Sunday, October 30, 2016

1988 Lincoln Continental Mark VII - Hot Rod Lincoln

In 1978 Ford started their downsizing by introducing an all new compact platform or chassis that was internally code named, "Fox". What would become known as the Fox body platform, in varying wheelbase lengths, would come to underpin a wide variety of vehicles for the Ford Motor Company including the 1978-83 Ford Fairmont and Mercury Zephyr, 1979-94 Ford Mustang, 1979-86 Mercury Capri, 1980-82 Ford Granada, 1980-88 Mercury Cougar, 1980-88 Ford Thunderbird, 1982-87 Lincoln Continental, 1983-86 Ford LTD, 1983-86 Mercury Marquis and the subject of our blog today, the 1984-1992 Lincoln Mark VII. Our feature car is a 1988 Bill Blass edition. 

Compared to the boxy Mark VI that came before it, the Mark VII was as radically different looking as the suicide door 1961 Continental was compared to a 1960 Continental. Thanks to MacPherson struts up front, the Fox platform also gave the Mark VII handling capabilities like no other Lincoln before it. Including the "Panther" body based VI that in and of itself was a radical departure from the levianthesque Mark V it replaced.  

Performance aside, though, the Mark VII had a difficult and very tight line to drive. Luxury car buyers are a notoriously fickle and are abhorrent to change. The styling of the VII couldn't stray too far from Lincolns of yore yet could not being as staid and true to older models like the knife edged, boxy VI if they had any shot at younger buyers. The polarizing trunk hump as much a nod to Lincoln's past as it was a styling differentiation from the similar Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar that it shared the Fox platform with. While the VII has aged quite well, buyers, particularly older Lincoln clientelle, were indifferent towards it at first. That indifference stemming in large part from the car's much tidier dimensions compared to the VI; the Greatest Generation were sold on the  the size of a car being reflective of ones stature. The Mark VII, and its four door version the 1982 Continental, much like the 1975 Cadillac Seville and German makes and models like the Mercedes Benz  280 S, went a long way towards changing that age old bigger is better paradigm.  

Lincoln did have challenges within the Ford Motor Company to charge the premium they did for the VII since it did share as much as it did with Thunderbird and Cougar; VII's sticker priced in the mid to high $20,000's while Thunderbirds and Courgers cost maybe half that much. Styling and "premium" nameplate aside, to make the Mark VII as exclusive as possible, the "High Output" 5.0 liter V-8 from the Mustang GT was made available on the VII and was never made available on either Thunderbird or Cougar. That engine, incidentally, helped give the VII it's tongue in cheek moniker, "Hot Rod Lincoln". 

Save for some luxury accoutrements found on even the most plebeian of vehicles today, the interior of the Mark VII was virtually indistinguishable from that of a Thunderbird or Cougar of the same vintage. Have to imagine there had to have been more than just a handful of people who cross shopped these cars and wondered why the Lincoln version of the Thunderbird was priced so much higher. 

The idea of a four passenger, two door sedan seems almost as foreign today as trying to imagine a world without wifi. As good as the Mark VII was and as much of a value as it was compared to similar vehicles from Germany, even by the mid 1980's, consumer tastes were moving away from doggedly impractical, expensive vehicles like this. If luxury buyers bought domestically, and that was a big if even back then, they began buying stylish and infinitely more practical sport utility vehicles. Lincoln replaced the VII with the the flamboyant Mark VIII for 1994 but by then SUV's had really taken hold in this country leaving not only the market for the Mark VIII tiny, but the market for two door sedans in general tiny as well. Lincoln hasn't made a two Mark, or anything with two doors, since 1999. Although the Fox platform underwent a near complete redesign for the 1994 Mustang, it technically remained in production under the Mustang through 2004 making it, along with Panther chassis and Model T, one of the longest running and successful platforms in Ford history. 

