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

Thomas Klockau

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).


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.


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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    I enjoy Tom’s enthusiasm for the Brougham era (and 80s hangover of the style).

    “Basket handle” doesn’t work for me here or in the 55-56 Crown Vics where they did it with chrome trim.

    I also don’t like vinyl tops at all so that sets up basket handle to not do well with me.

    I do agree that 70s cars remain underappreciated (for a variety of reasons).

    Thunderbird is like Star Wars: depending which era it made an impression on you that is the way “Thunderbird/Star Wars should be” and the different eras aren’t really the same thing.

    Didn’t know the LTD II was a reskin on Torino. That’s interesting. I love the Coke Bottle style in the Torino that lingered so long. I like slabby/boxy too (we had a 77 LTD) but mostly prefer how GM did it in the bigger cars.

    Tom, hard to believe I ordered one of these but I never got it. Just got the $500 deposit back in the mail. I ordered red with white interior with red dash and rug. When on to just get a new 1978 Pontiac TA and the rest is history as I drove TAs for the next decade. Oh hope Jack sent you the photos of the 8,000 mile Diamond Jubilee Mark V that I drove last week, really nice car and they even made the previous generation T-Bird dash look good with wood grain and real chrome metal control knobs.

    Tom, hard to believe I ordered one of these in 1978. Red with white interior and red dash and rug. Got my $500 deposit back in the mail from the dealer and never knew why. Went on to get a new 78 Pontiac TA and the rest is history as I drove TAs for the next 10 years. Oh by the way, hope Jack sent you the photos of the 8,000 mile Diamond Jubilee Mark V I drove last week. You would love it.

    I’m surprised that the real reason it was downsized wasn’t mentioned – Ford needed a Monte Carlo and Grand Prix competitor. The 1975-76 Elite wasn’t cutting it, since especially Chevy guys could see it’s a fancy Grand Torino without the name cachet of the T-bird. The 1972-76 T-bird both shared the Mark IV’s platform – and most of it’s price. A fully larded-up Gold or Lipstick Package T-bird could cost more than an entry-level Mark IV – WAY more than a Monte or GP. When these were new, I easily saw more Mark IV’s than Big-birds. Starting in 1977, the “Star Wars” T-birds were popping up all over the place like topsy.

    Great car with unique style, thr basket handle thing works, just like it did for the 1975 Mazda Cosmo. It was the 70s and this car wa a great example of the asthetic. Vinyl tops, fake wood and lots of flourishes. In 978 when GM downsized their intermediates; Ford needed a quick answer as the Fox chasis wasn’t finished yet and this was a sly way of downsizing.

    The 70s and 80s were terribly under rated, they were answers we had at the time for the first gas crisis of 73-74, stricter safety and emissions standards – reflecting the tech at the time. They lasted for hundreds of thousands of miles. Remember reliability was evolving as well.

    Obviously our style tastes change (though not by much lately with the overstyled, massive grilled hulks on the road now).

    And the saddest part, is thatmillenial/gen x,y,z call these wasteful and excessive when their automotive diet today is mostly wasteful, oversized CUVs, SUVs and trucks..such hypocrisy….

    Mazda Cosmo has more of the “reverse shark fin” thing going on like 2024 Chev Traverse (and others? –there was a Hagerty article about it) than a basket handle. I don’t like them (reverse shark fins) either, though the Cosmo is probably the best application I have seen. Thanks for mentioning them as it wasn’t a car I had ever seen.

    Particularly in these Thunderbirds when the colours contrast, it makes them look like a Ranchero with a shortened padded cap. Or padded T-tops on what should be an open-roofed limo that someone made out of a Ranchero and forgot to lengthen the passenger area.

    Anyway, we disagree on that point. Lots of people bought them so they obviously agreed with you.

    100% agree about the hypocrisy of several decades of some people railing against these “wasteful boats” yet the market going to truck-based large vehicles that dodge emissions standards the large cars of the last 30 years have had to meet.

    This era of T-Bird was my all time favorite. I remember them on the road like it was yesterday. Coming of age on the mid 80’s these cars were a dime a dozen. Had we only known what was coming I would of looked harder to find one and keep it.

    I bought a new black 77 Bird in June 1977 with the 351. I traded a 76 Dodge Monaco for it. Both were bad cars but the ford was much slower and had much poorer handling. I installed dual exhaust and aftermarket intake/carb trying to improve performance to no avail. The car also required high test gas to reduce pinging. I found it to be a terrible car that did look good in and out and had a comfortable interior. I could only stand its poor performance for less than two years before swapping it for a much better performing 79 Cordova with the much smaller 318 engine. It was a huge improvement over the ford in performance and had much crisper handling. The ford remains the least favorite of any of the 59 or so new cars I have purchased.

    A friend had a silver 78 in high school in the early 90s. Threw a rod senior year and ended up going to the junkyard.

