Hagerty Inc.

04/13/2024 | News release | Distributed by Public on 04/13/2024 07:19

1978 Ford Thunderbird with Sports Decor Group: “Basket Handle” Brougham

I have a history with these.

A long history that goes back to me being a very little kid in the early 1980s, when my Grandma Ruby Klockau had one. For years, I wanted it to be my first car when I turned 16.

Thomas Klockau

You see, my paternal grandparents were Ford people. Well, actually, so were my maternal grandparents. But while Fred and Mae Stamp preferred Galaxies and LTD IIs, Bob and Ruby Klockau had Thunderbirds and Continentals.

1965 Thunderbird Hardtop seen at the 2014 McCausland (Iowa) Labor Day show.Thomas Klockau

Ruby's first T-Bird was a navy blue '65 convertible with white interior and navy blue dash and carpeting. She loved that car. So much, that she kept it all the way to 1977, when she finally wanted a new car. And ordered another T-Bird.

1977 Thunderbird Town Landau.Thomas Klockau

This time it was black, with white bucket-seat interior and center console, and red instrument panel, carpeting and seat belts. Plus a factory AM/FM/Stereo with CB, back vinyl roof, and red pinstripes. It was a gorgeous combo. And Grandma Ruby kept it a long time, too.

Thomas Klockau

Back then, oftentimes during summer vacation, she would pick me up and we would go to lunch, then Toys R Us (I would always pick out a diecast car-sometimes a Corgi, sometimes a Matchbox Models of Yesteryear), and then we would go to Sexton Ford and South Park Lincoln-Mercury, where I would gawk at the new cars and collect brochures to take home and study. I still have some of those brochures.

Thomas Klockau

And so it went into my early junior-high years. But then in 1991 or so, she sold the T-Bird. My grandfather had passed away by then, she had been driving his 1987 Lincoln Continental 90 percent of the time, and someone made her an offer. And then it was gone.

Thomas Klockau

But wait! My mom's sister, Candy Symmonds, got a '78 Thunderbird. My uncle, Don Symmonds, was a master mechanic and could fix anything. So when the old Blackhawk Foundry down the street from the Symmonds pretty much ruined her '76 Cutlass Supreme's paint and glass after several years, he found the T-Bird.

Thomas Klockau

As I recall, Candy telling me long ago, it had been a kind of root-beer-brown color, but it was pretty faded. So Don painted it nonmetallic navy blue and spruced it up with other new parts and trim. And it had the same road wheels and Chamois interior as today's featured car, owned by my friend Justin Landwehr.

Thomas Klockau

I have many fond memories of riding in that car, too! And like Ruby's car, it had the bucket seats and center console. It was not until many years later I realized how rare that setup was. By 1977-79, most T-Birds had the bench seat, even the flossier Town Landau models. Technically, you could get it all that time, but not many plumped for it.

Thomas Klockau

The '77 T-Bird was all-new. Well, for most intents and purposes. The 1972-76 T-Bird had been much larger and was based on the Continental Mark IV. But that all changed in 1977, and the T-Bird shrunk. But it still wasn't small.

Thomas Klockau

It was now riding the same chassis as the also-mostly-new 1977 Ford LTD II, which was essentially a 1972-76 Ford Gran Torino with an all-new body. Styling was much crisper and razor edged. And while the new Thunderbird looked a lot like the LTD II coupe at first blush, it had exclusive hidden headlamps and a "basket handle" roofline with inset opera windows between the front door and rear quarter glass.

Thomas Klockau

It was a massive success despite the shrinkage. A total of 318,140 Thunderbirds were sold for 1977, riding a 114-inch wheelbase. The pool table-sized hood was standard. A base model started at $5063 ($26,095 today), the tony Town Landau at $7990 ($41,180).

Ford

As the 1978 brochure relayed, "Express yourself boldly this year. With one of nine exciting color combinations-yours when you order the optional Sports Decor Group … In this Decor Group, you also get deck lid stripes, dual accent paint stripes, fender louver and hood stripes color-coordinated with the vinyl roof, and styled road wheels with Chamois accents.

Thomas Klockau

"Body side moldings have color-keyed vinyl inserts. Remote control, dual-sport mirrors, and blacked-out vertical grille bars are also included."

Thomas Klockau

Despite all the extra comfort and appearance items of the Sports Decor Group package, certain things were still optional, including whitewall tires and deluxe bumpers. Because, after all, in 1978 it was still Detroit (or rather, Dearborn), and many things taken for granted in 2023 were a la carte back then.

Thomas Klockau

However, it did have some nice, basic standard equipment; after all, this wasn't a Pinto or a Maverick. All '78 T-Birds came standard with a 302-cubic-inch V-8, SelectShift automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, steel-belted radial tires, 10-ounce cut-pile carpeting, simulated burled walnut interior and instrument panel trim, power ventilation, hidden headlights, full-width taillights, and the all-important opera windows.

Thomas Klockau

Some Monday-morning quarterbacks like to pooh-pooh these cars, saying they were nothing like previous Thunderbirds and a cheap cash grab by Ford. Such folks likely never owned, drove, or got within 50 feet of one. There seems to be an unfair bias against '70s cars, which is kind of funny when you see all the questionable, sometimes willfully ugly cars and trucks made since then.

Thomas Klockau

And they sold. The final, extra-large 1976 Thunderbird, sharing much of its components with the cosmopolitan Continental Mark IV, sold 42,685 examples. However, that went way, way, wayyy up the following year, with the new downsized T-Bird: 318,140 in 1977, 333,757 in 1978, and 284,141 in 1979. That includes the base-trim Thunderbirds, the Town Landaus, and the extra-flossy 1978 Diamond Jubilee Edition Thunderbird, which was available in only Diamond Blue Metallic or Ember Metallic, and was even more luxurious than the already-Broughamy Town Landau.

Ford

And it had a price to match. The base '78 Thunderbird was $5411 ($25,921), the Town Landau was $8420 ($40,335), but the Diamond Jubilee Thunderbird (so-named to celebrate Ford's 75th Anniversary; a Diamond Jubilee Continental Mark V was also offered) was a princely $10,106 ($48,411). But pretty much everything was standard, including special blanked-out rear sail panels, aluminum wheels, color-keyed bumper rub strips, extra-sumptuous seating and interior trim, and more.

Thomas Klockau

While I couldn't break down 1978 T-Bird production between the standard model and the Town Landaus, I did find that 18,994 Diamond Jubilee models were built. The DJ Thunderbird would essentially return for 1979 but would be re-named the Heritage. As in '78, it was a step above the Town Landau-with a price to match.

Thomas Klockau

By the way, if you ever run across one in the wild, it's really easy to identify the year: 1977s have the checkerboard grille and full-width taillamps, '78s added the Thunderbird 'bird' emblems to the hidden headlight doors, and '79s got the new grille with fewer bars and the taillights with a central backup light between them. It's that easy.

1979 Thunderbird seen at Coralville, Iowa, cruise night in May 2014.Thomas Klockau

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