After having the Thunderbird LX for several years, I was getting more comfortable with buying and playing with old cars (maybe a bit too comfortable, as it turns out). As a result, I was starting to look at some of the other cars that I was a fan of back in the ‘80s. One that I was looking for was a Crown Victoria or Grand Marquis from the boxy era (1979-1991). Because my car tastes are a bit odd, I was more likely to be found reading old brochures in the 80s about Caprices and Town Cars rather than Corvettes or Lambos. (This post is a bit longer than usual, as there’s a lot to pack in – buckle up for a bumpy ride.)
The internet came to my rescue with a 1991 Grand Marquis LS at a classic car dealer fairly close to my old homestead in Akron. The car looked to be in great shape in the pictures and only had 27,000 miles on it. It came with the original window sticker and some other miscellany as well. The dealer was open to taking my Thunderbird LX as a trade, solving the problem of what to do with that car.
I was feeling pretty confident about my ability to find nice older cars and buy them without seeing them myself, as I’d gone two for two on the Thunderbirds. As a result, I made what turned out to be a rather towering mistake in that I bought the car without seeing it in person or asking for additional photos. A deal was struck via phone, email, and FedEx and I arranged to swap cars over the Thanksgiving weekend as I was already going to be there visiting family. I loaded up the Thunderbird with the extra set of wheels I had and began what turned out to be an uneventful road trip. The dealer transaction was also uneventful, but that day was about the last “uneventful” day I had with the car.
We were staying in a hotel for the Thanksgiving weekend that was not far from the dealer, so my drive back to the hotel was a shakedown of sorts. The car seemed to perform fine, but it wandered on the highway a bit and there were some odd smells when the car warmed up. That was about all I learned from that short trip.
Once I got the car back to the hotel and was able to take a longer look at it, I realized that it would need some work just to get it back home to Maryland. The front two tires were fairly new-looking but were a bit flat-spotted. The rear tires were Firestones that matched the original spare in the trunk. As venturing out on the PA Turnpike on 20+year old tires was a non-starter, I took the car to a tire and repair shop that happened to be just across the parking lot from the hotel (very convenient) for two rear tires. They agreed to get them installed the next day, which was fortunate as getting whitewall tires like the ones on the car was not exactly easy.
I got the car back and decided to take it out for a brief spin. I got no further than the edge of the parking lot before I noticed a periodic scraping noise that got faster as I accelerated. So, back to the repair shop it went. Since the tire shop had two more whitewall tires (and only two, as it turns out), I figured I’d replace the flat-spotted front tires as well as address the noise. I asked them to take a closer look to see what else might be needed as well.
They came back with several things: the scraping noise was a parking brake that was stuck slightly engaged, with the shoes barely contacting the drum and making the noise. The odd smell I’d noticed on the drive from the dealer to the hotel was coolant leaking onto hot engine parts, indicative of the need for a new radiator. The replacement of the front tires showed the shop that the front-end alignment was way out of whack and needed to be redone. All of these sounded like fairly necessary repairs. So, I’m into this car for about a grand worth of repairs and I’ve only driven it 20 miles.
However, the trip back home went smoothly and I got the car back home without any further breakdowns. Getting the car back in my well-lit garage showed a few areas of concern – the car was very clean overall, but there was a bit of rust bubbling on the left rear fender, and some obvious corrosion on the exhaust system and other undercarriage parts. The car’s aluminum wheels were a bit worse for the wear – they were painted in the center and polished/clearcoated on the rim, and most of the rim clearcoat was peeling off in big chunks. It was obvious to me upon close inspection that the car, originally sold in the Ohio Lake Erie snowbelt, had been driven some in the winter and put away without being cleaned.
It cleaned up pretty well, though, and as a result won third place in its category at that year’s Ford Carlisle show. (If one were picky, it should be noted that the car was one of only four in its small Mercury category, so this wasn’t exactly a huge win.) It did garner some attention at the show as well as in my neighborhood. Probably the only good attention the car would get during my ownership, unfortunately.
Later that summer, I had gotten the car back out for a bit during a fairly hot stretch of weather. As one might expect, that was when the elderly air conditioning gave out. Fixing it required the replacement of the A/C compressor, but the system worked great when I got the car back. The next repair was for the wheels – because I needed to do all four at once and didn’t have a place for a car with no wheels, it took until the end of summer for the wheel shop to have space. They did an amazing job in cleaning up and painting the wheels to make them look essentially like new. On the way back to the storage garage where I kept the car, I was admiring the newly restored wheels in the shop windows and basking in the cool air from the repaired A/C but noticed as I drove that the acceleration was a bit more sluggish than usual. It got worse as I got close to the garage, a trip of only a few miles. Time for another trip to the shop, probably for transmission repairs this time.