    I always liked these, and also the “mini-Thunderbird” Fairmont Futura. Unlike some, I liked the “basket-handle” treatment on this car. These were SO much trimmer and better-looking than the bulky 1972-76 T-Bird (and equally bulky Mark IV).

    I read in Car & Driver that 1978 was the high point for T-Bird sales; never before or after were more sold. And yet today, it is somewhat uncommon to see a 77-79, just as it is uncommon to see a 1976-77 Regal or Cutlass coupe. Too much rust, I guess.

    Unleaded gas and motor oil blends that had not yet caught up with the heat generated by emission-controlled engines killed lots of these cars and their contemporaries. Valves burned and bottom ends wore out on these; lots of camshafts on GMs; cams and bottom ends on AMCs; lifters on all of them. We didn’t service many Mopars and driveability problems on those were so bad you couldn’t keep them running long enough to wear them out…although our high mile champ was a 75 Coronet with over 200K untouched miles, go figure.
    Nascent emissions tech was probably the biggest cause for the bad rap Malaise-era cars get, all the way down to the quality-control cost cutting. Car companies then, as now, are in business to make money. The millions spent on development of emissions tech had to come from somewhere. Curious if we’ll be entering a similar era now as billions are poured into EV tech.

    I have had 4 large Fords. A ’72 Torino wagon, plain jane. Which I finally had to drive to a junk yard, after 220,000 miles on a 302. My husband took great care of that car, best $750 we ever spent. We replaced the ’72 with an ’85 Crown Vic wagon. That one died after 235,000 miles, also a 302. Then a ’89 Mercury Villiager wagon. That one left us with 78,000, also a 302. Finally an ’85 Mercury Grand Marquis. Died with 85,000 miles. All were really great cars and all still missed. I realized that the cars all had the same frame as the ’72 Torino. Starting in ’73, Ford started to “downsize” their big cars to help come into EPA milage and emission levels. ’72 was the first year the Torino went to a frame, instead of the unibody. Most likely, the 302 engine, probably helped these cars get the milage they got and great care from us didn’t hurt. Living in the northeast didn’t do the bodies much good but the one major repair we did was the universal joint on the ’85 wagon. Which we did ourselves. I loved the T-bird since the ’58 convertible came out. But never found one we could afford, or was in good enough shape to play with. Now I drive a pick up truck, a Ford of course. I don’t like the new one we bought in January. Too much tech. It wants to do too much for us and is a pain in the butt. We cannot do 90% of the work ourselves, it HAS to go I to a dealer for repairs. At 73, I am starting to look for a mid ’50’s F100 with clamshell fenders. Even if we develop dementia we will still remember how to repair it.

    Oh, also: hated them then, want one now.
    How about a lightly built 351 with no emission equipment? Will a first-gen AOD fit behind it without cutting the floor? Cop suspension from an LTD II?
    I can almost hear it now.

    Rare T-birds? I nominate the 1980-82.
    Haven’t seen one in years.

    Yes, you saw a bunch of 77-79s when new, as Corn binder Brian says above, they were Ford’s answer to the Monte Carlos and Cut passes which were everywhere.
    People wanted “Lugsurey” (sic) back then…I blame people watching Dallas and Dynasty on TV.

    You don’t see many 83-88s any more either. Ten years ago an old guy showed up at a car show with a fairly basic 83-84. It belonged to an equally elderly friend who had passed away, he got it for nothing from the estate. Nice shape except the factory pin striping was pretty worn.

    The only story I th ave about the 89-97 (Bimmer birds) is when I was in the Air Force and living in Ohio, the next door neighbor had one. He loved the car, washed it a lot, but I rarely saw him. I heard he was a trucker.
    One day there is smoke coming from his house. Seems his wife got tired of his drinking so she poured gas on the car in the driveway and lit it.
    Trouble was it was too close to the house…which went up. The fire department saved most of their house, but not the T-Bird which sat rusting on the driveway until the fire Marshall and cops were finished with the crime scene.
    She got off…I was a witness to the county grand jury, but they didn’t indict her because she had a handicapped child. I was not amused, she could have burned my house.
    Number one take away, never buy a house next to a rental.

    About the only thirds you see are the 55-57 and 64-66. The rest are pretty much gone like most mid size cars of the era.

    I own a black, 45k mile ’78 with t-tops, console/bucket seats, Polycast wheels. 1 of 1 built, according to the Marti Report. I also added a ’85 Turbo Coupe to my stable last spring; found it on Hagerty Marketplace.

    Fantastic article. Love the research that goes into these. Those sales numbers are impressive, happy to see some still on the road today!

    I don’t remember seeing one with the “straps” on the trunk before. Makes it look sort of like luggage back there. It’s interesting.

    I had a 77, triple dark blue, wire wheel covers and non factory jensen sound system..drove it to 130k, replaced it with an 83 cougar, regretted it for years. I still mourn that car.

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