Reviewing and Road Testing the 1977 Lincoln Versailles
Originally published in the July/August 2009 issue of Continental Comments (Issue # 289).
Seldom has a new American car been so favorably reviewed by the motoring press only to bomb so thoroughly in the marketplace. At least a dozen magazines raved about the new baby Lincoln that offered buyers a smaller luxury sedan featuring better drivability and greater handling ease. The promise of the new domestically produced small luxury car with a Detroit birthplace was already assured by the Cadillac Seville which successfully preceded it. The Versailles is based on the proven Granada/Monarch unitized body while the Seville started with the Cheverolet Nova unitized body. Motor Trend liked to compare the Versailles with the Seville. Other magazines liked to add a Chrysler LeBaron comparison. The posh LeBaron owed its origins to the Dodge Volare /Aspen series.
Car & Driver took on the Mercedes stating that “Most Detroit engineers are aghast at the head on assault most Mercedes products make on the senses – all that tire noise, mechanical thrash, expressway tug and nasty, unwanted tire feedback. In contrast, the American tradition is based on a bedrock of silence, insulation, and isolation. Detroit builds the quietest, smoothest riding automobiles in the world.” Car & Driver went on to describe a rather complicated relationship between the Seville and Mercedes. It then added that the Versailles “doesn’t stray from the mainstream of Detroit thinking. Lincoln chose to improve a widely acceptable automobile, the Mercury Monarch to a degree associated with luxury cars. The Versailles is really a quieter, more luxurious Monarch – and that is its strength.” Car and Driver stated that the LeBaron is caught somewhere between the extremes of the Seville and Versailles in terms of handling and riding quality. All magazines covering the Versailles went into great detail about how Lincoln engineers made the Versailles feel, ride, and sound like a luxury car. There was careful mating, matching and balancing of driveline components. A double-cardan universal joint was used between the driveshaft and rear axle. Rear brake discs, standard, were indexed to the rear axle shaft flanges in such a way as to assure best overall balance.
The front suspension used new low-friction lower ball joints and double isolated shock absorbers. The steering shaft had a specially designed flex coupling to prevent vibrations from being transmitted to the steering wheel. Sound absorbing materials were used throughout the car. In short, they all borrowed heavily from the many Lincoln Versailles press releases which have previously been published in Lincoln and Continental Comments.
All praised the Versailles as the first mass produced domestic car to have a base/coat clearcoat finish. Most noted the high tech quality control testing and inspection including an electrical test system (BETS) audit, Burke-Porter road simulator, and more. Motor Trend noted that, “Just before preparation for shipment, four cars are selected at random each day for a Uniform Quality Audit. One quality control auditor spends the entire day thoroughly inspecting and road testing all four cars.”
The bottom line of all this quality control is the road test. Here’s how Mechanix Illustrated summed up what they called “The Shrunken Lincoln”.
They stated. “The whole driving experience can be pinned down to one word – plush. The ride is super quiet and irons out small bumps you don’t really feel in other cars…Power steering is light and relatively dead feeling, but perhaps it does the job just a little too well because you don’t have a clue about what’s going on in the real world where the tires meet the pavement…It was possible to wag the tail without trying hard and the car didn’t tell us where it was going until it had already gone…the power brakes aren’t grabby like those of yore, but they appreciate a light and controlled toe.”
Mechanix Illustrated tested a Versailles with the 351 cid V-8 which was the only engine offered in 1977 in most of the country. The 302 was offered only in California and high altitude areas. They wrote, “Acceleration is not all bad. A neck snapper it is not, but it does get out of its own way with 0-60 in the low 12s and a 15.5 second quarter mile. Zero to 80 took 23.5 seconds and there was obviously more on tap.” This was the one and only prototype car and they did not want to pile it into a snowbank or test the car for top speed.
Road Test did 0-60 in 11.3 seconds with a 351 equipped Versailles and got through a quarter mile in 18.4 seconds. Their fuel economy was in the 13-15 mpg range. They wrote, “Handling? Not good, because what all those soft rubber suspension bushings get you, along with a soft ride, is suspension deflection, which means that because of all those soft pieces the suspension parts don’t necessarily have to be pointing in the same direction you intend. The car is a real handful to drive briskly, with loads of understeer.”
