COAL: 1985 Ford LTD Crown Victoria – Chapter 17, Heavy The Head That Wears The Crown

In the summer of 1993, my car life was in fine shape: We had the stalwart ’88 Accord sedan and the ’86 Marquis Wagon (the smaller one, like a Fairmont) that was still new enough to be semi-respectable, had gobs of utility, and which I really liked driving.  Then I got The Call.  It was my mother.  She was in the home stretch of buying a new car, and asked if I would want her old one?  So here came that question again: Another car had found me – do I buy it?  Yes or No.  What could I do but say “Yes”.

I had remembered her search for this one – it was the summer of 1985 and she was ready to move beyond “Economical Plush” that had seemed like such a good idea in 1980 when she bought a nicely equipped Plymouth Horizon.  1985 was the middle of the “Reagan Boom” and she was a fifty-something lady who was ready for “Real Plush”, or plush without the compromises. I had expected her to revert to an Oldsmobile, but Consumer Reports convinced her that a Crown Victoria was a better choice.  The one she chose was one of the prettiest of its generation – the triple navy blue hid some of the awkward lines and really set off the plentiful chrome trim.  I remember driving it right after she bought it – “What a cute little big car” I thought to myself as I prepared to leave her house in my ’77 New Yorker.  But once back in that New Yorker, I didn’t yearn for the new navy blue Crown Vic one bit.

In truth, I had never loved that car.  It was very well equipped (with a sticker in excess of $14k, which was in WTH territory for me at the time.  “For a Ford?”) and had been quite trouble-free through the 8 years and 72k miles she had owned it.  An a/c compressor and a power lock actuator had been the only real problems she had experienced, making it one of the best cars she had ever owned.  I really liked my Marquis Wagon.  But the Crown Vic, though a year older, had far fewer miles, was bigger, and was in better condition.  And did not have couch-fabric covered pieces of plywood where the armrests belonged.  So I did the adult thing and answered with a “yes”.  We agreed on a price and I bought the Crown Victoria.

But one thing had not changed – I still didn’t love this car.  Mom had replaced it with a new ’93 Crown Victoria, and after driving the new one  I experienced that disappointment again.  Just as I had not liked the way the ’85 drove compared with my 77 New Yorker, I also found it wanting in comparison with both Mom’s new ’93 an even my high mile Marquis Wagon.  There was so much good there, and I really wanted to enjoy my new (to me) car, but there was a problem: it was irritating in so many little ways.

Not long after Mom bought it, I went with her for a trip to eastern Tennessee for a cousin’s wedding, and I did all of the driving.  Remember that my first car was a ’67 Galaxie 500 convertible and my soul still harbored some love for big Fords.  I was tickled that she had bought it and I looked forward to the experience.  It was smooth, it was quiet and it was reasonably roomy.  But that powertrain was just unpleasant in almost every situation besides flat ground at steady speeds over 60 mph.  Which was not the terrain common to eastern Tennessee. With every hill came the lugging followed by an aggressive kickdown to 3rd so that the engine engine would announce “I am woman, hear me roar.”

During the entire time my mother owned the car and the entire time I owned that car, I said that there was nothing wrong with it that either a 351 V8 or a C6 automatic couldn’t fix.  But it was saddled with the 5 point slow (or LoPo 5.0) V8 from right before Ford started improving its power output, mated with a too-tall axle ratio and the Ford AOD – Automatic OverDrive transmission.

The 1985 Crown Victoria as a brand new car.

The problem: The design of the AOD made it do two things at once – at the shift from 2nd to 3rd, the torque converter locked up.  Which was usually at a speed that was well under the engine’s happy place on the torque curve.  The car was fine over 65 mph (except that it would still downshift on hills even at that speed) and under 30, as long as you did not need to accelerate.  In that range from 35-45 you were stuck if you needed to accelerate – either listen to the engine lug, or force a downshift and listen to the engine get really loud for any improvement in speed.  Overall, it was a decent car, except that it made me grit my teeth at every run through the gears as the torque converter smacked into lockup at what felt like 350 rpm.  Did I say “every run through the gears?”  I meant EVERY run through the gears.  Yes, I was shouting.

