I can feel a bizarre 60 Hz electric sting at regular, rhythmic intervals on my left shoulder. Buzzzz, buzzzz, pause. Buzzzzz, buzzzz, pause. The sensation, unlike anything I’ve felt before makes the hairs stand up in pin pricks on the back of my neck, yet the pain induces a nearly transcendental calm. An hour or so of this strange meditative ritual passes and the artist has finished my tattoo of the iconic, four pointed Lincoln Continental star.
Approximately 35 years prior to this moment I was taking the first ride in a Continental that I can recall. It wasn’t one of the lauded V12 jobs built at Edsel’s behest, nor was it a low slung MKII. It was a dove grey MKVI of early 1980’s vintage, with four doors and foursquare lines. The only curves on it were the steering wheel, road wheels and the obligatory oval “opera window” on the fat formal C pillar.
I was three years old or so, my grandmother was driving and she was having a hard time keeping my curious little fingers off the row of square, silvery buttons on the ersatz wood dash that called up the functions of the newfangled “trip computer”. The only other computer I knew of was the one that kept track of the inventory at our auto parts store and it was approximately a cubic yard in size, so the one in the Lincoln I felt must be similarly important.
Automotive nostalgia didn’t die off with the muscle car years. Like the car mad youth of previous generations who had access to tired model A’s or perhaps a hand me down Chrysler Newport, the affordable used cars of my youth were the cars of the 70’s and 80’s. Miles spent in my family’s assorted Lincolns, Chevy Blazers and one particularly woeful 4.9 litre Trans-Am had already sown seeds of desire. As a kid who was short on cash but long on imagination, it was a delight to pour over old National Geographics and oggle the bustle backed 1981-1983 Imperial endorsed by Frank Sinatra ! So crisp, formal and dare I say “imperious” next to the jellybean cars of the late 90’s. I saw no reason why I shouldn’t cut an anti-cool dash behind the wheel of a Toyota Celica Liftback, Datsun B-210 or AMC Pacer, I wanted a “wide small car” !
Twenty years hence, age, neglect and “Cash for Clunkers” has rid the road of the cars I was trying to buy in my teenage years. When was the last time you saw a clean K car, I ask you ? Automobiles of any age are amazing cultural artifacts that speak clearly of the people who made them and the times in which they were made. Cars are tactile, tangible and vital, they are almost literally time machines. A car can conjure up the misty past with ease, just like Proust’s madeleine. Yet behind the wheel we can drive them into the future, creating more special memories and connecting with other like minded people to forge lifelong relationships. Nothing connects like cars. And not just cars built before 1972 !
Back in the ‘50’s, what was good for General Motors it was said, was good for the nation, or words to that effect. By the 1970’s increasing air pollution and crippling oil embargoes showed that this wasn’t necessarily the case.The cars of the so called “malaise era” were the first to be manufactured whose design was significantly impacted by government regulations for safety, emissions and later fuel economy.
That the “malaise” was confined only to the decade spanning 1973-1983 is pure bunk. From where I sit the malaise era traverses a distinct arc (perhaps it’s more of a trough ?), beginning in 1972 when compression ratios were dropped across the board in anticipation of the upcoming unleaded fuel. This resulted in a drop in horsepower, which was made even more apparent by the adoption of “net” horsepower ratings in lieu of the previously used and rather more flattering “gross” figures. As the 70’s wore on weight went up and power continued to go down. By 1979 the leviathan Lincoln Continental at 4,649 lbs had the mass of a smallish moon and only 159 bhp (and 315 lbsft of torque) to motivate it. The huge, full size 1979 Continental was to be the last of its breed. For 1980 the Continental and Town Car would be based on Ford’s downsized Panther Platform. Legislation, gas shortages, and changing consumer demand had caused manufacturers to develop new and more suitable products. Development costs were stratospheric and automakers had to amortize their investments over many years therefore much malaise era technology stayed in production for a very long time. Ford’s Panther Platform lasted until 2011 ! But really, the modern era of motorcars began with the standardization of OBDII on US cars in 1996. This provides a simple definition of the era based on technological and legislative milestones, not President Carter’s speech.
To appreciate these too often derided cars, don’t think of the word “malaise” as an epithet, but rather a term of endearment like Tin Lizzie. Malaise doesn’t mean shitty cars, malaise means cars that are fascinating both technologically and stylistically. The almost universally admired 64 1/2 Mustang was just a humble Falcon in a sharp new suit. The Falcon was very much a workaday machine built for price and practicality. Indeed, had Ford’s “whizkid” Robert McNamara gotten his way the Falcon would’ve had a four banger, and had this happened, so too would the Mustang, at least as a base powerplant. Almost exactly a decade later the Mustang II would enter the market place. The Mustang II is one of the favorite whipping boys of the cyberpulp scribes that churn out ill researched “10 worst cars” lists. The Mustang II is of course based on their other favorite whipping boy, the Pinto. Yet, the Pinto and Mustang II were both right for their times and sold in huge numbers. In their entire production runs Uncle Henry managed to shift 3,173,491 Pintos, 1,107,718 Mustang II’s and a further 242,026 Mercury Bobcats (available at the Sign of the Cat !). This makes for a grand total of just over 4.5 million units. Not bad for a car that’s primarily remembered today, at least by the uninitiated, as competition for the hibachi grille. For me, the Pinto stands out more as a car that helped introduce America to such now commonplace technology as steering via precise rack and pinion and four cylinder engines with overhead camshafts. To be sure plenty of other cars had those features first, but the Pinto was a plain ol’ Ford, meant to be everyday transport for everyday people, not a high falutin’ “foreign job”. In the 70’s Ford’s notoriety as the company that built its reputation on the eminently pragmatic Model T was much closer to the popular consciousness then than it is today.
Some canny buyers have started to cotton on and prices for exceptional examples of cars like the Continental MKV and “Smoky and the Bandit” style Trans-Ams have been creeping up in the last five years or so. But there’s still plenty of motoring pleasure to be had with malaise era cars for not a lot of coin. I traded a motorcycle for an ‘89 Town Car which I’ve toured extensively in all weather and the only thing I’ve had to do to it is put in gas and change the oil. Swallow your pride, follow your heart and the delights of malaise motoring are yours to enjoy.