In a short 18 months or so, I had gone from piloting a land yacht (’66 Fury III) to having a blast in a go kart (’83 Colt) to needing another car after the Colt had been totaled by the insurance company of the guy in the black Tempo. This one, as if it had been chosen by Baby Bear, was Juuuust Right. My normal car-buying method had been to amble around randomly and wait for something to find me. This may have been the only time in my life I set out to look for one particular model of used car – and found it.
But one of these? Really? Actually yes. Understand that I had hated these cars when they were new. I saw it as a bloated Fairmont. An ugly bloated Fairmont. And one that was a stupid and particularly transparent attempt to fool people into buying a size down but thinking they were still getting everything they wanted from a traditional big American car. And in its production life (1983-1985-ish) it had seemed hopelessly outclassed by more modern offerings from GM and Chrysler. When my mother had told me she was looking at a new LTD in 1985, I was terrified that it might be one of these, but it turned out she meant a Crown Vic. Crisis averted.
But then I made a trip to Fort Wayne and visited my friend Dan He gave me a ride in his new-to-him car – the sedan version of one of these, but with Ford badges. Outside, it was an unattractive car in an unattractive two-tone brown and I had no idea why he might have chosen it. Inside, however, it was quite nice. His father (and my old car mentor) Howard had found it as a fresh trade-in at a local dealer and I picked up a bit of intelligence about the used car market – these things could be had for a song. Once the Taurus had been introduced, the value on the FairTD and Fairquis dropped like stones in the sea. Which gave me a fresh perspective. I loves me an automotive bargain, and now I saw the Fox-body LTD/Marquis as something like day-old bagels at the deli for half the price of the fresh ones. So, naturally, these were the first thing to mind when I suddenly found myself in need of a car.
In 1992 the way to buy a used car was to pick up one of those free weekly publications full of grainy black and white photos and the classified ads that accompanied them – I think my local version was called “Wheels And Deals”. I got my copy and started looking. I found a few examples, then had one of those lightbulb moments – these had come as a wagon! This was good news because the wagon was the only one of these things that I had actually found attractive. Probably because they looked most like the original Fairmont from which they had been rendered – and say what you will about the Fairmont wagon, it was not a bad looking little car.
If a guy wanted to look for Cutlass Cieras or Pontiac Grand Ams (this was Indianapolis, remember) you got page after page of choices. The FoxTquis had never been a huge seller, so the selection was more limited. I think I found two wagons, but one of them really stood out: An ad for a 1986 Marquis Wagon at a local L-M dealer. Marianne and I drove there early one September evening and found the lot almost empty. A salesman explained that they had taken a lot of inventory to an area mall where a group of east-side Indianapolis car dealers was having a big tent sale.
It was getting dark by the time we finally got there, and there were both cars and tents everywhere. My old serendipity method of car buying almost scuttled Mission Marquis, though. One dealer had a nice original 1963 Dodge 330 4 door sedan there. A beige car with a slant 6 and a three-speed. Hot Damn, I thought. Marianne was less pleased, but was a good sport. We took it for a drive through the mall parking lot, and it drove the way it should. True, I would be going back to no air conditioning, but retrofits for vintage cars were starting to become a thing. Someone had redone the upholstery in a non-stock color and pattern, which removed it from my “holy shit I cannot live without this car” list.
The dealer had priced the Dodge in the range between crazy and criminally insane. I offered an amount I thought was fair for the car. I had (a little) insurance money in my pocket and was ready to buy a car. “It’s a classic” was his reply. Yes, a beige six cylinder ’63 Dodge sedan. A classic. Absolutely. “That nobody wants, so good luck with it” was my reply. I think I added that I was really interested, but not for stupid money. I have always wondered how life would have gone had that dealer been the least bit reasonable, but we will never know. I have also wondered what they eventually got for that car. I’ll bet it was right around what I was offering (if they were lucky).
My Dodge fever having abated, we resumed our trek and found the Marquis Wagon just as business was wrapping up for the evening. It looked legit, so we planned to go back the following day, which was a Saturday. The first head scratcher was that it was a 1986 model. I had not realized that there was such a thing, and had assumed that the ad was a misprint. But it turns out that the Taurus/Sable was just a touch late at introduction and these remained in production through the end of 1985 or January of ’86 as the new design filled the sales channels. The only difference I ever saw between an ’85 and my ’86 was the center high mount brake light fastened to the roof above the top of the tailgate. I later learned that this 1986 Marquis Wagon was one of 4,461 built for that short model year – my ’64 Imperial Crown Coupe was a high-production model by comparison.
