Welcome back to In Plain Sight, where I make myself late for things to stop and admire one of the many fascinating, Jalop-worthy cars parked right on the street amidst the hustle and bustle of New York City.
Between the terrible road conditions, dense street grid, abundance of pedestrians, and maniacal cabbies and panel vans, New York is not a friendly environment for cars. So it's always a pleasant surprise when you come upon something unique and unusual braving the conditions, and such is the case with this 1989 Lincoln Town Car Mafia Wars Series (note: not a real trim level).
Of course, loyal readers will note that Ballaban found a similar beast this past weekend and wrote it up. Now I don’t mean no disrespect to that brown barge and its fantastically vinyl roof, and I wouldn’t be surprised to wake up in my bed soaked in motor oil with that waterfall grill in my lap – but I believe this immaculate survivor still deserves to be highlighted.
Now, as is often the case with ubiquitous cars like the Toyota Corolla or Ford F-series trucks, few stop to consider the history of the Lincoln Town Car. “Who cares?” you may ask. You also may skip the reading bit altogether and just look at the pictures, but then you may live a hollow existence without knowing the origin of what was once the most popular fleet vehicle in North America. Why risk eternal inner torment? Or losing at bar trivia someday? They’re kind of the same thing. So let’s all learn something we probably don’t need to know! Seatbelts, everyone!
The phrase “Town Car” originally referred to a half-convertible style of limousine popular in the 1920s and 30s, where the back seats were covered by a roof and partitioned with an extra windscreen, while the poor bastard driving the rich folks had to sit up front and was completely exposed to the elements. This heritage, if you want to call it that, is visible in the vinyl roofs available on Lincoln Continental Town Cars in the 1970s and the pure Town Cars of the 1980s – they only cover the back half of the roof and travel down the B pillar, suggesting a partition – because nothing says class like pretending you have a chauffeur. Mercifully, this one has the optional all-cloth roof, which also eschews the silly vertical opera windows that were built into the C pillars of the vinyl roof versions.
And while Lincoln technically applied the term to a one-off creation for Henry Ford back in 1922, it was actually domestic rival Cadillac who beat them to the punch by launching the DeVille nameplate in 1956 (short for Sedan de Ville – you figure it out).
So with the exception of a special edition Continental Mark IV in 1959, Lincoln held off using the Town Car name until ten years later, when it appeared as an interior options package for the Continental. It remained a special trim level for the Continental for ten more years, until the realities of the malaise-era economy started to sink in for Lincoln.
Downsizing had become the name of the game in the late 1970s, with manufacturers shrinking their existing models at an alarming rate in response to changing consumer tastes and efficiency concerns. But this presented a problem for Lincoln, as their entire lineup consisted of massive sedans and coupes and by downsizing all their marquee nameplates they risked driving away as many long-term customers as they stood to gain by changing up their game. And so the company came up with a pretty decent solution – continue to downsize the Continental to placate critics and potentially bring in new business, but launch the Town Car as a separate, full-size luxury model on the Panther platform.
And what a model it was! Launched in 1981, the Lincoln Town Car was one of the most advanced luxury cars on the market, featuring digital displays, a “miles to empty” fuel calculator, a trip computer, and the keypad entry system that since then made its way to countless Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury (RIP) models. The exterior paid homage to some of the great luxury cars from the sixties and seventies, featuring the blade-like fenders from the fourth generation Continental, the grill protrusion and double headlights from the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, and squared-off stateliness of the Cadillac DeVille. Under the hood was a Ford Windsor V8 pumping out an anemic 130 horsepower at the launch, a number that only increased by 30 by the end of the decade. The thing weighs two tons; it is not quick, although the 17/22 mpg rating is surprisingly high.
The first generation of the Town Car ran from 1981 to 1989, and while people like to rag on Lincoln for running the same model for a decade (as they did with the second and third generations as well), the reality is that like so many others in the eighties, the Town Car received several mini-facelifts that unlike so many others in the eighties resulted in subtle but welcome changes to its appearance. In 1984, a “Town Car” badge in tacky cursive was removed from above the left headlights. In 1985, the corners were softened a bit and the rear end was given a gentle slope. In 1988, the graceful waterfall grill became standard, and a wide ribbon of brushed metal was added to the back above the reflector light strip. In 1989, the grill was given a further refresh with the addition of black paint on the sides of the metal slats and the word LINCOLN to the lower right corner in a simple font. The parking/directional lights were also changed to amber, which, let’s be honest, is the color they should always be.
So what we have here is an absolutely pristine example of the 1989 model, the culmination of a decade of minor tweaks and adjustments that resulted in a remarkably well-sorted car. I spied this baby in the midst of last minute errands before going on vacation last week, and its exceptional and exceptionally-stock condition made it so visually striking that I just had to stop and take some pictures. Personally, I love all the straight lines and edges on the 80s Town Cars, which seem like a giant middle finger to aerodynamic and progressive styling concerns that other manufacturers were starting to grapple with at the time. In fact, when Cadillac downsized the DeVille and Fleetwood in 1985, Lincoln responded with a series of ads where confused valets were unable to distinguish the smaller Cadillacs from other non-luxury brands. I also like how the Lincoln emblem is absolutely everywhere, the kind of brash ostentatiousness that you really don’t see anymore in this era of restrained luxury.
And as for that Mafia joke at the beginning, when everyone knows that the trunk space in a Town Car is best measured in bodies, you can bet that association is grounded in reality. Gangsters have been driving the fanciest cars since cars existed, and the Lincoln Town Car was very popular with some of the most famous Mafia members in the 1980s. In fact, the car played a central role in one of the most notorious murders in New York City history – in 1985, Gambino Family head Paul Castellano and an associate were exiting their Town Car in front of a midtown Manhattan steakhouse when they were shot and killed by assassins in white trench coats, as future head John Gotti watched from his own Town Car across the street.
I would argue that the Town Car was one of the few domestic cars to epitomize the attitude of America in the 1980s – we’re doing it this way because that’s the way we’ve always done it, and damnit, we’re going to keep doing it until we defeat the Communists. I think the design has enough classic elements that it has aged pretty well, though the cleanliness of this example has me a little biased as I’ve never been so drawn to one of these in person before. Some might argue that the handsomeness it had in the eighties has aged into decrepit sleaziness, and if you’re looking at a particularly rough one, it’s hard to deny.
So while the angular, decidedly-Amurican styling and massive size may be a turnoff to some, as Ballaban pointed out, last year’s grandpamobile is this year’s hipster land yacht. You can’t deny the character of this thing. And with time, I believe that these giants will become more and more beloved, as they represent a national mindset and way of doing things that seems increasingly out of reach. It was a time when design and legacy trumped fuel economy, operating costs, and driver and pedestrian safety; not that these aren’t very important concerns, but I doubt there are few car fanatics who don’t secretly yearn for a less careful, less refined, and less regulated world sometimes.
On my last post, one commenter lamented that the car spotting opportunities in his neighborhood consisted solely of old Town Cars. Well take heart, FCV_P71! Here’s to showing that even the most rectangular of 80’s barges can still make a man stop and stare.