The Continental Mark VII has to rank among the most radical visual transformations in any Lincoln family tree before the ’90s and the “aero” age.
Take an early Panther for example. With a Lincoln Town Car, one actually had to be an aficionado to tell a 4 door Mark VI from an early ’80s “box” Towny. While there was a difference, it was not readily apparent to the non-initiate. Likewise, each of the ’70s big Marks (III-V) and even the downsized Mark VI (underneath a Panther) stylistically picked up where the previous iteration had left off.
But then along came the Continental Mark VII, and from the inside out it was a whole new deal. A new aerodynamic styling disguised a unibody Fox chassis with a longer wheelbase. One look under the hood was sufficient to see what had been done here: a full size car engine along with every accessory imaginable had been stuffed into a midsize chassis. The times were a-changing, and the Mark VII was designed to compete with the nimbler, livelier imports, particularly the ones from Germany. Why? The old money was looking for fashion accessories elsewhere and Lincoln had to adjust to the rapidly evolving playbook or become irrelevant.
We’ll jump ahead and tell you that Ford pretty much screwed this one up big time. Yes, they ended up with nine years of production (1984-92), easily the longest run for any of the big Marks. But, Ford sold just under two hundred thousand of these babies in those nine years. Granted, they were selling them for $25-30,000 in much more solid 1984-92 money. Still, one has to wonder what might have been, had CFI not happened.
I know. “CFI, in a Mark VII? These were EFI cars,” you should rightly be saying. And indeed, for the vast majority of their run (1986-92, all but the first two years) they were. But in those first two years the VIIs were either CFI (advertised as an EFI as you can tell from a cutout above, but sequential it was not) or alternately equipped with a BMW diesel. The batch fire CFI was good for only 140hp in 1984 and 1985. Tsk, tsk, Ford. Think about it: not until the third year of production (an eternity not just by today’s standards, Marks III-VI generally lasted 4 years per generation) did the Mark VII finally get “woken up” with the help of a proper, sequential EFI conversion, and an H.O. motor tuned to reclaim some of 302’s past glory. The horses jumped to 200hp for the 1986 LSC, and finally peaked at 225hp for the 1987 LSC. Now that’s more like it.
By then, the status battle had been lost. Sure, at the end of the day Ford still sold enough of these things. Yet one has to wonder what might have been had the car been postponed until 1986 when it could be introduced as a sequential EFI with the H.O. motor as standard. Perhaps, we would have seen a Cobra motor in the stock LSC right around the arrival of “Appetite for Destruction” instead?
Ok, enough with what-may-have-been’s! For those who were looking for a domestic Mercedes 500/560SEC and BMW 633/635CSi beater at half the price, there were still seven years of the (S)EFI Mark VII production left, with the H.O. motor first an LSC feature and then mercifully across the board. And these seven years, ladies and gentlemen, produced my favorite Lincoln ever. Warning: severe homerism may be encountered below. You have been warned.
Yes, I can hear it now – “pushrod engine, really?” Well, I warned you about homerism, didn’t I. Indeed I’ll take a single chain pushrod with cast iron heads over an SOHC or DOHC any day. As for the AOD… well, (I know, I’m in a huge minority here) I’ll always argue that it is a great transmission. When mated to the H.O. engine a healthy AOD is readily capable of a hold-on-for-dear-life responsiveness, especially when the H.O. cam kicks in, culminating a near manual transmission-esque, extremely satisfying clunk. Which by the way is a sign of the AOD actually being healthy (as opposed to it seamlessly slipping into expedited future deterioration – please read the small script in the Lincoln brochure cutout below).
Now, the AOD clunk has been debated in car lover circles forever. I understand the feelings of those who dislike it, and I think they have a valid point – a premium automatic should be seamless. All I can do here is express my personal feelings on the subject, so I’m just going to quote my friend and a veteran Lincoln mechanic on this one…
…”BANG! I LOVE IT!”
Where were we? Ah yes – 1986-92 Mark VIIs. We’ll just ignore those CFI years, okay? Now then, there were two main editions of the Mark VII from 1986 to 1992: The LSC (Luxury Sports Coupe) and the Bill Blass Designer Edition.
