Curbside Classic: 1989 Mercury Grand Marquis LS – Panthers Run In The Family

The Panther-platform Grand Marquis (and Crown Victoria) is/was an accidental car on so many levels.  It was never supposed to survive to the end of the 1980s, let alone thrive for another twenty years beyond.  And there was no reason for another of these to grace my driveway, until my son Jimmy got the bug to adopt one as his first car.  And I must admit, both in the abstract and with this particular example, this was a very, very good car.  Sort of the Anti-Turkey of the 1980s.

We just can’t get away from Panthers in this family.  In high school, my mother was a Paulding (Ohio) Panther.  My sister and I were (Fort Wayne) Snider Panthers.  Each of my kids was a St. Pius Panther.  Since 1985, the Panther Love has run through the family driveways, as well.  We have owned 1985 and 1993 Crown Victorias, each bought new by my mother and then purchased later by me.  The ’93 still serves as the daily livery for my two high school students.

And now, after a (not so) long and (semi) arduous search, I have handed a full-fledged case of Panther Love to the third generation.  I am hopeful that this will work out better than the Chicago Cubs Love that I passed on to the lad a number of years ago.

When the Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis were introduced as 1979 models (on the brand-new platform identified internally as the Panther), nobody would have guessed the level of success that these cars would be enjoying a decade hence.  First, it was a classic case of the wrong car at the wrong time.  The fuel price spikes of 1979 (and the sustained price rise that lasted to the early 80s) coupled with the onset of a nasty recession doomed everything of any size, particularly in the upper-middle price range.  The LTD and Marquis were seldom seen in their first two or three years, and rumors of their demise began to swirl almost immediately.

You could see the Ford product plan starting to unfold.  In late 1982, Ford introduced two new sedans on the smaller Fox platform – called Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis.  Ford’s two flagship nameplates would still be there to cater to their fans, just in slightly smaller, V6-powered portions.  But whether it was to amortize the tooling or just to eke out a few more units of sales, the larger V8-powered panther cars remained for what was supposed to be a final year.  The big holdovers were each renamed with the prior year’s top trim level:  the LTD was now the LTD Crown Victoria, and the Marquis was now the Grand Marquis.

From that point onward, we saw the annual ritual play out in the car mags.  They all went something like “Ford has announced that the cancellation of the panther-based full size cars has been delayed for another year, and there are expected to be no significant changes to the cars.”  What was happening, though, was that fuel was coming down and the economy was going up, and these cars started to fly out of showrooms across the US.  Well, maybe not fly, but both Ford and Mercury could each boast of sales in the low six figures.  Thus, the 1983 cars became 1984s, which then became  ’85s.

Ford was also the beneficiary of decisions made by product planners at GM and Chrysler.  Chrysler was left with nothing but the much smaller Fifth Avenue, while GM canned all of the upper level rear drive Oldsmobiles and Buicks.  The result was a lot of former Buick, Oldsmobile and Mopar owners who drove out in a new Crown Vic or Grand Marquis.  In fact, the Grand Marquis of this era is one of the rare Mercurys that sold at levels close to or even above those of its Ford counterpart.

These cars also improved quite a lot with age.  The earliest versions suffered from finicky fuel and electronics systems, and were not as well thought of as the GM B body cars, then in their heyday.  But as FoMoCo settled into its long relationship with these cars, they continued to improve.  I remember being surprised that the Panthers were getting better Consumer Reports reliability ratings than the final 1985 Olds 88, which I discovered when my mother started looking into new cars.

In any event, so began the long, continuous process of improvement that continued unabated until just this past year.  The basic 1979 car finally got a minor sheetmetal and trim upgrade in 1988 and an entirely new body and powertrain in 1992.  Could this be the best Ford since the Model A?  A question for debate, perhaps.  But what is beyond debate is that this may be the most durable and trouble-free U.S.-based platform of the past twenty years.  Both the ’79-91 box-style and the ’92-11 aero version of this car have their fans, but there is really no wrong answer here.

I have shared my son Jimmy’s search for his first car.  We started on a whim when we saw the ’74 Plymouth Satellite (here).  After leaving the Satellite’s orbit and coming back to earth, we started looking more seriously.  After a turkey or two (one of which was featured here) the lad decided that the old box Panther was what really lit his fire.  As much as practical old dad tried to suggest that a newer Panther or one of the GM 3800 sedans would be a nice, vanilla, tension-free experience, he would not be dissuaded.

