September 30, 1976 may not be on everyone's calendar – but it should be.
On that date, the American automotive industry showed us the way forward. It was a response to a series of events that had framed the future of the automobile. These events included the imposition of emissions controls by the Environmental Protection Agency, new crash protection standards from the National Highway Traffic safety Administration and the OPEC Oil Crisis.
Through the mid-1970s, the standard-sized American automobile became simply too big to handle. On average, a full-sized sedan was stretched out to about 224 inches long by 1975. This included the addition of 5 MPH bumpers. Engines were mainly V8s, ranging from 5.7 liters upwards towards 7.5 liters in displacement. In 1970, horsepower for these big V8s were around 300, but emissions controls and new Society of Automotive Engineers performance measuring standards dropped them almost in half.
The worst part of this picture was fuel economy. Although gas pump prices were just several cents per gallon, driving the big cars were simply no problem. After all, they sometimes averaged 12 MPG. Yet, the OPEC Oil Crisis put a damper on our driving habits – gas rationing, limitations of days when we can drive and even the rise in fuel prices.
The idea of downsizing was not directly imposed by any governmental agency. Although the administration of President Gerald R. Ford took on the job of environmental protection and increasing vehicle safety that began with his predecessor, President Richard M. Nixon, there was no pressure put upon the four remaining automakers in the USA to do something to have to do something as drastic as reducing the overall size of their vehicles.
However, the auto industry knew that the full-sized cars would not last in their current state. The public demanded more efficient vehicles to offset the concerns over fuel prices and consumption. This was how Detroit’s Big Three responded.
General Motors responded by working on Project 77 – which would downsize their entire full-sized car lineup by an average of ten inches in overall length and five inches in wheelbase. They also concentrated on an engine lineup not to exceed 7.0 liters in displacement, which would include improved versions of the Chevrolet Small Block V8.
Project 77 had some very interesting results. Even though GM reduced overall length and wheelbase on their B- and C-Body models, they did not sacrifice interior space. In fact, they increased it and trunk space overall. Part of it was a taller roof profile, which enabled greater head and leg room in the rear seat. The same result was seen across all brands at GM, even as some were concerned how the reduced size Cadillacs would be perceived.
The fall of 1976 saw the first results of Project 77. They arrived at their respective showrooms on September 30, 1976. Chevrolet took the lead on promoting the new size of their big cars with a massive advertising campaign highlighting "The New Chevrolet." They featured the Caprice Classic as their main model, which has never been done before in the brand's history. Usually, the Caprice was reserved as a luxury enticement to the brand, with an emphasis on the Impala as the focal point of the full-sized car offerings. Since the Bel Air was forever canceled, the Impala moved into the value end of the full-sized lineup, while the Caprice Classic took center stage. This will be the case for the remaining lifespan of Chevrolet's big car.
For its first year, 660,000 units of the downsized Chevrolets were produced. It became the best-selling passenger car in the USA, with over 212,000 Caprice Classic sedans leading the way above all other models. Customers were sold on the improved fuel economy from previous models and in comparison to the larger Ford LTD and Plymouth Gran Fury. On top of the sales success, the Chevrolet full-sized lineup received Motor Trend's Car of The Year for 1977.
Pontiac saw a consolidation of the lineup, with the Catalina and Bonneville making the cut for 1977. Buick saw equal interest in the smaller LeSabre and Electra models, while Oldsmobile had the Delta 88 and Ninety-Eight in their reduced forms.
However, all eyes were on Cadillac. The size reduction for the Sedan/Coupe de Ville and Fleetwood Brougham were dramatic. The overall design of Cadillac's large car models came under fire from critics, saying they were not up to the standards of the brand. Cadillacs were meant to be audacious, in your face and bold. With slimmer front ends, upright rooflines and muted tail fins, one wondered if Cadillac had lost their swagger in the course of downsizing.
