“I won a car!” That was what my mother was saying over and over on the phone when she called me one day in the spring of 2005. An avid fan of contests, she waltzed into her local Buick dealer to take a turn at GM’s Hot Button Contest. This was the second go-around of a promo that involved going to a dealer, sitting in a designated car in the showroom and pushing the On-Star button for the chance to win a new car. And nobody was more surprised than my mother when she won. The deal – a new base-level example of the least expensive model offered by the dealer where she entered – in this case a 2006 Buick Lacrosse. The car would be built to order, with her choice of color and any options she might wish to add (at her expense, of course). What went along with her windfall was that her 1993 Crown Victoria would need a home.
I vividly remembered when she bought the Crown Vic in the summer of 1993. The moment I first drove it, I fell out of love with the 1985 Crown Vic I had just bought from her. The 1993 may not have been the most beautiful car in the world, but then again they had been thin in the dealer lots when she bought it. It was an unusual color that Ford called Dark Cranberry, a really dark kind of purplish-maroon, that got either more or less purple depending on the light and the state of waxedness. I was also a little sorry that Mom had not bought a ’92 because I never liked the grille Ford added for 1993. But from the driver’s seat it was much of what I had traditionally loved in a big car.
The 4.6 was responsive in a way that I had not experienced since my ’68 Chrysler. Beyond that, the suspension setup was the best I had experienced in a big car since my ’77 New Yorker. Where the ’85 Vic had been a floaty marshmallow of a car, the ’93 was taut and could cash the (moderately sized) checks that the engine could write. And best of all, the electronically shifted AOD-E operated the way transmissions were supposed to, with smooth shifts just when you wanted them. “Of course I’ll buy your car” was the answer to the latest version of “The Question”.
Our wait was about 6 months and we got the (second) Vic in the fall of 2005 with about 63k on the odo. It was, of course, pristine. Because that was just the way Edith kept her cars. It may have lacked the luxury and presence of the 1989 Cadillac Brougham, but it was far more pleasing to drive. Finally, after 8 long years visiting in the land of General Motors, I felt like I was back at home in the kind of car I would actually have chosen for myself had I bought it new. It was in LX trim and very nicely appointed, with all of the normal power options. I recall my mother telling me that she chose this particular car because it had the optional passenger-side air bag. It did not, however, have the optional ABS brakes in its $24k sticker price. People don’t think of 1985-1993 as an era of high inflation, but maybe that’s why the $8k jump in price between my mother’s two Crown Victorias stand out.
The Vic (as this one came to be called too) had chalked up a service record that may have been as good as any car my mother ever owned. So imagine my surprise when about 3 weeks in the little red “Oil” light started to flicker while I waited at a stop light. I pulled into a gas station across the street and checked the dipstick. Isn’t there supposed to be oil on this thing? I think I bought 3 highly-priced quarts of oil at that station to pour into the poor thirsty beast. I wondered to myself how long it had been since I had owned a car that actually required regular checks of the dipstick. I couldn’t remember – it may have been the high-mile ’71 Scamp I had owned, what, 20 years earlier? I had spent years with cars that either didn’t use oil at all or would need a quart at the 3k oil change interval that I followed at the time. Oh well, so we buy a case of 10-W-40 at Sam’s Club and keep a quart in the trunk.
Other than the appetite for oil (which I learned was a common problem with the early 4.6 “modular” V8) the car was a delight. It was nice being a family served by two “Fat Fords” – meaning the ones built during one of their periodic quality peaks and stuffed with pleasing features. This car was loaded with cool little extras like the complex double sun visor that worked on both the side window and the windshield at once. This one had a full set of gauges on the dash and cupholders that deployed when the ashtray was pulled out. Marianne was certainly not disappointed in the lighted visor mirror for both driver and passenger or in the twin spot/map lights in the ceiling. The Vic became my DD while Marianne normally piloted the Clubber. And where driving the navy blue 1985 Crown Vic (with its herky-jerky AOD transmission) had been like an automotive version of a hair shirt, this one was a pleasure in almost every way.
