Welcome to another Shitbox Showdown! I had so much fun with last week’s Mid-Week Malaise that I’m doing it again, only this time we’re wading even deeper into the mire of the Carter administration, and looking at two sorry excuses for luxury rides. One was a shadow of its former glory, and the other was a flat-out mockery of its brand. But let’s check the final score on yesterday’s cheap beaters before we get into all that.
The big Pontiac wins, but not by a whole lot. I’m similarly torn on this one. I could see myself in either one, if I needed a cheap ride. I think it would come down to a test drive, and a rust inspection.
Now then: Luxury, like humor, is a hard concept to define. What makes something luxurious? Some would say exclusivity, or frivolity; if only a select few can afford to have something they don’t really need, then that’s a luxury item. Others would define luxury, especially as it applies to cars, by comfort, or quality; think Mercedes-Benz or Rolls-Royce in their glory days. And for others, especially in these modern times, a luxury car must have a lot of bells and whistles, and be on the cutting edge of technology. Where all three of these definitions meet, I think, is the rarefied air that most luxury brands aspire to, but few truly reach.
Back in the doldrums of the 1970s, somewhere between the 1973 oil crisis and the Disco Demolition, luxury, especially in American cars, pretty much meant “put cushy seats and opera windows in it, slap lots of chrome on it, and hope they don’t notice how awful it really is.” Or, in some cases, “keep churning out the same stuff we’ve been making for twenty years, only make it even bigger and heavier.” Today, we’ve got one example of each, and it’ll be up to you to decide which is better, or at least less bad.
Engine/drivetrain: 302 cubic inch overhead valve V8, three-speed automatic, RWD
Location: Portland, OR
Odometer reading: 58,000 miles
Runs/drives? So they claim, but it’s on a trailer
Whatever else you say about Ford, you can’t deny that they get their money’s worth out of a platform. The Lincoln Versailles was derived from the Ford Granada and Mercury Monarch, which in turn were derived from the Maverick, which could trace its roots all the way back to the 1960 Ford Falcon. This platform was replaced by the Fox platform, which lasted all the way until 2004. The Versailles was Ford’s answer to the Cadillac Seville, which also shared more humble roots – the Chevy Nova – but while the Seville looked and drove nothing like a Nova, the Versailles was obviously a Mercury Monarch with extra headlights.
But of course, since it was a Lincoln, it needed a fake spare-tire-carrier hump in the back. Unfortunately, the Granada’s fuel filler was right there, so Ford’s designers just worked around it as well as they could. The result is, well, you can see for yourself. The Versailles was slightly upgraded mechanically from the humbler Ford and Mercury; it has rear disc brakes, and the V8 engine came standard, a weak-sauce 302 with a two-barrel carb that managed 130 horsepower.
This Versailles is claimed to be a runner, but it’s sitting on a flatbed trailer in all the photos, and it has no license plates, so make of that what you will. The 302 and its accompanying C4 automatic transmission are solid, known quantities with plenty of parts support, so even if it doesn’t run, it probably could with a little effort. The ad claims only 58,000 miles, and from the look of the interior, that could be correct. Here, also, the baby Lincoln got an upgrade over its Ford cousin in the form of some mighty comfy-looking leather seats.
The big red flag with this car is the rust peeking out from under the vinyl landau roof, and based on the seller’s description as “Parts or restore,” I fear the rust is worse than it looks. It is true, however, that this car has one highly desirable part: those stock rear disc brakes I mentioned earlier sit at the ends of Ford’s legendary 9 inch rear axle, the de-facto standard third member for hot rods, drag racers, and pretty much anything else highly modified and rear wheel drive. This car is probably too expensive for someone to buy it for the axle alone, but when you add in a good 302 V8 block and a C4 automatic, you’ve got the entire drivetrain for a much cooler car right there.
Engine/drivetrain: 440 cubic inch overhead valve V8, three-speed automatic, RWD
Location: Apple Valley, CA
Odometer reading: 78,000 miles
Runs/drives? Yes, but has been sitting
As one of two die-hard Mopar apologists on the payroll here, I often find myself defending the near-indefensible: K-cars weren’t as bad as you remember, PT Cruisers are actually kinda fun, that sort of thing. And Chrysler in all its iterations has built a lot of cars over the years that I don’t care for, or at least don’t care about. But the one thing its best designs have in common is a sense of presence, a sort of calm cool power that draws you to them. (All right, sometimes it’s a malevolent presence, but sometimes a car just wants to be loved, is that so wrong?) Think about the 1957 Imperial – it had presence. Hemi Cuda? Presence. The more recent LX/LD sedans? Presence, no matter what you may think of the drivers. Dodge Omni GLH? More presence than a compact hatch had any claim to. And what tape did I once find under the seat of a $300 Plymouth Caravelle I bought? That’s right – In Through The Out Door. (You thought I was going to say Presence, didn’t you?)
This ’78 New Yorker, the last of the truly full-size Chryslers, definitely has presence. It takes up a lot of space, and it demands attention, with its covered headlights, B-pillar-less hardtop roof, and button-tufted interior. It even still has the mighty 440 cubic inch V8, albeit neutered by emissions controls and Chrysler’s notorious Electronic Lean Burn system. It’s an impressive, imposing, yet somehow still approachable machine. Unfortunately, Chrysler was more or less flat broke when this car was built, and build quality was not its strong suit in the best of times.
This car is said to run and drive, but it has been sitting for many years and needs to be gone through before being put back into service. You’ll need belts, hoses, fluids, and tires if nothing else. It has only 78,000 miles on it, but honestly, that’s a lot for a ’70s Chrysler. Comfy and majestic they may have been, but long-lived they were not.
The biggest problem I see with this car, as with the Lincoln, is that damned vinyl top, and the rust it has caused. This one actually has some rust-through on the roof, visible in one of the photos. If it was parked outside for any length of time, that probably means the headliner is trashed, too. You could probably patch up the roof, replace the vinyl and the headliner, and be fine, but is this car really worth all that effort? All I can say is that I hope vinyl roofs never make a comeback, like vinyl records did.
Both of these cars, when put back into shape mechanically, should be a comfy and quiet way to get around, but I’m not sure either one of them deserves the title of “luxury car.” Not by today’s standards, at least. They’re rare and exclusive these days, it’s true, but they’re poor quality, have zero prestige, and they’re certainly not high-tech. Nor are they worth restoring to whatever small amout of glory they may once have had. But they could be fun clunkers to bomb around in. Which one, though?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)