COAL: 1980 Lincoln Town Car • The Stinkoln Clown Car

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.

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