Piston Slap: Setting The Record Straight For A Tall and Solid Panther Man

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

TTAC reader Turtletop writes:

Sajeev:

I have a good friend who’s looking for his next chariot. I’ve wrenched on his cars for years now and am the one he calls when he has auto-related questions. He’s a tall and solid man, looking for a nice, comfortable and reliable ride that he fits into without bumping his head. After a long chit-chat, I suggested a Grand Marquis as a possible choice. Though my friend is averse to American iron after some bad previous experiences, I think Panthers are on his radar now. Problem is, I haven’t enough direct experience with them to offer confident recommendations on what to look for, and I don’t want to steer him wrong.

Fortunately, I know just the man to talk to! Thus, my inquiry to you.

What are the variables to consider when searching for a used Panther? Are there any particular engines, transmissions or model years that you would recommend over others, or avoid completely? Thanks for your consideration!

Sajeev answers:

Variables? You wanna talk variables?

My friend, let me tell you: the people behind the Panther are a case study in Continuous Improvement, contrary to what homework-averse journos say to (indirectly?) placate Dearborn’s intentions to erase their insanely profitable heritage. It’s less of a VW Beetle and more of a Toyota Corolla. More to the point, this isn’t a re-skinned Mazda-Fusion or Volvo-Taurus. Relatively speaking, those platforms are engineering hackjobs: the Panther’s been a “custom” machine from day one. Hence why it must die.

I swear, if this was an F-150 or Mustang, nobody would bat an eye at Panther Love. And we’ve danced around the subject several times, here and here. Maybe I should spout off the trouble spots/concerns/changes I remember from day one: as detailed yet concise as possible. So here goes:

1979: While a clean sheet design from the start, the ownership problems centered around its malaise-era emissions controls. Too old to be considered a daily driver today anyway, the 1979 Panther’s problem was their second generation emissions control systems (EEC-II) and variable-venturi carburetors on the 5.0L V8. While the optional 5.8L was better, these cars are still nothing to write home about, considering their General Motors competition at the time. It truly was the dark ages of electronics and emissions.

1980: The Lincoln Continental (and Town Car) joined the Panther Club while Ford’s automatic overdrive (AOD) transmission debuted this year. While not as terrible as Chrysler’s Ultradrive cog-swapper in their premium sedans (years later), the AOD was a shameful design until a few modest internal upgrades arrived around 1988. And even then, they were a dog in terms of performance and were only moderately reliable in the long term. The more I learned about the AOD when building my own hi-po unit, the more I wondered why Ford didn’t let GM make their transmissions, like they did with the Saginaw power steering pumps.

1981: Under pressure from a supposed Mid-East Energy Crisis II, Ford was deluded enough to shrink down the 5.0L with a 4.2L gas sipper(?) as standard equipment. Combined with 1980’s AOD tranny and 1979’s electronic-emissions goodness, this year is a triple threat if you don’t check under the hood. Again, a moot point for a Panther Buyer’s Guide in the year 2011.

1982: All new was the deletion of the 5.8L motor for anyone but Cops and non-US citizens. Also the Continental abandoned the Panther Chassis to be reborn as a Fox. And now the Town Car name takes center stage. More to the point, nothing happened this year.

1983: The 4.2L was mercifully executed, and the 5.0L was topped off with Ford’s EEC-III computer system and central fuel injection. While 100% awesome when it worked, and it worked quite well…I will let any of the B&B’s veteran wrenchers describe this system when it fails. I own an EEC-III powered vehicle and I refuse to comment.

1984: EEC-III, obviously a stopgap measure, was tossed in favor of Ford’s surprisingly world-class EEC-IV system. Even with only two fuel injectors and 140 horses coming from 5.0 liters, that’s an impressive upgrade. Too bad the Lincoln Mark series abandoned the Panther for the Fox, continuing the trend to “MK” branded Lincolns parking themselves on non-Lincolny chassis. But I digress…

1985: Nothing terribly important, except the Town Car got a slick new taillight treatment and a slicker front bumper/fender/grille. Wait, that’s pretty impressive.

1986: Sequential Port Fuel Injection and a host of internal upgrades (metal timing gears, roller camshaft) made its debut, albeit with far less power than the flagship application in the 5.0 Mustang and Lincoln Mark VII. The Panther is starting to surpass its GM competition, and it’s getting a reputation for being stupid durable too.

