1997 Lincoln Town Car – Last Call For Opera Windows!

I often ask myself whatever happened to the Lincoln Town Car. It was doing so well before Dearborn got caught up in the SUV craze, followed by the combover, er I mean crossover, craze. It seemed the venerable TC became largely ignored by product planners in the Glass House, before finally disappearing after a small number of 2012 Town Cars were built in mid-2011. Perhaps Panther fans’ love of the 1990-97 model and subsequent watering-down of said top-dog Lincoln had something to do with it. Making essentially identical cars from 2003-2011 certainly didn’t help, but those final boxy 1995-1997 just seemed a little more distinguished. A little more special. 

 

The 1961-1969 Continental arguably set the stage for Lincoln for the next thirty years or so. The slab sides, bladed fenders and Thunderbird-style roofline lasted well into the 1980s.

1970 Continental Mark III

The final styling points that would soon be interchangeable with “Lincoln” were brought on board with the 1969-1971 Continental Mark III, with additional Broughamy features such as hidden headlamps, Rolls Royce-style radiator grille, padded Cavalry-twill vinyl roof and super plush interior appointments. Said styling would get ever more ornate as the late Sixties gave way to the mid-Seventies.

1979 Continental Town Car image: ebay.com

By 1977 the understatement of the Lincoln Continental had given way to Broughamtastic flash and chrome. Although still classy looking, especially in dark maroon or navy, it could be remarkably flashy with polished chrome road wheels or wire wheel covers, especially when painted in some of the more brightly hued selections from the color chart!

1979 Continental Town Car image: ebay.com

Gotta have coach lamps, opera windows, a landau top and TWO types of fake wood on the instrument panel. And if I sound a bit disdainful of the change, let me assure you nothing could be further from the truth. I would love to have a 1961 Continental sedan, in navy blue with navy blue leather-who wouldn’t?

1979 Continental Town Car image: ebay.com

But I’d love a 1975-79 Continental Town Car (Jade, aqua or navy blue would be my top three color choices) just as much. Whatever decade of Town Car you prefer, they always seemed just right in their day. And clearly American. None of the big three were building Mercedes, Lexus or BMW rip-offs. Brougham was in full swing.

 

 Holy turquoise crushed velour Batman!

1980 Lincoln Continental

Although the Continentals, Town Cars and Mark were all downsized to the Panther chassis for 1980, all the luxury cues–and landau tops–remained, albeit in a Mini-Me size. Although initially not well received sales-wise compared to the 1980 Cadillac, the Town Car got a healthy bump in 1985 when the big Cadillacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles became unibody and front-wheel drive. Town Car sales were remarkably healthy during 1987-1989. Those final ’89s were quite a throwback compared to some of the newer luxury cars on offer that year, but it didn’t seem to affect sales. Heck, it might have helped!

1990 Lincoln Town Car Cartier

That finally ended with the redesigned 1990, when all TCs got a very modern makeover. It still had plenty of chrome, and opera windows of course, but it was much more contemporary. The 1970s were finally over, ha ha.

Despite the fact that they weren’t drastically different from the 1990-94 Town Cars, I must tell you that I love the face-lifted 1995-97s even more. The first time I saw a ’95, I thought it looked rather squinty-eyed, but now I now prefer them to the 1990-94s.

image: ebay.com

And of course, my favorite one of all was the Cartier. I love my 2000 Cartier dearly, but I have to tell you, if I had run across a 1995-97 Cartier like this one first, I would have snapped it up in a heartbeat.

image: ebay.com

I love the Ivory Parchment Tricoat paint, the multi-spoke alloys, and that light cream leather These still had the all-digital dash, which reminds me of the 1987 Continental sedan my grandparents had. A Cartier just like this one would be at the top of my list trim- and equipment-wise. Steel roof, no hideous fake convertible top, no dealer-installed “Landau” top, no aftermarket chrome “Groucho eyebrows” fender trim, but sporting those oh-so-skinny “pinstripe” whitewalls that appeared briefly in the late ’90s.

image: ebay.com

And its squared-off profile made it a hit with older buyers who wanted a big traditional American luxury sedan with rear-wheel drive, whitewalls and a V8. Of course, it was also popular with folks who had a large desire for–um, how do I put it diplomatically–dealer-installed and aftermarket appearance items. For instance, fake convertible tops, fake chrome fender lip moldings, fake chrome rocker trim, fake chrome B-pillar trim, fake Rolls-Royce grilles, and–of course–Landau tops.

