Sigmund Freud may or may not have said “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. Given all the reasons, interpretations, and obsessions with owning or driving certain cars…well, in my opinion, the Ford Five Hundred is just a car. Which is kind of too bad, because, for our family, it was (two times over) a solid and dependable provider of transportation. While the Five Hundreds offered nothing that stood out or made them special, they did the job they were purchased to do, all the time, every day.
The anonymity had its advantages. Our two examples were silver, so they blended right in. I can count a number of times when I was going at least as fast as every other car on the freeway, if not faster, and when the Highway Patrol suddenly showed up, someone else got pulled over for the speeding ticket, instead of me. I could park it anywhere, and it was never messed with. Wherever I went with it, people never engaged me because of the car.
In matters of purchase as used cars, at least partly due to the lack of any reputation at all, good or bad, the depreciation after three or four years was rather complete. My example, a mid-$20k car new, was bought for $9k, three years later, with hardly a scratch on it and showing 13,000 miles. That’s a deal. Or, perhaps it depreciated quickly because it was looked at as an “old person’s car”. In any case, my frugal side was rewarded in the purchase of these cars.
Backing up a bit, recall that I had, fifteen years or so before, mapped out the ultimate logical and rational car purchase for our needs and limits, a new Dodge Spirit. At the dealership, we got “upsold” to an Intrepid instead. The Intrepid was fine, but it was not a coldly rational and frugal purchase. It was the “new thing”, it had style, and it had some novel engineering. It was nearly a “first year” car, meaning that unknown or unpublicized bugs may not have been worked out, especially in the days before the internet, when information didn’t spread like wildfire. But, it all worked out fine.
So, this time around, I looked at all the things I wanted. I wanted safety and a solid bigger car. I wanted to sit up a bit high, like the PT Cruiser and not like the Intrepid. I wanted a used car, slightly and gently used, that would last a long time and hold up well. I wanted a traditional car with seating for four or five, a big trunk, and some power and reasonable comfort but still a bit of economy. A mid-size at the bigger and heavier end of mid-size. As I would be buying used, I could zero in on what I wanted, and I would likely not be “upsold” at a dealership. The Five Hundred (and Mercury Montego) hit all the targets. It didn’t look like much, but it was not unattractive, and it had a solid feel and heft to it. For a guy who often drove a full sized pickup, the slightly ponderous handling, and a bit of lack of power with a slightly noisy engine, were not dealbreakers. All of it actually sealed the deal for me. Lots of small quibbles about things, but nothing really wrong with the car, made for a cheap car for what one got. Sellers wanted out from under them, since dealers wouldn’t offer much on trade-in, and potential buyers did not beat paths to the sellers’ doors.
I bought the first one outright for cash, from an acquaintance whose uncle had aged out of driving. Selling the car would prevent said uncle from trying to grab the keys and drive off somewhere, so I helped the family, and perhaps made the area roads slightly more safe as well.
My first impression was that the car really was a Ford version of my parents’ pair of older Volvo 240 series sedans. The tank-like road manners and the bland styling, while using a ton of hard and neutral plastic in the interior, all said “Volvo” to me. I knew that the basic car was a derivative of the higher-end Volvo platform of recent years, which also appealed to me. I had always wanted a Volvo for a daily driver, just a little bit.
Some of the features of the car were small delights. I liked the higher-up seating position. The six-speed automatic transmission was silky smooth, and there was the proper gear for every driving circumstance. The engine itself was off-the-shelf Ford V-6, so parts and repairs were easy. The trunk was cavernous, and the split rear seat backs could be folded down, to create a common space between the interior and the trunk. The radio had an automatic volume control, that raised the sound system volume as road speed increased, so one was not turning the sound up while underway and down at the traffic lights. Perhaps not new to cars, but it was new to me. Similarly, this was the first car I owned with automatic temperature control. Set your desired interior temperature, and let the car manage the controls. The six-disc CD player was nice, too. Just keep feeding CDs into the thing, and it swallowed them all, and played them, one by one. For long trips to the kids’ colleges, all the way up in Northern California, six CDs in the CD player was a great thing.
