Many Returns

Have you ever wondered if your ride has a soul? If you’re like me, you might have suspected from time to time that your vehicle possesses a spirit, either good or bad. Now, I’m not so naïve as to believe that a vehicle has feelings, but I’m pretty certain that most driving enthusiasts have experienced some sort of personal connection with their ride—one that goes beyond simple enjoyment or entertainment. Such a philosophical concept is open to broad interpretation, so the best way for me to indulge in the idea is by sharing a few personal examples.

In my three-plus decades of driving, I have owned several cars—mostly coupes—and I tend to keep them a long time. One of my all-time favorites is my 1998 Lincoln Mark VIII, truly a fun car to drive and quite unique in that it represents the final year of production for Lincoln’s long line of luxury coupes. It is the second model I’ve owned, which speaks volumes about the car’s appeal. From 2001 until 2008, I owned a ‘98 Mark VIII base model, but sold it because the tan leather interior was constantly dirty after years of stowing my wheelchair in the backseat. I soon came to realize that it had been one of the best vehicles I’d ever owned, so in the late summer of 2009, I began to search for another. This time I wanted a black interior, and I decided to get the more refined LSC model with a power sunroof. As a resident of Florida, I’ve learned the benefit of ventilating a hot car quickly.

Using Craigslist, I located the right candidate near Asheville, NC.  A 1998 LSC, it was in good mechanical condition with a near-flawless interior. The Midnight Black exterior had been repainted after a minor accident and the finish was very good with the exception of several unsightly dings in the doors. After making the purchase and getting adaptive equipment installed (hand controls), I began making some improvements to my “new” car.  The previous owner had kept up with routine maintenance, but I knew going in that with nearly 90,000 miles on the odometer, the car would soon need some big-ticket repairs. I got proactive and did the so-called “100,000-mile service,” which included new front suspension and steering components. Altogether I spent about $3,000 on necessary improvements, including $200 for a dent removal service that did a magical job of eliminating the blemishes.  For a total outlay of less than eight grand, including the purchase price, I had a completely refurbished car with an original MSRP of over $40,000.

By mid-June of 2010, my LSC was in prime condition. I uploaded several photographs to, an online owners’ forum, but apparently this tempted fate. Just a few evenings later, the front of the car was badly damaged by a hit-and-run driver during a severe thunderstorm. Traffic lights had been knocked out by lightning, and I was stopped at an intersection when a slow-moving car struck the front of the Mark and nearly tore off the front clip. The offending car stopped briefly, but then drove away. Because of the darkness and the intense downpour, it was impossible to read the license plate, so I was not able to file a claim against the other driver’s insurance company.

To my dismay, the insurance company declared the Mark a total loss, even though 95% of the car was undamaged. The reason: replacement parts, especially the discontinued HID headlights, are no longer available through the usual vendors.  This raised the repair estimate well beyond the cost-to-value ratio, hence the total loss determination. Although I fully understand how the system works, I felt that it was ridiculous to waste such a basically sound car. Moreover, the insurance laws in Florida require that a total loss be delivered to a salvage yard—it cannot be “bought back” and retitled.

I undoubtedly raised some eyebrows when I decided to withdraw my accident claim and fix the car at my own expense. The thing is, I knew what I had in that vehicle, despite the damaged front end. As a wheelchair user, I can attest that there are very few big coupes out there anymore. I greatly prefer the two-door body style, which best fits my unique set of needs. Luckily, I found a reputable body shop that agreed to perform all the necessary labor and paint work for $2000 if I would supply the parts.  And the solution to the latter proved remarkably simple. I browsed the online salvage auctions, where cars that have been totaled can be purchased by licensed salvagers, and found a 1998 Mark VIII with a pristine front end being auctioned in Alabama. After a few phone calls to arrange for a salvage yard to bid on my behalf, I ended up getting all of the necessary parts, along with several extra items, delivered to the local body shop for under $900. A few weeks later, the Mark VIII was back in my driveway as good as new.

Almost a year has passed since the repairs were made and I’ve put another 13,000 miles on the car, mostly on long trips. During a 4,400-mile journey across the Southwest in April, the Mark literally purred while running at over 80mph for days on end.  More recently, I clocked almost 2,400 miles on a road trip to Pennsylvania for a family reunion. I made a deliberate decision to take my time, avoiding interstates in favor of secondary roads, and saw a lot of Americana that you just don’t see from a superhighway.

Shortly before Memorial Day, for example, I drove through Ringgold, Georgia. A month earlier a huge tornado had torn through this hardscrabble town, and devastation was visible everywhere. Yet the community had rallied, setting aside their worries to honor the sacrifices made by our country’s veterans. The main roads, with shattered buildings on both sides, were lined with hundreds of large American flags. At the base of each flag, a white cross listed the name of a deceased veteran from Catoosa County along with the conflict he or she had served in. It was tremendously moving to see so many flags waving proudly amid the destruction wrought by the tornado.

After visiting with my family in Pennsylvania, I took a different route home to Florida, again following secondary roads. The last leg of the trip took me through lovely small towns such as Madison, Georgia, an hour east of Atlanta.  The sight of handsome antebellum homes and blooming magnolias was a real treat. Farther south, near the tiny town of Lumpkin, a Watusi bull with the most enormous horns I’d ever seen stood in the shade of a roadside oak tree. These are the kinds of things you never see on a superhighway, where the only objects that vie for your attention (besides huge trucks) are the ghastly billboards–a blight on the American landscape.

So I really enjoyed my back road touring, and the Mark seemed to be sending a positive vibe, too. I know that a car is just an assembled collection of metal, plastic, glass, and other compounds, but on this fine spring day, I could feel a definite connection. Maybe it was because I had put a little money and attention into making the car look and run its best, and I was simply feeling rewarded.  But I think there was more. I think the car was telling me it was glad I had saved it from the junkyard. That made two of us.


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