(first posted 11/16/2015) While GM had fully embraced downsizing their cars as a core business strategy, Ford seemed to be more reluctant in adapting to the changing landscape. The Blue Oval brigade was so used to selling its big cars by the pound (more road hugging weight for your dollar!), that transitioning the LTD to a newer, more efficient design, as mandated by CAFE requirements, would be challenging for the company. So how well did Ford do when they no longer had any choice but to put their dinosaur on a diet? Read on to see what the automotive press had to say when the Panther platform was brand new.
On the eve of the 1979 model year, downsizing was no longer an unfamiliar term to American car buyers. GM had already significantly scaled down the dimensions and weight for both their full size and mid size lines. That Ford would be doing the same with its full size cars was a foregone conclusion. The only mystery was in the specifics. Consumer Guide’s ’79 Auto Preview offered some surprisingly accurate renderings of the new design. As expected, the LTD looked to be crisper and boxier, wearing the more efficient look of the late 1970s.
Road Test magazine showcased highlights of the new Ford LTD for their new car announcement issue in the Fall of 1978. Their fact-filled assessment was heavy on useful content and light on engagement, much like the car itself.
In general, Consumer Guide Auto Test 1979 gave the new LTD high marks, noting that it was more efficient, easier to drive, still quite roomy inside with a bigger trunk. All plus points for pragmatic shoppers, and CG rated the Ford just behind Chevrolet, which was a big change from the previous few years. Some complaints centered around the placement of controls on the instrument panel, including the peculiar location for the horn, mounted on the end of the turn signal stalk. Not intuitive or easy to use at all.
From my perspective, Car and Driver offered the best and most accurate overview of the new Ford LTD. They noted FoMoCo’s unwillingness to fully embrace smaller big cars, though they gave credit that the new design was reasonably well done.
The Car and Driver test car was equipped with a bench seat upholstered in a psychedelic patterned cloth. Even for the disco era, I think the look would have been a hard sell, especially for Ford’s more conservative clientele.
Based on the pictures of the LTD lurching around the handling track, I’d guess that the car pictured did not have the suspension with the handling option. However, the Car and Driver editors did not detect that much difference between the handling option and the standard suspension, so my guess could be entirely wrong.
There was not much praise for the new styling, with Car and Driver calling it dull at best. My own assessment of the design is far harsher: I think the standard LTD, with its dual headlamp front end, resembles an oversized love child spawned from a Granada and a Fairmont.
The comparison data didn’t tell a particularly compelling story either. The test car, with its 351 V8, didn’t accelerate any more quickly or brake any better than the ’77 LTD, and performed far worse than the downsized the GM cars. At least the ’79 LTD was quieter than the Cadillac… Arguably for Ford fans, though, the new design did everything it needed to do, remaining true to most of the old school values that had kept sales of the big Ford humming along for many, many years.
Speaking of Ford fans, my father’s father, Granddaddy Will, was a true-Blue Oval man. After returning from service in WWI, he finished up school, started his career and bought his first new car, a Ford Model T. Granddaddy Will embraced the function, solidity and no-frills nature of Ford products, and he never bought any other make of car for the rest of his 82 years.
Granddaddy Will viewed his cars as appliances, and treated them as such. He drove them hard, never bothered to have cosmetic scuffs and dings fixed, and gave them nothing more than routine maintenance. He’d get rid of the cars when he felt that they “were acting up too much” and he didn’t want to spend money continually fixing an older beater. So, given that the average lifespan of a car was shorter, and he in no way babied the cars, he usually got about six years or so out of them before selling them on.
A key part of Granddaddy Will’s car buying philosophy was to shop at the end of the model year and bargain hard on the remnants the dealer wanted to unload before the new models arrived. In September 1979, Granddaddy Will decided that his 1973 LTD was just about done, so he went to see what he could pick up at the Ford dealer.
The leftover car he brought home was a non-metallic baby blue 1979 LTD with the standard 302 V8. While it was the color of the Landau in the top photo (Medium Light Blue for you Ford aficionados), his was a base model with dual headlamps like the car in the bottom shot. Though his didn’t have a vinyl roof, it did feature the same plain wheel covers, the same lack of decorative trim and the same blue vinyl base interior that can be glimpsed through the windows. It was a very boring, very boxy, very blue Ford. Perfect for Granddaddy Will, but not my cup of tea. I suppose it could have been worse–at least he didn’t find any ’79 LTD IIs languishing on the lot…
The Smurfs would have felt right at home in the blue interior. This picture shows the exact interior color, and the same dismally fake “wood” trim, that adorned the inside of Granddaddy Will’s car. His particular LTD also had a weird option load (maybe that’s why it was a remnant). It had some pricey options, like the power bench seat and Fingertip Speed Control, applied to a very basic car with crank windows. I would imagine that Granddaddy Will haggled so hard that he would have gotten the unwanted options thrown in for free.
This 1979 LTD was the last in his long line of Fords. Granddaddy Will passed away quickly and peacefully on New Year’s Eve just before the start of 1981. His wife, my step grandmother Mama Dora, held on to Granddaddy Will’s ’79 LTD along with her 1977 LTD Landau (she had managed to get him to spring for a fancier Ford for her) for a long enough period of time to be deemed proper. Then she traded both cars in and got her dream car, a 1982 Buick LeSabre Limited. It was truly the end of an era.