So if I’m going to write about a 1972-1976 Gran Torino, I should give a few words to Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film of the same title. When that movie came out, the star car was 36 years old, and I think that factored to a very large degree into how the car was received by the viewers, as well as by the characters in the film. Eastwood’s Gran Torino was a classic, with swooping lines, and a massive, powerful engine. You hardly even saw the whole car exposed in one frame until 2/3rds of the way through the movie – just a glimpse of a side panel, or that open, glaring, chromed maw was enough to get the feeling for the proud old automobile.
But what about when the car wasn’t 36 years old? I can only wonder what the 1972 Ford pictured here was like when it was a mere 11 years of age, and when the other feature car, a mid-80s Nissan Pulsar NX, was brand new. Today we can look at the Ford’s deeply grooved, sculpted flanks as something of a timepiece, and I do get the feeling that it will be some time before manufacturing technology catches up with pedestrian safety guidelines to allow for such jutting sheetmetal on everyday cars. In 1972, the American car industry was just beginning to acquit itself to safety and emissions regulations; production engines were vast, body panels were freely formed, but it was almost as if they were in response to the low-compression technology and railroad-tie bumpers that were on the drawing boards of Detroit’s designers.
So by the early 1980s the style was much, much cleaner and straighter than it had been in the 1970s. This certainly was not all regulation’s doing; all through the 1970s, designers had been working to incorporate the regulatory requirements, but so too were they seeking a more modern, clean look. Ornamentation became less baroque than it had been. Compare the neon orange decal of the “NX” to the neo-classical badge of the Gran Torino.
And really, even compare the names – Pulsar and Gran Torino. I know that marketing doesn’t tell ever tell the whole story, but the Italianate trappings of the Ford contrast sharply with the non-national, intergalactic dreams of the Nissan.
But the reason for bringing these two cars together is to imagine them not both from today’s perspective, but to imagine them both from the mindset of the mid 1980s. Would 1980s minds lionize the Ford? Perhaps – but I think that most nostalgic views into America’s automotive past were confined to the 1950s back then. Christine and Crime Story are just two examples.
I imagine that this now-honorable Gran Torino would’ve been seen the way that we might look today at a late 1990s Toyota Celica. Something past its prime, and though it is cheap, the car only hints at buying something stylish, never actually escaping the trappings of low class motoring.
Without thinking about how cars changed over the years, it is difficult to truly assess their age – we can see cars as symbols of their time, sure. In that case, this Ford is just eighteen feet of 1972 plopped onto a Brooklyn sidestreet. However, there is much more to this old car, in that it very much lived through the thirty nine years since it rolled off the assembly lines.
Seeing it next to a sporty coupe of the mid-80s helps a viewer today to contextualize the older car and get a sense of what it really means to be an ‘old’ car, something that is in constant flux. The past is all around us, eaten up and processed as the present remembers it and sets it down as history. These acts are really creating the past, as if rust was really building up cars, assembling, creating cars at the same rate as it destroyed them.