One evening I flew into O’Hare needing to surprise our Quad Cities staffers in the morning for regular unannounced audits. Being so close to Chicago and having access to any of our cars in Chicagoland meant that I could drive there if I wanted a break from flying, which I usually did. I got tired flying all the time, so it was a nice change of pace to be on the ground.
I was nicknamed, “the Seagull”, because like that bird I would fly in unwelcome, eat their food, poop on them, then fly away. It was part of the job to keep my audits as reflective of everyday business as possible, so my visits were always unannounced and usually unwelcome. Only my parents, boss, travel agent, and department secretary knew where I was and would be going. The only exception to this rule was Hawaii because to offset costs, I stayed in expensive complimentary suites which needed to be prearranged with each resort on every island. I was told phones would start ringing the moment someone internally learned that I left our headquarters in the Loop to do my job.
I usually drove new big luxury cars. I wanted to be safe and surrounded by a padded luxurious mass. Most locations gave me their newest and best rides while praying for a good audit report. My usual rides were Lincolns, Cadillacs, Mercedes, Audis or Corvettes and similar sports cars. I was always aware that I drove cars I couldn’t afford. When I got the keys to a Corvette, Z, RX or something similar, I was very aware that the car could unleash the devil in me and I could screw up. I was always careful. In all the years I spent on the road, I had only one moment when a driver speeding along the Kennedy Expressway was too busy littering to see my new Town Car stopped in traffic, and he ended up driving his Ninety-Eight into it’s trunk. He ended up in the hospital, and I ended up being in awe of a Panther’s survival instinct when jumped from behind.
This is about the time I got surprised by a Mercury Tracer LTS.
The 1991 Tracer shared with the Ford Escort, the Mazda B plaform, so it was peripherally related to the Mazda 323, and the Protege. This was a much better vehicle than the previous first generation Escort based car known as the Mercury Lynx, or the Mazda 323 based Mercury Tracer, sold around the Pacific as the Ford Laser. The LTS took Ford to a level of sportiness the EXP never came close to achieving.
Instead of the Ford 88 hp, 1.9 liter, single cam base engine, the LTS had the Mazda 1.8 liter, 127 hp, twin cam, 16 valve, four cylinder that launched this little 2500 pound car like nothing else in its class. While it had an automatic, it was a new four speed. (I would have loved a five speed manual, but we can’t rent those in the States.) The LTS had better wheels being stopped by discs all around and between you and those wheels was independent rear suspension and large anti-roll bars.
It looked like a regular Tracer or Escort of that time, except for those wheels and a simple tasteful red stripe trim across the bumpers and over the rub strips. Trunk spoilers were becoming a regular sight on the road and the LTS had that too. Other than that, there was nothing warning me that I could do what I did that night.
By the time I left the rental car lot and shoved off towards the Mississippi River, I was pretty pleased to get this car for the trip. The engine sounded really good. It was tight and amazing and revved like a real sports car. The dual exhaust sounded like it actually worked. Taking corners and ramps like it did made it feel like a more expensive car than it was. It handled like no other small Ford I puttered around in. Mazda obviously showed Ford how to make a fun small car.
When I merged onto I-80 from the Stevenson, the traffic was light as dusk fell. Within 30 minutes, I was buried deep into cornland with a clear clean colorful sunset in front of me. It looked like a cloudless night was ahead of me with nothing between me and my destination but the Fox River valley and a couple dozen country exurbs. The Tracer hugged the road and dutifully loped along at 70 mph. I set the cruise control and relaxed.
While the LTS did an awful lot extremely well, the interior wasn’t inspired – just competent for cars in its class. The instrumentation held a tach and the dashboard didn’t look cheap, but it wasn’t as awesome as the performance it monitored. The worse thing about some cars in those pre-air bag years were the passive seat belts. Instead of a normal, functioning three-point seat belt, like before – or – since, car manufacturers ended up with really bad seat belts designed to be passive and satisfy the Federal government. The Tracer’s take on the passive seat belt included motorizing the shoulder belt so that it sped over the front door windows and dropped where a normal human’s shoulder would be, if they weren’t over 6 feet tall, like I was.
I sat well behind the door opening, so the motorized shoulder belt ended up over a half foot away from my left shoulder. Dumber yet, the lap belt needed to still be manually fastened. This passive design was actually better than the cheap, nasty badly designed stretch-o, door mounted embarrassments found in most GM vehicles of that age. We had real problems with the GM design all the years these craptastic things were in our fleets. Putting air bags in all cars finally fixed that mess.
