Thirty-two years is a long time. That’s how many years the Panther chassis-based Town Car will have been made when the last on rolls off the line in 2011. And to what can we credit this remarkable longevity? Brilliant engineering; or insightful marketing strategy? How about a big helping of GM’s boneheadedness mixed in with equal dashes of Ford cheapness and stubbornness. Sometimes you just get handed things handed to you on a platter. Although in the case of the Panther TC, it took a couple of years of anxiety before Ford realized what had been given them: the keys to the last traditional American car.
It was not a happy beginning though. After reluctantly abandoning the out sized Lincoln barges of 1979, having hung on years longer than GM, Ford bit the downsizing bullet. And it hurt. If ever GM’s styling prowess was put to a difficult and unasked-for task, it was the vast resizing of their large cars in 1977. And they pulled it off with remarkable results. It helped that their ’71-’76 cars had become inflated walruses, but the B-Bodies of 1977 maintained a sense of dignity, proportion and style, despite the radical pruning.
One would think that the extra couple of years Ford took for their grand liposuction would pay off. Not so; the 1979 LTD and Marquis looked boxy and ill-proportioned on their 114″ wheelbase, especially so the ungainly coupes. And the Lincoln, riding a slightly longer 117″ wb, suffered from the same maladies. The coupe versions in particular, both the Town Coupe and the truly pathetic Mark VI, were painful to look at, like a victim of horribly botched cosmetic surgery. Instead of starting with a clean sheet, it looked like a scissors and paste version of a bad photo-chop.
Sales went into free-fall. In 1981, less than 70k Lincolns were sold; one third of just a couple of years earlier. The ’81 recession didn’t help, but Lincoln jumped the shark with these. The Town Coupe was such a mess that it was euthanized within a couple of years, and the Mark VI slogged along a few years longer. Meanwhile GM was selling its handsome E-Body coupes in record numbers. But then came the great act of self-mutilation.
In 1985, GM launched its second bout of wholesale miniaturization, and this time they jumped the killer whale. The FWD Caddy DeVille was now barely bigger than a Chevy Citation. Yes, it was a miracle in terms of interior space utilization in relation to exterior length, but that was not the criteria that counted for much of anything at the golf club. And in that most painful chapter of GM’s self-destruction, it handed Ford the keys to Town Car immortality, success and big profits.
Everything is relative, and compared the the mini-Caddys, yesterday’s truncated Lincoln was suddenly today’s “traditional” land yacht. And there was a huge market of traditionalists wanting one. Sales exploded: in 1985 over 167k Lincolns found newly appreciative owners. In 1988, Lincoln actually outsold Cadillac, a feat that would have seemed absurd to contemplate a few years earlier. And the Town Car was the backbone of Lincoln’s resuscitation.
A gaggle of other Lincolns didn’t hurt, mostly. The T-Bird based Mark VII had a nice run, and actually provided a pleasant driving experience, in the LSC version. It epitomized Ford’s abilities to make do with what they had, but with some honest and genuine feeling (and results). The FWD V6 Taurus-based Continental was the Mark VII’s polar opposite; Ford laid an egg with that, and its stink was all-too obvious, all too soon.
But Ford left the TC mostly alone, save for a couple of major restyles along the way. GM saw the error of its ways, and tried a rather embarrassing comeback with the Caprice-based ’93 Fleetwood. But that soon went away to make production room for more Suburbans and Escalades. It wasn’t a serious threat to the Town Car’s hegemony by then anyway, especially since fleets had long adopted it as their own. A simple and rugged RWD BOF car is what everyone from taxis, police and limo operators found to be the cheapest way to get the job done, and the Panthers were willing to oblige. Ford is keeping its TC line running through 2011 to give them a chance to stock up and prepare for the end, whatever that means. But the end is in sight, for the lucky and plucky Town Car. Note to Ford: send a Thank You card to GM before you turn off the lights on the TC line.