The epoch-making success of the Ford Mustang and Thunderbird tends to leave other Ford cars of its era looking like poor relations, but in the 1960s Ford really led the pack when it came to new product development. One of the least-acknowledged — but most lucrative — new concepts was the Ford LTD: Ford’s cut-price luxury car.
THE BIG FORDS
Unlike the Mustang, whose design process is well documented, it’s hard to find a lot of specific information about the development of the full-size Fords of the mid-1960s. Even the men who designed these cars had little to say about them. The cars were ordinary, everyday products and they never inspired the same fascination as their more glamorous or innovative brethren.
Despite that lack of data, we will go out on a limb and speculate that the Ford LTD was the inspiration of Lee Iacocca, who became general manager of the Ford division in 1960. Unlike his boss, the efficiency-minded Robert S. McNamara, Iacocca was a believer in what pundits of the day called “selling the sizzle.” He understood very well that even shoppers on a budget could be lured by the promise of a little opulence.
THE FORD LTD
The Ford LTD was introduced in 1965 as a luxury-oriented sub-series of the full-size Galaxie line. (Until 1967, it was technically a Ford Galaxie 500 LTD.) It was offered in two body styles, a two-door hardtop coupe or a four-door hardtop sedan with a severe-looking, squared-off formal roof. For a hefty $548 premium over an ordinary Galaxie 500, a surcharge of more than 20%, the LTD transformed the mundane Galaxie into a kind of cut-price Cadillac.
To make sense of the LTD, we must first consider the way American cars were marketed in this period. By 1965 each automaker offered its bread-and-butter products in several basic sizes: compact, intermediate, and “standard.” Each of those was divided into several distinct series and those were divided in turn into a number of different models, most of which were available in two or more body styles. Chevrolet’s full-size car, for example, was offered as the Biscayne, Bel Air, Impala, and Impala SS, most of which could be had as a two- or four-door sedan or a two- or four-door hardtop. The mechanical differences between the series were usually minimal; the main distinction was in ambiance.
Besides the LTD, Ford’s full-size lineup in 1965 consisted of the Custom, Custom 500, Galaxie 500, and Galaxie 500/XL, plus the Country Sedan and Country Squire wagons. The Custom, the cheapest big Ford, was pure taxicab in its upholstery, carpeting, and trim; dour and functional. The Galaxie 500/XL was a glittering, chrome-encrusted, color-coordinated, all-vinyl palace, like some kind of halfway house for Vegas high rollers.
The Ford LTD went for a different flavor of posh, more British men’s club than flashy casino. Upholstery was a silky-soft nylon tricot (which Ford’s own designers nicknamed “panty cloth”) with highly ornate door trims. You got deluxe carpeting, a folding armrest for rear-seat passengers, a set of interior courtesy lights, a clock, and extra sound insulation. Four-door models had Ford’s new flow-through ventilation system, which had debuted the previous year on the Thunderbird and before that on the English Ford Cortina, for better ventilation with the windows raised. You also received a set of prominent exterior badges to inform the neighbors that yours was not merely a Galaxie, but an L T D. (LTD, Ford carefully noted, did not mean anything, although “Luxury Trim Decor” has been suggested. It most emphatically did not mean Limited, which was a Buick trademark and thus a potential source of lawsuits.)
Of course, insuring that your LTD was properly outfitted in a manner becoming its luxury image would cost you a fair bit more than the $3,300-ish base price. While most big Fords came standard with a six, the LTD (and the 500/XL) came standard with a V8 engine and the three-speed Cruise-O-Matic transmission, a combination that cost around $300 extra on lesser models. If you wanted to add a bigger engine, air conditioning, power windows, radio, and a few other toys, you could expect to add an extra $1,000 or more onto the sticker. A fully loaded Ford LTD carried a price tag more befitting a Buick.
A SURPRISE HIT
Given how little of substance really distinguished the Ford LTD from a regular full-size Galaxie, you would be forgiven for assuming that buyers would be hesitant to lay out Buick-sized money for a tarted-up Galaxie. But Iacocca understood his market; unlike McNamara, he had been in sales and had a good grasp of what customers valued.
Iacocca knew that while there was nothing on the Ford LTD’s spec sheet to excite an enthusiast, the car had showroom appeal. True, from a strict dollar-value standpoint, the LTD was a questionable proposition, but Iacocca knew that the average Ford buyer thought in terms of monthly payments, not cash cost. The LTD’s obvious plushness made an easy case for the salesman trying to talk a hesitant Galaxie buyer into stepping up to the more expensive model.
Dubious dollar value notwithstanding, the Ford LTD’s luxury-car impression was not wholly unconvincing, thanks to the revamp all big Fords received for 1965. Iacocca proudly proclaimed that Ford had spent $425 million on the full-size line, a lot of money in those days (by comparison, the ill-fated Edsel project had cost only $250 million). Except for the powertrain, the big Fords were all new.
Like some GM divisions, Ford abandoned its self-supporting chassis in 1965 in favor of a more rigid body shell on a perimeter frame with torque boxes that deliberately encouraged chassis flex in specific areas as a way of absorbing shock and harshness. Ford had previously used Hotchkiss Drive for its big cars — a live axle carried on parallel leaf springs — but the 1965 Fords adopted coil springs in back with three trailing links and a Panhard rod to locate the axle, much like contemporary Buicks. In the front suspension, rather than the traditional wide lower wishbone, Ford used a lateral control arm, located by a trailing link with a flexible rubber bushing. This link, which Ford called a “drag strut,” allowed the front suspension arms to move backward rather than just vertically in response to bumps. (Ford had introduced this feature on the 1961 Lincoln Continental and it was also adopted by GM big cars in the mid-sixties.)