But I was apparently in the minority, as I remember seeing plenty of these with all the hideous aftermarket rickrack on them. WARNING: I will be digressing for the next several paragraphs!

And so it went, seemingly for decades. Town Cars and Landau tops (Coach Roofs, in Lincoln-speak) just seemed to go together like pizza and beer for many buyers. The factory-installed ones looked all right, especially the jumbo-sized Seventies versions, but once the factory coach roof went away after 1989, the aftermarket took up the slack-usually with terrible results. The 1998-up versions were especially ill-suited to aftermarket roofs, but I certainly saw plenty of them when they were new. As Billy Joel once said, you can’t dress trashy till you spend a lot of money…

I remember seeing many 1995-1997 Cartiers in Ivory Parchment with a dark brown fake convertible top, moonroof (how delightfully tacky; a moonroof in your convertible top!) and the expected fake chrome on the b-pillar, rockers, and wheel lip moldings. Probably added five grand in profit to the dealer! Yes, the dealers were more than happy to attend to the buyers horrible taste! Those tops, which were usually tacked on to the brand-new car with cheap washers and sheetmetal screws, ran anywhere from three to five grand. Yikes.

At the time I couldn’t believe someone would spend $45,000-$50,000 on a beautiful new Cartier and then spend another $3000-$5000 on tacky gingerbread. There were actually several in town decked out like that: not-so-great minds think alike…this wasn’t my kind of Cartier!

I mean, who was the first person to put a faux convertible top on a coupe or sedan and say “Hey! That sure looks good!” After all, when you think of a convertible, you always think of them with their tops up, because that’s when they’re at their most appealing! Uh-huh.

My tastes run more along the lines of this rather restrained 1997 Executive Series, which I spotted at a used car lot in Fort Madison, Iowa over the Labor Day weekend in 2016. The matching burgundy leather was a major plus.

While cloth was available, and somewhat common in 1990-94 it was rarely seen or ordered on 1995-97s. Leather was the order of the day. And you could still get several different shades: dark blue, dark red, dove gray, black, white (with dove-gray trim, or green trim on the Jack Nicklaus editions), saddle tan, light parchment, and my favorite–dark green.

The Executive, as the least-expensive Town Car, had more classic seating, with vertical pleating.

As with any Town Car, room and comfort was the watchword, and twenty-one years after being built, this rear compartment still looks über-comfy. BMW may arguably be the ultimate driving machine, but these Lincolns are the ultimate riding machine!

Executives were more commonly seen as Hertz rentals. I remember on a trip to Disney World in 1998, about 90% of the cars at Miami International were white 1995-97 Executive Series Town Cars. The mid-range Signature Series was the usual retail model sold, with more standard gadgets, different wheels and more ornate seating.

The Signature Series seating had more of a free-form style, as seen on this one. I had a thing for these for years, going back to my grandfather’s patronization of Lincoln Continentals starting in 1966. I actually test-drove a 1997 Executive Series, circa 1998-99. It was Silver Frost metallic, with dove gray leather seats.

It drove very nicely, but I wasn’t in a position to buy, being in college at the time. But I wanted to drive one, dammit! And it was impressive. And very different from the Volvo 940SE I had back then. At the same time, I regularly saw a wine-red 1995-97 Executive in downtown Rock Island that was a beauty (and identical to the one seen further up in this post), and I also drove my friend Dick McCarthy’s gunmetal-gray-with gray cloth ’95 Executive several times in the early 2000s. I just loved these cars, and always will.

How bad did I have it for Lincoln Town Cars? When I entered high school in the fall of ’94, I remember thinking “Wow, I wonder what the Town Car will look like when I graduate!” Yes, really. Sure, I liked the usual teenage ‘dream cars’ like Porsches, Ferraris and the like. But I liked these more. Don’t ask me to explain it. I just did. And even as I pondered the future of body-on-frame domestic luxury cars, I was equally crushed by the discontinuation of the Cadillac Fleetwood, Buick Roadmaster and Chevrolet Caprice in 1996.