In early 1986 I stopped in to visit my old car-mentor Howard, and he showed me his brand new Mercury Sable.  He invited me into the driver’s seat for a short spin, and within the first three minutes I recall thinking that Mom had bought a year too soon.  Where the Crown Vic had been set up almost purely to eke out those last few elusive fractional MPGs by too-tall gearing and an aggressive torque converter lock-up, the Sable was the complete opposite.  It was set up for driving, with sprightly acceleration and a transmission that didn’t constantly smack you in the face and shout “Hey, I’m shifting gears now”.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to drive that Crown Vic every day.  Until I did.

Another thing, though a minor one, was that I never liked the dash much.  If I was going to be stuck with a GM-style “speedometer and a gas gauge” kind of instrument panel, at least my Marquis had dressed it up a little with silver instruments reminiscent of those I had recalled from my father’s last decent Lincoln (a ’78 Town Coupe).  And I had remembered a fairly robust little trip computer in the VW GTI I had purchased a couple of months after Mom bought this (more expensive) car.  This one had a sorry little digital clock that gave you the date too – yippee.

The other thing I never liked was that velour seat upholstery that looked like velvet.  I thought of the childrens’ book “The Velveteen Rabbit” every time I tried to slide in, because that seat was the velveteen grab-it.  Normal entry would get you halfway onto the seat, where further movement was arrested by the velcro-like fabric.  Some fairly high-effort scooting was required to get all the way behind the wheel.  My Marquis had a much more pleasant fabric on the seats.  The other un-fixable problem with the car was the structure.  Where my Marquis Wagon had been as tight and stiff as could be, the Crown Vic was not.  The structure shivered a little and the doors never felt as nice when closing as they had in my little Fox-body wagon.  This was not something that caused problems, but it was one more thing on a growing list of irritants.

But the car was in gorgeous condition and was quite respectable.  Other than the old man vibe, but I was OK with that.  It hit my sweet spot – it was a nice car that didn’t cost a lot.  And for a soft-riding and wallowy Ford, it had an amazingly nimble feel about it.  We now had two dark blue 4 door cars, Marianne’s ’88 Accord and The Vic as I came to call it, after watching too many episodes of Law & Order.  This pairing offended my sense of how a car fleet is supposed to work.  When you have two cars, each should do something the other cannot.  The pairing of Fury/Accord: Fun classic and Normal.  Colt/Accord: Fun economy hatch and normal.  Marquis/Accord: Useful station wagon and normal.  But here I had normal and normal, only one normal was bigger than the other.

It was right after Memorial Day of 1994 that something else happened – something did didn’t really involve our cars, but that made this not a favorite time of my life.  While still in law school I had landed a job as a law clerk at a small 5-lawyer law firm.  That turned into an associate’s position after I passed the bar exam and eventually partner status in probably 1992 or so.  The firm was small but well regarded, and mostly handled insurance-related litigation.  This meant either defending those sued in auto accidents or litigating matters of insurance coverage when there was a significant dispute over someone’s claim.  But after a decade of stability and the glide into retirement for one of the older guys, fissures developed between partners and two of them announced that they were leaving for a larger firm.

My problem was that I had spent most of my time there working for firm clients and not generating much business of my own.  Now the firm clients were going in two different directions, following those who had made the rain.  The short version is that, for various reasons, neither of those directions was a fit for me so I would have to make some new plans.  I didn’t bear them any ill will – as they said in the Godfather, “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.”  But that did not change the facts: I had a new house, two little kids, a stay-at-home wife, and an impending income implosion.  At least my method of choosing cars had paid dividends because we had two good cars and no payments.

