Thirty-five years ago, automobile dealers in North America anticipated a major change in their fortunes. Or, was it all about product all along?
1977 was a watershed year in the automotive industry. The OPEC Oil Crisis was already over. However, the lessons learned from the crisis began to trickle down into the products North American automakers rolled out.
This was a time reflected upon the President of the United States – Gerald Ford. The country was still reeling from a double dose of recession and inflation. Crime was rampant and many major cities – New York, included – were a mess. The country was ready to make a change with high hopes towards the better, after it concluded it’s Bicentennial celebration.
More to the point, how much would America continue to boogie to the beat of Studio 54's excess with a country still licking it's deepest wounds since the 1930s?
The 1977 model year would a pivotal one as a reflection of the times in this country. This list of Five Favorites reflects the changes that were both immediate and long standing that emanated from this particular model year. The 1977 model year ushered in an era that experienced the downsizing the American automobile, the changing the game as to where luxury came from and the foretelling of the future of alternative automobile fuels.
However, the 1977 model year also signifies a personal benchmark – my interest in the automobile began to grow. Knowing I would obtain my driver’s license in a matter of a few years, the level of automobile interest went from a child's imagination to something closer to reality. I suppose every 13 year-old budding automotive enthusiast would enter this stage naturally. That's puberty for ya…
To that magical year where Donna Summer battled with Led Zeppelin on any given middle school lunchroom – and the five cars that stunted my growth.
GENERAL MOTORS' B/C BODIES: The order from Detroit was to downsize its entire lineup. It had to start form the top – its full-sized models. By 1976, the Chevrolet Impala reached almost 230 inches in length. The full-sized models across the GM line also drank an enormous amount of fuel. The object of the downsizing order was to minimize its footprint, while maximizing its space and overall fuel efficiency. Some may object to the lack of style and flair compared to previous year’s models, but they actually were quite handsome. Some remain iconic to this day – the Chevrolet Caprice Classic and the Cadillac DeVille/Fleetwood Brougham. The changes were dramatic – a 600-plus pound weight reduction, along with a 10-plus inch overall length chop and smaller engines overall. Cadillac went with a 7.0litre V8 instead of an 8.2litre, while the Chevrolet topped out at a 5.7litre V8. In 1976, the Cadillac Sedan deVIlle's trunk was 15.9 cubic feet, where as the 1977 model increased to 19.5. The surprise about these downsized GMs was not about the interior space created on a smaller frame. It was about how much better these cars drove. They were still floaty, but the downsized B/C Bodies actually had some sense of the road – even more so than any of it predecessors. They remained in production well into the 1990s, even as the body changed a few times over since its first inception.
FORD THUNDERBIRD/MERCURY COUGAR: Ford also had a downsizing program of its own. It began by taking the Thunderbird off of its lumbering full-sized platform onto the old Torino mid-sized one. The new T-Bird was chopped by 10 inches with a weight loss of 900 pounds. Gone was the huge 7.5litre V8 as engines now topped out at 6.6litres. A 5.8litre V8 became the most popular engine underneath the slimmer T-Bird. The result was multi-fold. The T-Bird retained its flair – more from absorbing the design cues of the Gran Torino Elite. It also helped enabled the Torino replacement – the LTD II – to lead the way in challenging its competitors in that hotly contested market segment. Mercury also absorbed its mid-sized product – the Montego – into an all-Cougar lineup. The chassis may have been the same as the Torino/Montego, but Ford made an effort to improve the way it drove to distinguish them from their older relatives. The experiment lasted a few years before both the T-Bird and Cougar were downsized again onto the Fox Platform by 1980.
CHRYSLER LeBARON/DODGE DIPLOMAT: As the Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant begat the Aspen and Volare, Chrysler hoped to extend the life of its compact chassis for another decade or so. They achieved this by adding two more vehicles to their lineup with an emphasis on luxury and style. In terms of the Diplomat and LeBaron, the luxury was achieved very nicely. They took the basic Aspen/Volare cabin and spruced it up with better materials all around. The style part was a bit challenging. In the beginning, some styling elements challenged the eye, while some remained iconic through the period. However, the Diplomat and LeBaron enabled Chrysler to sell an upscale product on a "downsized" scale. Power came from a range of engines, starting with the 3.7litre Slant Six up to a 5.9litre V8. The most popular setup was the 5.2litre V8 with a 3-speed automatic. When a new body was crafted a few years later, the M-Body Chrysler became the darling of public safety departments and taxicab fleets throughout North America. Production would continue all the way to 1989 – a lasting legacy of the last of the pre-Iacocca Chrysler vehicles.
DATSUN 810: Years before Nissan considered creating a luxury car line to challenge the elite from America and Europe, they decided to bring a premium product to this country. Premium was a relative word, since Japanese luxury was not seen in the same light as a Mercedes-Benz or Cadillac. The 810 was the the first "big" Nissan to be sold in the USA. Known as the Bluebird Maxima back in Japan, the 810 came ready to battle for a new market niche with the same 2.4litre in-line six as the original 240Z and a pretty distinctive body. The 810 would join the Mazda Cosmo coupe in building an early premium Japanese market. The Toyota Cressida would arrive a model year later. In the early going, not a lot of people were willing to accept a Japanese premium sedan. That would soon change as the 810 and Maxima grew in stature and sustance over time. Who knew it would be a test case for the onset of Infiniti…or, today's Maxima?
MERCEDES-BENZ W123: The S-Class began yet another design revolution for Mercedes-Benz. It brought the three-pointed star into the 1970s by further streamlining traditional elements into a modern form. Its popular mid-sized models were next on the streamlining process. However, Mercedes-Benz was looking deeper as to achieve the same result as the W116. It wanted to keep its traditional owners while bringing a modern product into the same marketplace worldwide. Where the W123 succeeded was not only meshing the traditional with the present day, but by employing more tech underneath the surface. It was simply one of the best built Mercedes' ever…one where you can still see examples roaming this planet. Another innovation happened alongside the iconic W123, Mercedes' first turbocharged diesel engine was put under the hood of its larger W116 S-Class. The marriage of the two (the W123 chassis and the 3.0litre five-cylinder turbo diesel) happened a few years later. When Mercedes’ slaps a turbo onto their patented diesels – that changes everything. In fact, how many diesel engines today come a turbocharger? In the late 1970s, it was absolutely unheard of to find a way to boost a diesel's power band with a twin turbine blower inside of its intimidating little housing.
Cover photo (c) 1976, 2011 General Motors Corporation