COAL: 1980 Lincoln Town Car – The Stinkoln Clown Car

It was 1987, and conspicuous consumption was in. That’s how come mother toyed with the idea of getting a Mercedes, and I guess it’s how come dad came to be looking at Lincolns to replace his decade-old Cutlass Supreme. Disco Stu hadn’t bought it, so dad and I drove it out to look at a car in Thornton or Arvada or Lakewood or Wheat Ridge or one of those others that used to be a whole lot more far-flung from Denver than I imagine they must now be.

It was a 1980 Lincoln Continental Town Car with 56,000 miles on it. I’d say the seller was straight out of Central Casting, but that’s wrong; the seller wasn’t straight out of anywhere. Quite awhile after American TV sitcoms cut down on openly using cartoonish stereotypes for cheap laffs at the expense of Black people and Native Americans and women and Jews and Asians, gay people were still considered fair game. There were a few stock caricatures, one of which was a grey-haired man, very animated about the face and arms, frequently giggling to himself, and with an exaggerated Southern accent of one kind or another. Think “Gomer Pyle” but in his 60s and more ridiculous than funny, and you’re roughly in the right Naborhood. That was the owner of this Lincoln.

The idea was raised of a trade, and the three of us piled into the Cutlass: me in the back, dad riding shotgun, and Mr. Seller in the driving seat. First thing he did was tilt the steering wheel down until it was vertical, like the yoke in a vintage airplane. People actually do that? I guess. Dad and I fastened our seatbelts, whereupon Mr. Seller held forth with a monologue about how even babies know to reject seatbelts: “I’ll tell you what, if you have ever heard a little one screaming and crying because it is restrained!“. For those keeping score at home, that’s 2/2 Cutlass-lookers bearing anti-seatbelt screeds. And that’s the end of the storyline for the Cutlass; I don’t recall if a trade deal was made or it was offloaded elsewise.

Dad took the Town Car to a service station and they generated a long dot-matrix printout on pin-feed, fan-fold paper—four pages of it, as I recall—listing everything they found wrong with it. Several oil leaks, several faulty sensors and actuators, “air pump not disabling properly”, and on and on and on. I’ll never know why dad bought the car anyhow. Third bum choice in a row; all I can guess is that he hated car-shopping and wished to do as little of it as possible, even if it meant winding up with a bad car. He was exceedingly bright and intelligent, generally thoughtful and wise, and he completely understood the principle and practice of prudent economics—we buy the store-brand butter because it’s every bit as good but costs less because we’re not paying for advertising; we buy the large size of whatever because it costs less overall even though it costs more upfront; we carefully do our research to figure out what product or service will best match the needs at hand, then shop around to find the best price. All of that, but car-shopping and -picking were in his blind spot, as it seems.

For a brief, shining instant, the car seemed exceptionally fine. Dad pulled up outside the house in this luxurious 2-tone thing, Dark Cordovan Metallic over (faded-to-coral) Bittersweet Metallic Moondust. Lincoln Continental Town Car; even its four-word name sounded ritzy, and sister (14) and I (11) ran out to oogle it. That evening we went for ice cream. In the new car, of course. To Toddy’s, of course. Toddy’s was an upscale supermarket of the kind one found in the yuppie ’80s in a neighbourhood like Greenwood Village, about 10 or 15 minutes away from where we lived. Carpeted floors, tasteful lighting, an ice cream bar where you could sit and listen to ’50s tunes off the Seeburg—three plays for two bits, and a giant 2-scoop cone for 50¢, because ’50s nostalgia was also ascendant in the ’80s—and after you’d paid for your groceries they’d disappear into a fireplace-sized window in the front wall. You’d drive round the side and your order would be loaded into your car for you, then you’d drive off. Very posh.

So we drove over to Toddy’s to get ice cream. Boccherini’s Minuet (I’m not making this up, you know) played on the radio as sister and I smirked at each other from opposite ends of the cushy, pillowy, crushed-velour sofa in the back of that dream car, twenny foot long: this is so choice; can you believe this?!