"Hot Rod Lincoln" is a song by singer songwriter Charlie Ryan and a recording of it by Johnny Bond was first released in 1955. The song is about a hot rodded Ford Model A powered by a Lincoln V-12 engine and not a song, literally, about a Lincoln automobile. The most famous version of the song was recorded by Commander Cody and released in 1971. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

2001 Mercedes Benz CL600 - Too Good To Be True

Mercedes Benz did a great job with their early 2000's big cars especially their S class coupes and their sporting hard top, shorter wheel base offshoots, the CL series. They were a welcome respite from the oh-so-dreary rolling blocks of granite they pushed out in the 1990's. These big Benz' hard tops had me at hello when they first came out and from time to time I've thought about picking one up on the cheap but being so rare, they're hard to find. Careful what you wish for. I found our soon to be 16 year old, 75,000 mile subject here in Cleveland for sale for an eye brow raising low price of just $4,000. 4G's for a car that originally stickered for $123,390 and has only 75,000 miles on her? What could go wrong? 

Ha. Well, plenty and we'll get to that in a second. First, lets talk about the stunning rate of depreciation on these cars. About ten years ago when we were living in Dallas, I had a thought about jumping on a 2002 CL500, the 500 has a 5 liter V-8 where as our 600 here has a 5.8 liter V-12, that I found for sale at a Mercedes dealer in the Dallas - Fort Worth area. The asking price was in the low 20's. Wow. Certainly doable but even then the depreciation concerned me. 

Part of the problem is supply and demand; there just wasn't and still isn't a large enough market anywhere for these cars to retain their resale value. Think of this car as a very expensive piece of surgical equipment - sure it's the best but who needs it aside from hospital surgeons? And once it's deemed obsolete it's all but worthless. Still works quite well, if you're lucky, but once it's tagged "old" it's pushed out the door. Anyone in the market for an old Proton Beam Therapy System? 

That's why big, expensive cars, much like surgical equipment, are most often times leased. Now, the original "owner" of this car no doubt paid an exorbitant monthly lease fee to "own" this car, but they were protected from free fall depreciation by the terms of the lease; once they were done with the term they were free of it. It was the dealership's problem then to push a car that was relatively worthless onto some poor shnook, like me, who loves it for what it is. 

The biggest reason this car is so cheap is because it's not cheap to fix. Mercedes Benz' are notoriously over engineered and that over engineering results in frightening repair costs when that gee whiz stuff stops working. For instance, these cars have something called "Active Body Control" which is a computerized suspension system. For a nose heavy, 4,200 pound car it works wonders - when it's working. Now, not only is this car maddingly complex and difficult to work on, the parts for it are stupifyingly expensive. How much so? For instance, one rebuilt, hydropneumatic  front shock absorber will run you more than $700. And that's an online price. At a dealership you're looking at north of a grand and remember, that's just for one. Plus installation since even I would probably flinch at doing work on this car. For $700 I can rebuild my 2002 Monte Carlo's suspension system and brakes and still have enough left over for steak dinner for my wife and I. 

That's too bad because this is a gorgeous car that looks to be in near show room condition. Alas, as with most things in life, if it seems to good to be true it most likely is. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

1961 Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe - Lightning In A Bottle

The 1961 Chevrolet Impala is best known for being the first Chevrolet passenger car that was available with Chevrolet's "big block", 348 cubic inch truck engine. The 348 part of the "Super Sport" or "SS" option that also included "competition" suspension and brakes. While the 348 did provide a significant increase in performance compared to even the most powerful 283 cubic inch small block engine available at the time, it overshadowed the fact that Chevrolet caught lightning in a bottle with the overall design of the Impala Sport Coupe regardless of what was under the hood. 

Years ago as part of what was called "Planned Obsolescence", Chevrolet changed their designs so often it seemed their models where all new every year. That constant changing of design, incidentally, not always resulting in the best looking automobiles. As if by accident, though, that incessant kneading, prodding, slicing and dicing resulted in the 1961 Impala Sport Coupe that is without a doubt one of the best looking automobiles of all time.  

What made the car so special, in addition to terrific proportion and balance fore and aft that you just don't see in today's appliance like automobiles, was that bubble like rear windshield glass. 

The absence of a sedan's center pillar, elegant rear pillars and that special rear glass do wonders for this car's roof line. The tasteful restraint of the still fairly flamboyant flanks, reminiscent of the wonton styling of the 1950's, works very well with that roof. This car looks like it's going fast even when standing still. 

Compare our subject to a 1961 Impala two door sedan. While that lip on the rear roof line is somewhat interesting, the presence of a center pillar and the comparatively flat rear windshield make this car almost dowdy looking by comparison. This is the Impala two door your dad would have driven. 

