The last time anyone in this office can remember the pleasure of driving a Lincoln Town Car was sometime back in the 1980s when it was the rental-upgrade vehicle of choice. Back then, Detroit car dealers waged an advertising war over which make had the longer car, Cadillac or Lincoln. Gradually, Cadillac found its head and drove the DeVille up and away from the fusty Town Car with a superb big-car touring suspension, the great Northstar V-8, and excellent brakes. Cadillac became the clear choice for those who wanted a bit of driving refinement with their all-American dose of luxury. The DeVille has been one of the bestselling luxury cars in America for the past fifteen years.
But Lincoln and the Town Car kept one hugely influential client firmly parked in its corner: the livery businessas in, New York City's famous black-car trade. Talk to any private car service drivers in the city about their machinery, and they'll give it to you straight: It's a Lincoln Town Car kind of business.
"Town Cars are tougher than Cadillacs," insists Mike Vukovic, who's had two in the sixteen years he's been with Tel-A-Car, a private car service stationed in Queens. "They can take this city better. I'd guess that 99 percent of the car service here is Town Car."
That makes sense. Town Cars never went away from sturdy body-on-frame construction and rear-wheel drive. Simple and effective. From talking to Tel-A-Car drivers over the past decade, it appears that Town Cars are virtually indestructible. Vukovic's current car, a '95 Town Car, has 410,000 miles racked up, and it's going strong on the original engine. He put in a new front end at 60,000 miles, and the gearbox was good for an impressive 350,000 miles. "The transmissions on 2000 and 2001 models in the fleet are just going right away," he says. Brakes aren't holding up in the '95 model; Vukovic thinks it's because of all the city braking. If you've ever taken a paid-for ride in the city, you have an inkling that he's probably right.
Vukovic has his favorite Town Car: "The 1988. That was the best. I put 625,000 miles on one. I couldn't kill that carit killed me!"
More important to me, the passenger, is that Town Car back seats are great. You snuggle in, stick your legs out, and hope your driver's particular brand of dangling air freshener won't gag you as you sail down Madison Avenue.
When I was invited to the press launch of the radical new 2003 Town Car, I felt I should bring a proper New York driver with me so I could effectively evaluate the car as I knew and loved it. Luckily, my brother and sister-in-law (both automotive writers) were among the esteemed fourth estate in attendance and agreed to haul me around in the manner to which I have become accustomed.
May I say, yuck. Someone has trashed my perfectly wonderful Town Car back seat, and heads should roll! It wasn't quite apparent when I jumped in somewhere near Los Angeles, other than the fact that the seat bottom cushions felt a little short. I couldn't quite understand the reasoning for skimping on the cushion; we were in an extended-wheelbase Cartier edition, which meant that, with almost 6 inches of extra rear floor length, there was a ton more legroom than even these 34-inch inseams could take up at full stretch. Very quickly, I discovered that not only was it short, but it was covered in a smooth leather that worked like Teflon on my linen-clad bottom. Each time my brother hit the brakes (not as often as Mike Vukovic), I slid out and would have been dumped on the floor if the shoulder harness hadn't instantly locked up. Unfortunately, it wouldn't unlock, which meant I was trapped like a rat under a rigid shoulder harness, half dumped out onto the large expanse of plush floor carpeting. I unbuckled, slid up, buckled, and had it happen all over again. There was so much floor in front of me that I had nothing to brace my feet on, so I just had to unbuckle, adjust, and rebuckle six times on the way to my final release in Santa Barbara.
Let me segue immediately into my own drive of the 2003 Town Car. It's still no DeVille DTS, but it's about a bazillion percent better to drive than it ever was. The suspension has been radically redesigned to virtually eliminate the former car's tendency to wander and roll. Brakes are better, too, Vukovic. And the interior is really classy. The exterior is more upright (if that's possible), which suits its aged (sixty-to-seventy-year-old) and rabidly loyal customer base (nearly 60 percent repeat buyers, most of whom never even consider an-other car).
"You know what?" asks Richard Beattie, Lincoln's vice president of marketing, sales, and service. "The car is still very profitable for us. And our salespeople are extremely en-thusiastic about it." Which is a lot tamer than his usual quotes.
I felt it necessary to head back to New York City for a back-seat refresher in Vukovic's 410,000-mile Town Car. You know how fickle our memories can be. And I did another stint in the back of forty-year-veteran driver Anatoly Fishman's 1999 Town Car with 89,615 miles on the odometer. (His first of three Town Cars was a 1986 model that he gave to his brother-in-law after 370,000 miles with the original engine and transmission, a feat he credits to his daily warmup routine of five minutes in the summertime and ten minutes in the winter.)
This is what I discovered. The old Town Cars have shoulder harnesses that don't lock. They have longer seat cushions. And after 400,000 miles of constant passengering, any car's back seat would have a butt pocket straight to China.