There is a benefit to having your automotive tastes line up with those of  the AARP set of a decade or two past:  You have an unusually good selection of nice old cars from which to choose.  But even I was surprised at the number of these cars in my area, and really nice ones at that.

You all know that I live in central Indiana, and that we use copious amounts of road salt in the winter.  One of the old box Panther’s biggest failings was its late 1970s FoMoCo body design.  Although it was not bad by 1970s Ford standards, let us just say that it was not one of the most rust-resistant cars ever made.  But with a basic Craigslist search, we found ourselves with the luxury of three very nice cars to look at.

You are looking at the winner.  47,000 actual miles accumulated by three elderly owners.  The car outlived the first owner, and the next two, in their turns, adopted and cared for this low-mile gem.  This car has lived its life in the garage, and it shows, both inside and out.  We were told that it lived many of its early winters in Florida.  And it drives as nice as it looks (at least as well as one of these does.  More on that later.)  All of you know that the camera can be very kind to an old car.  But I am here to tell you, this one looks as good in person as it looks in the photos.  And yes, that is a AAA Plus sticker at the top of the driver’s window (and the car’s proud new owner standing behind it).

In case you are curious, the runners up were a white ’89 Grand Marquis with navy velour, a teeny-tiny bit of rust and 137K on the odo, and a maroon ’89 Crown Vic with burgundy velour and 71K on the odo.  The Vic, however, was suffering from a transmission issue that made an appropriate purchase price a little sticky.  Each was a genuinely nice car that deserves a new owner who will treat it well.

Jimmy’s new car is living with me for the short term while he finishes out the semester at school.  I have been giving it a bit of a shakedown and have found a thing or two that needs some attention.  For example, I now have a perfect batting average with old cars and automatic temp control.  None has worked right.  But it appears that a thermal blower cutout switch is the culprit and it will be replaced soon, along with some old belts and hoses.  I am hoping for some decent weather over Christmas break, because I suspect that I will be providing some technical assistance to this car’s new owner in carrying out these and a few other maintenance items.

So how does it drive?  When I was about Jimmy’s age in 1979, I bought a low mile 1959 Plymouth Fury.  Although the car had some anachronistic touches (like pressing a button to select gears) it drove, turned and stopped not terribly unlike a then-modern car.  I would often forget that I was tooling around in twenty-year-old iron.  This car is not like the twenty year old ’59 Fury.

Driving this car, I am reminded of some time spent in the late 1990s behind the wheel of a friend’s 1951 Fluid Drive Dodge.  Everything about the driving experience reminded you that the car was obsolete and why.

I have ranted here before about the combination of the 5.0 lopo engine, the AOD transmission and the extremely tall (2.40-ish) axle ratio.  This is not a fast car, and in the 25-35 mph range, it is REALLY not a fast car.  This version with the sequential fuel injection has about twenty horsepower on my old ’85 Crown Vic, and I am the first to tell you that it is a noticeable and welcome improvement.  However, there is almost nothing about the way this car drives that reminds me of our ’93 Vic.

But the old Panther is charming, in its way.  So long as you are willing to accept the car for what it is and drive it the way it asks to be driven, it is as comforting as a steaming mug of hot chocolate on a cold day.  If you live the life of a road warrior in a world of congested entrance ramps and the need to dart quickly from place to place, this is not the car for you.  But if you are looking to lope along a flat midwestern interstate highway on a leather sofa with your favorite music in the air, you could do a lot worse than one of these.  Jimmy has always been a fairly sedate driver (he got within rounding error of 40 mpg out of my Honda Fit on a recent trip) and this car will suit his style just fine.

We all know that retro is in.   Actually, I think that Ford may have missed an opportunity – it could have resurrected this old box body to plop on top of the 2011 chassis.  I am convinced that a new-old Vic/MGM would be a winning retro-mobile with modern (by Panther standards) power and handling characteristics.  But Ford did not do so, and today’s youth will have to find these the same way that we did, and will have to accept the car’s limitations as well.  I hope that Jimmy gets as much out of the experience as I would have at that age.  And if he eventually decides that maybe a twenty-something year old car is not his thing, it is just possible that Dad could be convinced to make him an offer.