A few years earlier sister had come home from school, walked into our 3,400-square-foot home, and asked mother if we were poor. Mother told her to go outside, look at the house, then come back in and ask again, which sister did. Mother’s attempt at socratic teaching having failed, she asked what made sister think so: her rich classmates in chichi Cherry Creek schools were telling her we must be poor because she didn’t have designer-brand clothes and we lived in a subdivision built all the way back in icky old 1967.

Me, I was in the first of my two years at a snooty (snooty?), snotty (snotty!) private school up in one of the moneyed neighbourhoods off Colorado Boulevard—a “country day school” where young upper-crusters are taught and encouraged to identify, despise, and deniably torture those beneath them. Daily pickups and dropoffs were see-and-be-seen pageants where castes were determined by the hood ornament on money and daddy’s car. Many Mercedeses, plenty of Porsches and Bimmers. High-spec Suburbans and Wagoneers with prominently-displayed decals from Vail and Aspen. Cadillacs and Lincolns…well, they were probably good enough to let the servants drive, so as long as they were recent enough to be presentable they still held enough prestige to leave room below for the untouchables the school used as proof of bighearted charity: the girl whose father drove her to school each day in his Dodge Diplomat yellow taxicab, the one whose dad had a ’75ish Cutlass with green paint brushed and rollered on. Those kids were the only ones without someone below them to scorn. In that context, the Town Car fooled nobody. If you think kids are cruel in general, you’re right; now try wealthy kids, the rich ones below them, and the desperately-wannabes below that lot.

There’s a word in Canadian English: hosey. It’s an adjective; it means something that thinks it’s classy but is actually tacky. It’s not necessarily a pejorative; there are times hosey Chinese food is exactly what’s wanted: wonton soup, egg rolls with bright red sugar-and-cornstarch sauce, sweet-and-sour pork with pineapple chunks and more of that bright red sauce, broccoli beef, –Bits Chopped Small Fried– House Special Chow Mein, and fortune cookies at a restaurant with buzzing neon signs and dragon decor all over the place. But outside the gates of the Country Day School (fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh!), that ’80 Town Car was too old, too American, too passé; trying feebly and failing utterly. Hosey in the worst sense.

Its styling was quite sharp, to my eye; I’ve always liked boxes on wheels, and the origami ’80-’84 Town Cars were that. I liked the headfins and tailfins. I liked how the triangular vent windows lowered before the main ones did when one of the front window switches would be operated. I liked the tall waterfall grille one could almost pokerfacedly call inspired by Rolls Royce (this is what we had before Chinese knockoffs of entire Range Rovers), and I liked the conical centre section of the hood. I liked the aluminum turbine-style wheels. The ’85 rear end rework of the Town Car was a clumsy de-finning disfigurement, and the subsequent models grew progressively uglier as what had been a brand-new bar of soap was iteratively melted.

But sharp styling and a giant trunk are all I’ll give that ’80 Stinkoln Clown Car my father bought. The Cutlass hadn’t been a very good car, but the Town Car was terrible. Just an execrable, pathetic excuse for an automobile in every possible way. It had suffered from previous-owner neglect and mistreatment, there certainly was that—cigarette burns in the upholstery, grille held in by a piece of wire and a length of PVC pipe, the aforementioned long list of mechanical faults—but it’s not at all clear to me that even the most fastidious treatment would’ve made any difference. The thing was full of halfassed engineering further degraded by callous beancounters. It was carelessly thrown together with poor-quality materials and inadequate assembly techniques throughout.