The net effect of all this was a ride so isolated from road harshness that you could amble over lane markers without feeling them. Of course, the consequence was sloppy handling, not to mention a kind of nautical lope over undulating pavement that soon had passengers reaching for the Dramamine; Ford thoughtfully sprayed the “panty cloth” upholstery with Scotchgard brand stain repellent to protect against mishap. At least seasick passengers could lose their lunches in silence. With its extra dose of sound insulation, Ford boldly claimed that the LTD was quieter than a Rolls-Royce.
The Ford LTD’s powertrain options were basically the same as those of any other big Ford. With the standard 289 cu. in. (4,728 cc) V8, the LTD needed around 13 seconds to amble to 60 mph, topping out at a little over 100 mph. If you had a really pronounced disdain for your passengers’ digestion and were on a first-name basis with your Ford dealer, you could theoretically specify the big 427 cu. in. (6,986 cc) “side-oiler” and a four-speed manual transmission in your new LTD, although doing so precluded you from ordering power steering, power brakes, or air conditioning.
Many buyers opted for the more mundane big-block engines, the 250 horsepower (186 kW) 352 cu. in. (5,766 cc) or 300 hp (224 kW) 390 cu. in. (6,391 cc) FE-series V8s, which were both quiet, torquey, and unexciting powerplants. With the 390 and Cruise-O-Matic, reaching 60 mph (97 kph) took about 9.5 seconds with top speed in the neighborhood of 110 mph (175 kph). Fuel economy with that combination ranged from 12-15 mpg (15.7 to 16.9 L/100 km), although with leaded premium still hovering at around 30 cents a gallon, few buyers cared. Sadly, none of Ford’s $425 million had been spent on brakes, so slowing down was not an LTD strong point. (Front discs were not added to the options list until 1967, providing a marked improvement in stopping power.)
Despite the lousy brakes and premium price, the Ford LTD was exceedingly popular, moving more than 105,000 units in its first year. Since most of the model’s price premium was pure gravy, it fattened Ford’s profit margins in a most agreeable way. Naturally, GM and Chrysler quickly trotted out their own pseudo-luxury models, the Chevrolet Caprice and Plymouth VIP, and even American Motors got into the act the following year with its Ambassador DPL.
THE LTD CONFOUNDS THE CRITICS
Like a lot of popular successes, the critics weren’t sure what to make of the Ford LTD and Caprice and had a hard time justifying the cars’ elevated price tags. The buying public clearly had no such reservations and bought both cars in large numbers. In some markets, stretched LTD limousines also became popular as executive transportation.
The confounding thing about the Ford LTD is that Ford Motor Company had Mercury, an entire separate marque theoretically intended for people who wanted something a little bit more expensive and luxurious than a standard Ford. Indeed, in price and concept, the LTD was a direct encroachment on Mercury territory, just as the Chevrolet Caprice encroached heavily on the turf of Pontiac and Oldsmobile.
Since internecine warfare is seldom good for business, one might wonder why the corporations would allow that kind of overlap. The answer was simply that the divisions were not managed by the same people. Lee Iacocca was responsible for the Ford division, not Lincoln-Mercury — if boosting his margins meant cutting Mercury’s throat, well, c’est la guerre. The same kind of thinking ran rampant in GM’s divisions, to their eventual cost.
The Ford LTD naturally returned for 1966 with some very mild styling tweaks and a new powertrain option: the Thunderbird’s 345-horsepower (257 kW) 428 cu. in. (7,008 cc) engine. Buyers who insisted on stopping quickly could now buy front disc brakes for an extra $97.21, a bargain. The LTD was now a separate series, no longer a subset of the Galaxie line. Sales remained strong.
The popularity of that series kept growing well into the seventies, as did the car itself. It peaked at 223.9 inches (5,687 mm) in the mid-seventies, tipping the scales at two and a half tons (2,270 kg) and offering engines up to 460 cubic inches (7,536 cc). Smog controls meant that even the big engine made only a meager 197 net horsepower (147 kW), so no LTD was fast, but that was never the point.
In 1977, Ford also applied the much-loved nameplate to its midsize models, creating the short-lived intermediate LTD II. The full-size LTD soldiered on for a few more years as Ford advertising tried vainly to make a selling point of its undiminished girth. A downsized version, riding the now-familiar Panther platform, arrived for 1979. It was renamed LTD Crown Victoria in 1983, when Ford also applied the LTD name to a new downsized Fox-platform model. By the time the trusty LTD name was finally retired in 1991, its original luxury connotations had become rather diluted, but it still had its fans.
If the Ford LTD doesn’t exactly make sense to modern eyes — five hundred bucks for better upholstery and armrests? — we certainly can’t say that Iacocca was wrong about the tastes of the market. Even the most mundane econobox can be ordered with features that were once reserved for high-end luxury cars. Today, you can order leather upholstery on a Toyota Corolla, so perhaps we shouldn’t point too many fingers at the LTD and its “panty cloth”…