Engineering Made It Happen: 1977 Lincoln Versailles 351 V-8

Milestones: DTW looks back at significant automotive achievements. Today, the 1977 Lincoln Versailles, the first car to offer clear-coat paint.

1977 Lincoln Versailles: "Now, a car with a 110-inch wheelbase, with a superb luxury car ride."
1977 Lincoln Versailles: “Now, a car with a 110-inch wheelbase, with a superb luxury car ride.”

According to Motor Trend, May 1977, the Lincoln Versailles represented Ford Motor Company’s attempt to compete with GM’s successful and smaller-than-was-usual Cadillac, the ’75 Seville. Lincoln also wanted the Versailles to steal sales from the Mercedes 280 E and BMW 728. As Motor Trend put it “…a significant number of automobile buyers were interested in smaller luxury sedans offering better driveability and handling ease.”

The 1975 Seville, Lincoln’s main competitor, had the odd distinction of being the smallest and most expensive Cadillac but it sold well enough to make Ford respond to its challenges. Mercedes also offered what some might call the best-engineered saloon ever made, the 280E. Both cars were taking sales from Lincoln. Lincoln’s solution was to restyle a Ford Granada/Mercury Monarch.

The Herculean task of taking a vehicle of astronomical mediocrity, the Ford Granada/Mercury Monarch, and making it look and feel a bit different took 24 months. Motor Trend took a charitable view though. They said “…to make the Versailles feel, ride and sound like a luxury car, a host of changes, some fairly obvious and some quite subtle, were made. Among the techniques used …were the careful mating, matching and balancing of driveline components to eliminate sources of vibrations” which you and I would call simple quality control.

I take this to mean that the same mediocre components that went into a stock Ford Windsor V8 were used but were assembled with a bit more care. Furthermore, “a double- cardan universal joint is used between the driveshaft and axle”. And the boot-lid was given a false spare-wheel hump. “Even the rear brake discs (which are standard) are indexed to the rear axle shaft flanges in such a way as to ensure the best overall balance.”

Best compared to what? A Ford Granada or best of the bad lot that was there on the assembly line that morning? They gave the Versailles a vinyl, padded roof as well. The grille did not resemble the Granada or Monarch. And to top all of this ingenuity, Ford offered clear coat paint, an industry first.

1977 Lincoln Versailles advertisement. Engineering put a big car in a Manhattan restaurant 54 floors up.
1977 Lincoln Versailles advertisement. Engineering put a big car in a Manhattan restaurant 54 floors up.

I get the impression having read the entirety of Motor Trend’s review, that the Lincoln Versailles was essentially a Ford Granada built properly: “a good percentage of the manufacturing cost budget has been allotted to qualíty control testing and inspection.” This bit is reassuring: “All malfunctions, however minor, are repaired”. Good!

Motor Trend tested a Wedgewood Blue example and drove it from Dearborn, Michigan to Los Angeles; California. They noted thick carpets, even in the boot. The seats offered good support despite being soft. The centre arm-rest was wide enough for both the driver and passenger. The carpet in the boot (“well-shaped”) stopped luggage being marred. “The ride was smooth but not mushy enough to sacrifice stability” And they rated its ease of handling. Fuel economy beat the Seville and the 351 cubic inches (5.8 litres) V-8 provided “satisfactory” performance. Nought to sixty took 12.6 seconds. To be fair, the Peugeot 604 launched at the same time took 13.7 seconds to sixty but it made do with a 2.6 litre V6.

50,156 Lincoln Versailles were produced. Lincoln advertised the car under the rubric “Investment in engineering”. Cynical?

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

17 thoughts on “Engineering Made It Happen: 1977 Lincoln Versailles 351 V-8”

  1. The poor old Big Three. After a couple of decades of orgying and excess, they suddenly had to face the reality of the Seventies. Well, they thought it was reality but they were so used to measuring themselves by each other that they couldn’t see the rest of the world before their eyes. The Seville actually had a bit of style in its first version, relatively speaking (if not in its engineering), though Bill Mitchell put paid to that in the second version with his silly slant back. The Versailles however is 100% dross and, as you hint, the only way they could make it sound good was by effectively saying ‘Hey, at least it’s not as crap as the Granada’. It takes a fair bit of skill to get a 0-60 time of more than 12 seconds from 5.8 litres. From my US car magazine reading days in the late 60s, my memory of Motor Trend is of a wealth of statistics and bland commentary. They certainly excelled themselves here. In the UK Autocar seemed pretty bland too, but once you got used to decoding it you could get a fair idea of a car’s worth (e.g.simply located rear axle does not encourage press on driving = will very possibly kill you). As a sideline, it’s strange that, although they’d happily borrow a name from Europe, Ford ignored their own European cars – the Ford Europe Granada, which shared nothing save name, could at least have approximated a counter to Mercedes if used as a base.