It was a first-yearmobile loaded with stuff that had not been even close to adequately developed or debugged. First year for Ford’s EEC-III engine management system with throttle body fuel injection and electronic ignition advance. There was some good thinking behind some of the details of the DuraSpark III ignition, like a 2-level distributor cap and rotor to maximise the distance between every two consecutive cylinders, so up to 50°(!) of advance could be provided without crossfire under the cap: a neat idea let down by the rest of the system. First year for the digital vacuum fluorescent display dashboard with trip computer—oh yeah, it was a real trip every time it failed and took the speedometer and fuel gauge with it, necessitating another expensive trip to the dealer. First year and might’ve been first model for punch-code keyless entry; the keypad failed at least three times—it wasn’t very waterproof—and the logic module at least twice, at dealer-only prices. First year for the AOD transmission, which began slipping out of 3rd and 4th gears and got rebuilt. First year for a serpentine accessory drive belt. All that stuff failed early and often and expensively.

First year for every part of the body and interior, and many of them fell off and/or apart. The paint faded further, crazed, and flaked off. The driver’s door hinge broke and fell out in three pieces. The vinyl top decayed before our very eyes. The door trim panels pulled right off just by closing the doors until finally the Lincoln dealer(!) resorted to reattaching them with big, ugly sheetmetal screws and flat washers drilled right through the panels. The glovebox latch sometimes didn’t. The power door locks sometimes did nothing but emit a squawk when it was cold out. The vacuum-operated parking brake release sometimes did nothing but hiss like an upset cat. About that: okeh, I guess it’s some kind of cute trick to flip the shift stick from “P” into “D” to pop the parking brake and then back up to “R” to back out of a parking space, but automatic parking brake releases are completely dangerous.

The power windows worked most of the time, except when they didn’t, and there was at least one replacement window motor put in. The remote control for the RH sideview mirror (pull-cables, not electric) would’ve almost worked except it didn’t. Small wonder; the control was in the middle of the dashboard, about three-quarters of a mile plus a door hinge away from the mirror itself. The car had a rash of Ford’s “better ideas” in the steering column vicinity: it had tilt steering, but just the wheel tilted, not any part of the column. The middle of the steering wheel certainly looked like a horn button, and beside it were switches for the cruise control, which might have worked perhaps once or twice in 1980, but—psych!—you had to push the end of the turn signal stalk inward toward the steering column to sound the horn. Real intuitive and easy to remember in an emergency (not).

The rear lap belts were a negligently backward misdesign: the belt pulled out from the inboard side and buckled at the outboard side. Get T-boned or sideswiped hard enough to cave in the sheetmetal? Tough luck, you don’t get to unbuckle. And the buckle was not only outboard but also on very short stub, just barely peeking out from where the seatback met the bottom cushion. “Seatbelts are for pansies! The interior of this car will NOT be crapped up with visible seatbelts!”, said some cigar-chomping, morbidly obese, pasty white Ford executive. Dealers sold extenders for those who had the audacity to want to be able to reach the damn buckle. They were available in black only, and doubled the chances of losing your belt when you needed it because now there were two fail-prone RCF-67 buckles to gamble your life on.

And then there was the “power”train. The car, on a good day, had almost enough moxie to drag an ice cube off an oiled sheet of Teflon. It had been advertised as having the optional 351 engine, and the car’s sluggish performance made dad scoff a few times at the notion of trying to power a car like this with anything less. But that engine this car did not have; it had the standard 302. How did he manage to miss this what was right there on the black-and-yellow VECI label, front and centre in the engine compartment? I’ll tell you how: he didn’t know or care enough about how cars work to know there’s a data label to look for, and he was so scrupulous in his own dealings that it sometimes didn’t occur to him that someone might not be telling him the truth. Plus whatever-all else went into it—dad was just not very good at picking cars.

I don’t know what the rear axle ratio was, but it was high/tall/numerically low. The lame excuse for an engine was rated at 130 MHP—marketing horsepower—in perfect condition at sea level, minus 17 percent for our altitude leaves 108 theoretical horsepower to haul an obese car and its occupants, minus even more of those make-believe horses hobbled by vacuum leaks and other faults. It all made for a 1950s Slip-A-Flo effect from the AOD transmission as the car huffed and puffed its sorry second-gear self uphill from 5,500 feet where we lived. Up I-70 at 30 mph in the right lane with the blinkers going—if the blinkers hadn’t called in sick that day. Are we there yet?

