Oct 18, 2015

The Saga of the Lincoln Diesel...

A Lincoln Continental of the same body style as my diesel
The 1995 Mead Christmas letter included the following: "The highlight of the year was our trip in July.  After many years of studying Hemmings Motor News Bob found a long sought-after car-- a 1984 Lincoln Continental with a BMW diesel engine.  Of course, it wasn’t in a nearby state; it was in Minnesota (but spent its winters in Arizona).  We figured that Minnesota wasn’t too far out of our way as we had planned to attend the Lincoln Zephyr Owners Club meeting in Dearborn, Michigan, to help celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Lincoln Motor Car.  So off we went with stops in Chicago to see Margo’s cousins, on to pick up the car and a quick visit with the Weatherlys in St. Paul, and (driving two cars with portable CB’s), across Wisconsin to Michigan."

The car that motivated that trip is an interesting subchapter in American automotive history.  It starts at BMW in the early 1980's.  They had developed the 528 series which had been quite successful.  Management decided they needed to add a diesel option to the 500 series lineup.  BMW's normal practice at the time was to design their engines but often to "farm out" production to other firms who had the capacity and were willing to meet BMW's rigorous production standards.  One such firm that produced lots of BMW engines is Steyr-Daimler-Puch.  Because of a lack of design capacity at the time, BMW made a deal in which Steyr-Daimler-Puch would both design and manufacture the new diesel engine.  By the terms of the agreement, they would also have the right to market the engine to other customers.  The result of this venture became the BMW 524td turbo diesel automobile.  It displaced only 2.4 liters as opposed to the gasoline counterpart's displacement of 2.8 liters because it required additional capacity in the cooling jackets and BMW had specified the outer envelope as being no larger than the gasoline engine.  The addition of the turbocharger was intended to boost the horsepower of the diesel.  It turned out to be a decent engine from what I have read, with the possible exception of a camshaft that suffered premature wear.

In the same time period, the good folks at the Lincoln Motor Division of Ford concluded that there was a substantial market for a diesel-powered luxury American vehicle, particularly in middle-eastern countries.  They were redesigning the Lincoln and Continental series, so why not make a diesel option available?  As they searched around the world for possible existing diesel options, they realized that the 524td engine would work because of the deal BMW had made with Steyr-Daimler-Puch!  Ultimately, this led to the 1983 option of a diesel-powered Mark VII or Lincoln Continental sedan.  They never really sold very well.   I have read that fewer than 400 units ever left the dealers' showrooms.  The marketing experts had it all wrong.

The Lincoln diesel, based on the BMW 524TD

I was aware that these cars existed and became fascinated with the idea of a large, comfortable American car that would get over thirty miles to the gallon.  I commute twenty five miles each way to work.  This option might provide a nice way to commute.  And so the search began.

After several months of searching in Hemmings Motor News and on eBay, I finally located a car that belonged to a gentleman in Minnesota but had spent all its winters in Arizona.  We negotiated a deal over the phone and that triggered the trip to Minnesota described in the Christmas letter.

The car was interesting.  It was very comfortable but grossly underpowered.  The Diesel engine had been mated to a German ZF automatic transmission, the same as used in the BMW 524td.  The 114 horsepower engine was trying to move a 3,700 pound car.  From 0 to 60 miles per hour took about 13 seconds and left a smoke screen.   It was a fine road cruiser but not much else.  I commuted in mine for about three years without incident.  Then, one day at work, a friend stuck his head in to my office and said, "I love your low rider."  It seems that the air suspension had collapsed!  My car sat very low over the wheels.

I drove the car home that day and researched the cost of rebuilding the air suspension.  The dealers didn't know much about the system, so I ended up buying the replacement bladders and replacing both front and rear units.  Still no luck.  The culprit was the pump and modulator valve assembly.  These were no longer available anywhere, so I left the car where it was parked, next to the house. (Today, there are conversion kits available to convert these cars to conventional springs.  Those kits didn't exist at the time.)

Fast forward a few years.  One day, Mary Ann asks, "What are we going to do with the blue car?"  A reasonable enough question regarding my driveway sculpture.  We decide to list it on eBay, and I am privately thinking that maybe we can get $100 for it and get it removed.  My ad is quite explicit with lots of pictures.  "This car is inoperable, has not been run in years, needs tires and a battery, has new air bladders but they can't be inflated, BRING A TRAILER, etc."  The bidding quickly goes past $100 - $200 - $300 and the car sells for $1,300!  The buyer calls and wants to come right away to pick it up and we make arrangements.  He and his wife drive from Oklahoma in a van and show up the next day.  Without a trailer.  He explains that he is an expert on these cars, owns three others, and that he'll have it running and out of there in no time.  He explains that he has a lot of parts with him.  I get my payment, but I'm not convinced that we haven't adopted a couple of Oklahomans.

That evening, I took Mary Ann out to dinner, and when we came home I saw something unbelievable.  The Lincoln was at its correct level, up off the axles, and it had moved!  That meant it had been running.  The van was gone, as the new owner and his wife had gone to dinner.  We heard them arrive back in the yard a little while later.  About 10:00 PM, I went out to see if they wanted to use our bathroom or if they needed anything.  They and the car were gone!  Poof!

For the next several days, I tried to call the buyer at his home in Oklahoma.  There was no response.  I pictured a wreck somewhere in the Ozarks with the car going over a cliff or exploding in flame.  Finally, about two weeks after his mysterious disappearance, the new owner called.  He couldn't be happier.  The car was running so well when they left that they decided to visit some in-laws in Arkansas and go fishing for a few days.  He said the car exceeded his expectations in every way.  And I and Mary Ann were ecstatic that the driveway sculpture had a fine new home. 

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