In fall ’04 I’d had enough with the beater ’82 Malibu that I had been driving for the past two years. I was finally feeling like an adult–a couple years after graduation, I had my own place and a decent job, and that translated into a desire for a more appealing set of wheels plus the means to acquire one. Most early 20’s folks in my spot would probably take the “new or nearly new compact” route, and I considered it for a moment–but it wasn’t really for me. The options that were budget-friendly were not exciting at all. So, used. But, a used what?
If you were to consider the automotive interests of the average 24 year-old guy, you’d probably imagine I was interested in things like Mustangs, or a 240SX, or maybe a Jeep? Nah. Not for me. I wanted something fun to drive, sure, but I also wanted some comforts. Leather seats, a nice interior. Basically, a premium sports coupe, sports sedan, or thereabouts. This meant I’d have to settle for something 5+ years old, but I was OK with that. Autotrader yielded some candidates soon enough. A ’97 Audi A4 2.0T seemed promising; but not having driven a stickshift in a while, I stalled the car in the middle of an intersection on the test drive. Nearly getting myself and the salesman killed was probably not the best omen, but it was a possibility still. After being unimpressed by other options, including a BMW 323i, I saw an ad for a 1996 Lincoln Mark VIII. One owner, 44k miles, clean. Again, maybe not typical for a 24 year-old. But I had loved the VIII since the first time I saw one in a magazine at age 12, and I just had to go check it out.
The original photo from the listing for the car.
Upon arrival at the dealership in nearby Durham, I found “clean” to be an understatement. They actually had this 8 year old Lincoln displayed *inside* the showroom alongside the brand-new models, and for good reason. Opal Opalescent paint (aka pearl white) over graphite leather, polished wheels, an engine compartment clean enough to eat off of. It was certainly a striking car, even at age 8. The inside was just as clean as the exterior. Sadly, I wasn’t able to actually drive it, as I showed up near the dealership’s closing time and they didn’t want to open the big showroom doors to get it out. Thanks, guys. I did come back the next day for a test drive and I knew I liked it quite a bit. I told myself I needed to sleep on it, as not to rush into a decision, but it was basically a formality–I was signing the papers the following day.
So I was now the owner of a car that had been on my radar for a long time. Quite an upgrade from the ’82 Malibu… The styling was what got my attention early on, and to this day I still find it a very attractive machine. The long, low design of the Mark VIII featured aggressively slim headlamps set alongside a waterfall grille, a gently sloping hood, a graceful greenhouse with C-pillar slanted to preserve the sleek design without becoming a fastback, and a trunk that tapered down to a full-width taillamp. The most controversial piece was the throwback element–as a link to its predecessors in the Mark series, a vestigial “Continental hump” remained on the decklid. Personally, I liked it. It didn’t spoil the design at all, and I appreciated the call-out to the car’s Mark series heritage. Others were not so favorably disposed to this element, but to each their own, and enough people liked it for Lincoln to sell over 126,000 units for the car’s lifetime. ’96 was the final year of the initial 1993 design, which would be facelifted for ’97. The build date on mine was a rather late 6/96, so I’m guessing it had to be one of the last of the pre-facelift cars to roll off the line.
Inside, The seats were amazingly comfortable–still among the best I’ve ever experienced. The interior design had the same flair as the exterior, the best expression (in my opinion) of Ford’s design language at the moment. A sweeping two-tiered dash flowed into the door panels on either side, and the shapes were organic without being too ovoid (preventing a catfish Taurus situation). Accommodations in the back were a little tight–plenty of knee and hip room, and a sharply reclined seatback preserved headroom, but the low front seats meant the footwells were peculiarly small.
The mechanicals were impressive as well. The engine was Ford’s DOHC 32V “InTech” V8, a higher-spec relative of their bread-and-butter 4.6 V8, shared only with the Continental (in a lower state of tune to suit the FWD transaxle) and the Mustang SVT Cobra. For service in the VIII, it made 280 HP and 285 lb-ft of torque. The platform was the FN10, which was based on the Thunderbird’s MN12 platform with several key differences. Full air suspension at all 4 corners was used, with a trick speed-sensitive setup where the car would lower itself an inch at speeds above 50 MPH for better aerodynamics and roadholding. All in all, it was the best Ford had to offer in ’96, befitting a car that stickered for $40k new ($61k adjusted).
And on the road? The car acquitted itself quite well. While it was more of a cruiser than a sports coupe, it was still entertaining enough to hustle down a twisty road. It had a propensity for understeer, but body roll was better controlled than you’d expect from something wearing a Lincoln badge. And when you pressed the narrow pedal, the car moved out quite well. Factory listed 0-60 was 7.5 seconds, but that seems a little under-reported based on my exprience. I can’t vouch for top speed, but I can tell you that it was remarkably composed at triple-digit speeds. The VIII truly excelled at covering distances quietly, confidently, and with supreme comfort, thanks again to the well-tuned air springs. I heard “like riding on a cloud” more than once, proving that the tradeoff for soaking up road imperfections doesn’t have to be flabby handling. (The tradeoff, in fact, is a complex and somewhat failure-prone suspension, as I’d learn later.)
