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Image: 1977 Ford Thunderbird 2-Door Hardtop

Above: 1977 Ford Thunderbird shown in Dove Grey
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A new look, a new price, a new size

1977 Ford Thunderbird

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1977 would be a year of big change for the Ford Thunderbird. But change was nothing new to the car, as it had undergone change before. The Thunderbird started life in 1955 as a two passenger convertible, a personal car that looked like a sports car, but offered the luxuries fine car buyers expected at the time. As wonderful as the little T-birds were, there was a limited market for them, as people needed room for kids, golf clubs, and luggage if they were taking a long trip. People loved them, they became instant classics and icons of the era, but those same people were outgrowing them.

Ford Motor Company realized there was a whole new market for the Thunderbird, if it were able to accommodate more passengers and provide additional luggage space. Therefore, after three years in production, the two passenger Thunderbird became a four passenger Thunderbird for 1958. It was now billed as a personal luxury car, and offered sporty individual seats in front, separated by a panel console, and a back seat with room for two more. Luggage space was increased, factory air conditioning was available for the first time, and a new hardtop model was introduced, as America was in love with the hardtop body style at the time.

Sales of the new four passenger T-bird improved dramatically, and late in the 1958 model year a convertible model joined the hardtop. As each new model year passed, the T-bird became more luxurious, offered more standard features, and introduced new models along the way. A factory sun roof was a 1960 option, although it only lasted for one year. In 1962, a new Landau model based on the Hardtop was introduced to offer a more formal appearance to those in search of something a bit dressier than the base model. 1962 also ushered in the Sports Roadster, a modified convertible that gave the impression of a two seater, yet when the fiberglass tonneau cover was removed, the standard Thunderbird back seat was revealed. The Sports Roadster only lasted two years, but the Landau model became a staple of the Thunderbird line up.

More and more competitors appeared on the scene as the 1960's progressed, but the Thunderbird outsold them all. But America's tastes were changing again, and Ford decided that the Thunderbird would change, too. After all, it had always been the trend setter, so it seemed logical that it would lead the way once again. Said to be the most revolutionary change in the car's history, the 1967 models were all new. Gone was the Thunderbird Convertible, doomed by slow sales and a changing taste for open air cars. More people were opting for factory air conditioning, vinyl roofs, and factory stereo sound systems. The convertible was replaced by the Fordor Landau model, a full size sedan with center-opening rear doors inspired by Lincoln Continental. The Fordor Landau was a huge hit, selling more cars in its first year than the convertible models had sold in their last 3 years put together.

Some people objected to their being a 4-door Thunderbird, to which Ford responded, "A 4-door Thunderbird is still a Thunderbird" in one of its ads. The 4-door T-bird was perhaps ahead of its time, and the model was discontinued after the 1971 model year. From 1972-1976, the Thunderbird was a clone of the Continental Mark IV, sharing many parts with that model. Sales of the Thunderbird during this period generally led the personal luxury market, but the gas shortages of 1973-1974, and the rising cost of gas were prompting many consumers to look for smaller, more efficient cars. And once again, the Thunderbird led the way.

Ford introduced its 1977 line on Friday, October 1, 1976, and the new, smaller Thunderbird was the star attraction of the introduction. The new Thunderbirds that appeared in Ford Dealer showrooms that Fall of 1976 were again much changed automobiles. The 1977 Thunderbird was was still a sleek, distinctive, sporty, personal luxury car, but it was much smaller than in recent history. It shed 10 inches in length, over 900 pounds in weight, and $2,727 was shaved off the base price. And the public's reaction to this change? They loved it! Suddenly, the Thunderbird for the first time was a car within the reach of middle America. Now competing more with the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, Buick Century Regal, and Chrysler Cordoba rather than the Continental Mark V or Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado, the new trimmer T-bird literally flew off the dealer's lots! 318,144 Thunderbirds were built for 1977, putting them solidly in the #1 all time sales position for the line.

The Thunderbird gave up a lot during this conversion, but Ford stylists were careful to make sure the car still looked like a Thunderbird. Concealed headlamps were added as a standard feature, and they framed a distinctive grille that was a little reminiscent of the classic Continental Mark V grille. Upright combination parking lights and turn signals were mounted in the leading edges of the front fenders, giving the Thunderbird a very elegant appearance.

In back, T-bird's typical full-width tail lamps returned, with large Thunderbird emblems mounted on the lenses to make sure people knew what it was. In profile, a distinctive new wrap-over style roof treatment appeared, with a rectangular opera window mounted between the door glass and the stationary rear quarter glass. Another emblem was etched into the opera window glass, a classic touch. Front fender vents mimicked those of the big Mark V, and while the standard equipment list shrunk considerably from 1976, virtually all of the items available on the previous model could be ordered on the new one.