1987: Focus on last year’s improvements. That’s what Ford did.

1988: Significant outside refreshing put the Panther Ford/Mercury more in-line with the Taurus/Sable (as if) but nothing significantly different inside or under the skin. Oh, and they killed the Panther Coupe, a couple of years after GM did the same.

1989: Consider this the moment when old people finally embraced technology: according to www.grandmarq.net, all Panther’s now have a Check Engine light.

1990: The Ford and Mercury received significant interior upgrades, while Lincoln went nuts with a complete redesign. This was the era of the “Fat Panther” when Ford invested heavily in luxury and technology with this platform. From a buyer’s perspective: many trim bits to the 1990 Town Car are completely unique, so don’t bump into one. You will send it to the junkyard if an insurance company prices the replacement parts.

1991: This is the last year for the (EEC-II) 5.8L powered Cop Cars, and this Ford/Mercury body style. The Town Car is an orphan again, sporting an all-new SOHC 4.6L V8 and electronically controlled AOD “E” transmission. The tranny is somewhat indestructible, but earlier 4.6s are known to burn oil due to worn valve guides after well over 100,000 miles of use. Hence why nobody knows or cares about this problem.

1992: Every Panther is now sleek, cutting edge and super quiet on windy days, thanks to the Aero-thinking of the new Crown Vic and Grand Marquis. It was a significantly different chassis, especially around the firewall. The Grand Marquis was shocking: sporting a nose very similar to the Vignale Lincoln concept of 1987. The Ford Panther received a Touring Sedan model that, as Paul Neidermeyer eloquently mentioned, is arguably the best Pistonhead Panther ever made. All models are now powered by a cammer-V8 that’s stupid smooth, somewhat rev happy and fairly efficient. And the old AOD-E was given the heave-ho, Ford’s wide ratio 4R70W went in its place. It didn’t get “Panther reliable” until 1998 or so.

1993: The Town Car got a new grille and the Crown Vic received a tacky snout to replace its sleek Taurus-like nose. The awesome Touring Sedan also bit the dust. Disappointing year, but this platform was essentially all-new last year.

1994: Nothing that I can (quickly) verify with outside sources. Again, refer to the shocking changes in 1992.

1995: The Grand Marquis received new fascias and a newer (Crown Vic too) dashboard, but there’s a significant redesign to the Town Car’s interior and exterior, resulting in the “fattest” Fat Panther ever made. While no Aston Martin inside, the Town Car (especially in Cartier trim) was a high watermark for the Panther Chassis. And a great luxury car for the asking price. The “Fat Panther” did it all, including the option of three power steering settings: limp, numb or comatose. The latter was obviously the best choice. It absolutely rocked on the interstate.

1996: EEC-IV was replaced with EEC-V (a.k.a. OBD-II to most) that resulted in a plastic intake manifold known to crack around the thermostat housing. Most Panthers survive the failure, even if they leave the owner stranded. True to Detroit form, a class action lawsuit remedied the problem. Which is long gone, but the replacement part (Dorman) is cheap and somewhat simple to replace. You, being a skilled wrench, could replace it for your friend in 2-3 hours.

1997: Significant de-contenting to the “Fat Panther” Town Car, because the future CEO (then head of Automobile Operations) of the company wasn’t called “Jac The Knife” for no reason. Perhaps Jac Nasser himself put that bullet hole in its (now exposed) vanity trunk lock cover. The world may never know!

1998: Give a lot, but take even more. The Crown Vic’s Taurus-a-like greenhouse was trashed in favor of the same unit in the Grand Marquis. All Panthers were redesigned with disturbing amounts of Panther Love removed from the interior, with a fair amount of upgrades under their more conservative (or less, in Lincoln’s case) skin. This includes: gigantic disc brakes, a Watts-Link rear axle, aluminum suspension bits with better geometry and other, smaller upgrades.

1999: Not much, unless you count the Town Car’s door keypad coming back to the options list. Maybe they discreetly learned their bean counting lesson: even the new MKS has the buttons, and it’s a real slick design. Great landing, wrong airport.

2000: Ditto, except the Town Car had a storage nook in both front doors, as opposed to the false access panel on the 1998-1999 model’s passenger portal.