This car re-introduced me to the pastime of driving just to drive, just because I wanted to. My commute to work–if you can call it that–was about a mile, so I walked as often as I drove. I lived a block from a major shopping center, and a half-mile from my closest friends. So there weren’t a ton of places I had to drive, yet I still managed to put about 10K a year on the Lincoln. It did make several long road trips up and down the east coast, but also, I simply enjoyed driving again. If I was feeling bored, or stressed, or just restless, I’d get in the car and go somewhere. Destination didn’t matter; often I’d just meander around the city and surrounding countryside. I had a car that I loved spending time in, with extremely comfortable seats and a good sound system. What else did you need? Well, a sunroof would have been nice, but that was one of the options not originally selected. Female companionship also would have been nice. But I digress.
The Mark and its predecessor Malibu. Sleek vs. Boxy.
One of those drives very nearly led to the demise of the car, or at least the transmission. I was driving through a hilly neighborhood late one night, and with a long downhill ahead of me, I had the bright idea that I’d coast down the hill in neutral. Keep in mind that this car was an automatic. Rather than bumping the selector from D to N, out of habit I depressed the selector button, then proceeded to overshoot neutral and land in reverse, traveling about 30 MPH. A very loud noise ensued, the car skidded to a halt, and the engine died. I just *knew* that I’d blown up the transmission. But, actually, no–started it back up, ran the selector through the gears, put it back into Drive, and–it was just fine. Continued to be fine for the rest of the time I had the car. Dumb luck, I guess.
As tends to be the case with any older car, the Lincoln was not without the occasional issue. It shredded a serpentine belt on the highway, thankfully near an exit. I replaced a multifunction stalk and a couple of other little odds and ends. The trunk-mount CD changer died on me eventually. The very slim headlamps, while a striking design feature of the car, were about as effective as “a candle in a hurricane” at night, to borrow a particularly descriptive turn of phrase. The LSC trim level had HID lamps which were somewhat of an improvement, but mine was unfortunately not an LSC. Either way the composite lenses also yellowed and clouded, as is common to many 90’s cars, though a polish job helped ameliorate that.
Perhaps the most annoying issue was a simple one–the outside door handle broke off in my hand one day. I guess it was a bad quality casting, or just the strain of pulling open those heavy doors proved too much for the metal. I ordered a replacement handle, but painting it was the first tricky part. Being pearl white, the paint was a fairly complicated tricoat, and had to be replicated in all three layers to look even remotely correct. A trip to the paint store and an aerosol-based sprayer later, the result looked good for a first effort. Installing it also required three hands at one point, or so it seemed. I snagged a passing-by neighbor to hold one piece for me and got it reinstalled and working, but I’m still not sure how one was supposed to do that job unassisted.
I also experienced this car’s most notorious issue–air suspension trouble. Eventually I noticed that the front air springs would leak down overnight; when I came out in the morning the car would have acquired a rake worthy of a 70’s hot rod. This meant a pinhole in one of the springs. But as soon as I’d start the car, the system would air back up and it would be fine for the rest of the day– the problem really only manifested itself if it sat for 12+ hours. This is not an uncommon problem with these cars, but the bill to have even just one air shock replaced with factory parts generally runs into the four figures. I toyed with the idea of converting it to coilovers, as is a somewhat popular modification among VIII owners, but I didn’t want to lose that wonderful balance of controlled handling and cushioned highway ride. Eventually I discovered that there are aftermarket replacements available for a much more reasonable price, so in due time I purchased one. As luck would have it, I never got to install it.
In October of ’06, I’d owned the car for nearly two years, and anticipated that not changing any time soon. I’d just had new pads and rotors done out back, and I the replacement air spring ready to install. It seemed like the Lincoln would be a keeper, for the foreseeable future or maybe even long-term. Then, of course, it all changed in an instant. Heading down Highway 54 one night, going from Raleigh to Cary, I glanced to the side for a moment, and looked back ahead in time to see a Saturn Vue pull out directly in front of me. I swerved, but not far enough to avoid a hard hit. Air bags deployed and I ended up on the center divider; the Vue spun around and sat leaking coolant into the outside lane. Thankfully neither I nor the other driver were injured. He had pulled out of a driveway and then noticed there was still oncoming traffic; I suppose he also noticed me but it was way too late to back up by then. The Lincoln still ran fine afterward, but it was very much not driveable.
Insurance confirmed that it was totaled rather quickly. Final odometer reading: 64,705 miles. I went back to the tow yard to retrieve my things from the car, and seeing it there, in that condition, was hard. The damage looked much worse in the light of day, and I’m sure it would have cost well more than the car was worth to repair. But it was the first car I’d owned that I chose based on what I wanted, not other reasons of expediency or necessity. It was like losing a friend. I won’t lie–a few tears were shed. But all good things must end eventually. Before I left, I freed the Lincoln emblem from the cracked grille and took it with me. I still have that memento, and a lot of good memories. I’d love to have another Mark VIII someday–and I’d also love to see Lincoln bring back another big coupe and revive the Mark Series. But this one will always have a special place in my heart.