The Vic was the first car that the neighborhood squirrels took an interest in. My neighborhood is near a river basin and is home to quite a lot of trees and wildlife. One evening I started out for the hardware store and noticed that the car was not right. Something was wrong with the gas pedal linkage because the throttle only opened so far – it was like the car had a governor installed, but it would slowly get up to 35 or 40 mph for my errand. When I got home I opened the hood. Instead of a broken throttle linkage, I found . . . walnuts. Lots and lots of walnuts. There were over 50 of them, packed all around the top of the engine between cylinder banks. I felt kind of sorry for the poor squirrel who lost his life savings that evening. And again about a week later when the same thing happened again.
Gas was getting more expensive in those years and the Vic became our economy car – it was certainly more economical than the Cadillac had been and was also far better than the Club Wagon. It also had far fewer miles than the big van, which made the Vic “first car” for most errand running or trips with less than all five of us. When the van was replaced by a smaller “not-van” in late 2006 the Vic became our primary family car that served in a dwindling number of circumstances when all of us went somewhere together. I had remembered my vow that I would never again take a family vacation trip in a sedan, so our plan became to rent a minivan whenever we went somewhere as a family to any destination that was over an hour away. That status stayed current until after our oldest started driving. It was then that the decision was made for the Vic to become the car for teenage drivers.
Our three children came at roughly two year intervals, so we entered into a more-or-less regular pattern with someone taking driver’s ed every other year. Each of our three kids learned about driving in this car. It is funny how the experience could differ so much. The first time, the struggle was with a kid for whom geographical directions did not come easily. The second seemed to take to driving most naturally, and the big car accommodated his growing height that eventually topped out at 6’6″. Driving practice with Dad was a real social event for my daughter, and I still laugh about the playlist she put together on her I-Pod just for driving practice. My musical horizons were opened up during that period and I found some of it quite enjoyable. It was on one of these musically-accompanied drives when one of my most memorable CC finds had me saying what I had heard in movies and TV shows trough the years – “Follow that car!”
You may have noticed that there was nothing written about Marianne taking the kids out for driving practice. She likes to avoid stressful situations and decided that everyone would be better off if I kept that duty on my side of our chore-splitting ledger. I will conclude by saying that other than a couple of unique situations, I really enjoyed my one-on-one time with the kids as I sat in the passenger seat. That one-on-one time dropped fairly dramatically after each got a new drivers license. The Vic would be the primary transport mode for each of them, in their turns – which got Mom and Dad out of the business of transporting everyone to and from school.
Each of the kids got schooled in the importance of checking oil. And for a time the power steering pump developed a leak so they added that check to the list whenever the hood was up. Again, each of them used the car in a way consistent with his/her personality. The oldest was, er, thrifty. He drove the car like an old lady and refused to run the air conditioner because that would lower the car’s gas mileage. This mattered because he was now purchasing the gas. I had warned him that he should not use the power windows any more than necessary because of the amount the mechanic had charged to fix two of them. When that advice was not heeded, the failed left (and later right) rear window got a screw driven into its track to keep it up. I told them at that time that if the air conditioner went out, the car would go away too. Son No. 2 took the best care of the (new) Vic, keeping it cleaned and waxed. Both boys’ friends referred to it as a police car.
It was probably unavoidable that the car made the transition from “real car” to “beater”. When you turn three successive teens loose with a car that was approaching 15 years old when they got their hands on it, that kind of thing was bound to happen. Some stuff got fixed, like the wiper motor that decided to park the wipers at fully extended and the driver’s window regulator (for the second time). But other things did not. Like the odometer. The electric gas door release. The blend door for floor heat/defrost. The leaky power steering pump. And the need for semi-annual headlight polishings in an attempt to keep the cataracts at bay.
But the car continued to start, run, drive, stop and look generally respectable as three young people learned the ropes of driving and maybe something about car ownership. The body remained unscathed (other than the Silly String incident in the high school parking lot) until child No. 3 slid on ice and hit the car’s chin hard on the far side of a ditch, requiring a tow truck to pull it back onto the (slick) pavement. At least she mostly missed the stop sign, and a junkyard mirror fixed most of the outside damage.