Electrical faults were many and varied and intermittent. It would sometimes just refuse to start. Or refuse to crank. Or up and die. Or refuse to stay running. Or stall at stop signs. It ate several alternators, each of which whined like a turbocharger (in concert with the air pump, which sounded like some kind of droning wind instrument, and the power steering pump, which was practising in hopes of growing up to be a buzz saw). It never needed a starter, though, which is weird given the all that fruitless cranking and the half-baked design of Ford starters of that time. There was a whining radio noise that rose and fell with engine RPMs. It resisted all attempts at repair; the dealer eventually said “Faulty ground in the radio” and quoted some eyewatering price for a replacement. I’m not sure why dad said no; he said yes to every other repair that piece of junk car needed. The car had intermittent wipers in that they decided on their own whether and when to operate—the driver’s wishes didn’t enter into it. But cheer up, eh, the car had what the brochure calls a “fluidic windshield washer system”. As…opposed to…sorry, which other variety?

The audiovisual multimedia turn signal indicator system was kinda cool, though: not only was there a conventional little green arrow-shaped telltale on the dash that would sometimes light up in sync with whichever turn signal was on, but we could also see the turn signal operating by dint of the rest of the car’s lights dimming and brightening in time, and hear it in the blower motor slowing down during the signal’s lit phase and speeding up during the dark phase of the signal cycle.

The automatic headlamps worked, then didn’t. The automatic high/low beam switching didn’t work, then kept not working. The EGR valve ($) and its controller ($$) failed multiple times, causing the engine to stall rather than idle. The ignition lock cylinder failed one day in the Safeway parking lot. It had been fine when mother parked the car to go in, but it refused to accept the key when she came back out. Later that day I threw some tools in my backpack and a car key in my pocket, rode my Raleigh down to the Safeway a mile and half away, and managed to get the cylinder to function by hammering the key into it. I couldn’t legally drive yet; I’d just done it as a proof-of-concept to see if I could cleverly save a tow. Answer was clearly yes as far as it went, but now the key was firmly stuck in the lock and I had to leave. Eventually I was able to yank it out with locking pliers.

The inertia switch decided one fine morning that the car, while parked in the garage overnight, touched only by dust motes, had been hit hard enough to warrant disabling the fuel pump. That was a favourite act, with numerous unpredictable encore presentations. And speaking of repeat performances, the car was missing its front licence plate bracket when dad bought it. A new one was purchased from the dealer and properly affixed with new factory bolts and fasteners to the front bumper so the car could be properly registered. That bracket fell off en route a year or three later, taking the licence plate with it. A(nother) new bracket and set of fasteners were bought and installed, and another set of licence plates with a new number had to be put on.

The A/C compressor emitted alarming crunchy noises from time to time, but miraculously managed to stay in one piece, or at least close enough to keep functioning. The self-diagnostics went haywire on a regular basis, issuing spurious DOOR AJAR or BRAKE LIGHT OUT or WASHER FLUID or OIL PRESSURE warnings at random whim, accompanied by urgent beeping.

One summer day, a hot and sunny one, there were to be errands. A clothes-and-accessories shopping trip for my mother and sister to the stores in and near Cinderella City, a shopping mall in the finest 1960s suburban idiom. Not far from there was Arapahoe Small Engine Repair, one of the shops whence I liked to scavenge mower engines. Could we stop there for five or ten minutes? “If you behave yourself, I’ll think about it”, came the answer. My behaviour was adjudged satisfactory while mother and sister perused the department stores for a couple of hours, because we did eventually stop by the engine place. Mother and sister went across the street to a sandwich shop. I found an interesting engine, an early-production Briggs & Stratton 6B, procured it (maybe $2, maybe $0), went and got the car keys from mother, opened the trunk of the car, put the engine in, and closed the trunk.