  2. I may change the title to “Accountancy made it happen”. GM had an even better car to compete with the 260E and 280E, the Opel Admiral and then the Senator. Truly the Detroit executives were isolated in their white-bread and watery coffee backwater. I wonder if they ever a) went to Germany or b) even drove the opposition. It’s okay to like the Versailles as a joke car. As an exercise in car design and engineering it was a serious and important failure. It revealed Ford could make a smooth riding car at the Granada level but chose not to do so.

  3. The questions are :

    Did Ford Executives ever drive the European benchmark ‘competitors’ or did they just read the ads?
    Did Fords executives think their workforce couldn’t handle ‘advanced’ engineering?
    Did Ford executives think their customers didn’t deserve ‘advanced’ engineering?
    Did Ford executives have a severe case of ‘not-invented-here’?
    What happened to Ford executives between the confident Continental/Thunderbird/Mustang 1 era and the truly embarrassing Pinto/Maverick./Mustang 2 era?

  4. It’s amazing to think that Ford and GM execs would keep ignoring their own European products even when it came to competing with European imports in the US.

  5. One could be forgiven for thinking they didn´t think much of their line workers, their engineers and their customers. It certainly looked that way. This was a remarkably poor attempt. Still, it did have the very first clear-coat paint in a mass manufactured car.

  6. Particularly crass is the colour co-ordination used throughout. You can see in the photo, paintwork (clear-coat of course), padded vinyl roof (is that a safety feature to arrest the fall of mobsters thrown from the tops of buildings) and seats. It’s hard to make it out but, if it’s the same as the Granada, even the steering wheel will be in gold plastic.

  7. I may risk my credibility here when I say I like the colour co-ordination.
    There. I said it. Car interiors now lack colour and if there is one aspect of the 70s I particularly like, it’s the courage with colour. Customers could also have had more sober colours as well.

  8. Richard. Two admissions. First, as you know, because of the appalling wages paid at DTW, I have to moonlight, and that job actually depends, in part, on me coordinating colours. Second, as I write this I notice that my shoes match my t-shirt – burnt orange, since you ask, a colour once described as reddy brown. So, although the latter fact is accident as much as intent, I can’t pretend I don’t get satisfaction from colours well combined.

    The problem with what the car journalism world went through a period of ineptly calling ‘colour-coding’ is that it is so easy to get the balance wrong. I agree that the only distinctive part of the above Versailles is the ‘color’ (see how effortlessly I skip between languages). But the balance just seems odd. Looking closer, that steering wheel seems to be a mid brown. The steering wheel on my metallic bee’s bum green Granada was green, but not really a green that complemented the outside, or the green upholstery, or the green dashboard – note, ‘complementing’ doesn’t suggest that they should be identical, but that they should sit well together.

    From a previous folly of mine when I considered getting a Bentley Turbo R, apart from a rare case of common sense, the other thing that put me off was the fact that the original owners had been given free rein matching car colour with upholstery with piping, etc and most combinations were awful. Would Bentley have let them choose the fuel management system, shock absorbers and wheel diameter? But the Lincoln’s colors were chosen by professionals so, based on that, they should all be spot on. Like everything else about the Lincoln, the passage of time gives it an endearing naffness but, beaming ourselves back to 1977 the endearing part disappears.

  9. The more I look at this modest saloon with details from the big Continentals grafted on to it, the more I think that is there something of the Mitsuoka Viewt about it.

  10. Sure, the Versailles was rubbish. It was a slightly rebodied 1960 Falcon, original Mustang body underneath with the Mark 2 wide body. Having a two-piece driveshaft was a step in the right direction though, since that was not a standard thing in US live beam axle vehicles. Still isn’t in pickup trucks to this day.

    But in the usual pack o’dogs attack, you forget that in North America we had pollution controls on engines that completely sapped engine power in the 1970s and 80s. Not until 1992 did you effete Euros finally get pollution controls, and by then, all the feedback control fuel injection strategies had all been worked out and handed back to you on a plate. Not to be oudone, you then you squandered it all by switching to diesels and choking yourselves, right up to the present day. That’s the reality, all your myopic musings notwithstanding.

    My 1982 Audi Coupe 5 cylinder had just 100 hp, rather than the 136 in Europe, and so on. It rambled to 60 mph a bit slower than my 1965 Volvo PV544 with its 90 SAE gross hp. My 1985 Audi 5000 CS quattro turbo had 130 bhp. That was the Audi 100 in Europe, I believe.

    That same Ford 351 V8 unencumbered by pollution controls in a 1970 Mustang or Torino would pull off a 7 second zero to sixty. Yet, just for the sake of the jollies, so far as I can tell from reading most of this site, it seems to be a simple pleasure to pour vitriol on US cars, while heaping praise on such design standouts as a ’79 Cortina or Lord help me, some old Granada with a swing-axle rear suspension. Papier mache cars from the French and Italians get special praise as well.

