1977 Lincoln Versailles
1977 Lincoln Versailles. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

The 1970s were chaotic for the American auto industry. Two “oil crises,” spiralling fuel prices, and fuel economy, emissions and safety legislation were drastic changes from the free-wheeling 1950s and ’60s.

Besides these technical challenges, there were longer range threats: the accelerating encroachment of imported luxury cars. After failing to “drive the imports back to their shores” with 1960 compacts and 1971 subcompacts, it was more alarming to find upscale mid-size cars like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar selling in quantity. Detroit was proud that its cars were bigger, more luxurious and lower priced than anyone else’s, but perhaps the market was changing.     

Cadillac was the first to really respond to this trend with its new “international size” Seville based on the mundane X-car (Chevrolet Nova, et al.) platform. GM did such a good job of camouflaging this that hardly anyone knew.

The Seville, introduced in mid-1975 as a 1976 model, was about two feet (610 mm) shorter than regular Cadillacs. Taking a cue from the foreigners, Cadillac priced it higher than any other Cadillac except the limousine.

The smaller Cadillac did surprisingly well, selling more than 60,000 1976s in its longer than normal model year. Ford took note and immediately started on a Lincoln competitor.

Being behind, Ford rushed its new luxury compact. Introduced as a 1977 model, the Lincoln Versailles arrived as a thinly disguised Ford Grenada/Mercury Monarch. The only new stampings were a Lincoln-like tire hump on the trunk lid, and a new grille/headlamp assembly. It also sported the Continental’s Parthenon style grille.

It had the corporate 5.7-litre/351 cu in. (5.0-litre/302 cu. in. in California) overhead valve, 135-horsepower V8 with two barrel carburetor rather than the more sophisticated fuel injection of the Seville and import competitors. Suspension was front coil springs and rear leaf springs and brakes were four-wheel power disks.

The 2,791 mm (109.0 in.) wheelbase was 111 mm (4.4 in.) shorter than the Seville’s, while overall length of 5,103 mm (200.9 in.) was very close to the Seville’s 5,181 mm (204.0 in,). At 1,792 kg (3,950 lb) the Versailles was some 204 kg (450 lb) lighter.

To counteract its humble roots and entice buyers to pay almost three times as much for a very similar looking car to the Grenada/Monarch, Ford emphasized luxury and quality. For a quiet, vibration-free ride great effort when into the chassis and running gear. The driveline was carefully balanced, and a constant velocity joint on the driveshaft replaced the single cardan type.

The floorpan was reinforced and a flexible coupling fitted to the steering shaft to reduce road shock through the steering wheel. Extensive rubber bushings isolated noise and vibration and the body received more than 45 kg (100 lb) of sound deadening material. Each Michelin X steel-belted radial tire and its forged aluminum wheel were precisely matched and balanced as a unit.    

The Versailles received extensive quality control during and after assembly, each undergoing dynamometer and road simulation testing. Particular attention was paid to sealing, fit and finish. The Versailles was the first American car with a clear acrylic finish over base paint, known as clearcoat. Cadillac’s Seville couldn’t match the little Lincoln’s lustre.

Lincoln applied its expertise in luxurious interiors to the Versailles. In additional to power everything, air conditioning and AM/FM stereo search radio, its carpets were deep and armrests, instrument panel and steering wheel were leather covered. The original flush of interest produced an encouraging 15,434 sales in its shortened 1977 model year, compared with about 45,000 Cadillac Sevilles for the full year.

The 1978 Versailles was virtually identical, although the engine, reduced from 5.7 to California’s 5.0 litres, got Ford’s new electronic engine control system. Alas, its lookalike status caught up and only 8,931 Versailles were sold while Seville boomed along at almost 57,000.

For 1979 Ford extended the roof eight inches (203 mm) for a more formal profile and increased rear headroom and door size. It also received a significant American first in halogen headlamps twice as powerful as regular sealed-beams.

The new profile recovered some sales interest, and in spite of a price almost the same as the Mark V Lincoln, the Versailles sold 20,007 1979s.

For 1980 Ford apparently decided that if a high price was good a higher one was even better, increasing the Versailles by approximately $2,000. This, combined with a car sales decline brought on by the second “oil crisis,” and Cadillac’s new, restyled front-wheel drive Seville, resulted in only 4,784 1980 sales.

The Lincoln Versailles was quietly discontinued in 1980 after just over 50,000 total sales in four model years. The Cadillac Seville survived as a market success – and the imports kept coming.

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