The Bill Blass was your grandpa’s Mark. Even as the LSC switched to the H.O. motor, the BB soldiered on with the “lopo” (150hp) for a few more years until 1988. Finally, they mercifully upped it to 225hp as well. The BB styling clues remained unchanged until the end of the production run in 1992: Bill Blass badges, brushed aluminum lower trim, Lincoln hood ornament, faux wood interior trim. You also got Bill Blass “pillow” seats and rear bench (very comfy!) and last but not least – the digital instrument cluster. With all of this stuff, the BB interior had a very different ambiance from an LSC. And it rode differently, with softer, BB specific air springs.
The LSC was a Euro Mark VII. Aggressively bolstered bucket seats with lumbars, blacked out (later – lushly textured titanium metallic grain) interior trim, and minimal Lincoln badging with no hood ornament. The LSC also included an analog instrument cluster with a tach and a coolant gauge, and fog lamps with special covers. There were two further variations on this theme. First was the ultra-rare GTC with a legendary body kit, monochromatic exterior trim (no chrome) and a unique front air spring design for superb handling. A few years later there was the Special Edition. The Special Edition mimicked GTC’s no-chrome intimidator attitude, with its blacked out exterior trim. This one came in only three colors: red, black, and titanium. Underneath though, the SE was just a regular LSC. But that body was worth it, hell, the SE grille alone was worth it: a two-tone work of art – alternating chrome teeth with red, black, or titanium ones to match the body.
The original conclusion of the Mark VII production was supposed to take place in 1990, but the Mark VIII development was behind schedule. Three more years ensued, and as the production neared its actual end, the BB received LSC springs for 1991-92. With that, it became essentially an LSC with the BB body and interior “kit.”
The options list drove the base price way up, but was pretty much essential. The moon roof and cellular phone were the two most expensive options, followed by the JBL system with 3-way speakers and its own special amp, an anti-theft system that disabled the starter, traction-lok, a CD player, and an electronic rearview mirror. Dealerships added some more “useful” stuff such as vinyl roofs and pinstriping, and of course the entire car could be special ordered just the way you wanted it to be, including your own exterior and interior color schemes within the general framework of a given edition. The limit was pretty much your imagination.
The standard equipment list was exhaustive: an electronic climate control, a tripminder with useful features such as Distance To Empty, real time MPG consumption and an English-to-Metric switch, inside and outside temperature displays, a compass, auto headlights with delay, auto headlight dimmer, power everything (including both front seats, not a given with Cadillac in the 80s), and a cruise control equipped leather wrapped steering wheel. Most importantly, the cars came standard with ATE designed (Germany) 4-wheel 3-channel electronic ABS systems, self-leveling 3 point electronic air suspensions, disk brakes all around, rack-and-pinion steering, and sway bars in the front and rear. Driver airbags were added for 1990-92, accompanied by a general dashboard redesign. The highway fuel economy for the EFI engines was impressive: north of 23 mpg if not abusing the skinny too much.
The seating position in all Mark VIIs was significantly lower than in the Town Car, immediately creating a more sporty (some found it cramped) environment. The sea of glass in the huge door to one’s left or right recreated an unmistakable old school Mark feel, and the visibility remained outstanding except for the rear quarters which ceased to be a problem as one got used to the car’s dimensions. The trade-off was the classic thick C-pillars, the last of their kind in a two door Lincoln, and a wonderfully cavernous rear portion of the interior, another classic Mark feature. The flat, vertical angle of the dash portion immediately facing the driver was traditional Ford, but the organic way in which that portion was incorporated into the larger, sleekly angled dashboard connecting the outside rearview mirrors was a Lincoln first. The dash sat in the firewall, and the gunslit windshield opened a panoramic view to a gently sloping sea of clear coat on the monstrous hood (and in the case of the BB edition, a distant Lincoln star).
Once in a front seat of a Mark VII, the lucky individual would be reminded of the painstaking hours clearly invested by the cabin’s designers. Designing a door is a form of art: how many cars have you dear reader been in where the door armrest was precisely where one’s elbow would be, not too high, not too low, not too angled, not cluttered with endless switches? The long, tastefully carpeted niche in the huge door panel of the Mark VII was a brilliant design. The seats, both the BB “pillows” and LSC “buckets” but especially the latter completely hugged the occupant.
The steep horizontal middle console was standard on all Mark VIIs, decidedly splitting the cabin’s front portion into a driver’s and a passenger’s personal spaces, and there were vents for the rear passengers in it. While there was no longer a front bench seat, the buckets moved back quite a bit on the tracks (and they reclined all the way, too! Yay!). The leather wrapped and stitched shifter was mounted in the middle console, putting an exclamation point on a dramatic departure from Lincoln’s traditional interior design.
