My Curbside Classic: 1988 Lincoln Town Car – A Tactful Rebuttal

[jpcavanaugh’s Mark V CC inspired this submission]

I was always a gearhead. It’s not exactly genetic, because although my dad has serious mechanical skill, and can weld the crack of dawn when he wants to, he doesn’t want to, and never really did.  Twenty years working maintenance in a coal-fired power plant will do that to anyone, I suppose.  (He has long since gotten away from that kind of work and today mostly acts as if that period was a bad dream.)  As for my Mom, there is little mechanical inclination there.  Her brother, a pharmaceuticals rep, once said his new 1999 Explorer was about as nice as his previous 1995 Mercedes Benz E320, but with the Benz seeming to have “steered better” than the Explorer. And so while no one quite knows where I got my sickness, I’ve obviously never gotten over it.

It manifested itself early and often, by taking things apart and (usually) putting them back together in as good or better working condition than when I started.  Dad says when I was a little older than in this photo, I took apart the mechanical “vroom vroom” noise maker in the throttle handle of this plastic motorcycle toy and put it back together perfectly.

Go karts, boats, and motorcycles were all well and good, but cars were where it was at for me in my pre-(legal) driving years.

Although I had literally been driving since I was about 4 years old, first in dad’s lap and later on my go kart, and later still in his pickup with dad left back at the house, I yearned for the day I would have my OWN car.

When sweet 16 finally came, I inexplicably passed on a well-kept 1966 Mustang 289 automatic coupe and also a clean ‘74 Nova and instead chose a 1989 Grand Prix SE, the one with the color-matched wheels and bucket rear seats.  The first and only car crash I ever caused that came 6 months after the Pontiac’s purchase led to a stormy period in my relationship with the parents that took years to overcome, though the Pontiac itself would make for a good CC at some point.

By about 21, the Grand Prix long since sold in wrecked condition to a rebuilder for pennies on the dollar, I had owned a string of beaters.  Relationship on the mend with my folks, this is about the period where dad dropped the news of what would be my first Lincoln.  His friend Stanley had driven to work a car he knew I’d love and that Stanley wanted to sell, and Dad made the “mistake” of telling me about it.

The 1984 Town Car (base model) that would become my first true infatuation had clearly been sitting and was dusty and neglected.  Silver over black two-tone paint in not horrible condition, a broken driver’s outside door handle, missing front marker light lenses on both sides, and a black full vinyl top also in not horrible condition was enough to make me fall in love.  I had always admired large American cars, and this car…was large!  This picture was taken the day I brought it home, after trying to scrub a few layers of sedimentary filth off it.  It cleaned up much better later on, but never as well as I hoped it would.  The thick red tape stripe did no favors to the looks of this car, and I still don’t know why I never removed it.

I owned the car for about 3 years, and while it was an endless string of mostly minor things that needed fixing, mechanically, it was pretty good.  I never had to touch the engine or transmission, and except for a radiator and one repair to the throttle position sensor wiring, my idea of using the car as my sole transportation as I fixed it up actually did work.  But you can never really finish all the stupid crap one of these cars throws at you.  Door panels disintegrate.  Headliners no longer line.  Vacuum leaks galore hide deep within the dash.  It just never ended, and it wore me down.  By the end, although it still was nice to drive (the front end rebuild I did had really paid off) just knowing all the little crap I still had yet to fix ruined the experience for me.  I ended up selling a very imperfect, but perfect running and driving Town Car to a recycler for $300, and felt like I robbed them blind.  I swore I’d never buy another old American POS like that again.

Years pass.  Then one night a drunk woman rear-ended my Camry on my way home from work.  She had no insurance, wasn’t worth suing because she had nothing to take, and the Camry didn’t have full coverage because I could not justify that cost on a 240k+ mile car.  It too got sold for $300 to a guy who needed the engine, except this time I was sick about selling.  Not because I loved the car (although it was easily the best I’ve ever owned) but because now I was probably going to have to spend grownup money on a new car.

Or was I?  At 30-something, I had only financed two cars.  Time and again I had managed to avoid a car payment, and I decided to see if I couldn’t pull it off one more time.  But what to buy?  NOT another Camry.  I looked for roughly a month and nothing I could afford (for cash) was worth buying.  They were either out of my price range but decent, or in my price range and completely used up, and of course my price range wasn’t much of a range at all.  Financing a car looked more and more likely, until I got stupid and blew it all up.

There was an ‘89 Town Car I had noticed over the previous few months which was for sale on Craigslist for a very inflated price, but by the time I was getting desperate for wheels, he had apparently also gotten desperate and dropped the price down into at least the realm of the plausible.  Forgetting my vow to never buy another Town Car, I went to his place and looked the car over.

The paint was very tired, and it had a few very strange flaws it should not have had based on my previous experience.  The thermostat was completely wide open if there was indeed one in it at all, so the engine car never warmed up, and they had driven it that way for eons.  Still, the car ran, shifted, and drove well, and there was that beautiful peaked hood way out there, bobbing and weaving with each twitch of the steering wheel and road.  I would own another Town Car after all, though I didn’t end up buying this one, because while the price had come down, he was still high, and the car had clearly been mechanically neglected in a way I could not get past mentally.  So I did the next best thing and narrowed my search to other Town Cars of the same generation.  I knew it was stupid to buy another one, but if nothing else, I knew what I was getting into.