Really?! Who’d want a dumb old pickup over a Roadmaster Estate Wagon or Town Car Signature? A lot of people, sadly. And even those SUVs were impressive compared to the tippy-toe compact Fortes/Civics/Corollas known as combovers, oops I mean crossovers. More cost, less aesthetically pleasing and a higher center of gravity to ease your crashing! But I digress, yet again.

But despite the elimination of their cross-town rivals at GM, the TC and its less prestigious Grand Marquis and Crown Victoria siblings kept on trucking. They were the last way to get a true V8, RWD sedan. A body style that used to outnumber all other types. But times change!

When the 1998 Town Car appeared, I did not like them nearly as well as the 1995-97s. I have since developed a much greater appreciation for the 1998-2011 TC (I own two now, for Pete’s sake!), but at the time, I was wondering what the hell Ford Motor Company was thinking. It just seemed so watered-down, especially inside. In addition, the opera windows, a prominent feature on Continentals and Town Cars since 1975 (1972 on the Marks), had disappeared. That missing vertical window, perhaps more than everything else, really changed the look of the ’98s. And no hood ornament!

Ye gods, what is the world coming to? As I had recently received both my driver’s license and permission to use my parents’ 1991 Volvo 940SE, I wasted no time in booking on down to Classic Lincoln-Mercury and snagging the plush 1997 TC brochure, with onion-skin pages and real color chips in the back. I figured it was my last chance to get what seemed to me to be the last ‘real’ Town Car brochure. As I parked out front, I noticed several brand-new 97s still on the lot, but 98s were already on hand. Seeing a ’97 and ’98 parked next to each other was a little disconcerting at the time! They looked so different.

Today the final TCs look pretty much normal, especially against some of the tortured sheetmetal being forced on various 2018 models. But back then, the ’97s seemed the last of the line. Of which I’m always reminded when I see a clean example. And they still look good to me!

7 Replies to “1997 Lincoln Town Car – Last Call For Opera Windows!”

  1. Jack BaruthJack Baruth

    A minor note: In late 1995 Ford built a run of ivory 1996 Cartiers that were used by their dealer reps as traveling offices. These cars were then auctioned and sold as “executive demos”. Virtually every ivory Cartier I’ve ever seen was one of those cars, which were fully equipped.

    Reply
  2. XJR01

    Love the exterior of those things. But the relative shortness of the rear seat bottom cushions bothers me a bit. Was that done to make the “VIP” area appear more spacious? Seems like a cheap optical illusion trick to me.

    Reply
  3. Dirty Dingus McGee

    In 2003, when my partner and I formed our current business, he had a 94 Town car, I had an 81 Dodge D150. We would show up at a job site with our tools stuffed into our respective vehicles. Due to their age and condition, the vehicles became know as “the yella dog” and the “stinkin Lincoln”. Yella dog because it was faded butterscotch in color, and stinkin Lincoln because of the problems with the air suspension and the fact it had over 200,000 miles at the time and had more issues than Jimmy Carter had peanuts. Once we had enough money, both were replaced but there is some nostalgia for them. More than once, customers were stuffed into the Lincoln to be taken out to be wined and dined.

    Reply
  4. John C.

    I can understand Tom’s nostalgia for these. You just know that, and Tom has spelled out how, the new one won’t be as good. There is probably no way they can be. The engineers will be of a different generation and just will not have the same sensibilities.

    I have a few issues with this style. The flush windows and doors blended into the roof render a vinyl top impossible to be done professionally. That leaves room for the dealers to muck it up for those so inclined. Steel roofs being required now it is hard to remember when a steel roof meant fleet special. It would have to some of the buyers in the 90s. Not offering smells like giving in to the baby boomer import sensibilities jihad

    I am also not a fan of the 4.6 OHC V8. The horsepower is higher and that will eventually win the drag race. Nevertheless having to rev the crap out of it to feel the advantage is just not appropriate in this type of car. Through 97, Ford still offered the 351 in trucks, would have been nice to see it in the Town Car. Or of course the 460. Late 80s Fifth Avenue buyers paid a guzzler tax. so did 7 series drivers and V8 S classes, why not join that exclusive club.

    Reply
  5. Glenn Kramer

    Tom,

    Sorry, it’s been a while, but this and the ’71 Continental article were both fine. Last week our 30th annual Salado TX LCOC meet featured Gary Birk and his 93 year old mom Elaine’s ’97 Cartier as best of show. No question that the last generation TCs were a shadow of the previous generation for elegance.

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