The shop, luckily, was only a few miles from the garage, but the problems with the transmission got bad enough that I had to drive on the shoulder for the last mile or so as the car wouldn’t go faster than 35 mph. Of course, the diagnosis was that the transmission was in serious trouble – the shop was willing to try and rebuild the existing transmission but suggested it would be cheaper and more reliable if I went with a replacement rebuilt unit. Sure, it’s only money, right?
Several thousand dollars and a week later, the Grand Marquis was returned to me with a replacement transmission. I should be all set, right? New radiator, new tires, restored wheels, rebuilt A/C – like a brand new car! Well, not exactly. The exhaust that I had noticed was slightly corroded on the outside turned out to be extremely rusted on the inside, and essentially disintegrated when the shop removed it (which of course they had to do, since the catalysts were tight against the bell housing and the crossover for the single exhaust was directly beneath the transmission). The exhaust note was a bit louder than it had been before the transmission repair – it went from unobtrusive luxury car to glasspack flathead. The parking brake was also stuck, again – this time, enough that the car essentially would not move with the foot brake off. So, back it went to the shop for the parking brake (I decided to try some temporary fixes to quiet the exhaust while I looked for parts).
Back from the shop, the car was now shifting well and the parking brake was freed up, so it was on to collector car bliss, right? Well, not exactly. We were living in a new neighborhood and the street was unevenly paved while the heavy earthmoving equipment traversed our street. I parked the car on an uneven spot, and when I tried to move it the brake was jammed, again. No idea why, but it was pretty well stuck. This time, the shop sent a tow truck to get the car and diagnosed the problem as a sticky parking brake foot pedal. Despite the very high production levels for 1979-1991 Panther platform vehicles, getting the requisite parts was rather difficult and the parts were rather eye-poppingly expensive. I made the executive decision to simply have the parking brake cables loosened to the point where they wouldn’t stick and I’d figure it out later.
At this point, I had driven the car around enough and gotten enough dirty looks from the neighbors that I decided it was time to replace the exhaust. Everything from the exhaust manifolds back was pretty much toast, including the cats, but I could easily find the parts online and a coworker accepted the challenge of installing it. Since he and I lived in opposite directions from the office, I made arrangements to meet him halfway and drop the car and parts at the office for him to pick up. When I went to get the car from the storage garage, it was already out front ready to go. I chatted with the garage owner for a bit and then went to start the car – nothing. Not even a click. A quick battery check indicated that this wasn’t the problem. Another tow truck, and another trip to the shop.
The shop called me a day later confused as to why the car was there, as it started right up for them. I asked them to keep it to see if the problem occurred again, and luckily it did. I suspect that the starter contacts were corroded as the car had been sitting for a long time, and the Russian roulette of the starter spinning and stopping finally caught up with me and the starter rotor happened to stop directly over the corroded areas. The jostling and bouncing of the car in getting it on the truck and towed to the shop probably moved it enough to shift the rotor a bit – probably could have done some percussive maintenance myself to get the same result. Several hundred dollars and a new starter later and I was back on the road.
At this point, I was so disgusted with the car that I didn’t even want to get it out and enjoy it, which is the whole reason to have a collector car. If I didn’t want to drive it, why keep it? The starter incident was the last straw that drove me to sell the car on eBay. It worked well – the car sold in a week to a happy new Panther fan. However, the financial picture wasn’t pretty – I’d invested as much money repairing the car as I’d spent buying it, and I only got about a quarter of that investment back.
Even sending the car off to a new owner on a truck was a problem – the shipping company was originally supposed to show up late in the evening, but I got a panicked call from the new owner first thing that morning saying the truck would be there between eleven and noon. I stood around in the parking lot waiting for the nonexistent truck to show up for an hour, before phoning the company and finding out they’d not even left home base yet. They finally showed up about seven in the evening, and I happily waved goodbye to what had been a year of hard lessons.
What did I learn? Some obvious things, like always go and look at the car you’re buying (or have someone inspect it for you). Failing that, ask for lots of extra pictures, particularly underneath. I also learned that if you want an old car to drive around, even just a few hundred miles a year like I do, there’s such a thing as too few miles. I probably could have (and should have) learned these lessons without spending a ton of cash, but these are lessons that I’ll certainly not have to learn again.