Turning the key ON (without starting the engine) was best experienced in the dark of a garage or at night. Clusters of vintage 80s big (and I mean, BIG) square warning lamps with spelled out referents came on everywhere, all but a few of them disappearing within seconds. This was Star Trek – modern microscopic warning symbols somewhere inside an instrument cluster just don’t compare to this. Buzzing! Buzzing would fill the interior as the air suspension kicked on, the brake system hydraulic pump would charge the mysterious black balloon, and somewhere in that symphony a 2 second drone of the fuel pump would do its thing. You could just feel serious things happen around you as the big Mark was waking up. Then (or maybe skipping this part) you started the engine, and after the obligatory starter gunfire sound effect it idled quietly.
In the evening, the gentle glow of at least three (in the case of the digital cluster equipped Bill Blass, six) electronic displays created a soft ambiance. Almost every switch and control (curiously, except for the door mounted ones) was illuminated, including the gear lettering next to the shifter. The optional electronic rearview mirror either isolated and dulled the headlights behind you to the point where they seemed UFO surreal, or alternately turned blue as most of these mirror things do today. The autodimmer box would frequently get spooked by its (car’s) own headlight reflection in a roadside sign and cycle off/on. The vinyl dash, when clean, would glisten in the streetlight with the moonroof shade rolled back.
A factory H.O. motor with a proper factory setting for the AOD cable provided plenty of thrills for those who liked to abuse the skinny. Burnouts were never a problem for LSC’s 3.27 rear. The ride was firm and supple and the rack-and-pinion steering felt secure and precise. The power steering pump provided sufficient boosting (these being pre-variable assist days) yet never felt artificial. Compared to the steering effort at crawl speed, the vehicle grew delightfully light north of 40 mph, speed being felt in a way that most overboosted or electronically steered contemporary cars can never communicate it – in a word, Fun. The rack faithfully telegraphed the road to the steering wheel at all times, while the suspension swallowed most of the imperfections. Lane switching at 60 mph was a jolly good time, and anything north of 80 mph in a new or mechanically well-maintained Mark VII was serious fun.
The ABS was excellent and while the car stopped on a dime the brakes never felt overly aggressive. Even when you stood on them, the sitting position basically guaranteed that you’d maybe feel a slight shove while the car experienced an epic nosedive. While misunderstood because of their complexity, these were a rare combination of secure and luxurious brakes, an art all but lost today when a lot of brake systems seem to bite down with the intention of launching one into the windshield.
At the end of the day though, this was one of the ultimate old school North American grand tourers. The Mark VII truly made and always will make the most sense on a highway, gently sipping from its huge 22 gallon tank, riding the waves of uneven pavement seams, seemingly disconnected from the surface by its wonderful suspension and light yet crisp steering. As you hugged a long sweeping curve your foot would find the gas pedal and send the Fox body into the curve just a wee bit faster. And as you cruised into the sunset, slicing through scenery, you felt like anything was possible.
Because, whether the boys at Ford had met their goal of catching up with the German imports or fell short of it, you a.k.a. the beneficiary of their efforts were handed the keys to a sleek, shiny, menacing toy that did much more than share the fast lane with its German luxobarge rivals. Unlike the 560SEC and 635CSi, the Mark VII was a car both of its time and out of time. It had a unique and deliberate stylistic connection to the American past, a throwback to the glory days of old. One of the last Detroit dinosaurs, proudly sporting its Continental hump and thick C-pillars in a post CAFE age, the Lincoln Mark VII was a dying breed. And soon, just like that… it was gone.
The title “Forgotten Car” was chosen because Ford pretends today that these cars, along with the entire 80s Lincoln lineup never existed. The Panther, after years of neglect, has recently been euthanized, and the unique parts supply (or lack thereof) for vehicles such as the Mark VII tells you everything you need to know regarding what Ford thinks of this car’s legacy. Just compare the supply of parts to that available for the Fox body Mustang. Yep!
Inthe not-so-near future I will have another Mark VII entry, that one very different. It will be dedicated to living with this one, and bringing it back to what it once was. As of this moment, the story is still being written!
As a preview of that future entry… here’s the explanation of the clue. Thanks for reading!