The Continental Mark IV has become a polarizing car. On the one hand, it cemented Lincoln’s position as the king of 1970s luxury cars, or at least of American luxury cars. On the other, it came to represent the kitsch of Malaise-era luxury like no other car of the period. As for me, I can appreciate both viewpoints, having lived through that era and those that have come since. The Mark IV has also been written about quite a lot. Perhaps, though, there is room for one more perspective. I am fortunate to have experienced one of these firsthand from the very beginning, when my father took possession of one of the very first of the breed in the fall of 1971.
In many ways, my father was the opposite of Paul Niedermeyer’s father, who has been chronicled so ably by his son. One similarity was that my own father was also very intelligent, and earned his college degree in mechanical engineering, with a minor in nuclear physics. But the hard sciences were too constricting for Dad, for his gifts lay elsewhere.
My father had an innate ability to read people, and read them well. This was not always a good thing. When teenaged me would occasionally try to shovel a load of nonsense his way, he figured it out very quickly. Such as the time I tried to explain that my D+ grade in 8th grade phys ed was because I was not naturally athletic. His gaze told me right away that he was not buying, and suggested an alternative basis – that perhaps the teacher was picking up an attitude problem. Of course, he had me. But beyond his ability to see through the rationalizations of a teenage kid (which most of us pick up at some point or other), he always seemed to have a sense of people in general.
In 1969, he had left a decade-long stint with his first employer out of college, a small-ish company that specialized in synthetic sealing materials. He had worked his way from sales engineer to general manager of the Fort Wayne plant. But he desired something more, and became a self-employed management consultant. It became important to him to project an image, although such an image was not new to him. His mantra was that if you want people to perceive you as important, you have to look the part. And he did – from his never out-of-place hair, to his dapper wardrobe, to his car.
After a short stint with a 1969 LTD, Dad went all-in with the most sought-after luxury car in the land – a 1970 Continental Mark III. My father firmly believed that when you made your living by presenting an image to others, a few dollars in a monthly car payment was no place to cheap-out. I am sure that there were people leasing their cars before my father did, but it was certainly not common. But it made perfect sense – your image per dollar goes a lot farther with a lease. Some day I will come back to that particular Mark III, which was really a terrible car. When it found itself on the back of a tow truck in the fall of 1971 (and not for the first time), the scheduling was perfect, as there was a new top Lincoln coming out.
My parents had been divorced for about 5 years, and Dad would show up every third Friday after work to pick my sister and me up for the weekend. I always sat by the living room window waiting for him to arrive, and was thrilled to see an unfamiliar car pull into the driveway just as the sun was setting on a snowy November evening. I knew my cars pretty well at the age of twelve and knew immediately that there was a brand spanking new Mark IV in the driveway. At first, I thought it was a loaner (Dad was tight with the owner of Bushong Ford Lincoln Mercury in Van Wert, Ohio) but I quickly found out that it was really his.
It was just like Dad to choose a color that was perfect for the age: Light Ginger Brown Moondust Metallic with Brown Calvary Twill vinyl roof – brown cars and the 1970s just went together. The new car smell (with the bonus of leather) was intoxicating. The hood glistened with what had to be the most perfect paint job ever applied to a car, and the new stand-up hood ornament waaaaaaay out there at the end made me feel like the most important 12 year old in the world. The Mark III’s doors were heavy and sounded good, but this car took that quality to a new level. Each of those doors seemed to weigh as much as a new Pinto.
Dad’s Mark IV was notable for two options: the little oval opera windows (that would quickly become universal but was still optional on early cars) and the delicate little crossbar on the front bumper which gave some protection to the massive grille. Frankly, that little crossbar (with its white rubber rub strip) was what made the front end of this car really work for me. I had seen the “without” version depicted in the magazine that chronicled the new 1972 models, and didn’t really care for the look. The “with or without” bumper debate would turn out to be a short one, because both versions would be replaced by a bumper that looked like a plated parking block the following year.
