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1997 Ford Crown Victoria P71

For most of the period between the end World War II and the Late Malaise Era, the full-size, body-on-frame (or primitive unibody), live-rear-axle, V8-powered sedan was the standard, middle-of-the-mainstream American motor vehicle. The Panther-platform Crown Victoria stands alone as the only car with an unbroken lineage to the Postwar Big Cheap Detroit Sedan gene pool still being manufactured, and I say the P71/Police Interceptor version is the best PBCDS ever built.
Why honor it this year? Ford stopped selling non-fleet versions of the Crown Vic for the ’08 model year (unless you live in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, in which case you can still buy a “Special Edition” Crown Victoria that sports a Five Hundred-esque grille), and they don’t even give enough of a damn about the cop version to update their website to show the ’10 model. Couple of reasons: First, Ford announced this year that 2011 would be the last year of the Police Interceptor. Second, the 2009 24 Hours of LeMons season has made it clear to everyone that a 200,000-mile, beat-to-crap CVPI is one of the most— if not the most— reliable endurance racers that your cheap ass can buy for 500 bucks. More reliable than the Toyota Supra. More reliable than any BMW, Mercedes-Benz, or Porsche. Waymore reliable than the Chevy Caprice.

The Ford Panther platform has been with us since 1979, and it wasn’t exactly a technological quantum leap forward even then: big ol’ frame with an early-60s-design pushrod V8 and three-speed auto slushbox up front, coil springs all around, solid axle in the back, and a three-box body plopped on top. Ford had finally ditched the buggy-style rear leaf springs and terrible front suspension design that made damn near all their cars from the ’60 Falcon to the ’80 Granada handle like a drunk riding a Radio Flyer across a waterbed full of hot donkey urine, and finally— finally!— they had a reasonably competent, if outdated, chassis design that handled pretty well and could still meet the needs of most prospective buyers: i.e., survive a cop/cabdriver duty cycle that involves frequent and brutal encounters with curbs, open manholes, ’74 Buick Electras, etc., and be cheap to fix using a $19.95 Taiwanese socket set.

Fast-forward to today: Ford has had 30 years to perfect the Panther platform, and when I say “perfect” I mean “find a way to cut every possible corner and still build a reliable machine using the cost-cuttingest low-bid vendors to be found by dredging the worldwide parts-supplier swamp.” The current version of the Crown Victoria has been around since 1992 and, minor body and rear suspension changes aside, it hasn’t changed much since Ross Perot’s daughter’s wedding was disrupted by shadowy assailants. Ford recouped the design costs of the ’79 and ’92 platforms long, long ago, there’s no reason to spend big bucks marketing the thing, and so they’ve been able to focus on making the Police Interceptor slightly better each year, working out the bugs in a Model T-style process (though admittedly without the constant year-to-year price drops the Model T had) and finding ways to keep crappy materials and component quality from torpedoing the final product. Oh sure, those stupid plastic intake manifolds leaked, and the window regulators need replacing every year or so, but indifferent big-city police department garages can replace a heater core in two hours, the suspension will stay tight after 150,000 miles on pothole-centric inner-city streets, and the 4.6 Modular engine has been an all-time reliability home run for Ford.

I bought an ex-San Joaquin County Sheriff’s unmarked ’97 P71 for $1,600 five years ago, having nearly sworn off of all Detroit products after a series of shitty Malaise Era and Early Post-Malaise Era American machines convinced me that Big Three execs might be in the pay of Communist agents bent on destroying the most important sector of our economy, yet terrified of the certain Death By SUV that awaited me every time I ventured out onto the road in my Civic or Tercel (remember when gas was cheap, unlimited credit was free to anyone who could fog a mirror, and every family in America was upgrading from the cramped Explorer to the almost-big-enough Excursion?). I figured, what the hell, ex-cop Crown Vics are cheap, junkyards are full of parts, and I might survive a T-boning at the hands of a distracted Durango driver if I commute in one.

1997 Ford Crown Victoria Interior

What I wasn’t prepared for was how good the car was. Weighing just 3,776 pounds— ludicrously light for its size, particularly in our current Model Bloat Era— with aluminum hood and trunk, and with a reasonably slippery— if cetaceous— body, my new car managed to get close to 25 MPG on the highway at 80 MPH, with the AC on full blast and a full complement of fat, hairy passengers. With stiff springs and fat swaybars, it stayed flat in turns (though the ride is on the rough side compared to the Valium-O-Matic™ suspension setup of the civilian Crown Vic), and it had great big disc brakes at every corner. Any fluid under the hood that might get hot had its own massive cooler (oil, power steering fluid, transmission), the trunk was roomier than anything I had in the many 60s Detroit barges I’ve owned, and there was zero attempt to glitz up the interior with that class-by-the-yard, Home Depot-y, fake-vinyl-stitching plastic gingerbread that endless focus groups have convinced the (Communist-dupe) Detroit managers that Americans need in their car interiors. Instead, just plain ol’ cheap plastic, not pretending to be anything other than cheap plastic. No phony wood. No phony leather. No heraldic crests made from “chrome”-coated polystyrene. And the “carpeting” was a single molded slab of perp-piss-proof rubber. What a great idea! When one of my fat, hairy passengers spills his 512-ounce Gut Distender™ soda in my car, I just hose it out!

Bottom line: the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor does everything a big, comfy Detroit sedan is supposed to do, it holds together under hellish real-world conditions as well as a Toyota (if you don’t count components having anything whatsoever to do with windows and locks), and it can keep up with a fleeing perp in a BMW that cost four times as much. It represents the last unbroken connection to the era of the Postwar Big Cheap Detroit Sedan, and it will be a very sad day when the last one rolls off the line. Do we dare hope that Ford will go hear our pleas and build a 2011 civilian version with the blown 5.4 DOHC and 6-speed?