Donald “Whitey” Whiteman has only put about 2,000 miles on the Mercury Grand Marquis he acquired a couple of years ago, rolling up the total distance this still virtually like-new example of the last of the genuinely full-sized American cars has covered to a mere 8,000 since it rolled out of the showroom in 1976.
“I should drive it more, but I just don’t have the time, what with working every day,” says the 77-year-old, who still turns up daily at the Sterling Ontario Ford dealership he apprenticed at in the early 1950s to drive customers around, make parts runs and “change the odd light bulb.”
“I like to drive it,” Whiteman says of his outlandishly large, in modern car terms, cream and bronze two-door 1970s time capsule.
“I like the ride, and the power,” although he describes himself as a cruising type guy, never a tire squealer, “and I grew up with them.” Them being the grandly scaled cars of an extravagant American automotive era that began in the 1950s and of which the big Merc was among the final full-size holdouts.
General Motors would launch its downsizing drive with its 1977 lineup, but Ford and its Mercury division and Chrysler wouldn’t introduce smaller, but still pretty full-figured versions of their full-size models, for another two years.
The term “full-size” appears to have come into use in the early 1960s, perhaps to ensure buyers understood the difference between what was seen as the standard-sized family sedan and the new compacts and intermediates. And full-size meant just that, lane-filling width and a length of some 5,250 mm that grew to the 5,700 mm between the bumpers of Whiteman’s Grand Marquis. That number means it stretches out further than a modern Cadillac Escalade’s 5,624 mm, although not quite as far as the Rolls-Royce Phantom’s 5,834 mm.
And, of course, there is its considerable weight, the Grand Marquis tipping the scales at a modern monster SUV-like 4,679 lbs or 2,122 kg. A big chunk of that is made up of the cast iron in the block and heads of the optional 460-cubic-inch V-8 under its landing-strip-length hood that made 360 hp. A 400-cubic-incher was standard. But, of course, it also developed massive amounts of torque, which was applied to the rear wheels through a three-speed automatic transmission to provide a smooth flow of acceleration, sort of like water being forced through a pipe of ever diminishing diameter.
A 1970s car buyer’s guide describes the Grand Marquis as Mercury’s “Queen Mary” noting it was one of the quieter big cars, with much better than average road manners and EPA average fuel economy ratings with the 460 engine of 13 mpg (U.S.) or around 18 litres/100 km. In 1976 it would have set its first owner back $6,439 (U.S.).
The Marquis name was first used on a line-topping two-door hardtop version of the Mercury Monterey in 1967, the Mercury brand providing a slightly more upscale option for Ford buyers. The Marquis name replaced Monterey in 1975 and Grand Marquis was initially applied to the top trim line of that range. It became a model in its own right in 1983, which remained in production until early last year when the Mercury brand, created in 1938, was axed by Ford.
If not quite the height of Ford Motor Company luxury in the 1970s – its Lincoln division provided that – the Grand Marquis was certainly a ride, particularly in its two-door hardtop form, that would have drawn admiring glances from those who appreciated traditional-style American motoring, a group that includes Whiteman.
As the dealership’s long-time service manager, one of his perks was driving a succession of the latest models. “And I was always a big-car man.
“When I was taking a new car from the lot every few months, I had Monarchs, Grand Marquis and Crown Victorias. I always stuck to the big cars.”
And he still does, garaging a 1987 Lincoln Town Car, also in mint condition and with only 50,000 miles on its odometer, beside the Grand Marquis.
That Whiteman’s career and car preferences became linked to Ford may have had something to do with growing up literally “over the fence” from the dealership started by Howard Wells and a partner “back in the Model A days.”
Wells hired him as an apprentice mechanic in the early 1950s. Wells Ford Mercury Sales is now being operated by the third generation of the family. And all four of Whiteman’s sons had part-time jobs there while growing up, and one has put in 30 years or so as a full-time employee.
Whiteman spent 35-plus years as the dealership’s service manager – serving Ford as part of its Professional Service Managers advisory group – and planned to retire in 2000, but “was talked into staying on,” the family-run operation sticking with him, along with his now-departed wife Shirley, through a lengthy bout with a paralyzing illness.
Whiteman’s Grand Marquis, which has “everything on it” in the way of options, has never been painted and, with only 8,000 miles under its wheels, shows barely any patina to indicate it’s been around for 36 years, one of only 9,207 hardtop Grand Marquis made in 1976.
This truly grand survivor was originally sold in the United States and spent most of its life there, much of it apparently in a museum. The story behind why somebody handed over $6,439 (U.S.) for a car most would have been more than a little proud to be seen behind the wheel of but who only put a few thousand miles under its wheels remains a mystery.
Back in 1976
The 1976 Mercury Grand Marquis costs $6,439 (U.S.) to buy, the average annual income in the United States is $16,000, the average house costs $43,400 and gas sells for 56 cents a gallon.
The Concorde takes flight commercially, Ford launches its new Fiesta, Apple Computer is founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and IBM introduces the first laser printer.
Punk rockers The Ramones release their first album, Irish rock band U2 is formed, Bob Marley and his manager are shot, The Band performs its farewell concert in San Francisco and The Eagles release Hotel California.
Johnny Rutherford wins the shortest Indy 500 staged, the event abbreviated to 102 laps and 255 miles by rain. Formula One driver Niki Lauda is severely burned in a crash in the German Grand Prix.