We must discuss the name: Marquis Wagon. Mercury had no catchy name for it, it was just the Marquis Wagon, in which the “W” was capitalized. This always confused me. The big panther-body Grand Marquis station wagon retained the Colony Park name from before. Wasn’t there some smaller kind of park this one could have been named after? But maybe Marquis Wagon was better than Mercury Municipal Park. But I digress.
This Wagon was a high-trim version and was loaded with extras. Power windows, locks and seats. Air, stereo, cruise, Autolamp and almost everything else a guy could want. The only problems? OK, other than it being a Fox-body Marquis. It was a five year old car with 106k on the odometer, so it was high miles for its age. But that did not bother me as much as the other issue: the seats. This car had the “Twin Comfort Lounge seating”. Each of the chocolate brown front seats had an assembly that combined an armrest and a narrow console tray on the inboard side. On this car, someone had removed the armrests/console trays and replaced them with pieces of plywood that were covered with padding and beige upholstery fabric of a style suitable for a family room sofa from around 1979. The salesman said something about how the prior owner traveled with pets and this allowed the little darlings better access up front when roaming. Grumble. But if the price was right I would be OK. The last problem was the leather covering on the steering wheel – the prior owner must have had the most acidic skin chemistry ever, because the leather covering was in terrible shape.
I forget what the dealer was asking, I think it was somewhere just under $4k. On a car that had probably stickered between $12-14k when new. But I had looked up prices in a value guide. I calculated the price including options and high miles, then figured the number that was exactly half way between wholesale and retail. That number was $2,650, and that was what I told the man I would pay. “OK, that’s a start, but my manager will never go for that” and he dropped his ask by some microscopic increment. Then I went to work.
My day job involved litigating cases for insurance companies so settlement negotiations were a daily thing. A senior partner had offered many lessons in negotiation that had served him well and have served me well too. One of them was this: “The worst guy to negotiate against is the guy whose final position is a figure at the extreme ragged edge of reasonable.” And he was right on this too. A plainly unreasonable offer or demand can be ignored, and a plainly reasonable one results in a quick agreement. The art is finding the boundary between them. Which is what I did. The other factor that came into the negotiation was this: Unlike almost every car I had ever bought, I was pretty certain that he
wanted needed to sell this car more than I needed wanted to buy it. This car had high miles, a goofy front seat thing and the unsightly steering wheel. And most of all it was a Fox body Marquis. How many more people like me was he likely to meet at his tent sale? Exactly.
Marianne and I sat in that tent for probably two hours. Every time the salesman came back from the manager, my reaction was the same: “I have said from the time we sat down that I am going to buy this car for $2650. $2651 and I walk.” Bit by bit the price came down and finally, after I asked for my drivers license back and started to get up he went back to his manager one last time and came back. “$2700. That’s absolutely it, man – I can’t go any lower. If that’s not good enough then I guess that’s it.” So I did what good plaintiff’s lawyers have done to me for years and years – when I make a final offer they respond with an amount just a teeny bit higher and make me eat my words when my client says OK. I bought the car that day – for $2675.
The deal wasn’t over, because the salesman informed me that I could finance it through Lincoln-Mercury credit at a low interest rate that allowed me to buy the car for a monthly payment of something like $57. They made a little money on the financing and I now had a car for the monthly cost of a date night with Marianne.
Once I cleaned the rest of the cat hair out of it, I came to love that car. I didn’t love the teeny tiny gas tank (unique to the wagons) that gave me a range of 175-225 miles on a tank of gas with the 3.8 V6, an engine that never met a gallon of gas it didn’t like. The 3.8 wasn’t powerful but it had a decent amount of grunt. And the best thing of all was the C5 three speed automatic. At first I was disappointed that the AOD (Automatic Overdrive Transmission) was the one option that was missing on this car, but after some later experience with one, I didn’t realize how good I had it. The C5’s shift characteristics really worked well with the engine, just the way a good American automatic had always worked.
I had a couple of issues. This was the car that made me learn the Ford EEC IV system when the “Engine” light blinked on one day. I checked a manual out from the Public Library, then counted needle swings on my dwell meter to discern the code being thrown. I replaced the EGR valve and the light was extinguished. I also had to remove the headliner panel after the fabric released from the fiberboard and began to hang down into my personal space. I actually did that job twice – the second time after I learned that there was a difference between the expensive 3M spray glue designed for automotive applications and the cheap stuff Marianne found at a fabric store.
