Years ago, before SUV’s and crossovers took over the automotive landscape, the body-on-frame rear wheel drive sedan ruled the roads for families on the go. In my driveway, I have two prime examples – a 1998 Ford Crown Victoria LX, and a 1996 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. I love them both, but for different reasons.
First, a little family automotive history – my Dad had a limousine business in Houston Texas in this era, so I grew up around Broughams & Town Cars – his daily driver was a 1993 Lincoln Town Car Signature Series, complete with bordello red leather interior. However, his two favorite limos were a black 1987 Brougham named Igor and a white 1990 Brougham with the 350 Chevy TBI. The ’90 Brougham was a favorite among the drivers for being peppier in Houston traffic than the 5.0 Town Cars, or the anemic 307 Olds in the 87 Caddy. The transmissions were a weak point on these Caddy limos, so much so that Dad became a pro at swapping them out when needed and could do so in about an hour and a half (and he kept a spare on hand at all times).
Being around these cars all my life, it’s no wonder I grew to love the land yachts that my contemporaries hated. Cadillacs are a family tradition – here is my Dad in front of Pap’s ’58 Sedan deVille in 1963.
And here’s me behind the wheel of his ’74 Sedan deVille around the same age in.
So it was no surprise that when I turned 17 in February 2005 that Pap gave me his 1984 Sedan deVille – the sly fox planned it out and purchased a 96 Deville a few months prior so he would have an excuse to give me the 84. He hated the gutless HT4100, and figured it would keep me from getting too many speeding tickets (he was wrong on that part sadly). Even his 83 Olds 98 Regency with the 307 had more oomph that the Caddy, he would constantly remark – but Pennsylvania winters ate away at the body, and the closest thing he could find in good shape was the 84 SdV.
Pap never owned a Ford – his fleet was the garage queen 74 SdV, the ’76 Chevy truck for trips to the junkyard (the only vehicle he ever owned new), an ’86 Jeep Cherokee for winter use, the ’87 Cutlass Ciera to go back and forth to work, and the ’84 SdV for Sunday drives or long trips.
As to how I now own these cars? When my Dad passed on in 2016, I inherited his 2006 Ram 3500 diesel – not exactly a great commuter vehicle for a radio guy like me, as well as the fact that the car never felt like it would be mine. So I sold it, and started the search for a 1991-1992 Brougham – I love the squared off look and the interior of that era, as well as the TBI 5.7/5.0 motor that could be had vs the 307 Olds. For about a year, I owned a 1991 Brougham d’Elegance, and I can’t help but draw comparisons between it and my 96 Fleetwood.
The interior in the 96 is roomier, but the 91 was better put together – much less plastic, and it just felt nicer to the touch. About the only improvement interior wise are the seats – MUCH better for long road trips with the split bench design and articulating head rests. Sadly, the ‘91 deteriorated beyond my means to fix it working part time and going to college. But prices for these cars, as well as the availability, were out of my price range for anything that wasn’t on its last legs.
So I widened my search into other rear drive sedans, and found a 98 Crown Victoria LX with under 100k miles on it for a price I could afford. It was a Georgia car, and the man was selling it for his mother in law who couldn’t drive anymore. This car is an oddball in that it is a VERY optioned Vic – dual power seats, leather, digital dash, Electronic Automatic Climate Control, upgraded stereo, dual exhaust, and the lattice lace aluminum wheels. Her husband must have checked off almost every option on the order form. It wasn’t a Cadillac Brougham, but it was almost as nice as my Dad’s 93 Town Car – the Town Car having more fake wood trim and rear reading lights among other things.
Fast forward a few months, and I get a message on Facebook from a friend of mine who is looking dispose of her late husband’s 1996 Fleetwood Brougham to someone who would love the car. Now, this car was not in great condition, but I agreed to take it off her hands. I arranged to head from Eastern NC to Brooklyn NY and fetch the car…and I almost didn’t take it home. It was worse in person than in the pictures I received, ran rough, the hood release cable broke on me after the first pull, and it had a weak battery during a March cold snap. Amazingly it didn’t leave me stranded on the 8 hour drive from New Jersey to ENC, but there were a few close calls where it was very slow to turn over. My friends husband did not treat the car horribly, but he did not do much preventative maintenance. Let’s call it “benign neglect” – the passenger seat recliner is broken, the power antenna doesn’t work, and numerous other little things require attention as well.