The mileage was 20-ish per gallon around town, but, by working at it, 28 to 29 mpg could be squeezed out of it on the long trips. The running mileage meter (another new feature to me) was a source of constant challenge to get good mileage out of the long trips.
The anonymity of the thing had its funny moments. Soon after I had bought the car, I took it to Fontana to watch the NASCAR race. We couldn’t find the car in the parking lot later in the day, though I swore it was parked in the area. I used the “hit the key-fob alarm” feature to find the thing, and I discovered we were standing not ten feet from the car.
I found that the generic “big Ford” look, in the rear view, could be used to my advantage. It looked vaguely like the Panther-bodied police cars that were still in the fleets, when the typical driver looked in his rear-view mirror. I do like to drive fast, as fast as the fastest other cars on the road, and that means overtaking quite a few drivers in the fast lane. If I drove that Five Hundred in a “swoopy” fashion, some drivers thought I was a cop, and would shift lanes and slow down. Others would see that kind of abrupt-slowing-down thing going on, and the Ford coming up fast, and mimic the first drivers, getting out of the fast lane and slowing down themselves. Some would even hit the brakes to do so. Done right, the way would part like the Red Sea, opening up the fast lane for me to barrel down it. Driving fast and “swoopy” was the way to get it all started. I call it “swoopy”, and what that means is that you maintain speed, while shifting lanes in smooth arcs of the car, not dodging and weaving. If you can’t maneuver smoothly, just follow the car in front of you, closely but not too closely. Then, when you have your chance, swoop out into the next lane, with a minimum of steering inputs, and with the steering and throttle inputs progressively induced. There you have it, “swoopy”. People don’t think about it consciously, but fast, swoopy drivers in big Fords registered in their subconsciousnesses as cops. In 2022, the cops drive mostly SUVs. But, twelve or fourteen years ago, they still drove quite a few sedans.
We bought the first Five Hundred outright, as we needed a third car. Our son was moving off-campus at school, and he needed a car, so he took the Odyssey. Later, when it was time for me to get rid of the PT Cruiser, I saw a Five Hundred on a car lot, that I drove by daily on the way to work and back. This was a Buick dealer that had imploded when GM closed divisions and stiffed everyone in 2009 and 2010. The proud, long-time Buick dealer was forced to convert to a small used car lot, and tried running its service department as an independent repair shop. Quite a sad and rapid come-down for the Buick dealer. So we traded the PT for the second of our Five Hundreds. The salesman told stories of the recently concluded “good times”, and his office was decorated with rather recent photos of the large dealership forecourt, jammed with new Buicks. When we bought the car, the forecourt was an almost empty wasteland. The used car dealership and independent repair shop lasted another year or so, and now the lot is an overflow parking lot for a nearby medical complex. Things change and things fail. Sometimes things that seem prosperous and permanent still fail. It’s how the world works.
We were a two-car, two silver Ford Five Hundred family (not counting the truck and the toy cars). I find out now that my daughter was mortified that we had “matchy-matchy” cars. She thought it was weird. We could detect slightly different hues of silver in the two cars, and mine always parked outside, while Vicki’s got the prime garage space. In a pinch, the license plate letter sequences were completely different, and the plates could be read.
The only chronic mechanical issue we had with the cars was the failure of a big, elaborate, and expensive motor mount. With two cars, we went through three or four of them, over the years. Like the PT Cruiser, the Five Hundreds held up well, and really didn’t show their age or mileage much. But, like the Intrepid and the Odyssey, I did lose the automatic transmission in a Five Hundred. I don’t seem to get along well with automatics. Perhaps my heavy throttle pedal induces failures. I don’t know. Downshifts in the Ford, all of a sudden, became graunchy and would jerk the car around. The valve body had blown, is what I was told. A rebuilt transmission was exchanged for the damaged original, and the car carried on.
