Three Generations Up Front


The big American highway cruisier is almost a thing of the past. With families now opting for smaller compact sedans, Editor At Large Jay Traugott reflects on why exactly his grandfather was a long time fan of the Mercury Grand Marquis.

There's no doubt we're in a new golden era for American cars. Even with increasing emission standards, cars like the Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger once again roam the streets with proper high-output V8s. There are other changes, however, to 21st century cars besides the well-known fuel emission regulations. Large sedans such as the Ford Crown Victoria/ Mercury Grand Marquis, Buick Park Avenue and Le Sabre are now history. The Lincoln Town Car isn't far behind.

The family sedan is now seen by some as a small compact car, such as the Chevrolet Cruze, and those rear-wheel-drive beasts rarely have buyers who are under 75, or are employed by a taxi/limo service or the police. In fact, the Impala is nearly the only car left on the public market that's somewhat similar to those old-school sedans. Though it doesn't offer a V8 or rear-wheel-drive, it does have a common trait: a front bench seat. These used to be available in most American sedans throughout the 20th century, but for many reasons, they're no longer stylish making this seating configuration almost extinct.

When visiting my grandparents as a kid, I have memories of sitting in the front seat of my grandfather's Grand Marquis, being stuffed between my dad and grandfather. My younger sister, mom, and grandmother sat more comfortably in the back. Now, my grandfather was not a tall man and yet he loved the Grand Marquis. He owned several before finally downsizing to a Sable not long before he died. The Grand Marquis was even too large to fit in his driveway, forcing him to park on the street. For an observant kid, this arrangement didn't make a whole lot of sense.

I once asked him why he needed such a large car despite these urban physical limitations. His reply was simple: "Because it has a big trunk." This was something he clearly didn't need (he was not a golfer), but the front bench seat was useful and comfortable for him. The Grand Marquis also came with a standard 4.6-liter V8, yet another useless thing for a man who didn't know how to drive fast (his driving skills were also questionable). Still, he was a car guy who gave me my first issue of Motor Trend that started my love affair with cars. I was addicted the moment I opened it, sitting up front in the middle.

I still have that May 1990 issue featuring the debut of the Lamborghini Diablo on the cover. These days most new cars have the shifter (manual or automatic) mounted on the center console, instead of the column. I personally prefer this as a driver, but I can't help but feel that something is lost without a front bench option. Perhaps it's a piece of Americana, those large highway cruisers dominating lane space and their drivers sitting comfortably in command on a bench seat. Or maybe it's simply my own childhood memories of the person who started something for me that never went away.

With the numbered days of the current Impala and Town Car, I've been reflecting on my own early years of car fandom, when large sedans were still the norm and the mainstream public had never heard of things like hybrids and four-door coupes. Now that "The Greatest Generation" is sadly passing on, front bench seats are also going with them. If my grandfather were still alive I'm not sure what he'd drive and he would probably have a hard time finding something that suited his preferences. Things change and that can be sad, but there are also good things in change.

I can't imagine him being satisfied behind the wheel of a plug-in hybrid sedan with coupe-like styling, but I know he'd be thrilled that there are still plenty of new cars that come with big trunks.

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