For those keeping score at home, my auto enthusiasm appears to have begun to wane over my last several COAL installments. After a series of sedans, SUVs, and even a car I didn’t care about, had my automotive flame finally been extinguished? Not a chance.
Lets pick up the story in October of 2014. My 14-year-old son, Josh, is starting to show signs of interest in cars. So after a hiatus of several decades, my brother Andy and I decide to make a return trip to Hershey with Josh and his oldest daughter in tow in an effort to transfer the car bug to the next generation of Halters.
Much had changed at Hershey in the intervening decades. The flea market was now on asphalt, and the show on an open field, in an interesting reversal from my last visit. 2014 would prove to be a rainy year, so many of the best cars stayed in their trailers for the show. But no matter, I caught the old car bug, and caught it hard.
As soon as I got home, I immediately (my wife might say obsessively) went into car shopping mode. I really only had one car in mind – A 1969-1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III. I’ve always had a soft spot for these Lincolns, dating back to my childhood as I documented in my very first COAL. These Lincolns have so much presence. Whether you love them or hate them, you have to admit that you can’t ignore them.
Most of us probably know the story of the Genesis of the Mark III, but for those that don’t, Paul has already covered it fairly well here. The elevator pitch: Lee Iacocca told Ford stylists to stick a Rolls Royce grille and a faux continental kit trunklid on a Thunderbird, and call it a Lincoln. In an added fit of inspiration, Ford decided to use the 4-door Thunderbird with its slightly longer wheelbase as its starting point, affording the Mark III with one of the longest hoods to ever grace a modern car (Pontiac pulled a similar trick for their 1969 Grand Prix). The grille, being vee-shaped, isn’t strictly a Rolls knockoff (with the grille on the Roller being flat).
It is hard for modern eyes to comprehend how fresh and influential the Mark III originally was, which launched the whole neo-classical automotive styling movement. We can only look back at the aftermath of how it played out, with generations of successive Marks, Imperials, and Sevilles all sporting opera windows, upright grilles, and overstuffed button tufted seats, to the point of becoming a tired parody of itself. But before all that happened, there was the Mark III.
The Mark was an immediate hit, and being priced well above the 4-door Continental, was hugely profitable. Almost 80,000 were sold in the Mark’s shortened three model-year run, and survival rates are surprisingly high, with it being a highly sought after luxury car. This means that supplies are plentiful, and prices are reasonable (you can pick up a decent example for under $10K).
Indeed, once I fired up my internet search engine, I quickly found close to a hundred examples for sale all around the country. It was almost like shopping for a modern used car, where you could have your choice of just about and combination of color, condition, and price. This was good, because unlike modern cars, almost every Mark III was built to order. With over 30 exterior colors and 10 different interior colors (in both fabric and leather), there was something for everyone.
Not all the colors have held up well. Colors such as pastel yellow, robin’s egg blue, mint green, and metallic gold look very dated to contemporary eyes. While some might argue that this is part of the reason for owning a vintage car (which I can understand), I wanted something a little more timeless. Others must agree with me, as the most sought after Mark III color combinations are triple-black (black with black interior and black vinyl roof) and triple-white. And while I was open to numerous color possibilities, I was going in with a strong preference towards triple-black. After all, big old Lincolns really do have to be black.
While I was looking at every model year Mark III (beggars can’t be choosers, after all), I really wanted a 1970 or 1971 model. The 70 and 71 models have hidden wiper blades, which looks a little cleaner than the exposed wiper arms of the 69. More importantly, the 1970 and 71 models have real wood trim inside, which I figured would likely have held up better and would be easier to care for and restore than the plastiwood of the 1969 model. For the same reasons, I was looking for one with a leather interior (luckily the vast majority of Mark III’s are so equipped).
Air conditioning was also a must, preferably the manual A/C, since I figured it would be less complicated and more reliable than a vintage automatic temperature control setup. I was also looking for something that was relatively turn-key (meaning no basket cases or projects). And the biggest requirement of all: No rust. Given that these cars are highly susceptible to tinworm, that likely meant getting a southern car and shipping it up north.
I spent several months searching online, not finding exactly what I was looking for. I came really close to pulling the trigger on a triple-white ’71 in Chicago, but at $14K it was slightly more than my 10K budget (and more than I thought it was worth), and the seller wouldn’t budge.
I had mostly been doing my searches on Craigslist, and old car sites like Hemmings and AutoTraderClassics.com. For some reason, it had never occurred to me to check the “regular” used car sites like cars.com. So around December of 2014, I decided to start checking the “regular” sites, and found this beauty Pensicola, Florida.
On the surface, it had everything I wanted: It was a 1970, triple-black, with leather, and appeared to be all original. It had virtually all the options, including the automatic headlight dimmer with the uber-cool electric eye on the wiper cowl. It even had manual A/C, which I came to find is exceedingly rare for a Mark, as almost all came with ATC (which became standard in 1971).
Negotiations with the owner started out slowly over Christmas break, but picked up pace after the first of the year. The car was originally sold by Eagle Lincoln-Mercury in Dallas, TX (as confirmed by the Marti report), and even still sported the original dealer tag. It apparently stayed in Texas that entire time, eventually being purchased by the former owner at a Dallas used car lot in the mid-90’s. The owner had recently moved to Pensicola, FL, and was looking to liquidate his collection.
