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OLD CARS: When Grand Marquis took on GM’s ‘big boys’

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By 1978, the Detroit-based automotive world was in the midst of a huge transition, but the full impact hadn’t been fully expressed. While the companies were building cars like the Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Chevette – as well as the all-new Omni and Horizon from Chrysler – a few automotive dinosaurs continued to roam the landscape. Among them was the new Mercury Grand Marquis.

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Perhaps it’s unfair to call the Grand Marquis a dinosaur. It was a large, family-sized sedan that was handsome in appearance, large in size, and offered the type of luxury that promised to comfortably cradle the driver and passengers. But by 1978 those attributes weren’t enough. The U.S. government was compelling the Detroit companies to build more fuel-efficient automobiles, and 45 years ago that translated into smaller cars with smaller engines, and with fewer bells and whistles. The industry was mostly answering that call and so were most consumers. But not everyone was yet on board.

The Grand Marquis (and the Ford LTD) were among the last of the big cars to be built by the Ford Motor Company, and by extension, by Detroit. The immense Lincoln Town Car would continue to be built for the 1979 model year, but the full-size sedans for Ford and Mercury would undergo a transformation. For 1979 they would be shorter and lighter but so attractively designed and engineered that their basic platform (the popular Panther platform) would continue to be used until 2010.

Of course, plans for the new Panther-based LTD and Grand Marquis were in full throttle by 1977 and 1978. Production of the new cars was launched on July 30, 1978.

But the older-styled LTD and Grand Marquis were hardly ready to be put out to pasture. They enjoyed a type of notoriety and respect that’s usually accorded to old warriors. They had numerous customers, and their sales were surprisingly resilient.

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Indeed, the Mercury division was enjoying its best sales year ever up until that time – recording sales of 579,498 vehicles for the 1978 model year. And a lot of those sales were the Grand Marquis. But why would that be?

That sales strength might have something to do with General Motors’ all-new full-sized cars that were introduced for the 1977 model year. They were shorter and lighter than their 1976 counterparts, but received near-universal praise for their design, engineering and improved economy.

But not everyone was impressed with GM’s downsizing program. There were more than a few new-car buyers who compared GM’s new but smaller luxury sedans with the 1978 Grand Marquis, and they were taken aback. The Grand Marquis rode on a 121-inch wheelbase, was 229 inches in total length, and could be fitted with a 460-cubic-inch V8. Yet the new 1978 Buick Electra, as an example, rode on a 118.9-inch wheelbase, was 222.1 inches in length, and the largest engine then available was from Oldsmobile – a 403-cubic-inch V8.

For some people, the Grand Marquis was the better car. And those people perhaps didn’t worry that the big Mercury consumed more gasoline than the more efficient Electra.

The Ford Motor Company fully stoked whatever dissatisfaction may have existed with the new but smaller GM cars. In one of its many television advertisements for the 1978 Grand Marquis, Mercury asked the question: “Would a Cadillac owner ever pick a Mercury over a Cadillac?” The ad said 50 Cadillac owners in Los Angeles were asked to rate the new Grand Marquis. According to Mercury’s marketing people, 37 of those Cadillac owners rated the big Mercury as better than the DeVille on 32 different measurements, including room, style and power.

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Among the many marketing gimmicks then used for Grand Marquis was something called “Ride-Engineered”. A three-and-a-half inch plaque that said “Ride-Engineered by Lincoln-Mercury” was affixed to the instrument panel. The plaque supported the notion that Mercury’s ride was incredibly comfortable, and that such comfort was possible because of focused engineering on the part of the Ford Motor Company.

The “Ride-Engineered” program would continue for many years and would become so deeply identified with the Mercury brand that it would become the subject of a Saturday Night Live parody. In 1973, Mercury was promoting its smooth ride by showing, in a television commercial, a Cartier diamond cutter successfully splitting a diamond in the back seat of a Grand Marquis while the car was driven over a bumpy road. Five years later, SNL spoofed the commercial showing a rabbi performing a circumcision in the back seat of a smooth-riding automobile.

Despite the comedy, the big Mercury enjoyed its final model year for 1978.

Marquis was a relatively new name to the Mercury stable. It was introduced for the 1967 model year as a two-door hardtop to support Mercury’s Park Lane series. Marquis was to Park Lane what the all-new LTD was to Ford’s Galaxie. All Marquis models for 1967 came with a standard vinyl roof and featured a more luxurious interior with optional leather seating. As well, the front seats were designed as “Twin Comfort Lounge” seats, which was essentially a split bench seat. But those seats offered individual legroom adjustment, and that was an intriguing device 55 years ago.

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Also intriguing was the 410-cubic-inch Marauder V8 that was standard in every Marquis. It produced 330 horsepower and lifted the all-new Marquis to almost hot rod status. Oddly enough, the automatic transmission wasn’t standard equipment, but a four-speed manual transmission was. Optional for 1967 (and 1968) was the 428-cubic-inch Super Marauder V8, with a horsepower of 345.

Marquis continued much the same for 1968 but was significantly expanded for 1969 to include a full range of body styles. It also became the top nameplate for Mercury. As had been the case for much of the decade, full-size Mercurys were slightly longer than their Ford counterparts, although both cars shared the same chassis.

By the end of the 1960s, the difference between the full-size Ford and the full-size Mercury was becoming more apparent as the Mercury became more Lincolnesque in appearance and pricing. Marquis was becoming ultra-luxurious and was featuring what some observers called “Continental Styling.” The big Mercury had hidden headlights like the big Lincoln, corner turning lamps like the big Lincoln, and a profile that closely resembled the big Lincoln.

Throughout those years, Marquis was available as a two-door sedan, four-door sedan or a four-door station wagon, and was endowed with a standard 351-cubic-inch V8. Available was the 400-cubic-inch, 429-cubic-inch or 460-cubic-inch V8.

The Grand Marquis nameplate made its first appearance for 1974. It was introduced as an interior trim package for the top-of-the-line Marquis Brougham. For 1975, Grand Marquis become the most expensive Mercury, although the Brougham was still offered.

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Mercury was attempting to bridge the gap with the much more expensive Lincoln, while appealing to potential buyers of Buick Electra and Oldsmobile 98, as well as the Chrysler New Yorker Brougham. The Grand Marquis enjoyed a measure of success against both the big Buick and Oldsmobile but was never a sales sensation.

As already described, both LTD and Grand Marquis were downsized for the 1979 model year and enjoyed a successful run for more than a decade before a major redesign occurred for the 1992 model year. That design was subsequently continued for almost 20 years.

Ford announced in 2010 that it would be discontinuing its Mercury division.

The last Mercury was built at Ford’s Talbotville plant near St. Thomas on Jan. 4, 2011. It was a Grand Marquis.

1978 was the last year of the large-sized Mercury Grand Marquis. The car, along with the Ford LTD, would adopt the smaller Panther platform for 1979. Peter Epp/Chatham This Week
1978 was the last year of the large-sized Mercury Grand Marquis. The car, along with the Ford LTD, would adopt the smaller Panther platform for 1979. Peter Epp/Chatham This Week

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