Spending so much time around the delicately-styled ’72 model has had a lifelong effect on me, making the inaugural Mark IV (OK, the second inaugural Mark IV if we count the 1959 version) the only one of the breed over which I have ever been able to gin up any enthusiasm whatsoever. The huge bumpers simply ruined the looks of later editions, which have never appealed to me in the slightest.
I spent a lot of time in the close quarters of that back seat. Really close quarters when they were shared with my younger sister and a pre-safety-seat toddler brother. Oh well, at least there were reading lights. That I was constantly told to turn off. “If we can’t use them, then why are they even here?” was a question to which I never received a satisfactory answer. Actually, has anyone ever been allowed to have a backseat reading light on while someone was trying to navigate an expensive car through a dark night?
The Mark IV’s lease was up in late 1973, but for perhaps the only time in my memory, Dad held off replacing it until it was four years old. The economy was starting to tank and my stepmom’s ’68 Cutlass was screaming for replacement, due in no small part to a botched paint repair from when I ran a riding mower into the driver’s door. So, a Cutlass Supreme coupe would be the only new car in the driveway in 1974.
My father’s utilitarian view of cars showed up in his maintenance habits. Looking back, it is hard to imagine how such an expensive car could be in such awful shape in four short years. And how someone schooled in mechanical engineering could have such a disdain for a car’s maintenance. Part of the problem was not the car, but vandalism damage to both sides that resulted in a less than ideal paint job below the side pinstripes. Also, the car never saw the inside of a garage, soit got the full effect of Midwestern weather. But the rest was the car. First, that Lincoln threw wheelcovers with great regularity, and Dad was always slow to replace them, no doubt due to their high cost. For a guy who paid such attention to his image, driving an expensive car with dirty black steelies never made sense to me.
I was starting to drive at the end of the brown Mark IV’s time with us. By then, the car was approaching 90,000 miles. The shocks were shot, and the thing wallowed like nothing I had ever experienced. There was at least one warning light glowing on the dash, I believe due to a malfunction in the Sure-Trac brake system. “If the brake pedal goes to the floor, just pump it a couple of times” was the calm advice from my father in the passenger seat. I was not allowed to reply with any of the words that popped into my mind. This wasn’t so much a car as it was a carnival ride.
Within a few months, the economy was improving and car shopping started in earnest. Soon, a special-ordered 1976 Mercury Monarch Ghia sedan arrived, with enough options boxes checked to bring the car to Lincoln-levels of equippage. I was happy to see a new car (and to be honest, a Monarch with a 351 was a lot more fun for a stupid teenager than you might think) but it was a kind of a letdown from that Lincoln. Dad must have thought so too, because a ’78 Town Coupe would replace it.
Thinking it over, I believe that Dad’s Mark IV (and the lemon-like Mark III before it) created in me a lifelong bias against expensive new cars. I watched each of those cars morph from one of the most desirable luxury cars made to a worn-out rolling turd that was almost embarrassing to be seen in. To this day, I would rather either buy an older expensive car for a fraction of the price or buy an inexpensive new car for its more palatable depreciation curve. Although the glossy magazine ads and Lincoln brochures were selling a lifestyle, those Lincolns turned out to be just cars. They didn’t really make my life any more glamorous, and they suffered from the same weaknesses as other cars costing a fraction of the price. If new expensive cars turn you on, then buy them. But don’t expect them to infuse your life with any long-term prestige and prominence, because all too soon they will cease being able to deliver.
I have sat on these pictures for a long time. I stumbled upon this beautiful example parked on a downtown Indianapolis street one Sunday nearly four years ago. To me, the ’72 Mark IV was never so much a car as it was a part of my growing up, and so I put off writing about it (as I so often do with more personal stories.)
But Father’s Day is here again, which always makes me think of my own Dad. And it is hard for me to think of him without a certain brown Mark IV becoming part of the collage of memories that follows. This car makes me remember when I was twelve and Dad’s Mark IV was new and beautiful and desirable, and I was so proud to be a passenger in it. And that makes me smile.