What a luxury car should be

A look at the luxurious 1989 Lincoln Town Car
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Lincoln ads for 1989 claimed that its products were “What a luxury car should be,” and speaking from personal experience, that was not false advertising. The Lincoln Town Car looked like a Rolls-Royce for the American upper-middle class, and that’s exactly what it was. This particular 1989 Lincoln is my own. I bought it because it was a tangible link to carefree childhood family road trips. And, well, I just have a thing for the now-lost “great American luxury sedan.” My Town Car is affectionately known as The Magnolia Belle, because she’s the sort of genteel carriage a southern lady of a certain vintage might drive.

Luxury is the name of the game!

Luxury is the name of the game!

Since the 1980s, I’ve noticed a blurring of the lines between luxury cars and sportier machines. Skidpad Gs and low-profile tires are in, and even Cadillac now develops its suspension systems on some German racetrack. Fortunately, the people who tuned the Town Car’s suspension had never heard of the Nürburgring. I’m based in Baltimore where post-apocalyptic paving is a fact of life. My commute in a 4x4 truck with worn-out shocks is a pummeling experience. By contrast, travelling through Charm City by Town Car is serenity itself. Soft coil springs and tall sidewall tires do all the work while the car just floats above the chaos.

Further, an old Town Car is, arguably, the best machine available for a transcontinental road trip on a budget of less than five figures. Several years ago, my buddy Chuck and I were en route from California to the Iola Car Show in Wisconsin, weaving through the Sonora Pass (elevation: 8500 ft.) just after sunrise. The Magnolia Belle was loaded to the hilt with luggage and car show ephemera. We were making serious time. Chuck hustled her through switchbacks with whitewalls sighing in protest when spotted dead ahead was a Subaru WRX, and we were gaining on it. We weren’t about to be stuck in traffic, so Chuck summoned all 150 hp and sailed past the Subie on a tight left-hander, using the understeer to scrub off speed. I have never seen a more shocked person than the saucer-eyed kid in that WRX. He just couldn’t fathom how he was defeated by grandma’s leather sofa.

The 1989 Town Car driver is wrapped in leather, plastic and imitation wood veneer and aside from such subtleties as shoulder belts, it could be a 1960s interior.

The 1989 Town Car driver is wrapped in leather, plastic and imitation wood veneer and aside from such subtleties as shoulder belts, it could be a 1960s interior.

On steep downhill runs, the Town Car has an extra margin of safety because the square body itself is an air brake. I’m not kidding. Yet even with aerodynamics of a bungalow, we observed mileage figures in the low to mid 20-mpg range while cruising at 80 mph or better — with the air conditioning on full blast. The Lincoln simply soaked up the miles in an easy rush. On the longest leg of the trip, we covered the 1000 miles between Laramie, Wyo., and Sonora, Calif., in one day.

Like a Rolls-Royce, much of the Lincoln’s design is defiantly anachronistic. 1989 would be the last year for creased bodylines and lavish use of added-on moldings before the aero-influenced 1990 models debuted. Ergonomically, the 1989 Town Car could’ve been from the 1960s. For instance, the brightly chromed power window and door switches on the driver’s armrest are indistinguishable from one another. They aren’t illuminated, so operating them at night can prove surprising when you try to lower a window but instead tilt the seat. Some “new think” managed to invade the cabin in the form of intuitive cruise control buttons on the steering wheel spokes. A column shifter, minimal gauges and lots of imitation wood veneer complete the ambiance. Naturally, there is an ashtray and lighter in easy reach of all occupants.

The switches are chrome-plated and of course there’s an ashtray within easy reach of each passenger.

The switches are chrome-plated and of course there’s an ashtray within easy reach of each passenger.

The Magnolia Belle’s interior is upholstered in Sandalwood leather, which goes nicely with the creamy Pastel Adobe paint. Exterior styling details such as the chrome grille and stand-up hood ornament give the square Townies real dignity. Horizontal creases emphasize the car’s length while a slight tumblehome and severely tucked-in rocker panels give visual interest to the side view. A crisp, formal roofline and trapezoidal opera windows are defining characteristics of the Town Car. The Belle wears a color-keyed, fully padded vinyl roof enhanced with coach lamps on the B pillars. Lattice-type alloy wheels might be compared to jewelry enhancing a tasteful frock. They’re shod in obligatory narrow whitewall tires. The rear of 1987-1989 Town Cars ends obliquely rather than vertically as in earlier models, lending visual motion to the formal shape. A charming touch is the thermometer integrated into the driver’s sideview mirror, which lights up green like the instruments.

All Town Cars sold between 1981 and 2011 were based on Ford’s Panther platform. The body-on-frame architecture incorporates independent front suspension and a live rear axle. It was designed to be lighter and more space-efficient than older designs while retaining the advantages of a separate chassis, such as good noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) attenuation. The sole Town Car engine for 1989 was Ford’s smooth 302-cid (4.9-litre) Windsor V-8 that offered 150 bhp (160 with optional dual exhaust) and 270 lbs.-ft. of torque at a leisurely 2000 rpm. Performance and economy were enhanced by multipoint fuel injection and a roller rocker valve train. Power front disc and rear drum brakes are more than up to the job of halting the car in front of the country club. A Ford automatic-overdrive (AOD) transmission was standard and helped the Town Car achieve acceptable fuel economy.

Lincoln knew an occasional Town Car owner was driven, so leg room is also a luxury for rear seat occupants who are additionally treated to a center fold-down armrest.

Lincoln knew an occasional Town Car owner was driven, so leg room is also a luxury for rear seat occupants who are additionally treated to a center fold-down armrest.

If you’ve never experienced a late-1980s Town Car, I’d forgive you for thinking it would be slow, sloppy and miserable to drive. It’s not. Admittedly, I am biased. But the Town Car is so effortless and its appointments so comfortable that it gives the driver a huge sense of satisfaction. The recirculating-ball steering isn’t precise, but it’s light, fluid and plenty accurate enough for rapid progress on a winding road (the secret is managing the weight transfer). More than this, these Lincolns surf on big swells of torque; they never feel like they’re working hard. If it seems to be straining, it’s either in poor running condition or you’re about to lose your license. I’ve driven Rolls-Royces of the same vintage and the Town Car does an excellent impersonation. It falls short of the British product in that the Town Car can’t hide its mass-produced roots. Detailing and trim are nowhere near the bespoke standards of Rolls-Royce, but I didn’t grow up riding in Rolls-Royces. I grew up in Lincolns (and Chevys and Chryslers), so Wixom’s finest pushes my buttons in ways a Crewe’s ship never can.

The Magnolia Belle allows me to motor with impunity through the tumultuous 2020s surrounded by an impenetrable force field of nostalgia. Slipping behind the wheel never fails to elevate my mood and brighten the darkest day, and isn’t feeling good the ultimate luxury?

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