The basic Cadillac V8 engine was reduced from 8.2 Liters to 7.0 Liters. This was done in order to fir the engine in a reduced frontal area. The hood was long, in relative terms, but the actual engine bay was completely reduced compared to its 1976 counterparts. The net power loss was 10 horsepower – from 190 to 180. However, the weight loss was significant enough to enable more power-to-weight performance out of the downsized Cadillacs.
The public lapped up these new downsized B- and C-Bodies. Cadillac saw a sales record for the de Ville models of over 241,000 units for 1977. Sales records were made at Oldsmobile, while they increased at Buick. Overall response to the reduced-sized GM full-sized models was incredible and would set the tone for the remainder of the decade into the 1980s.
Ford's initial foray into downsizing concentrated on a single model: the Thunderbird coupe. The 1976 model became simple too large to sell. They shared the same platform as the full-sized Ford, Mercury and Lincoln models, including the Mark IV. While the Mark V was redesigned with a slight reduction overall, the Thunderbird was transferred to the mid-sized platform that once underpinned the Ford Torino and Elite. For 1977, the Torino was replaced by a redesigned LTD II. The Elite was simply replaced by the new smaller Thunderbird.
By simply moving the Thunderbird down a platform, it enabled Ford to align it with the Mercury Cougar. However, the Cougar effectively replaced the 1976 version of it and the Montego midsized models to incorporate the entire line on the revised platform. It gave Mercury a Cougar four-door to sell alongside its coupe models. However, the Thunderbird was never offered in a four-door – not since 1971.
Yet, the Thunderbird's downsize was more dramatic. It retained a lot of the design tenets of the previous generation, with sharpened lines, edges and the re-introduction of hidden headlamps. Some critics pointed out that the Thunderbird was using parts from the outgoing Torino/Elite onto their new model. Ford made up for it by concentrating on the details to entice buyers to own the new 1977 T-Birds. The public bought plenty of these coupes, thanks to a significant price reduction. Though 1977 sales were strong with over 318,000 units sold, 1978 became the watershed year with a model sales record of over 352,000 units delivered.
General Motors was not done with their downsizing program. The next model to be reduced in size were their popular A-Body mid-sized cars. With the large cars reduced in 1977, GM found that their mid-sized models were almost the same size as the top of line products. However, they saw an opportunity during development alongside Project 77 to do the same dramatic reductions, while formulating increases in interior space and finding efficiencies with their drivetrains.
For the 1978 A-Body lineup, the average reduction was twelve inches in overall length and between 500-1,000 pounds in curb weight. Engines were also reduced, with an emphasis on V6 engines, rather than V8s for sales. Buick had the right V6 for this platform – their 3.8 Liter. For the reduced-size Century and Regal coupes, they added a turbocharger to replace V8 performance.
The older A-Bodies were on a shared common body shape and structure. Customers complained that they would have to look at the front ends and the instrument panels to see which brand to buy. There was some distinction among the downsized 1978 models. Chevrolet and Pontiac shared the same rooflines, although one would clearly see by the front clip which one was a Malibu in comparison to the LeMans. A different personal luxury coupe body was introduced for the Monte Carlo and Grand Prix. Rooflines were upright at the rear with distinctive rear window treatments available. Once inside, there was plenty of basic components shared between lower and upper models, as well as across brands.
Buick and Oldsmobile also shared bodies, but in two different series. The Aeroback models were designed for lower midsized models – the Buick Century and Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon. Personal Luxury coupes remained somewhat distinctive between the Buick Regal and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. This would be the first time that the Supreme was its own distinctive model in the lineup. Of note, the Chevelle name went away for 1978.
Chrysler finally caught on with the downsizing program in 1978. Reductions were made from the final Fuselage models to the new R-Body. The scale of reduction was similar to that of GM, although an emphasis was made to ensure some scale of style across all three brands. For 1979, Chrysler and Dodge offered their own models – the Newport, New York and St. Regis respectively. The latter replaced the Royal Monaco. Plymouth introduced their new Gran Fury on the same platform the next year.