You, on the other hand, being satisfied with nothing less than the dashing Sport Coupe whether or not it's an SS model. By the way, our 283 cubic inch Southern California subject here is for sale on ebay with bids now over $22,000 and the reserve still not met. Might sound like a lot of money for a car that needs a $10,000 paint job but when you see immaculate 1961 Impala Sport Coupes for sale for nearly $100,000, it might be a good investment. 

The interior has already been done and this being a SoCal car, it doesn't have a spec of rust anywhere. The engine has been rebuilt and the two speed Power Glide tossed for a three speed turbo 350; the older these cars get, the more "numbers matching" doesn't mean as much as it used to. Besides, modern components in these classic cars make for a much more satisfying drive. I'd also add power steering, brakes and upgrade the suspension as well. But that's just me. Oh, and add seat belts too. Yikes. 

For 1962, save for the Chevrolet Bel Air, all of GM's bubble tops where gone; hard tops looking like convertibles but without the fabulous rear glass that makes these cars so distinctive. Fashion trendsetters as fickle as they are, no doubt the bubble tops made these cars, at the time, look old fashioned since that style did emulate some of the wonderful fast back designs of the 1930's and 1940's. While Chevrolet did have some memorable designs toward the end of the 1960's, nothing came close to the time they caught lightning in bottle with these 1961 Sport Coupes.  

To learn more about lightning and electricity, in 1752, Benjamin Franklin and his son William supposedly flew a kite during a storm to capture electrical energy in a primitive capacitor called a Leydan Jar. While certainly a most difficult task to accomplish, and there is much speculation Mr. Franklin never actually conducted such a dangerous experiment, his alleged dalliance with static electricity spawned the modern colloquialism denoting difficult tasks and moments of brilliant artistic inspiration.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

1977 Ford LTD - Big Red

This 1977 Ford LTD has sat for sale in this used car lot south west of Cleveland for a very long time. Have to wonder who would buy it. And at an asking price of $3,950. Wow.

It's sat here as long as it has because it's a Malaise Era, four door Ford sedan and it's red on red. The fact it's in the shape it's in is really doesn't matter. This is a tough car to sell. Perhaps someone might be sentimental about a big Ford that they remember growing up with and has a little cash to spend on a novelty. Hope they have the room for it; nothing quite like getting the thing home and realizing it doesn't fit in the garage. That happened to my dad years ago when he traded in his not small 1968 Ford Ranch Wagon for an enormous 1970 Buick Electra that didn't fit in the garage like the Ranch Wagon did. Big Red here is big, 224 inches long big. To put that into perspective, if a modern Ford Taurus is "big" at approximately 203 inches long, this car is almost two feet longer. Measure the garage before you make an offer.

I grew up with lumbering oafs like this and their sheer bulk made them quite difficult to manuever. At a tad under five feet ten, I'm of average height and I was terrified of driving these things for fear I'd run into something. Over boosted steering, spongy brakes and wallowing suspensions doing nothing to inspire confidence behind the wheel. And man were they thirsty. Expect at best 12-13 miles per gallon highway if this thing has the 351 engine. Might be even worse with the over taxed 302.

Too expensive to be a demolition derby car and far too pretty to be bashed into oblivion, this car also suffers from ignominy of not being worth anywhere near its asking price. Even at two grand I wouldn't touch it; maybe at $1,500 which I still think is all the money in the world for it but then, again, the darn thing is firetruck red. Now, if it was a wagon or had two doors instead of four it would be a different story but then the asking price would be double if not closer to $10,000. Still, this is a 1977 Ford LTD, it's not exactly a 1955 Thunderbird. The only LTD's of this vintage worth a dime are the very hard to find 1971-72 convertibles. Good luck finding one of those and if you did, be prepared to spend a small fortune on it.

A quick check of the interior would indicate that the mileage, 38,000, is true. What's more, it would appear that this car has spent the majority of it's forty years garaged. Ok, so, this car is like a never used, still in the box VCR from the 1980's. Big deal. Might as well be a new typewriter.

Remarkably, these 1969-1978, full size Fords are the second best selling Fords of all time behind the Model T. A lot of that success having to do with a lack of competition. This 1977 Ford being sold in a time before the influx of game changing automobiles from Japan. Once Americans got their hands on Accords and Camry's it was lights out for the big American car. Back in the day Ford pushed out 400,000 of these cars a year; today they're lucking if they can sell 100,000 Taurus a year. Blame SUV's and CUV's for as much of that drop off as the wonder cars from Asia.