With the keys inside. Oh, shit. Shaking and sweating with dread, I went back in the sandwich shop and told mother I’d closed the keys in the trunk. She erupted, right there in public: YOU IDIOT! YOU STUPID, USELESS WASTE OF AIR! IT’S NOT ENOUGH YOU TRASH MY GARAGE WITH YOUR ENGINE PARTS, OH, NO, YOU’VE GOT TO INCONVENIENCE EVERYONE ELSE, TOO, YOU ASSHOLE! She ordered me to sit on the curb behind the car while she and my sister went back in the air-conditioned sandwich shop, and she called my father at work to bring the other key to the car; I was to stay put on the curb until he came. I pulled my T-shirt up to cover my ears so maybe they’d sunburn less.

Eventually dad arrived from downtown and opened the car with his key. The (gut)punchline: the car’s 5-button keypad on the outside of the driver’s door was working that day. The combination was 9-4-2-1-0; punching that would have unlocked the driver’s door, allowing access to the trunk release inside the glovebox. Or adding a 3 to the punch code would have unlocked the other three doors, and punching 5 would have popped the trunk from right outside the car. Oops, I guess we all forgot.

Sister drove us to high school a few times in the Lincoln, and I threw a cap and rotor and plug wires and carburetor cleaner at it in the big auto shop there. Maybe it ran a little better; hard to tell. At least by 1980 Ford had quit playing dumb half-catalyzed games.

I could go on and on and on, but why? It was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad car—inexcusably so—and Ford ought to have been ashamed of themselves, but evidently were not. An across-the-street neighbour seemed to have better luck with his ’83, and my (excellent) writing teacher in high school probably still has his treasured ’81, but my grandparents’ experience with their new ’86 was more akin to ours with the ’80—which finally met its end with a little help from Yours Truly.

In 1991 or so, the 302 started making an ominous clatter that sounded a lot like unlubricated connecting rod bearings. My folks had the car towed (again) to the stealership, whose service department I proceeded to ring and—very sure of myself—I told them it was probably the oil pump. Not the first phone conversation I’d had with them over there at Kumpf Lincoln-Mercury; one of their techs had told me there was a timing switch on the side of the engine control module and suggested I find it and make sure it was in the high-altitude position. When I found no such switch and called back, he said he didn’t know what I was talking about, I didn’t know what I was talking about, there’s no such switch, and stop wasting his time.

This time Kumpf waited most of the day and then, sure ’nuff, turned around and called my folks and said it was the oil pump and the car would need a rebuilt engine for $3,500. Slimy as they were, I can’t really blame them; this goose had been laying a steady supply of golden eggs (golden lemons?) for them. My cocksure diagnosis, whether right or wrong, unintentionally put a stopper in the drain; after years of nothing but constant breakdowns and failures, my folks belatedly decided more than enough was more than enough and turned the car out to pasture by donating it to the high school auto shop. I think it had maybe close to all of 90,000 whole, entire miles on it in the end.

I don’t know what my folks paid for a 7-year-old ’80 Town Car in below-average condition, but I know they had it insured well enough that when mother opened the driver’s door into the path of a ’71 Mercury Montego, the car got repaired including a high-spec repaint of the whole left side, which made the rest of the car look even tattier than it already had. They should’ve taken the insurance money and offloaded the car. Really, they should’ve not bought it in the first place. They’d’ve surely done enormously better buying a Cressida, say. Factor in the enormous amount of money they wasted on constant repairs, and something like a low-miles 240 turbo Volvo starts to look very affordable. Or a prudently-specified GM car with a 3.8-litre V6. Or almost anything else, really, except maybe a V8-6-4-2-0 Cadillac.

With the next car, they jumped in an opposite direction by every possible measure—but their luck didn’t change all that much. Tune in next week!

Postscript: in 2016 while shopping for a replacement car, I took a look at an older gentleman’s low-miles 2011 Mercury Grand marquis. Parts were falling off the interior. The power lock switch pushed right through its hole when I touched it. I had three simultaneous waves: of déjà vu (the feeling I’d seen this before), of vújà de (the feeling I hadn’t seen anything yet), and of nausea. I bought something else instead.

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