In early January 2001, I returned to college after winter break as a passenger, my Malibu having decided that it would retire on the last day of the year 2000. So the Malibu started its long winter’s nap (15 years and counting at this point) and I found myself car-less for the first time since age 16. Thankfully I had friends who could get me where I needed to go and the college bus service to get to and from class. I also had some money saved up, partly thanks to a prescient Christmas gift from my parents. So I started diligently scanning the classifieds with a budget roughly defined as “under $2000”.
I looked at ads both in Raleigh, where I lived, and in my hometown of Greensboro; trouble with that was, as Greensboro was 90 minutes away, I was dependent on my Dad going to check out any prospective cars for me. My first prospect was a ’91 Fleetwood Brougham, silver over burgundy leather with an older owner who was downsizing, but Dad flat-out refused to go look at it on the grounds that “you don’t need a Cadillac” with no further discussion tolerated. He never did like Cadillacs.
Parental objections notwithstanding, I kept looking, and spotted an ad for a 1991 Ford LTD Crown Victoria LX, Silver, 118K miles, for $1800, in the small neighboring town of Oak Ridge, NC. Seemed like a steal, so I dispatched Dad to go take a look. He came back with a thumbs up, saying that the only flaws he found were a little sun fading on upper surfaces, a number of small cuts in the vinyl roof (hail damage according to the owner), and a bad window regulator on the driver’s door. Everything else worked, even the A/C, and it was priced under book value. Deposits were placed, our mechanic gave it a hearty approval, money changed hands, and I took the train from Raleigh back to Greensboro to take delivery.
Mom picked me up at the train station in the new old Ford, and I was very pleasantly surprised on seeing my purchase (the ad only contained one photo, a small low-resolution affair). 1991 was the final year for the box Panthers, but it wore the rounded-off corners that had been introduced for ’88, and had the one year only clear turn signal lenses that are a 1991 “tell”. It had the classic turbine-style alloys, light titanium paint in very good shape, a gray vinyl half-roof with the signature “headband” that harkened back to the original 1950’s Crown Victoria (many will object but I think the vinyl worked with the shape of the car), and a velour-trimmed interior in a color that could only be called bordello red.
Some accused the taillamps of being “Oldsmobile-style” but I thought they fit the design quite well, and I quite liked the bladed rear fender tops that gave the car just a subtle suggestion of tailfins. Power was supplied by the old reliable 5.0 liter pushrod V8, putting power to the ground through the AOD 4-speed automatic. It wasn’t exactly fast–the 302 made an unimpressive 150 HP in 1991 non-HO trim, though the 270 lb-ft of torque was more encouraging. But it had adequate power for passing and on-ramps, and besides, this car wasn’t about smoky burnouts nor pretending you were Johnny Law (too much brougham, you’d want a steel-topped P71 with the police-spec 351 V8 for that). What it was about was cruising in comfort, and at that it excelled.
There is a well known-adage that “you can sell a young man’s car to an old man, but can’t sell an old man’s car to a young man.” Not always true, it seems, though that adage probably did not consider college kids with budgets one-tenth the price of a new car. Nonetheless, this wasn’t quite a typical purchase for a 20 year old college student, so I got a few quizzical looks from my friends. One friend declared it to be a “pimpmobile”, though my roommate replied that a car isn’t a true pimpmobile unless driven by a pimp. Point taken. But it sat six in (relative) comfort, and for a sub-$2000 car, it needed very little.
I developed a to-do list–fix the window regulator (it’s really maddening to try to use a drive-through with an inoperative driver’s side window!), replace the factory radio and speakers with something a little more modern, remove the accessory plasti-chrome window shades (harder than it looked). Maybe true dual exhaust or Mustang heads/intake eventually to try to get a little more power out of that 302. But that was about it. It wasn’t everybody’s style then, and it certainly isn’t now, but when I walked out to the car in the morning, or at the end of a long day of classes, I liked what I saw.
Not my actual interior, but it’s the right color and pretty much identical.
The Crown Vic and I had bonded for a few months when I needed to travel to northern New Jersey, about 8 hours away, to meet a friend and attend a conference. The Vic seemed up to the task, and on the drive there and back, it performed flawlessly, from the rolling hills of southern Virginia to the near-gridlock of the New Jersey Turnpike. In fact, I missed my exit off the turnpike because I had caught a glimpse of the NYC skyline and was distracted by a blast of late afternoon sunlight reflecting off the towers of the World Trade Center–a sight that would no longer be possible in the vastly changed world of just a few months later.
The car ran equally well on the trip back home; I arrived back in Raleigh and almost immediately ventured back out with friends to get some dinner. When I pulled back into the apartment parking lot, though, as I shut the car off, one of my roommates remarked “is that smoke?” Sure enough, a noticeable amount of smoke was coming from under the hood, and I could tell it wasn’t steam. I popped the hood release (kind of dumb in retrospect) and was immediately greeted by the sight of flames. Not good! One roommate raced up the stairs to get a fire extinguisher and I called the fire department, unsure of how fast the flames might spread, and we all backed away to watch the progress. My roommate came back with a large pitcher of water, not having been able to find the fire extinguisher, but a well-placed dousing through the partially popped hood actually put the fire out. Lucky for me that it didn’t spread any faster or the whole car might have gone up in smoke. Raising the hood to survey the damage, we saw this:
Didn’t seem all that bad. I had it towed to the local Ford dealership to see what they could make of it, but when they called me back a few days later, the news was not. A failure in the alternator had started the fire–evidently not an uncommon problem on Fords of this vintage, and one that had been responsible for more than a few house fires when a car parked inside an attached garage set alight. Surprised it was never recalled. But the bad part was that it had also melted part of the main wiring harness where it connected to the alternator. Not only was the wiring harness toast (literally), but that part was no longer produced by Ford, so I’d either have to search far and wide to find a NOS part sitting in a box, or pull one out of a junkyard example. Capital Ford wanted nothing to do with it and advised the insurance adjuster to total the car, which they duly did. And that was that, after not even six months of ownership.
There was one silver lining to all this–after the adjuster had gone to look at the car, his assessment of the value came back at $2800. That was a full $1000 more than I had paid for it! Not a bad deal at all–$1000 profit over six months’ ownership. I inquired about buying the car back from them and having the work done on my own dime, since the damage was mechanical only. They would have sold me back the car, with a salvage title of course, for somewhere around $300, and written me a check for the $2500 difference. More than enough to have the work done, maybe even do some upgrades, and still pocket some money in the deal. No-brainer, right? Wrong.
I lived in a typical college-area apartment, one where the parking lot was patrolled vigilantly by a shady towing company, and a car without tags would have been towed in about five nanoseconds. As the majority of my friends were students, they all lived in apartments or on campus too. I had nowhere to leave the car while trying to source a new wiring harness, and who knows how long that would have taken. My parents were already storing one inoperative car for me and drew the line at adding a second one, plus the cost of towing it back to Greensboro would have eaten a chunk of my budget. I really hated the thought of a car with a near-perfect body, nice interior, and mostly good mechanicals going to the junkyard when all it needed was a relatively minor repair, but there was nothing I could do.
Would that they were always this clean…
So I sadly bade goodbye to my first Panther. A short but mostly sweet relationship, and one that left me $1000 richer to make up for my sadness. This opened up my choices a bit and caused me to go in a different direction with my next purchase.