Ford wisely marketed the size of these cars against the all new for 1977 and substantially smaller "full size" cars from General Motors. Can't imagine too many people actually preferring these cars over the more nimble new GM's but family car buyers are a conservative lot, they like what they know and are skeptical of change. Although Ford hit the "larger is better" mantra with these cars with gusto, they were well on their way to replacing them with the far smaller "Panther" platform that would underpin all of their full size models starting in 1979.

I spotted Big Red again last weekend when my wife and I were coming up from Columbus. I'd love to take it for a spin just to wallow in it's soft cushions and marvel at it's horrible steering, mushy suspension and overall "Malaise Era" mediocrity but I'm not into wasting anyone's time. If you've got a hankering for a big ole slab of 1970's Americana shoot me an email and I'll hook you up. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

1996 Chevrolet Impala SS - Lipstick On A Pig

Years ago, General Motors had a curious habit of discontinuing production on cars just as they got them right  - or as right as they could be. The 1969 Corvair and 1988 Pontiac Fiero come to mind as examples of cars they tweaked and prodded for years and then, just as they got them right, poof, they were gone. Another example is the 1994-1996 Chevrolet Impala SS incarnation of the 1991 Chevrolet Caprice.

The 1994-1996 Impala SS was born of the ashes of GM's comical 1991 "Shamu" Caprice, one of the most bizarre, dare I say botched, redesigns in automobile history. The 1991 Caprice struggled to find buyers and while much of that struggle had to do with a market shift away from sedans towards SUV's, the car's over the top styling certainly didn't help. Still, the 1991 Caprice was nothing if not distinctive if somewhat handsome looking from certain angles; copious studio lighting helping our brochure car look almost glamorous. The most unusual styling detail being the quasi fender skirting on the rear quarter panels. Personally, I never warmed to it and often wondered, like many people I would have to imagine, would the car look more conventional, mainstream and less controversial without the skirts? careful what you wish for. Not unlike the 1974 Buick Riviera sans boat tail, for 1993 Chevrolet removed the '91 Carprice's most distinctive styling detail and turned what was a strange, albeit balanced design into one that was suddenly unbalanced and drab; in addition to still being strange looking. That awkwardness stemming from the fact that the rear wheels didn't quite line up perfectly in the wheel wells; they looked fine on the fender skirted models since the misalignment appeared to part of the design but the rear end on the car needed a complete overhaul from the rear doors back with the skirts gone to balance things out and...Chevrolet opted not to do that. Why? We can only guess it was because GM knew they were going to off the car in just a couple of years and went the less expensive and time consuming route of just removing the skirts to appease buyers who didn't appreciate them. While it ruined any semblance of design unity on the Caprice, there's no doubt it did wonders for the Impala SS that came in 1994. 

Can't imagine what a fender skirted Impala SS would have looked like. Amazing what a little sprucing up can do for a car; the addition of sharp and beefy aluminum 18 inch rims, a lowered police car suspension, a blacked out grill and removal of most of the chrome from the Caprice and an otherwise forgettable automobile was suddenly Prom King. Actually, these cars were so big the entire prom could have fit in it. There was also the matter of a new-for-1994, 260 horsepower, 350 cubic inch LT-1 V-8 that helped turned the car into a performance watershed. Sometimes, lip stick on a pig works wonders.

It's ironic that in 1994 a sub model of the Caprice, which was for all intents and purposes the top of the line Caprice, was called Impala. Caprice began as a top of the line trim level of Impala in 1965.

The 1994-1996 Impala SS washed away most of the sins of the 1993 Caprice and let's be honest, the 1991 Caprice as well. However, despite cheap gas in the 1990's, Impala SS was unable to stem the tide of buyers who would have bought it ten years prior from buying the scourge of the full size car in the 1990's, sport utility vehicles. 

If you can't beat them, build them. Irony of ironies, after 1996, General Motors closed the Arlington, Texas factory that made these cars retooling it to build sport utility vehicles. Seeing how long it takes to rebuild a factory, it is interesting that General Motors spent any time on building a low volume, niche vehicle like the 1994-1996 Chevrolet Impala SS. Personally, I've always been glad that they did since it's always been one of only a handful of sedans that I've ever liked enough to seriously consider buying. Still, these cars are a curiosity.