2001: Supposedly this is the first year of power adjustable pedals: great for short people, or really tall ons. Even better, this was the year of the long wheelbase Panther, saving many livery users the insult of pinched feet. Why this wasn’t standard for all Lincoln and Mercury Panthers is a mystery.

2002: New “Performance Improved” cylinder heads woke up the beast, but only if you drove it back-to-back with older ones. This also changed the intake manifold to a non-exploding design.

2003: Significant cosmetic upgrades to the Town Car, even if they deleted every chrome interior bit for some painted bronze bullshit. The Ford and Mercury didn’t change much, as everything great happened under the skin: hydroformed steel sub-frames, tons of aluminum in the suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, monotube shocks, different suspension geometry and even side airbags. This was also the first year of the hot-rod Marauder and the last for the Cartier-fettled Town Car.

2004: Last year of the Marauder, numerous upgrades to the transmission used in both this top-dog Mercury and the Cop Car Ford. The Crown Victoria LX Sport came to provide all the bad-ass attitude of the Marauder but without the engine, interior gauges and insane MSRP markups.

2005: First year of the Grand Marquis LSE, basically a Crown Vic LX Sport without the sinister look. Combined with all models receiving drive-by-wire throttle, this was a sweet sleeper. If it had a ballsier engine. Speaking of balls, this was the year Dearborn officially marked the Panther for death via introduction of the Five Hundred/Montego sedans.

2006: All models got a tachometer. Which is exponentially cooler. It’s far from a direct replacement in older Panthers, don’t go there unless you love re-wiring stuff. The Grand Marquis and non-Cop Crown Vics lost their rear sway bar this year, I think. This is one reason why people complain about the Panther’s performance at rental car lots across the country. If only the 1992 Touring Sedan never left…

2007: A super classy Grand Marquis “Palm Beach” Edition (replacing the Limited) was available, and many (all?) Panthers had E85 capability. Like, awesome…except they killed off the little-known LX Sport package in the Crown Vic.

2008: The Crown Vic went 100% fleet, in hopes the new (sort of) Taurus would take over. Even worse, the Town Car lost many touches from the passing of the “Designer” model, and the THX audio and navigation screen also bit the dust.

2009: The Grand Marquis “GS” bit the dust, so you could no longer get a super cheap fleet Panther (under 20k was commonplace) that rivaled a Mercedes in comfort, for Corolla money.

2010: Lincoln added a Town Car “Continental Edition” which was like the earlier Cartier/Designer model, but without the goodies had before 2008. Truly bizarre, as the Town Car was originally a trim level on the Continental. At least it wasn’t called an “MK Town Car” edition.

2011: The “Continental Edition” makes way for the “Collector’s Edition.” Mercury died, and the last unit from this once-relevant brand is a white Grand Marquis headed for an unknown fleet. It is an end of an Automotive era, not just Ford: gone but never forgotten.

And that’s all I got, without taking a sabbatical to the Detroit Public Library (a must visit destination, IMO) and begging for access to Ford’s archives. I definitely forgot/misplaced many historical changes due to time and space constraints, but this is enough to get your friend hot and bothered about his next love, Panther Love!

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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  • Jedchev Jedchev on May 26, 2011

    Sajeev, I have to hand it to you, you are a true hero for lovers of big American iron, like myself. What a great, informative article. While I am a confirmed GM D-body nut, I get excited everytime I see a mid-nineties Town Car that has been kept up. Those cars get a nod from me, especially because they were the last luxury cars to have the opera window. They made some cool special editions of that pre-98 Lincoln. I've seen the Jack Nicklaus edition, emerald green with a tan carriage top and a tan and green two tone leather interior. There was also another nautical themed Town Car in white with a blue top and white seats with blue carpeting. The name escapes me on that one.

    • Sajeev Mehta Sajeev Mehta on May 26, 2011

      Thank you! The one you are thinking about is the Spinnaker, but the best one is the '96 Cypress edition: it had real wood trim and really wild looking three-tone floormats!

  • Evan Reif Evan Reif on May 26, 2011

    This might not win me a lot of friends here, but a used Lexus LS400 is superior to any Panther in every way possible, and if I wanted a large, V8 RWD luxury car, it'd be my first choice.

    • Jack Baruth Jack Baruth on May 26, 2011

      The LS400 is a great car, until you have to fix an old one, and then it costs ONE ZILLION DOLLARS. Seriously. Go put a transmission in a Panther, then put one in a 2000-year LS430.

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