Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ford kills off the Model T bloodline for 2011

1955 Ford Crown Victoria
Tonight, CNBC is airing a special called Ford: Rebuilding an American Icon. They’re going to talk about Ford’s business, how they’ve been able to move ahead without taking bankruptcy, and some of the changes they’re making for the future.

At the same time, I have been thinking about the end of an American icon. Of course, Ford builds all kinds of cars and trucks. Mustangs have a great history, F-150s are big sellers, and the Fiesta is getting a lot of buzz. But only one vehicle in the Ford lineup is a direct descendant of the Model T (and technically, even earlier than that)—the Ford Crown Victoria. And after the 2011 model year, that branch of the family tree will finally end once the Crown Vic is discontinued.

I know most of you are thinking, “Who cares, anyway? That car is an antiquated, old dinosaur.” You may even go on further to ask, “And what gives you the idea that it ends the line started by the Model T? Ridiculous!”

1912 Ford Model T
 Well, I’ll tell you who cares—me! Look around this blog; I have a thing for antiquated, old dinosaurs. Most of the cars I’ve ever loved were traditional body-on-frame, rear-wheel-drive tanks with an old fashioned V8 under the hood. I will say that in the interest of full-disclosure, I’m really more of a Chevy guy, and they built the last car configured that way in 1996. Oh, and by the way, my car happens to be a ’96 impala SS. At least Ford fans still had the Crown Victoria (and sister cars, the Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car) to carry on the tradition.

Now, let’s look at the lineage of this car. If you told someone you had a 1910 Ford, it would be safe to assume you were driving some version of the Model T. If you said you had a ’57 Ford, you’re talking about some version of the full-sized car, be it a Fairlane or Custom 300 or whatever. If you had a Thunderbird, you’d say you had a Thunderbird. And that logic went on for many years. If you had a ’68 Ford, you had a full-sized Ford, not a Mustang or a Falcon. And so on. The full-sized Ford was the main Ford. And each year’s full-sized Ford offering replaced the previous year’s in the Ford lineup. That string carried on unbroken, from the first production Ford in 1903, right up to today’s Crown Victoria.

1956 Ford Crown Victoria
The name “Crown Victoria” started out as a trim level on ’55 and ’56 Fords. The regular Victoria was the upscale version of the Fairlane, while the Crown Victoria featured a lower roof and snazzy chrome trim that looped around the top like a crown. And if you wanted to have the ultimate Ford coupe, you could get a Crown Victoria Skyliner, which added a transparent, plexiglass roof panel in front of the crown.

The Crown Victoria name (as well as the chrome roof trim) was dropped in 1957, and the Skyliner became a full-fledged retractable hardtop convertible. But the full-sized Ford soldiered on year-after-year.

The Crown Victoria moniker remained dormant for many years, and eventually the full-sized Ford was known as the LTD. But in 1975, the Crown Vic name was back, this time as a trim package on the vinyl-topped LTD Landau.

1980 Ford Crown Victoria
 Ford took the Crown Victoria name even more seriously in 1980, when they used it to completely replace the Landau. It even came with a stainless steel crown around the top, ala 1955. These cars were now known as the LTD Crown Victoria, and they were the top-of-the-line “regular” Ford.

In the early 1980s, the LTD and LTD Crown Victoria were still the kind of cars families wanted. But the times, they were a changin’. As the decade wore on, peoples’ tastes were shifting toward smaller cars; sometimes even foreign cars. Ford started to focus on projects like the Escort, the Tempo, and the blockbuster hit Taurus. Suddenly, the venerable LTD wasn’t the default go-to car in the Ford lineup, and the changes became less and less apparent. By 1983, the entire line was renamed LTD Crown Victoria, steel top band or not, while the LTD (sans “Crown Victoria”) was given to a forgettable Ford mid-size.

A new, rounder full-sized Ford debuted in 1992, following a similar restyle to the Chevrolet Caprice a year earlier. By this time, the name change had come full-circle, as the LTD name was completely dropped, they were all called Crown Victorias, and none of them had a steel band around the top. A little bit of tradition was lost at this point. And in spite of the sleek, new appearance, buyers for the Crown Victoria were aging fast. V6, front-wheel-drive family cars were taking over, and more families were choosing foreign cars than ever before. The buying public just didn’t seem to appreciate the traditional full-sized sedan like they used to.

Recent Crown Victoria Ad
 But people that needed a really tough, reliable, hard-working car still did. We’re talking about police departments and taxi cab companies. In spite of what buyers were led to believe was good, the men and women who spent entire days behind the wheel of their cars realized there is no substitute for a really big, comfortable American sedan. And the bean counters and fleet managers appreciated the durable, easily repairable construction that a body-on-frame car provides.

The Crown Victoria had one final redesign 13-years ago, and those 1998 duds are what the car will ultimately be buried in. Only available to fleet customers for the last couple of years, the Crown Victoria is not a car that sparks much discussion these days. The only ink the car gets is in regard to the void it will leave in police fleets once it’s gone. The Crown Victoria’s illustrious bloodline carries no weight at all.

No place except here, that is. Though not as significant as a whole as the losses of Oldsmobile, Plymouth, and Pontiac, the discontinuation of the Ford Crown Victoria name, the car’s construction, and the traditions it upheld is yet another major departure from the traditional American automotive landscape. Progress is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

The slideshow below contains photos of the Ford Crown Victoria from its initial run in 1955 and 1956, as well as images from the 1980s up through the present.

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