Starting in the late 1950s, GM, Chrysler, and Ford each created luxed-up sub-models of the full-size cars offered by their entry-level divisions. GM’s Chevrolet Division had the Impala, Chrysler’s Plymouth Division had the Fury, and Ford offered the Galaxie. Once that trend got really rolling during the 1960s, proletarian American car buyers wishing to flaunt their increasing wealth didn’t need to move up from a Chevy to a Pontiac, a Plymouth to a Dodge, a Ford to a Mercury; instead, they could sneer down at the envious Biscayne-driving Joneses next door from the snazzy confines of a new Caprice. A bewildering flurry of model names and trim levels confused everybody for a time, but the LTD became the king of full-size Ford sedans during the middle 1960s and became comfortably established in its throne during the following decade. Here’s the car that lived at the top of the LTD pyramid in mid-1970s America: a 1976 LTD Landau Pillared Hardtop Sedan.
By this time, the class distinctions that once separated each company’s car divisions had begun to blur, weakening Alfred Sloan’s “Ladder of Success” system (in which a GM shopper would start with a Chevrolet and then move up through Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick before finally ruling the world — or at least the Accounting Department — from behind the wheel of a new Cadillac). Once the Malaise Era got rolling and every marque got locked into it own internal-prestige arms race, you started seeing (for example) Caprices with fatter price tags than Olds 88s. The Ford Motor Company’s version of the Ladder of Success never had as many well-defined steps as GM’s (the ill-fated Edsel was an attempt to slide a Buick-style marque between Mercury and Lincoln), so few tears were shed in 1976 over today’s Junkyard Gem selling new for a lot more than its allegedly higher-zoot Mercury Marquis sibling.
Just as Chevrolet had five different Caprice models for 1976 (the Impala name had suffered a tragic demotion by that time, now being used to designate the very cheapest big Chevrolets), Ford split up the LTD line into three levels: base, Brougham, and Landau (by this point, all U.S.-market full-size Fords meant for civilian customers were LTDs, while the old Custom 500 name went on cop cars and taxicabs). The LTD Landau Hardtop Sedan was the most expensive new four-door car an American could buy with Ford badges in 1976, with an MSRP of $5,560 (about $29,625 in 2022 dollars).
It certainly was a Landau, with the padded-vinyl C pillar that name implied at the time (though a 19th-century landau carriage was more like a full convertible), but this “hardtop” really wasn’t any such thing; there are skinny but visible pillars in between the front and rear doors. Ford fudged this by occasionally referring to it as a “pillared hardtop” in its marketing materials, so that’s the nomenclature I’m using here.
This was the Golden Age of over-the-top, French-cathouse-style car interiors out of Detroit (and, even more gloriously, out of Kenosha).
This car’s interior still retained some of its vinyl-and-fake-wood glory by the time I got here. It appears to have the Landau Luxury Group option package, which included split bench seats “meticulously tailored” in “100% nylon luxury knit Kasman Cloth which has the look and feel of cashmere” and added 472 bucks ($2,515 now) to the price. It was possible to pile on ’76 LTD options until you were paying nearly as much as you’d have shelled out for a new Continental.
The Landau got power headlight covers, just like the mighty Lincoln Mark IV, and the taillight assemblies got these cool-looking chrome decorations on the backup lamp lenses.
My own family has a respectably deep history with the full-sized Fords of the 1960s and 1970s; the first car I recall riding in was a 1967 Ford Custom two-door sedan with a 289 and three-speed manual, and my grandfather proudly drove his big-block-powered 1968 Ford LTD coupe until Minnesota rust dissolved it. Being a lifelong Ford man after an unfortunate postwar dalliance with a new Crosley, my grandfather immediately bought a new ’77 LTD to replace the ’68.
Power was way down for mid-1970s Detroit V8s, as engineers struggled to adjust to ever-stricter emissions and fuel-economy regulations with the clunky engine-control technology of the time. This 4,394-pound car has a 351-cubic-inch (5.7-liter) V8 rated at 152 horsepower, which required unleaded gas to prevent the destruction of its newfangled catalytic converter. If we were to apply this car’s power-to-weight ratio to its 2022 counterpart (which I’m going to say is the Explorer, though a case could be made for the Edge), that would result in a new Explorer that struggled to drag its vast bulk down the road with just 176 horses. To be fair, this 351M engine (not-too-distantly related to the 351 Clevelands of earlier Mach I Mustang fame) did make pretty good torque: 274 pound-feet.
1976 LTD shoppers could upgrade to bigger (and thirstier) optional V8s, including a 400 (6.5-liter) with 180 horsepower and a 460 (7.5-liter) with 202 hp. An automatic transmission was standard equipment; if you wanted a U.S.-market Ford sedan with a manual transmission that year, the biggest one you could get was a Granada with an old-fashioned three-on-the-tree (the unrelated European Granada had a proper four-on-the-floor manual as its only available transmission that year).
You’d think that a car this plush would have included a radio and air conditioning at no extra cost, but that wasn’t the case for most lower-priced marques during the 1970s. The single-speaker AM radio you see here cost 78 bucks ($415 now), though it may have been a (slightly) less expensive dealer-installed unit. The A/C cost an extra $486, much more than the optional 460 engine would have cost, and the equivalent of $2,590 in 2022. Next time you start getting the idea that car deals were better in the old days, just think about how many formerly-optional features we now get for no extra cost in even the cheapest new cars.
There have been Ford dealerships with the Cavalier name in several locations around the country, so all I can say about this car’s origin is that it probably wasn’t sold new here in Colorado. The original door tag was indecipherable, so I wasn’t able to look up the Ford sales office that arranged initial delivery.
The college stickers come from all over. I think this car was well-traveled during its life.
Better mileage, bigger trunk, more towing capacity, and better standard features than the Impala!