Motor Trend drove a Wedgewood Blue Versailles from the assembly plant in Dearborn to Los Angeles, the longest distance road tested by any of the publications reviewing the car.
They wrote in part, “Getting in and out of the Versailles is easy, either front or rear. The seats are soft but still give good support and don’t become tiring during the long drive to the West Coast. The leather-covered center fold-down arm rest proved wide enough for use by both the driver and front passenger, giving living room chair comfort for both. The rear seats also offer a lot of amenities, and there’s a surprising amount of room left in there, even with the front seats in their rear-most positions.
The ride is smooth but not mushy enough to sacrifice stability. Ease of handling, a major raison d’etre for a car like this, is there in full measure. When it comes to parking and maneuvering in close quarters, the car feels downright nimble compared to the behemoth luxury cars we’re used to in the country. Neither does the car acquit itself badly when driven briskly on curvy roads. We made excellent time on the twisty mountainous sections during our westward trek, with nothing to worry about except slower vehicles.
Performance rendered by the 351 V-8 is satisfactory for a car of this nature, and the Versailles, in fact, edges out the Seville we tested (April, 1976) in the acceleration department. Since the final drive ratios of the two cars are almost identical and the engines are within a cubic inch of one another, the Versailles performance edge can be attributed to its lower weight. The Seville, at 4,345 pounds, weighs 435 pounds more. The Seville, however, with its fuel injected engine gets about 1.5 mpg better fuel economy.”
Collectible Automobile reviewed the Versailles in their October, 1987 issue, ten years after the car was introduced. This gave them the opportunity to chronicle the car’s lack of success which the other magazines were unable to do. The car was reviewed in their Cheap Wheels section where they referred to it time and again as a gussied up Monarch, a “Meticulously Manufactured Monarch” they called it.
Like many of the publications ten years earlier Collectible Automobile pretty much followed Lincoln’s press releases for the car. They concluded that the interior was probably the most impressive feature of the junior Lincoln. They referred to Paul Woudenberg’s book on Lincoln values which stated that “The equipment on the Versailles was lavish and, in fact, a virtual test bed for everything that the Lincoln-Mercury Division offered”.
Discussing Versailles production, Automobile Quarterly wrote, “In spite of late introduction Lincoln built 15,434 Versailles for the 1977 model year, about one third the number of Cadillac Sevilles built for the full year – a respectable showing… Production, however, skidded to 8,931 units (for 1978) while Seville output increased smartly to 56,985.”
Collectible Automobile blamed the dismal 1978 production figure on the fact that the Versailles looked too much like the Mercury Monarch which was sold in the same showrooms at roughly one third the price.
The magazine discussed the roofline styling change for 1979 which they contended helped bring production up to 21,078.
The year 1979 brought the Iranian revolution, another fuel crisis, more inflation, a very bad year for the industry as a whole, the new downsized Continental, downsized Lincolns across the board, and a mere 4,784 Versailles produced as a result of it all.
Collectible Automobile noted that by 1987 Versailles were selling as used cars for as little as $1,500, commenting that “For a Cheap Wheels driver they have much to offer: an extremely high level of luxury, good ride, extreme quiet, decent acceleration (0-60 mph in about 12-13 seconds), and the looks of a Lincoln on a reasonably nimble chassis.”
Time has not been kind to the Versailles. They were driven to death and most did not last more than 10 years. For whatever reason, the engines tended to go out at around 100,000 miles. Then the Versailles became coveted by hot rodders for their brakes, suspensions, and rear ends. It is hard to find a good one now, although prices have not skyrocketed in recent years like the Continental Mark Vs of the same vintage. The old Monarch/Granada stigma hangs on 30 years and more after the cars were built.
Nonetheless, some LCOC members love them and swear by them, not at them. Two Versailles were entered at the 2009 Mid-America National Meet in Salado, Texas, and one more showed up at the 2009 Western National Meet in Reno, Nevada. Viva LaFrance. Viva Versailles!