Eventually, I needed coffee to remain aware that I was in Illinois, and my previous coffee and Diet Coke drinks found their way into my bladder. I took a break in exotic-sounding Peru Illinois at a truck stop famous for it’s coffee pot. I looked for my favorite road food, which is jerky, and found the biggest drink container I could find and filled it with black coffee. After looking through the gift shop filled with miniature wolf heads, cool-looking tire thumpers, shot glasses, pills promising giant insatiable erections, and emptying my bladder while looking at the condom machines in the men’s room, I felt the caffeine surge into my brain. I stretched, took a deep breath and then trotted over to the dark red LTS and sped off onto the dark empty highway.
The Tracer zipped up to highway speed instantly and it sounded like it loved going fast. After a minute of driving, I noticed that I-80 was empty in both directions as far as I could see. It surprised me to be all alone, yet only an hour from Chicago. I set the cruise at 70 mph then ripped open the jerky. Good stuff! About a minute later I finally saw a pair of headlights far behind me, then disappearing over the horizon. I zipped along a few more miles, while these headlights slowly crept closer. He must have been going about 80 mph, which wasn’t unsafe on that empty expressway. After a while, the car hung back, in the passing lane, like the driver decided to set the cruise control too. There was no traffic on I-80 and it was very dark.
Having this driver hang behind me like that was claustrophobic. I took the car down to 65 mph, expecting it to pass me up, but when I did, the driver wouldn’t pass. It could have been an old man, or some young girl feeling the emptiness of the highway and feeling more comfortable hanging with me. This went on for a few more miles. It became irritating. So I sped up to get away, leaving the stranger cruising in the left lane. When I reached 80 mph, the stranger returned to his speed of 80 mph. After a couple more minutes, I was beginning to be irritated. Instead of a nice quiet ride, enjoying the empty darkness, I get this pesky jackass hanging on me. His headlight beam was in my left eye’s peripheral vision while the rest of the landscape was relaxed and dark.
So I decided to leave this pitiful nutjob behind and see what the LTS could do at higher speeds. I left him behind and the Tracer purred along as we zoomed beautifully at 90 mph. The steering felt strong and controlled. The ride felt perfectly fine at that speed. Just as I started slowing down, this guy reappears behind me again, like a bad penny. Give me a break! What an idiot!
So, I punched the accelerator again. That little LTS easily sprinted away and I looked down at the speedometer to see that I was going over 100 mph. The car didn’t sound like it was worried. There were no sounds of distress coming from the high revving twin cam four cylinder. The car handled without a problem and the road feel was exceptional, especially in a car as small as the LTS. 100 mph is not a safe speed, but the little Mercury did not make it seem dangerous. I was surprised at how well I was able to maintain that speed.
So this is when the stranger decides to turn on his high beams and his cop lights. Instead of being a lost traveler alone in the night, he ends up being the local highway sheriff interested in the Tracer LTS. By the time he let me know who he was, I believe we traveled across Illinois for ten miles or more. Naturally I was angry and felt as though I had been pushed into being chased across La Salle and into Bureau county. The officer’s route went from Princeton to Peru Illinois, and he was returning to Princeton when he saw me leave the truck stop and drive off into the night. He tailed me out of curiosity over the new LTS.
The officer looked like he could have been my twin. “Uh sir, I have you clocked at 119 miles per hour!” he grinned. “May I see your driver’s license and car registration – or rental papers?”
“What kind of car is this?” he asked impressively, passing the flashlight beam over the purring Tracer.
“I wasn’t going 119 miles per hour until you pushed me into going 119! Why were you following me like that? I was cruising at 70 until you started stalking me.”
“I wasn’t stalking you. The speed here is 65. It took a while to run these plates because it is a rental car and you were going faster than 65”, he answered. “Then you gave me quite a race! How much does it rent for?”
“For me – nothing!” I then froze, realizing that I was going to get a speeding ticket for going 119 miles per hour in a company car so I decided to stop talking. He walked back to the patrol car with it’s flashing lights. I think I remember slapping my forehead with my palm about that time as well and a well chosen naughty word or two. Not good.
By the time I reached the Davenport airport, the news of my speeding ticket went from Princeton Illinois to the managers who works at our offices in the Loop, then waited for me grinning in Davenport. The folks I was to surprised in the Quad Cities couldn’t wait to surprise me. By the time I broke for lunch, my boss was calling me to confirm the ugly rumors, and to express his shock and disappointment. It was an unpleasant day for the guy who normally created unpleasant days for others.
A month later, I personally drove to Princeton Illinois in my best suit, driving the biggest nicest Lincoln Town Car I could get, and finding the county court officers and explaining my situation. They couldn’t have been nicer and reduced the speed to 75 miles per hour, helping me out. Then I had to pay the amount I would have had to pay going 119 miles per hour. When I was told I would be spending upward of $800, I think I remember slapping my forehead with my palm about that time as well.
The Seagull got pooped on that day.