    European cars, barring the Germans, couldn’t even compete in the North American market by the 1980s, yet I have to chortle at the abject lack of knowledge and appreciation you have for whatever happened outside your blinkered borders, where self-congratulation and snobbery seems to be baked in at every turn.

    At first, I thought it was all a bit tongue-in-cheek, but that feeling dissolved months ago.

    1. Bill. Thanks again for a comprehensive and informative comment.

      Apologies to you and anyone else over there who thinks we come over all snarky when we start off on North American cars. The truth is that the US has a history of making some dire and cynical cars – something it has in common with the rest of the World’s motoring manufacturing nations. You might pick up on the bad things we say about US cars, but don’t seem to notice that we’re hardly in awe of the European or Far Eastern industries.

      As with everything that isn’t on our back doorstep, we might occasionally lack in-depth detail, which is why we value comments such as yours. But although you might accuse us of having particular views or preferences you don’t share, and I happily stand corrected that my comment above underestimates the difficulties encountered by US engineers coming to terms with emissions controls, I think you’d be hard pressed to cite actual instances of ‘self-congratulation and snobbery’ on this site.

      If you look objectively, we spend an inordinate amount of time slagging off our home industry, both past and present. And, despite what you say, I think the only person here who eulogises old European built Fords is poor, deluded Myles Gorfe though, having driven contemporary Granadas from both sides of the Atlantic, the European one was far better, and its independent rear end wasn’t a swing axle – which highlights again your point that remote knowledge can sometimes tend towards the inaccurate.

  11. Sean’s right. We are fairly critical of European cars and -this might be hard to believe -I actually like American cars. Even the Versailles which is a tarted up Granada, is a car I rather like, despite its shortcomings. Would I drive a European car in the US? Not unless I owned money printing press.

    1. In my defense too, as a one-time subscriber to Car & Driver, Road & Track and Rodder’s Journal, I hardly have a blinkered prejudice against the US, and any myopia that I might have never went as far as thinking well of diesel.

      And, although the US Granada was, objectively speaking, an inexcusably archaic bit of engineering where I found myself thinking about taking corners in rainy weather that would normally be second nature, it was oddly endearing and it and the (far better) Buick Electra I drove around about the same time made a lot of sense for comfortable cruising in a land of affordable petrol.

  12. We need to have a discussion here generally about the ways European and American cars differe in their approach to disappointing their customers. There´s a multiway matrix: Americans who don´t like European cars because of the way they are intended to be and Europeans who don´t like American cars because of they way they are intended to be. And then we have Americans who like European cars and Europeans who like American cars. We must have drivers on both side of the Atlantic who are agnostic on the topic. Also we must have car enthusiasts from the US and EU who like both classes of car. I put myself in the last class as I am interested in western cars generally and reserve the right to throw roses and brickbats at both.
    If I have a bias in terms of attention paid to bad American cars it must be matched by my fondness for them all the same. (again, helped by never having owned an X-body car or a Ford Tempo).
    By and large, Bill, I´d say we enjoy American cars as a topic and personally, if there was ever a reason for me to live in the US I would make very sure I had a broughamtastic car of some type to get around in.

    1. Despite the valid points made, the esteemed commentator from the Land Of The Free has a challenging way of presenting his arguments, which makes me wonder whether he happens to be playing a musical instrument for a living. The again, Bill’s advanced punctuation skills are acting as a nod to the contrary.

      If you’re reading this, Bill, may I ask why your overall stance is such a passive-aggressive one? This kind of – superficially dominant – behaviour is usually the domain of the underprivileged, which makes me wonder what kind of corner you feel DTW has driven you into. Any insights would be unreservedly appreciated.

  13. Bill: I eventually read the entirety of your e-mail. Your last sentence is worth noting. I think I can say this site has a fair amount of gentle humour. If it´s newsy then it gets a bit more serious though. A lot of the rest is written with what I think is an awareness that we all know the same kinds of things among which are that Cortinas are lovable crap. This is where the humour comes from. Archie Vicar seems always to be firmly wrong or drunk. I had assumed everyone knew poor Myles´ adoration of Granadas stood for all those marque enthusiasts who throw good money after bad. And I count myself among that crew, judging by the vast pile of money my own old car has consumed.

    I really don´t know the detail of the ins and outs of the US approach to smog regs in the 70s but my impresssion was that, like the regs for 5 mph impacts and improved fuel economy, the strategy has always been to complain and do a shit job of complying. And then to get it right when the Japanese show how to meet the standards as soon as they come into force (did any Japanese car have a stupid crashbarrier bumper?). I think the experience from sulphur dioxide regulations are instructive. The steel or power industry complained that the rules to reduce SO2 were onerous. And a few years later pollution permits were worthless. Ford, GM and even Chrysler have some good engineers but also some really dumb managers who underestimate the ability of designers and engineers to cope with changing demands.
    By and large there´s a lot of wolf shouting along with the all things I do like such as robust, practical engineering, and a more cheerful approach to car design than we sometimes get here in Euroland. When did we last have a fun Mercedes?

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