It did seem interesting to see the shared bodies and brand engineering made across all three brands. The Gran Fury looked almost exactly the same as the Newport, except that the lower priced Plymouth was sold mainly to fleet customers in contrast to the Newport. The St. Regis shared almost every inch of its design with the Gran Fury and Newport, except for the front and rear clips and badging.
If there was a foretelling of Chrysler's history through this period, it would be the New Yorker. While it modernized the design tenets of its larger predecessor – landau roof, hidden headlights, opera windows – it would also lose some of its cache. Unlike customer acceptance of the downsized Cadillacs, the 1979-81 New Yorker may have lost some of its allure. The Imperial went away by 1976, leaving the Chrysler New Yorker to compete against Cadillac. The downsized New Yorker of 1979 gave Chrysler a chance at Cadillac, but customers found it to not be as luxurious and exclusive enough to buy. That point on, New Yorkers and their successors would see their competition as Buick and Oldsmobile.
To make matters more interesting, Chrysler introduced the M-Body in 1977 for the Dodge Diplomat and Chrysler LeBaron. For Chrysler to survive until Lee Iacocca was to secure financing from the Federal government and build the new front-drive platform by 1980, they looked at the M-Body to help them get through the lull. As customers walked away from the larger R-Bodies, Chrysler moved the New Yorker onto the M-Body platform for 1982. At that point, the M-Body would become the largest car sold by Chrysler until the K-Car was stretched to the E-Car with a later version of the New Yorker.
Ford saved their best for 1979. To reduce the size of their full-sized models across all three brands, they developed the Panther platform. The Panther was designed to be a completely new car, sharing nothing with any Ford before it. The size reduction from the outgoing LTD and Mercury Marquis was fifteen inches in overall length along with a 400-pound weight loss. The Panthers retained plenty of big car characteristics for ride quality while improving overall handling.
Ford and Mercury brought out their first downsized Panther platform models for 1979 – the LTD and Marquis, respectively. Ford went with an all-V8 strategy for their drivetrains, ranging from 4.2 to 5.8 Liters. The focus was on the 4.9/5.0 Liter V8, which would sustain the Panther for over half of its life. For 1980, the same platform would underpin a pair of downsized Lincolns – the Continental and Mark VI. The latter would also be offered in a four-door model, which turned out to be a controversial move, as it seen as a direct competitor to the Continental and the subsequently named Town Car.
This lead to another criticism of the Panther platform. Between Ford and Mercury, along with the two Lincolns, there were too many common body design traits that would only be distinguished by front and rear clips and various details. Yet, both the Ford and Mercury models achieved a curb weight below 4,000 pounds – by today's standards would almost be about average for large cars. As the years go on, the LTD would become the Crown Victoria, the Marquis would permanently add the Grand name to it and, as mentioned before, the Continental would become the Town Car.
The next move for Ford would be an expansion of a popular platform that already spawned one of the most compelling products of the end of the 1970s – the Fox platform. For 1978, the Fox platform spawned the replacement for the Ford Maverick and Mercury Comet called the Fairmont and Zephyr respectively. The next year saw the Ford Mustang and Mercury Capri move the same platform, followed by the Ford Granada, Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar for 1980.
The 1980 Thunderbird and Cougar were considered "downsized," but rather a consolidation of platforms due to the emergence of the full-sized Panther. That rendered the old mid-sized platform useless. They also consolidated the Mercury Monarch into the Cougar lineup, which the latter were still offered in two- and four-door models. The design of the latest Fox body cars was heavily criticized as they took on more of a boxier shape devoid of entertaining lines and details. They offered no personality beyond their badge and rode on a lineup that included four- and six-cylinder engines, along with two V8s. Granted, having fours and sixes helped these cars to meet the latest fuel economy standards for the new decade, but owners felt cheated when they found out that their beloved T-Birds have been reduced to a shell of its own self.