I had two fixes that involved transmission fluid. The first was when a leak developed where the transmission lines attach to the radiator. All of the cars of my prior experience made that connection with a flare nut and a wrench, but Ford had gone to a system that involved plastic clips. A prior owner had decided that blue Permatex globbed around the fitting in sufficient amounts was a substitute. It was not. I took the car to a nearby Ford dealer to get those clips replaced, which was lowest repair bill I ever got from a dealer – I think it was somewhere around $20.
The other fix (one I was particularly proud of) was when I noticed that I was losing transmission fluid but could not find evidence of a leak. It took me awhile to discover a sticky reddish residue in the air cleaner housing. It turned out that a diaphragm in the transmission’s vacuum modulator had ruptured, and engine vacuum was sucking Dextron/Mercon into the combustion chambers as an unintended fuel additive. A new vacuum modulator bolted to the transmission case solved that problem and made the car run better too. I also diagnosed the cause of a recurring dead battery when I looked outside at the car one night (which I parked at the curb in front of the house) and saw a soft glow coming from under the hood – a bad mercury switch (or was it a Mercury switch?) – which explained why there had been no bulb in the socket for the underhood light when I bought the car. Some people may have replaced the switch, I just removed the bulb.
Interestingly, I never replaced either the missing armrest assemblies or the steering wheel. Ten years earlier, I would have been combing the junkyards for trim parts to return my car to factory condition – there were surely several of the sedans with brown interiors in the yards. But in an amazing display of discipline and personal growth I simply ignored the car’s interior shortcomings.
Again, I had found a car that I preferred driving over the Accord. Was it because Fords had always reminded me of my father? Maybe there was some of that. But beyond that, it was comfortable, quiet and relatively luxurious. It also had a really pleasant drivetrain (which I had come to define as anything that was not a 4 cylinder/automatic). It was great on the highway (other than the silly-short range from the small gas tank), and was useful around town with lots of room in back when the seat was folded. The Marquis Wagon didn’t feel at all like the Fairmonts I had driven, but felt very substantial and quiet.
A word about that house which has appeared in several COAL photos. I bought it as a bachelor in 1987, lived there as a married guy starting in 1990 and then with a kid by early 1992. I had not wanted to move – I loved our house and our neighborhood. It was the kind of place with summer block parties and where everyone knew each other. The problem was that it was a 2 bedroom, 1000 square foot house (albeit with a full basement) in a neighborhood of 2 bedroom, 1000 square foot houses. It also had a total of two not-large closets in the entire place. I always maintained that it was a perfect size for our little family of three. Marianne, however, considered it a perfect size for me before we got married. When we learned that we were expecting Cavanaugh #4, a change in address was going to be necessary. On a really, really hot day in June of 1993, we moved to a larger home, with much help from the Marquis. Actually, the little wagon proved far more useful for the purpose than my F-100 had been during my previous move. And, with its ice-cold air conditioning, the Mercury was a lot more comfortable than the old pickup too.
Cavanaugh #4 was expected to arrive in early 1994 and I looked forward to using the Marquis to bring him home from the hospital. It just seemed to me that if I had a station wagon with wood trim along its flanks, it was wrong not to use it for that purpose. In fact, I looked forward to squeezing several more years out of the little beige wagon, and saw it as the perfect complement to our Accord as we eased into life with two little ones. But about July of 1993 serendipity hit again and my next “Yes or No” car decision was put before me. I said “Yes” to the subject of a future COAL and needed to find a new home for the Marquis.
There was a law clerk working at my office who had been lamenting how the cheap “kid car” his family maintained had rusted to the point it was no longer safe. “I think I can solve your problem” was what I told him, and indeed I did. The guy’s father came and looked the Marquis over and bought it from me in a far easier transaction than when I had bought it. In the small-world department, the guy’s dad was an attorney for the life insurance company where Marianne had worked before we got married. Marianne had become famous there as the girl who guaranteed her spot in a first come-first served employee buyout by parking herself in a chair at quitting time about 16 hours before the 8:00 am start for accepting applications. She was the first of about a dozen who camped in that hallway for the night, and he laughed about finally getting to meet her. The buyer was someone I knew, so I shared all known issues and priced it fairly. It was another car I missed because, while I “traded up”, I never liked the way my next car felt or drove as well as I liked this one.
The only problem with the wagon from the day I bought it until now was what to call it. “An ’86 Marquis Wagon” was never enough. Because everyone who has ever heard that description presumed that I was referring to the big Panther-body Colony Park. So I eventually learned that I had to follow up with “No, not that Marquis, the smaller one – Like a Fairmont.” It is something I still have to do.