It did have one really odd quirk. Have you ever driven an old pickup, where the fuel sloshes around in the fuel tank mounted behind the seat? I’m sure that if you drive one frequently, as Paul does, you become immune to the sound. But riding only occasionally in an old truck, the sound is jarring and uncomfortable. Well, I was hearing such a sound. At stop lights, the big sloshing sound, behind my head, in the back of the car somewhere. Eventually, I found that the left rear door of the car was almost entirely filled with water. The drain holes at the bottom of the door had become plugged, and the door had progressively filled with water, over time, perhaps by running between the window rubber and the trim pieces, or something like that. In any case, unplugging the drain holes, by poking them with a tiny screwdriver, yielded a flood of water from the door. To the car’s credit, the door latch, the window, and the electric window lift all continued to work as they were supposed to, even after being drowned in water.
Our daughter took over one of the Five Hundreds when she got her first job, and the second car (mine) met an ignominious end. An almost new Lincoln sedan came barreling out of a restaurant driveway at full speed, hitting me just ahead of the rear wheel, on the driver’s side. No doubt the 85 year old driver had mistaken the throttle for the brake, in a moment of panic. No one drives out of a parking lot driveway at full throttle. But the Volvo-derived platform did its work, and though the car was totaled, I came out of it just fine. A gigantic twist was introduced into the frame, to the point where the car was violently unstable at speeds over about 30 miles per hour (I drove the wreck home). But the basic structure was still intact.
Later, the second Five Hundred was traded in, as part of an inter-family multi-car transaction. Daughter called the car “the boat”, and was glad to see it go. Too much of an “old person’s car”, and it had been part of a “matchy-matchy” pair, which she did not like at all.
Of all of our cars, the pair of Ford Five Hundreds were the “ghosts” of the fleet, passing through without leaving much of an impression at all. They were thoroughly competent at what they were built to do, but they had absolutely no personality, nor did they induce any particular pride of ownership. Some cars people have loved, and some have been hated. Remember that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, and these Fords have the most indifferent and invisible characteristics of all. For a car guy, the Five Hundreds were satisfactory choices. Not every car is special. I have a barn full of special car toys, and trucks I love to drive around. I don’t need my daily drivers to be special, necessarily.
I am nearing the end of my (so-far) lifetime of cars, and the arc of my personal experience with my cars has mirrored the general evolution of cars for the last sixty or sixty five years. Cars are so much “better” now. Safer, cleaner, and more precisely built. They are much more complex devices, but they are exceedingly reliable compared to the old ones, and do the things they do so well. Compare the Five Hundreds to the old Fords, the Ranch Wagon, the Mustang, and the Mercury Colony Park. We have come so far. Of course, if one goes backwards from those older Fords a similar amount of time, about fifty years, that puts one right about at the beginning of the era of the Ford Model “T”. Things have come a long way, because they were supposed to, and should have done. But the character of the cars seems to be muted these days, even as the quality and capabilities have skyrocketed. Also, the choice of car, back in the day, mattered much more. What one drove was a form of self-identity, like the clothes that one wore. It is still true, to some extent, but I will argue that that self-identification through choice of motor vehicle is much less strong today. Styling and flash may have only been skin-deep, back in the day, but they did stand for something. If one drove up in a Cadillac instead of a Chevrolet, it said things about that person.
Cars as a means of self-expression still exist. Ask the Tesla owner, the Corvette owner, or the Jeep driver about his ride, and he will get started on what it means to own and drive it, just like the old days. But the gaps between cars so freighted with meaning are wide, and are filled with extremely good cars that simply don’t give off the vibes to elicit passion. The Five Hundred was such a better car than the Mustang or the Colony Park. But the old cars had that personality to them, that most new cars simply do not have. It is not entirely the fault of the cars, or of the manufacturers. Buyers, these days, are more indifferent to their rides. The functionality exceeds the statement made, or the self-identity offered. Most new cars simply do not have “presence”. It is what it is.
One more project car to go, one more pair of current daily drivers, and a peek into the back of the Car Barn at a potential future project as part of the wrap-up. Two more COAL entries to go. Thanks for taking the ride with me.