For the Big Event, It's This Town's Car

LCT Staff
Posted on January 14, 2009

By Paul Farhi Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, January 9, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A little advice for would-be machers, pooh-bahs and plutocrats coming to town for the inauguration: If you want to make the proper impression, Thurston, ditch the limo. Go for the Town Car.

A limo says you're trying too hard. It says prom night. Unless you're riding with guys with earpieces or you're so famous you go by one name, the limo says more-money-than-brains. And, what, you've never heard the term "limousine liberal"?

The Town Car, on the other hand, suggests a kind of upper-crust restraint, a dignified and solemn display of bankroll. It's stolid, solid and black (or very dark blue), and it has what car people like to call "design continuity," which is a nice way of saying the Lincoln Town Car hasn't changed much since Ronald Reagan's first inauguration. Plus, it's got a driver in a dark suit, which adds just the right touch of class, or maybe just class consciousness, to your ride.

In any event, Barack Obama's inauguration figures to be a Town Car-a-palooza. Local "black car" companies (that's the industry term for car-for-hire firms) report that bookings are coming in from all their usual suspects -- TV networks, law firms, trade associations -- as well as from random out-of-towners who desire to sit in gridlock in professionally driven comfort. Plus, outside of charter buses and taxis, there may not be too many other motorized ways to get into and around the city, given the Secret Service's draconian restrictions on personal vehicles. (Taxis and limousines are permitted under the regulations.)

"You come to Washington, you want a driver who knows his way around, who will be there for you with a reliable car, a clean car," says Nasir Baluch of Star Limousine in Alexandria. Baluch's company is renting the smooth-riding, gas-guzzling (16 mpg, city), V-8-powered Town Car for $90 a hour -- with a 30-hour minimum during Inaugural Week. That's $2,700 (not including tip), with no guarantee that your driver will be able to get you within schlepping distance of the Mall or inaugural balls on lockdown day.

The Town Car is the most-booked black car for a simple reason: There aren't many alternatives. While some companies offer Cadillac sedans, and fewer still go with Lexus and Mercedes, the Town Car is dominant in most for-hire fleets. Mark Schirmer, a spokesman for Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln Mercury division, which makes the Town Car, says the model accounts for the "vast majority" of the black-car market. (The modified Town Car hearse is also one of the most popular vehicles in the funeral industry.)

As a compromise between a taxi and a limo, the Town Car projects power but not intrusiveness. In movies and TV shows, it's always the car that hauls the protagonist and his lawyer to the big courtroom scene (car pulls up, door swings open, reporters crowd around bedazzled occupant . . . ). It carries four passengers, but you hardly ever see more than two. In official DMV parlance, Town Cars are often classified as "livery vehicles," a phrase redolent of horses and rosewood-inlaid carriages.

The Town Car isn't really a flashy piece of Detroit metal (actually, it's made in Canada), but that's kind of the point. People who hire Town Cars tend to be business executives, not rock stars or rappers. They want a prestige ride, sure, but not one that draws stares. A business executive or lawyer, Baluch says, "doesn't want to go around in a fancy car that [suggests] he's charging his client too much."

The Town Car's popularity as a fleet vehicle owes to its longevity and durability, as well as its size, comfort and price, says Martin Romjue, the editor of Limousine & Chauffeured Transportation, a trade magazine.

Longevity: Ford's Lincoln division started making a Town Car edition of its land-yacht Continental in the 1950s, though the first official Lincoln Town Car didn't hit the market until 1981. Durability: The Town Car holds up in tough city driving (fleet owner Habib Khan of Regal Limousine in Sterling has 300,000 miles on one of his) and has been around so long that replacement parts are abundant. Comfort: Plenty of trunk and legroom in this beast (if not, the slightly stretchy L series model provides an extra six inches).

The Town Car's biggest appeal, however, may be its price. The 2009 model lists for $45,815, but that's for suckers who pay retail. Romjue says fleet companies get volume discounts that can knock the car's price down to around $35,000 to $40,000 per vehicle, at which point it undercuts the Caddies, Lexi and Mercedeses.

Alas, the Town Car's days may be numbered.

For starters, the city of New York has its eye on the Town Car. In an ongoing effort to green up the city's taxis and black cars, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration last year implemented rules that will phase out aging vehicles, and requires some cars to get at least 25 miles to the gallon (city) by 2013. The latter measure would hit the Town Car hardest. To have any hope of meeting the new mileage standard, Ford would essentially have to turn the Town Car into a Prius.

The company says it's still talking to the city about modifying the plan. But the Town Car may die long before that.

Although it hasn't officially declared the Town Car dead, Ford has made no commitment to produce it after the current model year, stirring concern within the black-car business. Fleet purchases are still strong, the company says, but fleet sales don't pay the rent, accounting as they do for only about a third of the 15,700 Town Cars sold annually. Rather, the car's sliding retail sales and aging demographics (the average buyer is 70 years old) have been arguing against continued production for years. "The Town Car," declares company spokesman Schirmer, "is not the future of Lincoln."

Instead, Lincoln is pushing a smaller, somewhat sleeker luxury sedan called the MKS as its new flagship.

"In a lot of ways, the Town Car isn't a Lincoln anymore," Schirmer says. "It's a Town Car, not a Lincoln Town Car. People say, 'What did you get picked up in at the airport today?' And the answer is, 'a Town Car.' They don't even say 'Lincoln.’”

True. But someday we'll gaze up at the Town Car on display at the Museum of Hydrocarbon Atrocities and sigh. Gas guzzler? Road hog? Leviathan? Yeah, it's all that.

But inaugural week may provide one last shining reminder of what else the Town Car was: a classic.

Source: The Washington Post

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