula of packing a lot of superficial value into jumbo-sized cars that spun huge profits for the manufacturers and earned legions of loyal buyers.
In fact, the 1973 Ford was also one of the last big car lines to be redesigned still using Motown’s classic “bigger is better” approach, before the giant global shockwaves from the 1973 Oil Embargo changed the American auto business forever. Pity poor Chrysler: its all-new 1974 dinosaurs were hatched in the fall of 1973, right when the oil crisis “meteor” hit, dealing them a lethal blow right out of the gate. At least Ford had one prosperous year for its newest giants to thrive in a gluttonous environment fueled by cheap gas and low expectations.
And that was the world Road Test was living in when it selected the full-sized Ford as its Car of the Year in January 1973.
Road Test’s boasting about the quality and impact of their awards is absolutely comical to read. Also, for whatever reason, RT exhibited great disdain toward GM’s new A-Body intermediates as deserving recipients of recognition. Of course, the sad reality of 1973 is that there really wasn’t that much true innovation from Detroit in any form, from any maker.
Like working a “Where’s Waldo” puzzle, finding errors in Road Test copy can be an entertaining pastime. Copy on page 29 erroneously identifying cornering lamps as being available only on Country Squires is but one example—though a funny one, given that an LTD sedan is shown in an adjacent picture fitted with cornering lamps. Whoops.
But now sit back in your La-Z-Boy and let’s get behind the wheel of Ford Division’s finest LTD for 1973.
The LTD Brougham 2-door hardtop tested carried the very expensive (and undoubtedly very rare) optional moonroof, which listed for $495.97 ($2,870 adjusted). The optional remote control right hand mirror was also called out for newness and usefulness—hard to believe that there was a time when such a feature was considered novel.
One of the most incredible benefits of the new 1973 Ford was the gigantic glovebox–400 cubic inches bigger than the one offered in 1972! That’s the equivalent of more than three 2-liter bottles of Coca-Cola! Or could it just be another Road Test typo?
As equipped, the test car would have stickered for around $6,244 ($36,134 adjusted), which was quite a princely sum for a Ford at the time. Most ’73 Fords probably listed much closer to the $4,927.14 ($28,512 adjusted) price noted on Road Test’s spec page when equipped with “desired options.”
Now on to the “Technical Highlights” for the “all-new” Fords to see Dearborn’s state-of-the-art circa 1973.
Other than battering-ram bumpers ready to meet 1974 U.S. Government standards, windshield washers mounted in the wiper arms, more sound deadening and a few other comfort, convenience and theft protection options, there really wasn’t much in the way of breakthrough new features. But did that really matter to the average Ford buyer?
My Granddaddy Will was one of those customers. He owned nothing but Blue Oval products for his entire life, and didn’t think anyone ever needed “more car” than you could find with a full-sized Ford. His 1973 LTD pillared hardtop, in Medium Copper Metallic with a Beige vinyl top and Beige brocade interior, would have seemed almost like a Lincoln compared to the 1967 Galaxie 500 he traded in (the ’73 also seemed more substantial than his wife’s 1972 LTD pillared hardtop). Since he lived in Mississippi, not Marin County, he had no interest in a nimble, driver-oriented machine. Nope, he wanted something big, roomy, soft riding, durable, cheap to run and easy to fix that he could drive hard and put away wet. As much as I personally didn’t care for the car (as a little kid, I remember thinking it was an ugly rust-colored beast), I can now see why it made sense for Granddaddy Will.
The 1973 Fords made sense for a lot of buyers: sales increased 3% to 854,513. Though that total trailed the 978,046 big Chevrolets sold for 1973 (which coincidentally was 3% less than the 1972 results, so perhaps there were some buyers shifting to the new Fords from Chevy), it was still a whopping big number. In fact, the best selling vehicle in the U.S. for 2017 was the Ford F-Series, with 896,764 sold—a number remarkably close to the 1973 full-sized Ford results.
When you think about it, there are parallels between the car market in 1973 and the car market today. Domestic makers have their profits concentrated in certain vehicle classes—this time pick-up trucks and SUVs (gargantuan full-size cars and still huge mid-size cars played that role in ‘73). Then, as now, sales have been rolling along at a record clip. But just as in 1973, clouds of change loom large on the horizon. Back then, the Oil Cartel used their leverage to severely disrupt existing economic models, with profound impact on the automotive industry.
This time, Tech Titans are leading the charge, with the beginnings of an aggressive push toward driverless cars that will reshape the industry once again. Yesterday’s Oil Sheiks proved their strength and power by turning off the petroleum spigots. Now we’ll be bending to the will of the high tech “visionaries,” though they are quick to profess their benign intentions: “we just want to make people safer and provide transportation options for the blind.” The fact that eliminating drive time as a remaining window where consumers aren’t completely tethered, tracked and monetized by devices and big data is simply a minor fringe benefit for these altruistic companies….
Just as the full-sized Ford seemed like an instant relic in the post-Oil Shock era, how will today’s pick-ups and SUVs fare in the new world order of connectivity and artificial intelligence? Why should we tolerate illogical gas-powered style statements operated by fallible humans, when hordes of identical “flawless” electric-powered autonomous transport pods can be available at our beck and call? All we’ll have to do is croak out a voice command: “take me to the nearest pot dispensary” to be safely and effortlessly whisked to our desired destination. We can even squeeze in a few extra YouTube videos on the way.
Freedom, control, self reliance, personal expression, skill, camaraderie and adventure in the real, wild world—who wants that anymore?
So as we begin to bid adieu to the automotive era as we have long known it, I can actually conjure up more sympathy than I ever imagined for the ’73 Ford and the old-school excesses it embodied. The big pig of a car was wrong in so many ways, but it actually was quite effective delivering against its mission of isolation and “lots of car” for the bucks. So maybe the 1973 Ford really did deserve Road Test‘s Car of the Year award after all—as a final, departing expression of what had previously been successful in the American market, warts and all.
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