He also informed me that most of the electrical accessories were non-functional (windows, locks, seats), as was the air conditioning (yes, I fell for the biggest auto ad lie, it just needs “recharging”). Lastly, the headlight covers only stayed closed when the engine was running: They would slowly bleed open after the engine was shut off due to loss of vacuum: A common problem, I would come to find. I decided that these were all minor things that could be corrected, and that it was more important to me that the car had solid “bones” (strong mechanicals, rust-free body, and pristine interior).
We eventually agreed on a price (taking into account the various mechanical deficiencies), and I flew down to Florida to complete the deal (pending an inspection and test drive). As soon as I got behind the wheel and fired it up, I was instantly transported back to 1988, and my family’s 1971 Buick LeSabre. The one-finger overassisted steering, the wallowy ride, the sheer girth. And most of all, the smell, that wonderful old car smell. They say that smell can be the most powerful sense in terms of triggering memories, and I can believe it.
We did close the deal that day, and I came to find that not only were the windows inoperative, but that the decades-old glue that held the glass to the lift had turned to dust, and that the window glass was attached to the lift only by a zip-tie. Oh well, I was planning on using closed transport to ship it back to Ohio anyways. We shook hands, he took “my” car back to his garage, and I left sunny Pensicola to head back to snowy Cleveland to figure out my next move.
Once I returned to Cleveland, I arranged transport to pick up the car. A few weeks (and a thousand dollars) later, the car showed up at my doorstop, with about 18″ of snow on the ground. Right before it arrived, I was furiously plowing the drive way, trying to keep it clear enough to allow a rear-wheel drive car with 250+ HP, skinny tires, and no traction control to make it into my garage. I also knew from my premeasurements it was going to be a tight fit all around, with only a few inches to spare on the front and back with the garage door closed. While there was a little tire spinning, I was able to get the car in the garage.
Before the weather even broke, I set out to start working on the car. First up: The windows. This turned out to be a (relatively) simple job of replacing the motors and gluing the glass back into the channels on the lifts (Honestly, I don’t know how the previous owner was able to drive the car in Florida with non-functioning A/C and windows that don’t roll down).
Next up, the seats. While I had purchased new seat motors from a junkyard in California, as it turns out I ended up not needing them. As the foam in the seat cushions disintegrates, it tends to collect in the seat tracks, jamming them up. This is a common problem, and a simple vacuuming of the seat tracks will restore full functioning. This has since happened to be a few more times; often enough that I rigged up a “diaper” under the seat cushion to collect the falling debris.
Restoring the functionality of the headlight doors was simply a matter or replacing the vacuum actuators with rebuilt units. Replacing these had the pleasant side effect of allow enough vacuum to accumulate in the system to restore functionality to previously inoperative vacuum accessories like the power door locks and remote trunk release.
Once the spring weather broke, it was off to the shop for what I had hoped would be a quick tune-up and A/C service. The Ford 460 V8 was never known to be a particularly smooth engine, but mine seemed to be rougher than it should be. I hoped all it needed was a tune-up. Once my mechanic started tearing into the car, the bad news (and bills) started piling up.
My mechanic immediately determined that the reason for the roughness was that the engine was only firing on seven cylinders. After pulling what were almost certainly the original spark plugs, he confirmed that the compression was strong (good), and that the intake manifold gasket was blown (bad).
Things were even worse on the A/C front. Apparently the heater box was badly rusted, and at some point someone had bypassed the entire heating system by installing a manual shutoff valve in the heater lines, and shoved towels into the all the internal ductwork to keep engine fumes out of the passenger compartment. I ended up having to source a heater box from a junk yard in California, in addition to locating a new dryer, compressor, expansion valve, blower motor, refrigerant lines, belts, R134a conversion kit, and evaporator coil from wherever I could find them (Lincoln Land in Clearwater, Florida was immensely helpful). The refrigerant lines I couldn’t locate we ended up having to fabricate. Oh, and the radiator was rotted out as well. Literally the only part of the A/C system that wasn’t replaced was the condenser coil on the front of the car.
Other work done in the past two years includes starter and flywheel replacement, front end rebuild, replacement of all four shocks and tires, and swapping out the 1970 hubcaps for the more attractive 1969 units. So my turn-key ride turned out to be anything but. However, after all this I have what is essentially a well sorted out 1970 Lincoln that is as close to brand new as you can get.
So was it worth it? In a word, absolutely. The car garners attention and thumbs ups everywhere I go. The wallowing suspension discourages even the slightest bit of aggressive driving, so it forces you to drive “relaxed.” It is a phenomenal highway cruiser, and I’ve taken it on multiple road trips. My son never fails to fall asleep in the passenger seat on the freeway, it is that smooth on the highway. I am truly living the dream of my 5-year old self, one that has taken a lifetime to realize.
But the most valuable thing about the Mark is the time it allows me to spend with my family. My 16-year-old son will willingly spend a Saturday night with me at a car show. Car shows are a great excuse for getting together with my brother and other relatives. I look forward to spending many more years with all of them (the car and the family).