Image: 1977 Ford Thunderbird instrument panelInside the new Thunderbird, the standard interiors still maintained their rich heritage, with a front bench seat trimmed in Willshire cloth and vinyl, available in 6 colors. The instrument panel was reminiscent of the 1968-1971 T-birds, with 5 round gauge pods set in a simulated woodgrain facing, with major controls located below. Metric speedometer graphics appeared in Arc Yellow to make them more visible, and gauges for fuel and temperature were provided. Headlight, heating/air conditioning and optional rear defroster controls were to the left of the steering column, and wiper/washer and optional right exterior remote mirror controls were located to the right of the steering column. The radio was to the right of the mirror control, and the ash tray/cigarette lighter assembly slid out from below the radio, concealed by the lower instrument panel trim. Instruments and controls were all positioned and lit for ease and visibility, and the overall execution of design was similar to other Ford products of the era.

An ad for the new car advised, "A new look, a new price, a new size, but still unmistakably Thunderbird." Another stated, "Introducing a completely new Thunderbird for 1977. At $5,434, it's hard to believe." Although the base price was a few hundred dollars lower than the stated price, the car pictured in the ad was equipped with several popular options, and they were listed in the ad along with their prices. Among them were whitewall tires, vinyl roof, and color-keyed vinyl insert bodyside moldings. The distinctive Polar White car with Lipstick Red vinyl roof and moldings was all the motivation many needed to put a new Thunderbird in their garage.

The Thunderbird wasn't the only model down sized for 1977. General Motors down sized its entire full-size model line up, with everything from the Chevrolet Impala to the Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham taking a hit. Ford and Chrysler would follow this trend as well, but it would take them a couple of additional years to make this change. Ford Motor Company's final traditional-sized luxury car would be the 1979 Lincoln line. And if Ford needed motivation to make that happen, all it had to do was check the T-bird's sales figures. Suddenly, the T-bird was everywhere. On television, the John Bosley character on Charlie's Angels drove one. And everywhere you went, there were Thunderbirds. Lots of them. They had become a bit of a sensation again.

And for veteran Thunderbird owners, just to make sure they weren't disappointed with the new cars with fewer standard features, Ford announced the return of the Town Landau model. The Town Landau name was first used in 1966, to identify that year's top of the line model. It was distinctive due to a new roof line that eliminated the rear side quarter windows. The roof was pushed forward to meet the door glass, giving the car an upscale, Town look. But the Town Landau name was only used in 1966, despite models in 1969 and 1971 having the blind quarter roof. Initially, Ford was planning on using the name for 1969, and even had advertising ready to go using it, but it wasn't officially used again until 1977, and as before, it identified the top of the line model.

The 1977 Thunderbird Town Landau [link opens in new window] cost $2,927 more than the base model, putting it solidly in the same price range as the base 1976 Thunderbird. And it was loaded. Literally, you could walk in and pick your color scheme and not order a single option, and leave with a fully-equipped luxury car. The amenities veteran Thunderbird owners came to expect were included on the Town Landau as part of its standard equipment, things like power windows and a 6-way power driver's seat; power door locks; remote control trunk release; split bench front seats with dual center arm rests and passenger recliner; AM-FM stereo search radio with 4 speakers; luxurious velour upholstery; color-keyed Turbine spoke cast aluminum wheels with accent paint; a color-coordinated translucent hood ornament; and more.

Special touches set the Town Landau apart. A brushed aluminum wrapover tiara band crossed over the roof, stretching from one opera window to the other. The translucent acrylic hood ornament was really an incredible thing to see, especially at night: when car headlights or brake lights shined on it, it glowed in shades of red, blue, amber, or jade. Sunshine has a similar effect, but the effect is more profound at night time.

Despite the many changes, the 1977 Thunderbird was indeed unmistakably Thunderbird, and it was an opportunity for many to park a classic American automotive icon in their garage for the first time. Road Test magazine said in its April 1977 edition that Ford had made the right decision by taking the T-bird "off the hill of the custom built homes" and rolling it down the road "where it can punch it out with all the Monte Carlos, Grand Prixs, Cordobas, and Cougars."

The April 1977 edition of Road Test Magazine summed it up with one sentence: "You can roll that thing into your driveway and the whole neighborhood can tell it says Thunderbird." And that, folks, means a lot.

1977 Thunderbird: A new look, a new price, a new size...but the magic stays.


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Image: 1977 Ford Thunderbird Town Landau emblem