You’ve Really Changed
by Glenn Kramer
Originally published in the July/August 2009 issue of Continental Comments (Issue # 289).
I don’t know when it started. Maybe it was Mrs. Klecka, the rich lady down the block who had a ’49 Cosmopolitan. Or, the Popular Mechanics ‘Tact Book of 1953 Cars” that I got for being a good boy at the dentist. It had a beautiful Capri convertible as well as a performance comparison of the ’52 vs. ’53 (I loved the huge taillights). Anyway, my obsession with Lincolns started early and manifested often.
When I was 18 (1965), it was time to get my first car. While most of my contemporaries were lusting after hot Chevvies and Fords, I wanted a Lincoln. With a budget that topped out at $600, my choices were, uh, limited. Without describing the gut wrenching angst that accompanied the search for a ’58 or maybe a ’59 convertible, I finally spotted a ’59 on Easter Sunday in downtown Baltimore. I immediately signaled the driver, a black man, to pull over. Remember the year. He thought I was a cop. Hilarity ensued.
Finally, I made an offer. He accepted. A week later, accompanied by my sister, who lent me some of the money, I picked it up. Amos, the seller, shook hands, smiled and said, “I promise you nothing but grief’. Wow, a prophet. An accurate one. The car was Earl Sheib light blue, with black leather. Despite the endless repairs (two transmissions, u-joints, fuel tank, fuel pump, water pump, mufflers, recaps, etc.) that kept me well under the poverty level through college, I LOVED it. It was fast, 0-60 in under 9 seconds. Maybe that helps to explain the two transmissions. After three years of service, it finally died when a wheel bearing seized up on the way back to the naval base at Norfolk. It limped back to Baltimore and was parked in front of Dad’s house. He hated the car and now got to look at it daily.
Meanwhile, I found a ’60 coupe, perfect, 50,000 miles, white with tan leather, a/c, power lube, it had everything. The price? $600. My wife borrowed most of the money from my grandmother and wired it to me. I persuaded her to get on the bus to join me for the weekend ride home. Reluctantly, she agreed. In the ensuing few days, I discovered that the generator was fried. Plus, it was an expensive Delco, used on a few a/c equipped ‘60s. No matter, I could manage the 250 mile drive on the battery, if I was careful. I picked her up Friday afternoon at the bus station and she admitted that the car was beautiful. I said, “Let’s go!” I tore out and got on the road. It was warm and she wondered about the a/c. I commented that, with the breezeway window, you hardly needed it. The first clouds of doubt crossed her previously unwrinkled face. We got to Richmond and, since she hadn’t eaten since morning and we were retracing her route, dinner was a must. Unfortunately, dinner would eat into daylight. I knew a restaurant that would be just perfect. It was next to an Esso station. I gallantly dropped her off at the door, waited until she went in and left the car at the station with instructions to charge the hell out of the battery. After dinner, I got the car, met her at the door and continued on. As dusk became night, she wondered why I didn’t turn on the lights. Eventually, I did. We made it to the house in Baltimore (thank God for 90 pound batteries) and went in to see the folks. I told dad to look out the window. There were two of them. He was not thrilled.
The point is that I loved both cars. Dating in the ’59 Mark IV, touring in the ’60 Mark V, remembering the first time I used the floor mounted signal seeker to find a fresh station while keeping my arm around my date (NHTSA be damned). They were great, flawed, memorable cars.
I’ve had several terrific cars since, ’69 sedan, Mark VII LSC, 12 cylinder BMWs, Eldorado convertibles, which brings us up to the present, 40 years later. I now own…a Mark III and a Mark V. Admittedly they are newer, a ’70 and a ’79, but they are very similar in concept. The Mark III, like the old Mark IV is fast and a little raucous. The Mark V Collector’s, like the older ’60 coupe, is slower and more luxurious. One other thing is similar.. .gas mileage. It’s the decimal point in the price that’s changed. Now that I’m in my 60s, I guess it’s becoming obvious that this focus must be a trend. Lincolns, you never get over your first love.
Glenn’s 1979 Mark V and 1970 Mark III side by side today.