I spent the summer working contacts and interviewing with several area lawyers and firms.  By July or August I had gotten things settled.  It was another small firm that did the same kind of work I was used to and had more files than they could handle.  The difference was that I would now be genuinely self-employed, paying a monthly amount for my share of expenses, getting a percentage of my billings on other lawyers’ files plus 100% of billings on anything I generated on my own.  I figured it would work – which was good because I had four other people (and a mortgage company) who were counting on it working.  From that point, the Vic and I settled into a longer daily commute to a parking garage downtown.  I had plenty to think about during that transition and neither of our cars added to my burden.

The first real problem I had with the Vic was the trip to Dallas.  In October of 1994 things had settled down to where I could take a few days off, and we decided to head south to visit Marianne’s sister and her family.  We had two little boys, each about three months short of the January birthdays when they would turn 1 and 3.  We had two car seats in the back and the Vic’s commodious trunk packed to the gunwales with luggage and supplies.  I realized right then why the big American sedan was quickly disappearing from the market as a car for families.   Here I was, driving nearly the biggest sedan on offer.  And it was a complete pain.

There was no room in the car for kid supplies or much of anything else beyond the occupants.  If we needed some nourishment from the cooler or another item of clothing (ask me how often that happened), I had to find a place to stop the car, rummage through the trunk, then get underway again.  When (not if) someone in the back seat began squalling for Mom, there was no Mom-room there.  I had to unbuckle and move car seats around so Marianne could sit in back next to the unhappy tyke.  In my youth the big cars were bigger and people slid freely about on seats.  And I don’t remember my youth in the early 60’s requiring the kinds of equipment that seemed mandatory by the early 90’s.  The end result was a vow that I would never again take a family trip in that car.

I can remember only two mechanical issues with the Vic during the time I had it.  The first (a minor one) was a water pump that started leaking.  I was too busy to do it myself.  Or had I reached the stage in life where I no longer had to do unpleasant jobs in a cold garage.  It was some of both, but more of the second one.  To this day I have never replaced a water pump on my own, and I harbor no regrets about that at all.  I had not yet found a decent indy mechanic so decided to take the car to the nearby Ford dealer that had fixed the transmission line leak in my Marquis so quickly and reasonably.  After the job was complete, I went to pick the car up and looked at the price on the service order and  – holy crap!  I had not asked for the platinum water  pump, but that was evidently what I got.

It was actually the amount of labor that seemed really high.  A call to the service writer and service manager were no help – “Sorry, that’s what the flat rate manual says.”  The lawyer in me kicked in and I decided to call the service manager for another Ford dealer.  He was actually quite helpful, and looked up the job in his flat rate manual.  The first guys were right that the figure was in the manual.  But it was the rate for an Escort, and not for a Crown Vic.  I went back with the evidence and got my refund.  I like to think that it was an honest mistake.  But it was also right before Christmas and I understand that service writers are paid on commission, so who knows.

The bigger problem came around the time of our Texas trip and was that the dipstick started showing evidence of coolant in the oil.  I have since learned that this was likely an intake gasket problem that was relatively common and an fairly easy fix.  But I did not know that at the time, and decided to keep changing oil frequently until we figured out what to do.  Years earlier, I had dumped money into the engine of my ’77 New Yorker.  But I had an irrational love for that car, and harbored no such feelings for this one.  The “what to do” problem was solved once Marianne turned up pregnant again with Cavanaugh #5.  Four people traveling in the Vic had been a total PITA.  Five?  Not doing that.

The next car would be found and it would finally supplant the ’88 Accord from its long-held “Good Car” status in the JPC garage.  And instead of selling this one myself, I let it go in a trade.  It was at the same dealer that had tried to overcharge me for the water pump, so I felt no compulsion to help them out on the antifreeze-in-the-oil thing.  They didn’t ask and I didn’t tell.  The ’85 Vic had not been a bad car. But unlike the Colt and the Marquis Wagon, I harbored no regrets when it left my life.  There was a lot to recommend it, but then again there was a lot of things about it that I found grating in the 18 or so months I had owned it.  Most of all I was happy to get that miserable damned AOD out of my life.  It had caused me almost no trouble at all, and yet an infinite amount of irritation.  The Vic’s replacement would be its opposite in many ways.