I had to wait until recently to do much work on it – plugs and wires were on the list, as well as the alternator and battery. And GM’s OptiSpark distributor required replacing as it was causing misfires – it is the Achilles Heel of this motor, and one of the reasons I wish it was a 93 with the L05 motor instead. The air conditioning system also needed a new hose on the high pressure side – a necessity for a triple black vehicle in the Carolina summertime.
The Crown Vic by comparison, has only needed plugs, tires, and coil packs to keep it running in tip top shape so far. Everything option works perfectly, even the sometimes troublesome EATC. The air ride compressor still keeping on ticking, and the air bags in the rear never sag. To keep it nice and rust free, I had it undercoated as soon as possible. Being a Georgia car, it had never seen road salt – unlike most of my other vehicles from PA/NJ/NY/MA, and I had never seen an underbody so clean!
Why am I comparing these two vehicles to one another? Because they are both the last rear drive body on frame examples from GM and Ford, and appealed to the same demographics (older people looking for luxury). From the dealer, the Fleetwood Brougham had a $39k sticker price – not cheap then, or now. The Crown Vic LX started at $23,335 – so in reality, what did another sixteen grand get you?
More rear leg room, rear vanity mirrors, rear cup holders, auto trunk pulldown, GM’s handy VigiLight, and another 40 or so ponies under the hood. Aside from that, the Vic matches the features on the Caddy – and the handy door keypad is something I find myself using more than I thought. Not to mention the tighter steering, less wallow in the corners, and everything just feels better built or more thought out on the Crown Vic. Even with less horses and off the line torque, I would take the Modular 4.6 over the LT1 – the motor just goes and goes with regular servicing, and doesn’t have any Rube Goldberg contraptions like OptiSpark to deal with.
In 1988, MotorWeek compared the TownCar to the Brougham (and a Deville Touring Sedan against the new Continental) as to which made the best highway cruiser. They came to the same basic conclusion I did – the smoother ride of the Caddy couldn’t be outweighed by the better handling of the Town Car. The ’96 Fleetwood is a vast improvement powertrain wise, but GM didn’t sweat the details enough and the interior (seats aside) feels like a gussied up Caprice. Living with the Crown Vic day to day is much easier – a friend of mine borrowed the Caddy for a day, and returned it saying it was too much car (and the passenger window off its track). The Fleetwood has lots of overhang, the trunk isn’t as useful as the Vic, and the quality was below that of my same year Sedan Deville that I inherited from Pap.
But there is still something about the Fleetwood that makes me smile when I’m behind the wheel, a feeling that I don’t get with the Crown Vic. The left hand side of my brain goes for the reliability, the slightly better gas mileage, as well as the lower cost of ownership that was the main reason I got the Ford in the first place. But the Caddy appeals to the right brain side – the lower/longer/wider styling, comfier seats, and the fake woodgrain slathered all over the interior tickle my Brougham fancy. Not to mention the instant torque and throaty roar of the LT1 – it reminds me of the 74 Sedan deVille, and my Pap telling me to stand on the gas when I wondered how powerful that 500 V8 really was under the hood. I suppose that is the biggest reason I still love the car despite all its faults (and repair bills) – it really is the last Classic Cadillac, and a very strong tie to my childhood spend under the hood of so many other Cadillacs.
I could picture my Dad, my Pap, or my Great Grandfather Toss behind the wheel cruising around Central Pennsylvania to Knobles Grove in a Fleetwood. While the Ford is nice, it feels like a upsized size Taurus rather than an old school luxury car. I guess that’s why GM had to pull the plug on these B & D bodies – cops loved the Caprice, and coachbuilders loved the Fleetwood, but not too many consumers were putting them and their Roadmaster cousin in garages. Tastes change, and these vehicles didn’t – plus, GM made a ton more selling Tahoes and Suburbans as SUV craze got into full swing.
The irony is that as I write this, my Fleetwood is back in the shop – for an intake manifold leak, and EVAP issues. So the Ford has been pressed back into full time service – and while it’s nice to spend a little bit less in gas, I miss the Caddy. I have been wronged by these cars before – transmissions, electrical issues, you name it. But I keep going back to The Standard of the World, being seduced by the smooth ride, tail fins, and the ice cold AC blasting.