Not long after, an ‘88 Signature popped up, also on Craigslist.  I had not seen this car there before, and it looked decent.  The owner was more forthcoming on the history of the car.  He had bought it for the powertrain, planning to put it in a Lincoln Zephyr he was restoring, but found a deal on a Corvette powertrain to use instead.  Because both the Zephyr and Corvette parts were less than 50 feet from where the Town Car was parked, I felt better and better about the buy.  He had mentioned in the ad it “might” need a heater core, which meant it needed one, as all early Panther Fords tend to, but I had done one years earlier on the ‘84 and this was no real issue to me. That I had spent years as a Volkswagen dealer tech further meant that essentially nothing the Lincoln could do to me was especially worrisome.

As you can see in the pictures, the color scheme is vaguely Blass-esque.  I’m not sure this similarity was intentional, but there you have it, and the dealer that sold my car new sold at least one other one exactly like it, because my car’s twin from the same dealer is still running around town, though in much worse shape.  Some matching blue down the sides would look nice and gaudy in the same way they do down the sides of a Bill Blass Mark V, and I have seen a few box Town Cars painted that way.

Certainly most car guys know the history of Ford’s Panther chassis by now, as it sometimes seems there are more stories about it than the equivalent GM offering, though the GM equivalent was more successful.  Slightly less talked about is the Panther Town Car history, though the information is out there, with Paul’s take on it being as good a summary as any.  It was an unremarkable shrinking of the ‘70’s Lincolns, too obviously a smaller car pretending to be a bigger one, with wheel track width too narrow for the body, wheelbase too short for the overhangs.

Where the ‘79 Continental was baroque because it was a ‘79 Continental, the ‘80 Continental (which would be re-named Town Car in ‘81) was baroque because the ‘79 Continental was.  It was sort of a slow-witted, small child trying on a parent’s clothes and feeling insecure.  It would not be until the ‘90 restyle that Lincoln would finally modernize what ended with the ‘79 Continental and head in a (relatively) new direction, even if the ‘90 was still a Panther.

Still, these cars are not without their virtues.  They are not easily mistaken for anything else, except by young people who seem to most often be the ones giving me compliments on it.  They often guess it is 10 years older than it is, which perhaps means Ford did a slightly better job at faking a ‘79 than most people think.  Though my car is not by any stretch pristine, I keep it washed and original, and because it is kept cleaner than virtually every other Town Car in town, it must stand out somewhat.  I have no plans for repainting or body work except for fixing the pin striping, but instead will let it dissolve back into the ground as slowly as possible, spending as little on it as I can (save for religious maintenance and fixing the myriad little issues it will always have.)

The GM full-size BOF car is a better car than a Panther.  The frames are better and less jiggly, the interiors are better, and in some early cases the engines are better.  But along about 1986, any full-size, rear-drive GM car still in production was even older than the oldest Panther, with GM still using a carbureter, while Fords had been fuel injected for years, with multi-point starting in ‘86.

Other, former full-size GM cars (especially luxury models) had shriveled so badly in comparison to their previous iterations that the Ford war of attrition and/or apathy, especially as waged by the Panther Town Car, began to pay off.  Sure, the front-drive GM C/H-bodies were good in ways any BOF car could never be, but it takes years to get people off the V8 crack pipe, and no, it doesn’t matter if a 3800 Buick is faster and more efficient to the Town Car’s target buyer.  The 3800/3.8’s basic goodness didn’t matter for DeVille buyers starting in 1985, either, because they got to deal with the dreaded 4.1 Cadillac V8.  A few ‘85 DeVilles even got the (by then) freakishly rare, entirely discredited Olds 4.3 V6 diesel.  An injected, rear-drive Lincoln with a 302 V8 versus an emaciated ‘85 DeVille 4.1, or a 6-pot diesel?  Are you kidding?  (Pro Tip: Buyers don’t appreciate being kidded.)

One wonders what might have changed had the 1988 front-drive Continental and come out earlier (along with the Taurus) as a totally new Town Car for ‘86.  You’d have shrunken-head Caddy versus shrunken-head Lincoln, the Caddy DeVille shitpile 4.1 V8 versus the head case Ford/Lincoln 3.8 V6.  If this sounds absurd, remember that this is essentially what GM did with the DeVille, except with a small V8 that was arguably worse than the Continental’s head gasket-eating V6. And GM’s C/H-body cars were a better place to start than Ford’s Taurus to begin with. GM had a tough row to hoe, regardless.

Suddenly that saggy, fender skirted ‘86 Fleetwood Brougham with the wheezy Oldsmobile 307 might have have had a second chance.  Or if the 1990-91 Brougham with the TBI Chevy 350 engine was instead an ‘85 or ‘86, this story would almost certainly be different. But none of this happened, and the Town Car, through sheer laziness alone, was the one that got the second (sales) wind.

It is said Ford made money hand-over-fist on the Town Car in these years once GM had dismantled most of their full-size luxury line for something leaner, and I don’t doubt it.  Seeing an early front-drive DeVille 4.1 in any kind of true good running condition is getting mighty rare.  Few DeVilles of this era are used as daily drivers, though as a second car, they might (kinda) work.  By contrast, thousands upon thousands of dilapidated Panther Town Cars are sill lumbering onto the open road out of a Wal-Mart parking lot, door panels eroding or gone, AOD transmission clunking into overdrive, vinyl tops flapping in the breeze….