Not the car. That’s not the complicated part—in fact it could be argued that the Crown Victoria is one of the less complicated cars of modern times (if you can call something from 1997 “modern”.) No, it’s my relationship with this uncomplicated piece of American Iron that has some complexity to it. You could call it love-hate, but that’s a little extreme in either direction. Like-dislike? Maybe.
I’ve known this car for quite some time. It started back in October 2003, when my parents called me to tell me they had bought a new (to them) car. They’d been driving the 1991 Accord that I passed to them the previous year, and had been looking for a second car when they found this ’97 Crown Vic at Carmax. It only had 33,000 miles on the odometer, not bad for six years old. I had the chance to put it through an extended test that December, when I borrowed it to take to Florida with friends to watch our college’s football team play in a bowl game. I found it to be a great highway car, and a logical successor to the ’91 Crown Vic I had owned a couple years prior. A few months after that, the extended warranty they bought with the car paid for itself, as the transmission failed, a repair that would have been over $2000 (the torque converter was replaced as well). Not the most confidence-inspiring thing to happen to your new (to you) car, but at least it was fixed and it didn’t come out of their pocket.
Back when it was still relatively new to the family…
Aside from that incident, the car served them well and without complaint for 9 years. It needed a few things along the way (2 catalytic converters probably the most expensive) but nothing out of the ordinary. As 2012 wore on, though, they started to think about replacing it, as it was 15 years old and counting. In November of 2012 they purchased the Crown Vic’s replacement, staying within the Panther family and buying a 2010 Mercury Grand Marquis LS. With that purchase, the Crown Vic became a second car for a couple who didn’t really need two cars, with Dad close to retirement and Mom not driving all that much anymore.
This worked out in our favor, as the Alero was fading fast at this point (COAL entry 2 weeks prior). Earlier that year, my parents had said that we could have the Crown Vic whenever they upgraded, and true to their word, they signed the title over in the last few days of 2012 and my time with the car began. Despite being on the eve of its 16th birthday, the Crown Vic still had only about 95,000 miles on the clock—just barely broken in for one of these cars. Upon trying to get it registered in Virginia, I promptly failed inspection due to the driver’s side power window deciding to stop working. A minor annoyance, but it didn’t exactly get things off on the right foot.
Taking a moment to analyze the car itself, it was one that I was familiar with in many ways, having owned a ’91 Crown Vic and an ’03 Marauder. This one was Panther #3, so I was quite familiar with many of the virtues and drawbacks. 1997 was the last year of the “aero” body style, with its six-window roofline and wide, sweeping taillamps. Generally a good-looking car for something so large, though the front clip was marred by a grille that looked like the afterthought it was. Ford had brought the redesigned ‘Vic to market in 1992 with a grille-less nose that mimicked the Taurus’s front-end treatment, but it evidently didn’t go over well with the car’s conservative buyers. The 1993 model featured a hastily added-on grille in place of the former nose panel, and that stuck around until ’97 with only a couple of minor changes to the insert. Handsome alloy wheels were part of the LX package, though a bit small in the fenderwells at only 15”.
This particular Crown Vic was finished in Performance White (ironic, no?) with a willow green cloth interior. The interior just may be my favorite part of the car, with the complete disappearance of colorful interiors shortly after this car’s 1997 model year. It’s a muted green, but it’s definitely, unmistakably, GREEN. The dash, the carpets, the seats, the headliner, everything. Colorful interiors may be making a comeback, but they haven’t reached this level yet. The fabric has a nice velvet-like texture as well, compared to the more industrial-feeling fabrics that seem to dominate modern interiors. It may not hold up quite as well, but it feels quite nice. The stock radio had developed some issues, so I replaced it with a Sony unit that adds Bluetooth capability and an aux input. I appreciated the fact that the color of the front panel illumination was adjustable, so I could match it to the cool green of the car’s dash lights for a look that didn’t stray too far from stock. Peculiarly for an otherwise well-trimmed car, it was not equipped with keyless entry.
Mechanically, this car was still for the most part riding the 1979 frame that dated to the original Panther platform. There were updates to the steering and brakes for the 1992 redesign, but it was not a clean-sheet design. The engine was, however, new for ’92, moving from the old reliable 5.0 pushrod V8 to the new reliable 4.6 SOHC V8. The “mod” 4.6 would come to have arguably an even better reputation for reliability and bulletproof operation. For the ’97 Vic, it was rated at 190 HP/260 lb-ft torque, which doesn’t sound like all that much, but it’s suitable for the relaxed character of the car. Also, despite its 212 inches of length, curb weight was a respectable 3800 lbs. so it wasn’t all that stressed. The 4R70W transmission backed it up, an evolution of the AOD (-E) that was found behind so many of its 5.0 forbears.
