COAL: 1980 Lincoln Town Car • The Stinkoln Clown Car

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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