A lanky father’s decision leads to a lifelong passion for his son
Editor’s note: Please welcome Barry Wolk and his “Continental Chronicles.”
Growing up around Detroit in the 1950s, about the closest thing to seeing foreign cars was playing “Slug-Bug” in the back seat. My father owned an ad agency and worked out of our house. His “image” was his car. He always went to his clients, so he always drove something snazzy. My earliest recollections were of a ’64 Wildcat convertible in white with a red interior, followed by an Electra 225 in the reverse color combo. After my sister burned a hole in the convertible top with a sparkler (I got blamed for poor supervision), he bought a Toronado.
By 1970, he was fairly successful and didn’t mind showing it. He wanted to step up his game and thought a Jaguar XKE would do the trick. Who could disagree? He went to a dealer, wedged his skinny 6-foot-6 frame into the car, and immediately got his size 15 boot stuck behind the brake/clutch pedals. He could not get out. People in the showroom had a great laugh at his attempt, but laughter turned to concern as his anxiety mounted. No matter which way he twisted, his left knee would hit the door.
The dealership manager had an office overlooking the showroom. The commotion got his attention and he came out to assess what was wrong. He called out to his lead mechanic. As the old guy got to the car he immediately assessed the problem, reached into his pocket and pulled out a small ratchet and a handful of sockets. He unbolted the door check strap, which provided the requisite extraction room. My father left the dealership showroom without saying a word, went to the closest Lincoln dealer, and bought a new 1970 Lincoln Coupe.
If they drove cars in the Star Wars movies, this would have been Darth Vader’s ride. It was jet black with no vinyl top. The black leather interior added to the look. The newly-introduced Firestone radial whitewall tires quickly self-destructed. He had the dealer install Michelin Red Lines to finish the look. The car had so little chrome adornment it looked “murdered,” to use modern slang. As a teenager I was enamored with that car, but I never got to drive it, or any of his cars. His cars were his business facade and he didn’t want his goofball son messing up his pride and joy. Looking back, I can see why. I was a senior in high school and shared the worst date car with my mother. Imagine, if you will, a four-door 1967 Delmont 88 in Canary Yellow with a white painted top. There wasn’t even a molding between the colors. To top it off, it had a baby-puke green interior. Like I said, worst date car, ever.
In May 2002, my wife and I were about to celebrate our 30th anniversary with a party in the freshly completed nine-year renovation of our home. Why did it take nine years? To be fair, I did take six years to complete the lower level of the house that we’d worked on seven days a week for 2½ years before moving in. My wife was a terrific helper, but we both ran out of steam after we moved into the upper level, so we left the walk-out for later. My wife enticed me to finish it before our 30th with the statement that if it was not finished in time she would “hire a hitman, take the insurance money and hire the worst hack” to finish what I started. That got my attention.
With the walk-out finished, I started devoting more effort to the outside of the house. I was weeding the landscape in preparation for our anniversary party when I heard, and saw, the most beautiful triple-black 1977 Town Car sputter, cough, and stall in front of our house. I was in awe, possibly dumb-struck. I had a visceral reaction that turned into a full-blown flashback.
The poor guy looked like he was about to pop a gasket. I gave him the “roll your window down” sign. He scowled back in response, but lowered his window. I said, “Nice car!” He replied, “Wanna buy it?” I did, I really did. I knew exactly what was wrong with it, as the 460 engine was prone to burning intake manifold gaskets between the exhaust and intake ports. I also knew that the EGR-valve was easily fouled by chunks of carbon keeping the valve open, creating another massive vacuum leak as the engine got too much exhaust to recycle.
We started negotiating and I saw I had the upper hand as it’s tough to sell a car that ran so badly. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Townie had only 12,870 miles on it, 25 years old. I looked at the brake pedal and it had virtually no wear, one factor in verifying mileage. Money changed hands, and I owned my first “collector” car. We had always had a fun car to drive like our TR6, but nothing like this time capsule. I spent a weekend and $129 in parts and fluids, enlisting my wife’s help to lower the massive intake manifold in place.
It turned out the guy lived only two houses away, but I had never seen the car before. When I got the car running right I asked him and his wife to join us for a ride in the car and then dinner to celebrate. The two were reclusive people. In fact, no one had ever sat in the back seat. They were the first to break in the pillowy, black, velour back seat. On the way to dinner they revealed the 25-year history of the car. He was a Ford executive at the transmission plant, I believe. He ordered the car as his lease vehicle, but deleted the opera window, clunky side body moldings, and ordered it with the half-vinyl roof. He’d wanted a plain metal top, but they would not build it that way as it was far less of a problem to install vinyl than it would be to finish the roof to a satisfactory level.
At dinner he explained that he’d accumulated just 7000 miles on the Lincoln by the time the two-year lease was up and decided to buy it from Ford as a keeper. They had a two-car garage, so he decided to take the car to their summer home in northern Michigan, near Traverse City. They would use the car for special occasions, but most of the miles were driven by his wife, just to put miles on the car to keep the fluids circulating and the seals from leaking. It spent the next 23 years being pampered in a heated garage. In fact, he weatherproofed the summer house and shut everything off, but left the heat on in the garage for the car all winter.
The Lincoln came with historical plates, but the old grouch wouldn’t transfer them, so I applied and was turned down because the car wasn’t 26 years old—even though the guidelines say 25. I brought the conflicting rulings to the branch manager, who had to ask the boss in Lansing whether the car had to be a full 25 years and 364 days old to be considered, or was 25 model years the proper ruling? I convinced them that the vast majority of people have zero idea what date their car was built, so the KISS method (Keep It Simple, Stupid) should rule. I got the plates.
Our collection has grown, so the ’77 Lincoln doesn’t get much use anymore. It’s still fun to take to shows. It elicits a lot of, “My grandfather had one just like that!” I later learned that when we met the previous owner, he had a terminal ailment. He had just brought the car down from Traverse City to dispose of it. That must have been a hard thing to do. At 67, I dread those decisions, but you’d better make them while you can, lest you end up the subject of the old joke about telling your significant other what things are really worth so they don’t sell them for what you actually told them you paid.