(first posted 4/1/2014) Every so often a corporate project gets started with great hopes, and a promising car is the result. Unfortunately, sometimes the unexpected can happen which pulls the plug on the whole endeavor, and we car enthusiasts can be left with a bag full of air. Or, if we are really lucky, a single prototype along with some corporate intrigue.
We have spotted some rare cars out in the big wide world here at CC, but none so rare as this – the single Grand Marquis convertible sedan. That’s right, there is just one and we found it. This car is not even supposed to exist, but has defied all odds and we have the pictures to prove it.
Ford Motor Company was really on a roll in the late 1980s. Phillip Caldwell had righted the foundering ship that was Ford and the company was churning out some real honeys. One problem, then as now, was Mercury. Lincoln had its designer series cars and the hot new Mark VII, and Ford had a resurgent Mustang to bring some bling into the showrooms. Poor Mercury, as ever, did not have much to offer.
In early 1987, some renegades in product planning recognized that the Grand Marquis had become Mercury’s best seller. The customers trended older, but this is not always a bad thing. For starters, older customers tend to have more money to spend on cars. And there was one bodystyle that this demographic recalled fondly: the big convertible. Mercury had not made a full-sized convertible since 1970, and the feeling was that the brand was ripe to try one again. Also, if the ragtop could become a Mercury exclusive, this would give the line some sense of independence from the Crown Victoria or the Town Car.
One problem was that the 2 door body style had been discontinued after 1986, so any convertible would have to be a sedan. It was decided that this could become a unique selling point, after all, the 1961-67 Continental four door convertible was becoming a collectible classic. Also, the target demographic surely recalled the beautiful convertible sedans that had been style leaders in the late 1930s. So, all that was left was the engineering.
Ford had done a lot of work with ASC, but found that the company did not have the resources to take on another project at the time. Instead, Ford linked up with a startup customizer, ANC (American No-roof Corporation) for an assist with the engineering and with the fabrication of the many unique parts required. The fact that the car had a full frame made the job fairly easy, so it was mostly a matter of adding a folding roof and designing it to work with existing sedan door glass.
The prototype was finished in great secrecy – only top level Ford executives were in on the plan. The car came out beautifully. When it was revealed in December of 1988, everyone in the car’s small circle of develpers agreed that it was the most beautiful and graceful vehicle ever built on the Panther platform. Then, as the car was being prepared for press photographs and the auto show circuit, a perfect storm of disasters killed the program.
First, the United Autoworkers got wind of the plan and, discovering that ANC was not unionized, confronted management of that company with an NLRB investigation. Things quickly got worse when the investigation revealed that ANC was a front company used for raising funds for South American drug interests. The Drug Enforcement Administration swept in and shut ANC down, but not before the lone Mercury prototype had been whisked from the building by someone who has yet to be identified. The whole problem would have been a monumental black eye to the entire Ford family, and great amounts of money were spent keeping the story of this car suppressed.
Then, about five years ago, the car was located under a tarp in a Grosse Pointe-area garage after the owner of the home had died. News reached Alan Mulally, who determined that this was an important piece of Ford history that needed to be preserved, even if in secret. So, in order to keep the transaction under the radar, he approached Rick Waggoner and Robert Nardelli of GM and Chrysler, respectively, to create a shell company ostensibly for the purpose of antique vehicle preservation. That foundation served as the company which bought the car for an undisclosed sum and transferred it to Ford for $1. In a quid pro quo, Mulally refused to lobby against federal bailout money for his crosstown rivals. There has been much suspicion that large sums of GM and Chrysler money went into that foundation and was never seen afterwards, but this is a conspiracy theory for another day. Because of the sensitive nature of the transaction, the car has never been put on display, but has resided in the third sub-basement of Ford’s World Headquarters in Dearborn.
It is not well known that one of Alan Mulally’s habits is to occasionally park his Lexus and check out a car from Ford’s historical collection. Last week, he made the decision to pull the keys for this one out of the box and take it for a drive. A long drive, it turns out. Mrs. Mulally had asked him to stop at a local Kroger store because milk was on sale. It was evidently quite a sale, because he found himself at a northside Indianapolis Kroger before he found any in stock. He came out as I was snapping pictures with my daughter’s new SLR camera. Unfortunately, his security guards were with him and it was plain that they were not happy. I jumped in my car but they followed me into my driveway and caught me as I tried to make it into the house.
Three of them held me down while the fourth removed the media card from the camera. He was in a much better mood when his men had my media card, and he became more talkative, at least after I signed that nondisclosure agreement. Fortunately, I was thinking quickly and told them that my name was Perry Shoar. Anyhow, after he told me this amazing story, I was sent on my way with Mulally’s apologies and a $50 discount certificate good for a new Lincoln. And some hurt pride, I should add–I could have easily subdued those three when I was a little younger.
The good news for all of you is that I was able to get off a few quick snaps with my cell phone camera without anyone noticing. I was so enthralled with this car that I did not notice the way that my finger got in the way of the camera lens on most of them. Where’s Jim Grey or Laurence Jones when you need one of them? Anyhow, I got at least one good shot off, and thereby have the evidence here to prove to the world the existence of this special car. As a matter of safety, I am going underground for awhile until this thing blows over. Perry, you ought to be careful, as neither Ford nor the government wants this out in the open. If a fleet of black Navigators or Suburbans shows up in front of your house, you’d better run, dude. But If they get you, stand tall knowing that we here at CC have broken the biggest story in the history of the classic car press. Even if I weren’t being paid $100 grand a year to write stories here, just the thrill of seeing history made (and this fabulous one-off convertible) would make this current hardship well worth it.