So, we have a low mileage example of an utterly reliable, dependable, and spacious car. And in my ownership, these traits have continued. It mostly takes me to work and back, with a few solo trips to North Carolina for football games or events with friends thrown in. I haven’t exactly racked up the miles, but as of earlier today it’s a little over 114,400. And in three years and about 20,000 miles, what has gone wrong? Very little. I’ve replaced a ball joint, two window regulators (on the same window) and a wiper arm. The exhaust hangers had to be replaced, but that was my own fault via an unintended encounter with a streetside brick planter box. Beyond that, just routine maintenance.
This car is, essentially, the perfect beater. It’s the flip side of the argument that sometimes the lowest running costs can be found in a newer economy car. Granted, it’s a bit of a special case in that I know the history going back 10 years, and that the car was given to me (though that can also be seen as a long-delayed repayment of the unequal trade by which my parents ended up with the Accord.) But the running costs have been almost nil over three years other than gas, and it’s dirt cheap to insure. As a big V8 cruiser, gas costs aren’t negligible, but it doesn’t do too badly—averages around 17 city, 25 highway. Keep gas in it, keep the tires inflated and the fluids topped off, and it gets me where I need to go. If the transmission holds up (the one potential trouble spot on these cars) it’s entirely conceivable that this car will still be fully serviceable 10 years from now.
But, as I said, it’s complicated—and in some ways this car’s utter reliability isn’t helping any. You’d think that a car this reliable, with low cost to operate, and in the “big V8 American sedan” class that I’ve chosen many times before, would be about perfect, right? It should be. But it just isn’t. I just can’t make myself like this car very much. Some days, I rather dislike it. Other days, it’s more neutral, but it rarely strays over the line into like, and love isn’t even in the picture right now. It’s slow, it doesn’t handle well, it’s old but not old enough to be knocking on the door of classic-dom. More importantly, it pales in comparison to my previous panthers. And my wife’s feelings are more unambiguous—she hates it. She won’t drive it and doesn’t even like riding in it—according to her, it ages her 10 years instantly. She wanted to sell it to get something less “old person-ish” soon after we got it, but I pointed out that it would be unwise to trade a known quantity for an unknown one, especially at the price we could have gotten.
And that’s really the heart of the matter. I don’t love it, but it’s too reliable and cost-efficient to get rid of. How do you justify that? You don’t. There is not one good reason to get rid of this car, and several thousand good ones to keep it, in the dollars we don’t spend paying for another vehicle or paying for repairs on something less reliable. From a numbers perspective, the choice is clear. Keep it until a problem occurs that isn’t cost effective to fix. Considering I do some of my own work, that “not cost effective to fix” problem would likely only be a total transmission failure, a major engine issue, or an accident. Rust is a non-issue; there isn’t any to speak of. Southern climates have been good to this car.
The model script, slightly askew after 19 years…
From an emotional perspective–that’s where the complication comes in again. While I’m extremely grateful that my parents gave us this car, it also makes me feel like I’m turning into my father, driving an old, well-worn, less-than-desirable car because it got the job done. He did this because he’s never been a car guy, and at times, it was the only choice he had. I *am* a car guy, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this article. And the longer I drive this car, the less time I’d have to be driving something more interesting, or more fun, or more useful, or all of the above–my ideal replacement would be a sports wagon of some sort. Maybe a Volvo V70R. Maybe something else entirely. But something that I picked out, something that didn’t just land in my driveway and take up residence there. But every time I think about it, the rational part of my mind nixes the idea, and I’m back where I started.
I really hope I’m not coming off as spoiled or ungrateful–I realize that to be handed a stone reliable car, as a gift, is something that not a lot of us are lucky enough to experience, especially once you’ve reached a point in life that includes gainful employment and functional independence. So I am especially grateful, and not having to put money into this car has let us put it other places, like buying a house last July. And that makes me feel even more guilty about my lack of affection. It’s a vicious cycle. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a bad problem to have. A First World Problem to be sure.
Maybe one day in a fit of pique I’ll actually list it for sale. Maybe my wife will decide she’s tired of looking at it in the driveway and try to persuade me to get rid of it, rather than her current approach of “disdain from afar.” Or maybe the transmission will give up the ghost (again). But let’s not invite calamities here. More likely, I’ll keep driving the Crown Vic, as long as a big problem or a litany of small ones don’t materialize all at once. Familiarity breeds contempt, but it can also breed affection. It’s a funny thing that way. Nothing lasts forever, after all–and I’ll keep dreaming of what might my next Car of a Lifetime might be.
[While we’ve now covered both my own and my wife’s current drivers, there’s one more Car of a Lifetime yet to be covered, so stay tuned next week for the conclusion of the series…]