Ford knew it had to do something with the Fox platform and their newly minted models. In 1981, the European arm of the company released an all-new design philosophy that would change the company's fortunes throughout the 1980s. The Sierra effectively replaced the popular Cortina with a "jellybean" shape that was aerodynamic and efficient. Ford’s chief designer Jack Telnack went to work on American versions of the same design to address the feedback the 1980 Thunderbird received. What transpired was a revolution in American car design that would send everyone back to the drawing board.
The fall of 1982 was important for various reasons for Ford. Lincoln already since introduced a retro/modern-styled Continental off of the Fox platform. The Granada and Cougar sedans were getting vastly improved angular styling for 1983. They would also wear new names – LTD and Marquis respectively. The Panther platform cars began to wear their names for the new model year. Most importantly, the Fox body also underpinned the aerodynamically designed Thunderbird and Cougar for the 1983 model year.
What about American Motors? Interestingly enough, the "full-sized" Matador and Ambassador were essentially sized in-between their mid-sized and full-sized rivals. By 1978, all of the larger AMC cars were considered redundant, leaving the Hornet-based Concord and Eagle to serve as the lineup's top tier.
Did downsizing help the cause of reducing the impact on the Big 3 against the tide of regulation and the environment? In a sense, they did. However, there were a few bits of reality that needs to be addressed.
The big cars of the 1970s – the ones before downsizing – had a sense of scale. For example, my first car was a 1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight. You saw it and the mass had a work of art to it with its long and lean body and massive cabin. The instrument panel felt large, as did the seating. Even with smog equipment added, the big Oldsmobile drove large. Overall, it had a presence that cast a shadow upon the road.
Since then, I have driven my fair share of downsized GM B- and C-Bodies. Considering the Chevrolet for a moment, I felt that with the 1977 Impala and Caprice Classic that there was indeed a loss in scale on several details. The dashboard seemed less imposing as it was for the 1971-76 models. The seats were thinner and somewhat less comfortable than the prior generation. Yet, the downsized Chevrolet models actually drive better than its larger predecessors.
As for the downsized Cadillac, I had a chance to drive a 1981 Fleetwood Brougham on vacation in the 1980s. Cadillacs were always known to be grandiose, but quite organized for the driver. This rang true for the 1981 model when compared to models from 1971 and 1972. Due to scale, controls and readouts were closer to the driver in the downsized model than their larger ancestors. Seats were equally comfortable, despite their thinner construction. Despite improvements in ride quality, power was indeed down from the larger 8.2 liter V8. I found the same when I was around my dad's 1977 Buick Electra Limited – the scalability did a complete number on that car, too.
The full-sized Ford and Chrysler models did not lose much scalability in downsizing. However, Chrysler's elimination of the R-Body provided a shock to buyers when presented with the much smaller M-Body as their replacements. However, the M-Body would help steady the rudder, as Chrysler introduced the K- and the platform's variants towards a fiscal comeback of the company.
For a more enduring legacy, Ford's Panther platform lasted the longest of the three downsized large cars from the 1970s. Police departments still use Panther platform Fords in their fleets. Lincoln continued to sell the Town Car, which made up for its initial scalability by creating a design of its own to create that feeling of large luxury that the 1979 Continental once had, but with modern touches.
That is really the story of the downsizing movement – the challenge to retain a lot of the prominence of the larger cars on a smaller scale. If you believe the numbers, they actually gained where they once lost back in the 1960s. However, they did meet the challenges of a post-Oil Crisis era where regulations kicked in further to force automakers to make more efficient vehicles across the board, than just in a few segments.
It is ironic these days when we talk about how much vehicles have bulked up due to further regulations on safety, even when another agency implements more fuel efficiency standards. The irony now is not as far-fetched as it was in the middle of the 1970s. The American car was downsized to meet the standards of the day. This legacy was a lesson for all future vehicle development to come in the next few decades.
All photos by Randy Stern