DTW marks the last of the traditional American body-on-frame sedans.
The Ford Crown Victoria and its Mercury and Lincoln siblings were the last in a long line of traditional body-on-frame full-size rear-wheel-drive sedans that were for decades a defining feature of the American automotive landscape. They were simply engineered, but tough and reliable cars that were perfectly suited to the wide variety of private, commercial and institutional roles in which they served.
Today we will recall the generations that were marketed from 1991 to 2011. The Crown Victoria name was a revival of one first used on a Ford two-door hardtop coupé in 1955. Contrary to appearances, the name was not a royalist reference, but instead described a styling feature of the 1955 model, a stainless-steel hoop linking the B-pillars that crowned the roof.
Launched in March 1991, the 1992 Crown Victoria was a six-light sedan in the fashionable aero style. It replaced an uncompromisingly rectilinear and boxy design that had been in production since 1980. Unlike its predecessor, which was offered in a full range of sedan, coupé and station wagon versions, the new Crown Victoria would be offered only in a single sedan bodystyle.
It was again based on Ford’s ubiquitous Panther chassis that had underpinned all of the company’s full-size models since 1979. The chassis was, however, significantly upgraded to improve handling and roadholding. Disc brakes were fitted all round for the first time, while ABS and traction control became available as optional equipment.
A closely related but slightly upmarket version of the Crown Victoria was offered under the Mercury nameplate as the Grand Marquis. This had a rather more formal four-light DLO with broad C-pillars. Both models shared a 114½” (2,908mm) wheelbase and an overall length of approximately 212½” (5,398mm). The same chassis with a 3” (75mm) stretch in the wheelbase was used for the Lincoln Town Car, launched in 1989 as a 1990 model. In all models, the engine was a new 4.6 litre SOHC Modular V8 mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. This engine replaced the venerable 4.9 litre OHV Windsor V8(1) which dated back some thirty years to 1961.
The styling of the Crown Victoria was the subject of some controversy at launch. The car’s typically older and conservative buyer demographic was uncomfortable with the six-light DLO and faired-in nose. Many such buyers instead bought the more conventional looking Grand Marquis. Ford addressed these concerns, first by adding a traditional chrome front grille for the 1993 model year, but finally by adopting the Mercury’s four-light design wholesale for the 1998 second-generation model. From this point onwards, the Crown Victoria and Grand Marquis would differ only in the treatment of their front and rear ends and interior trim.
While the Crown Victoria sold steadily in smaller numbers to private buyers, the major market for the car was for taxi and law-enforcement usage. Together, General Motors and Ford enjoyed a virtual duopoly position in this market, with heavy-duty special versions of the Chevrolet Caprice Classic and Crown Victoria.
Both cars’ body-on-frame construction and simple but tough mechanical components were considered advantageous for the arduous work they would see in service. Ford’s position was further strengthened in 1996 when Chevrolet discontinued the Caprice Classic. In 1999, the suffix Police Interceptor was added to the law-enforcement version of the Crown Victoria, to add some macho appeal to the oddly effete model name, I would imagine.
The liveried versions of the Crown Victoria were, of course, immediately identifiable, but even the unmarked cars were hardly inconspicuous: a Crown Victoria in a drab non-metallic dark colour with minimal brightwork and small hub caps on black steel wheels was unlikely to be anything other than a police, FBI, CIA or other law-enforcement vehicle! That said, such cars were popular second-hand buys at auction. They may have led a hard life, but they were also likely to have been meticulously maintained.
The other major market for the Crown Victoria (and Caprice Classic) was as licenced taxi cabs. In their distinctive yellow-orange colour, they were, for many, as emblematic of New York as the Empire State Building or Brooklyn Bridge. In the 1990’s I travelled in the back of both cars frequently and, as we bobbed and floated over the city’s terribly potholed streets, I always marvelled that such large cars could be so lacking in rear legroom. In fairness, the reinforced steel and Perspex security screen separating passengers from the driver took up a considerable amount of foot and knee space.
The other highly successful derivative of the same architecture was the Lincoln Town Car. The heavily restyled 1990 version looked like a long-wheelbase derivative of the Grand Marquis, with a more vertical trailing edge to the rear door window and a very wide C-pillar within which was installed a slim opera window. The styling was unequivocally formal, with an upright front end and a deep chrome radiator grille topped off with the Lincoln emblem, in the manner of Rolls-Royce or Mercedes-Benz.
While the Town Car, like its predecessors, sold to affluent conservative Americans who preferred to buy a domestically manufactured(2) rather than imported car, it was also the default choice for what we would call in the UK the executive private hire business. Highly polished black Town Cars would be seen outside smart office buildings, upmarket hotels and fashionable restaurants in every major North American city.
Having travelled in Town Cars on a number of occasions, they were undoubtedly comfortable, with compliant suspension and soft black leather upholstery. Those wide C-pillars and tinted glass offer a high degree of privacy and seclusion from the bustling, noisy streets outside. The engineering may have been very traditional, but it was expertly and finely honed to its intended role.
The Town Car was, of course, the basis for the archetypal stretch limo, beloved of stag and hen parties and, ideally, painted Barbie pink for the latter. While these were mainly aftermarket conversions, Lincoln cannot absolve itself entirely of blame for crimes against good taste: in the mid-1980’s and 1990’s it offered a number of Signature Series special editions of the Town Car with rather dubious aesthetic flourishes.
The Town Car received a major update in 1998 when it was given a smoother, more aerodynamic but rather less distinctive body, losing the characteristic wide C-pillar and opera window. A factory-built long wheelbase version was offered with a 6” (150mm) stretch in the wheelbase to 123½” (3,137mm). The extra length was initially incorporated into a wide B-pillar and, subsequently, into a longer rear door window. Ford did likewise with the Crown Victoria from 2002, but this version was offered only to fleet and private hire customers.
The Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis and Town Car continued with only minor updates to sell in respectable numbers well into the new millennium, but private sales were diminishing rapidly. By 2006, 95% of production of the Crown Victoria was for taxi or police use. By 2012, it was all over: all three models had been discontinued and the classic body-on frame US sedan was no more.
In 2021, New York taxis are virtually all Toyota or Nissan hybrid crossovers or minivans, which are spacious, practical and economical, but devoid of much character. Following the demise of the Crown Victoria, Ford offered Police Interceptor versions of its front-wheel-drive unibody Taurus sedan until 2019 and the Explorer SUV, which continues in production to the present day.
It is, perhaps, rather tempting to poke fun at the perceived primitiveness or lack of sophistication in these traditional body-on-frame vehicles, but that is to miss the point entirely as to their fitness for purpose and to ignore their phenomenal sales success: in the two decades until production ended, total sales of the three models was around 4.5 million units, making them a tremendous earner for Ford and helping the company survive some pretty challenging times. DTW remembers an American stalwart with fondness.
(1) The Windsor engine was still fitted to the 1990 Lincoln Town car in its first year of production.
(2) Their patriotism might have been somewhat misplaced, however: in 2007 production of the Town Car was moved to Ford Canada’s plant in Southwold, Ontario, where the Crown Victoria and Grand Marquis were manufactured.