I had a few, basic entertainment goals to accomplish during the extended New Year’s Day weekend at the beginning of this month. They were, in no particular order, to ride public transit out to one of favorite, reasonably priced vintage shops, to try out a nearby Chinese restaurant, and to go to the Lincoln Park Zoo. I managed to do two of those three things, as the eatery wasn’t open when I got to the front door. That weekend was a weird one for planning activities, as New Year’s Eve and Day fell on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, and many businesses and venues were closed. Some places were also closed on Monday. The zoo is open 365 days a year. A part of me felt bad for the staff who had to work that day, but I was thankful to spend part of the first day of the year in one of my happy places, as I love all the creatures and plant life on display at this incredible zoo.
My main reason for my zoo visit was to behold and say goodbye to a very old Bur Oak, pictured above and below, which is estimated to be as old as this very country, predating even the incorporation of Chicago in 1837. This tree, located near the white-cheeked gibbon habitat, is supposed to be taken down this spring as it is now aged to the point of being something like 80% dead and toward the end of its natural life cycle. It’s a living thing that has been a stately, serene presence during over two centuries of United States history. Instead of running through a Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire”-style rundown of historical events, I encourage you to think for a minute about so many different moments on the timeline of the U.S. that have happened between now and when this oak had sprouted from a fallen acorn.
I got sad as I looked at it and contemplated its fate, though I took comfort in the fact of its longevity. My initial thought was that if this tree had managed to live for over two hundred years, why not just let it die a natural death, whenever that would happen? The reason is safety. Zoo patrons don’t need to be hit by large, falling branches from a tree that’s hundreds of years old. I was satisfied to spend some minutes near this tree from behind the fence, snap a few pictures of it, and honor its existence. For as many times as I had been to the zoo, hiding in plain sight was this ancient, historic tree near a pathway I had walked along many times. Like many other patrons, I’m sure, I hadn’t paid that much attention to it, but I certainly would have noticed its absence if its giant self were to have disappeared.
Much like a full-sized Ford wagon. The next day, immediately after I left Lincoln Antiques, this Oxford White LTD Crown Victoria LX pulled up to the curb and sat idling for a few minutes before its owner got out. I was almost as thrilled with this find as I was with my purchase, both of which had seemed to just drop into my lap. It’s not a stretch to theorize that the same kind of buyer who would appreciate vintage stores would also employ a classic, rear-drive American station wagon as personal transportation. Its owner confirmed this LTD’s model year as ’88, stating also that it had been a Craigslist find from a little while back. He was a really nice guy, and I’m sure he might have answered a few more questions, but I sensed he had the same goal as me in trying to find that one treasure at the store and I didn’t want to keep him waiting.
The ’88 model year brought the first significant exterior refresh of Ford’s Panther platform biggies, with a smoother front fascia, and for sedans, a smoother rear, as well. The wagons featured the same larger, wraparound rear bumper, taillamps, and “magic Three-Way Doorgate” as since the late-’78 inception of this generation. The two-ton starting weight of the LX wagon was motivated by a 5.0 liter cubic inch V8 with 150 horsepower, hitched to a four-speed automatic overdrive transmission. Of the 125,000 LTD Crown Victorias sold for ’88, just under 15,000, or only 12% or so, were wagons. Just for comparison, Chevrolet sold 189,000 of their full-sized Caprice, of which about 30,600 were wagons, or 16%. Curiously, Mercury’s upmarket Panther sibling, the Grand Marquis, sold 121,000 units, only slightly less than the Ford, of which about 9,500 were Colony Park wagons.
When I had first looked at this car, a very nice example of what it was, it struck me that something might have been missing from it, though I couldn’t put my finger on what it was at the time. Maybe I was just distracted and hungry for the Chinese lunch I didn’t know I wouldn’t be getting, but it was only when I got home and flipped through the frames I had snapped that it dawned on me: no “wood”. This car was not a Country Squire, but a regular, old, Ford LTD Crown Victoria wagon, in LX trim, as I later discovered. The Country Squire was an American institution. Before its discontinuation after ’91, Ford had offered a Country Squire for forty-one years, a run of Ford nameplate longevity surpassed by only Mustang and Thunderbird.
Ford offered multiple trim levels for its ’88 full-sized LTD wagons, which came as a base model, an LX, a Country Squire, and an LX Country Squire. That’s four permutations of a body style that accounted for less than a fifth of total production. This one’s an LX, which meant that for about $1,000 ($2,500 in 2023) over the starting price of the base wagon ($16,200 / $40,700 in 2023 vs. $15,200 / $38,000), and depending on the option package selected, it came equipped with such niceties as cornering lamps, cast aluminum wheels, electronic AM/FM stereo, and a few other things. The Di-Noc treatment for the Country Squire cost just $433 (about $1,100). This was a very nice wagon even without the fake wood, but there’s a part of my brain that has been conditioned by Ford marketing to expect it on a car like this.
The full-size wagon was something I had grown up taking for granted as something that would always just be there in the background, like the mall, Sears, or Betty White. I wasn’t particularly invested in cars of this ilk, as my family of origin had never owned one. My only other relatives who had owned such a car were my aunt and uncle in Ohio who had scored a terrific deal on a honey of a low-miles ’77 or so Caprice that was less than ten years old at the time they bought it. They later traded for a much more efficient, two-tone Dodge Colt Vista.
It probably wasn’t until the ’90s and the ubiquity of the minivan that I had started to notice fewer station wagons on the road. Similarly, when I learned of the impending doom of the Bur Oak at the Lincoln Park Zoo, I spent probably a good ten minutes or so trying to remember if I had ever deliberately paid attention to it, or had even known anything unique or special about its existence. Both this LTD and the tree are big, beautiful, stalwart things that serve as reminders of the passage of time. On the first couple days of 2023, they were endlessly fascinating to me for just those reasons.
January 1 & 2, 2023.
The 1988 Ford LTD Crown Victoria brochure pages were as sourced from www.oldcarbrochures.org.