Across 110th Street,
Pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak…
Across 110th Street,
Pushers won’t let the junkie go free…
Every racer worth his HANS Device lives for the first corner after the green flag. It’s in that corner that the most complex problems will present themselves to the driver, and it’s in that corner that he will have the least amount of time to make the right decision. Only one car can come out of each corner first, and if you are that car, it doesn’t matter how you get there. There’s no substitute for it. It gets in your blood the way Africa was once said to get into the blood of adventurous European men, and it swims in your veins the way heroin quickens the junkie’s pulse when the needle punctures the skin.
If you’re an off-season racing junkie looking for a first-corner fix, however, there are few that hit finer or harder than renting a brand-new Crown Vic and putting it sideways on Columbus Circle in the process of beating two taxis and a Town Car to that next seventy-eight-inch wide hole in traffic. Call it Spec Panther Street Racing, call it the most terrifying way to do seventy miles per hour in a modern vehicle, or call it a ridiculous waste of resources, but I call it top-notch fun. It’s so much fun that I made a little road course out of Manhattan and drove it for a couple of hours today, taking a little time out to visit New York’s rest home for aging Panthers, across 110th Street.
In one of the pivotal scenes from The Mack, Pretty Tony accuses the movie’s protagonist, Goldie, of being a “rest home for hos”. Harlem is a rest home for many of the livery industry’s ex-working girls, Town Cars with well over 300,000 miles, some of which are still working the beat in second-tier service. I wanted to see as many of these old Panthers as possible, but it would have been disrespectful and depressing to take a Lucerne or Chrysler 300 into Harlem, right?
It’s still possible to rent a new, or nearly new, Crown Victoria. Dollar Rent-A-Car just picked up hundreds of them, and at least two friends of mine have found their “Premium” rental slot occupied by a Vic with under five thousand miles. I had the choice of eight such vehicles and selected an alloy-wheeled “Law and Order Blue” LX model for my NYIAS trip from sunny Powell, Ohio. I averaged 26.2 mpg running a conservative 76 miles per hour across most of Route 80. Once in Jersey, I found myself being tailgated at all speeds below ninety, but of course the Ford has no difficulty running into triple digits where required. Compared to my 2009 Town Car, the Vic is light on its feet thanks to coil-spring rear suspension, a shorter wheelbase, and a few hundred pounds of missing insulation, but compared to anything else it’s such a barge it should be flying a Liberian flag of convenience.
As Sajeev Mehta will tell you, the finest years for Panther interior appointments were the early years of the “Aero” cars. A mid-Nineties Crown Victoria compared favorably with the competition, but today’s model has had all the cost and some of the charm cut out. Still, the seats are good for long trips and the materials are at least durable. Ask anybody who has sat in the Camry or Prius taxis: it isn’t as easy as one might think to make cheap, washable interior panels that hold up to constant abuse. This is a hard-wearing automobile.
I’m not a frequent Manhattan driver, since I rarely visit the island more than once or twice a year, but I’ve learned enough to pass along some tips to those of you who have never crossed the Lincoln Tunnel. Start with this: forget the lane markers. The de facto lane width is the width of a Crown Vic. If there is a space of that width available, it will be filled. The de facto lane gap is the length of a Crown Vic plus one foot. If you’ve left that much room ahead of you, it will also be filled.
Although I’ve driven some fairly expensive vehicles around New York, doing so will put you at a disadvantage. Bumper rubs and small impacts don’t get reported, and the taxi that hits you may not stop to chat. Buses have the right of way and they will move directly into your path. Parking garages aren’t liable for wheel scrapes or door dings. When I took my green Audi S5 to the Village two years ago, I paid a hundred bucks to have it levered into the air on a free-standing parking lift, all alone in a small corner lot. I worried about it all the way through two sets at the Vanguard. Not a great idea.
Better to fire up a Crown Victoria or Grand Marquis. For the sporting among us, this also guarantees you equality with the taxis. Anything you can do, they can do, and vice versa. I’ve also noticed that fewer taxi and livery drivers will give the absolute chop to a Panther than they will to, say, a Porsche 911. You might be a cop, you might be a city employee, but you’re certainly not a rich jerkoff, right?
Vodka McBigbra, my partner in crime and co-journalist, once found my determination to beat every taxi in New York to the next open spot a bit terrifying, but she now encourages me to make the most aggressive moves humanly possible. My goal is to find myself in a situation where I’ll have to put two wheels on the curb at full speed. It hasn’t happened yet, but with enough time and effort, anything is possible.
We were supposed to attend a couple of new-car introductions today, but all the embargoes were blown early enough to justify skipping those introductions and running up to 149th Street for some fried chicken. The conventional dividing line between midtown and Harlem is 110th Street, as immortalized in the film and soundtrack of the same name:
Today, the 110th Street area is quite expensive, franchise-laden, and purposely cheerful, but not all of the area has been ruined by yuppies.
Here’s a battered old soldier, still running and working despite a demolition-derby-style hit to the rear.
And here we have four old Townies in a row, waiting for their next customer or mission. This far north, it’s possible to park on the street for seventy-five cents an hour and wander around a bit. There’s good food to be had and no enormous neon signs to be seen. We couldn’t stay up here forever, though, so with no remorse whatsoever we rejoined the Fifth Avenue fray, brake-torquing from the lights, using a brief swipe of the left foot to settle the nose over rough pavement, and holding throttle just a half-second longer than the guy next to me. Tomorrow, we’ll spend the day looking at new cars. Some will be destined for success, some will underwhelm, but how many will last as long as any of Harlem’s Panthers?