By 2015 or so things were getting a bit dire. The shift collar had cracked making gear selection a little ambiguous and the steering wheel was making a grinding noise when it was turned. A hubcap had gone missing and the clearcoat was finally starting to exhibit eczema. Daughter wanted to take it to college the way her older brother had, but the car had reached the point where Dad no longer considered it a car to trust from a distance. But other than the transmission’s torque converter that was reluctant to lock up, the thing continued to start, stop and turn – and all with good heat or a/c, depending on the weather. Except for the HVAC blend door deep under the dash that wanted to blow air out of the dash vents when floor heat was called for. Fortunately, one of the features of these “fat Ford” years was dampers that would shut off each of the dash vents to force air out where it was wanted.
I remember listening to the “Car Talk” program on the radio, when Tom and Ray got into a discussion of the difference between “a car” and “a heap”. “A car”, they explained, was a vehicle that you could lend to someone without any instructions. “A car” operated just like all other cars of its kind and any questions could be answered by the owners manual. “A heap”, in contrast, was a vehicle you could lend to someone only with specific detailed instructions on how this particular car operated differently than every other car of its kind. By all accounts, the cranberry Vic absolutely became a heap towards the end of its time with us because of its many small failures and idiosyncrasies (like if it needs gas, you have to open the trunk and pull the wire to open the gas door.)
When Cash-For-Clunkers was announced, I thought it might be a good opportunity to cash in. The car was not yet at “full beater” but was on that downhill slide. I looked into what C4C would entail, and nobody was more surprised than I was to discover that the Vic didn’t qualify. Cars were graded on the EPA mileage ratings they had been assigned when new, and the engineers at Ford had managed to get the car to hit EPA numbers (18/26) that was 1 mpg too high for the program’s cutoff. Wow, it really was an economy car after all.
It was around 2015 when my law partner Rick’s Volvo C70 had finally suffered a catastrophic failure and he needed to look for another car. I made a suggestion: “If you want to buy yourself some leisure time in looking for its replacement, I need to sell the Vic.” I had no idea how many miles were on it (broken odo) but it was probably around 160k. It started, drove, had decent tires and brakes, and it blew both hot and cold air. “$5o0 and you can have it. You know the car, and I think it will last you a few months at least to give you plenty of time to look for a replacement. Just keep oil in it.” A deal was struck and the Vic started driving home from the office in the opposite direction every night.
Rick drove the Vic for an entire year without a single breakdown. In that year he incurred but a single expense – wiper blades. The old R-12 a/c system – the one thing I had most feared going out – never quit on him. It was probably around 2016 when he drove the Vic to Car Max. They bought it from him. For $500. I laughed.
I was kind of sad when that one went away. I think my daughter missed it most of all of us. It had faithfully served three full generations of our family and had given its all. Well, not its all, because it proved that it still had plenty left after we sold it. The Vic was everything that my mental image of a traditional American car was: It may not be as trouble-free as a Honda or Toyota, but it will take a real beating and keep on going, until long after most other cars have given up. The Cranberry Vic remains one of the favorite cars of (almost) everyone in our family. (Marianne is of more discriminating tastes).
When I was young, I had the foolish idea that I would be able to keep a good car forever young by giving it good care and maintenance. That may be possible in some climates, but not in my part of the midwestern U.S. where road salt is an annual thing. Even after I accepted that reality, almost every one of my cars was little worse when I sold it than when I had bought it. This was the first time I had taken a nice, clean older used car and used almost everything it had to offer, leaving it one mechanical failure away from being consigned to the U-Pull yard. I had joked for years that the Vic had been my economy car. The C4C program had seemed to confirm that. But I have concluded that true economy is when you can extend the life of a good car until it approaches the point when it can no longer do what you need it to do. In that sense, the Vic was truly one of the most economical cars I have ever owned.