It wasn’t a Rolls Royce, nor was it a 7 Series or even a Maybach. No, in my 12-year-old mind, it was the Lincoln Town Car that signified power and mobility in 2000s New York City.
Glancing at tinted rear windows of a Town Car perched on Madison Avenue, I envisioned stone-faced financiers in dark suits and trench coats, pushing the world economy along at the pace of a Blackberry wheel. Botox, mink coats, and vicious small dogs. Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.
“You’d always see Town Cars parked in long lines outside Manhattan restaurants like Docks or Sparks Steakhouse,” recalls Andy Brooks, a former cable executive, in a phone interview. That’s the same Sparks where, in 1985, mob kingpin Paul Castellano was assassinated in his very own Lincoln Town Car.
But steakhouse mafia hits weren’t a thing when I was growing up. Forget the peep shows and the murderers of the ‘80s; the Times Square of my childhood was already giant M&M statues and Ruby Tuesdays. The grimiest thing I remember about that place was, perhaps, the Naked Cowboy. This was deep Bloomberg-era New York, an unapologetically corporate place. The Town Car was there to devour the expense accounts.
Staying late at the Wall Street office speculating on the housing market? Fret not. Your company will give you a voucher for a ride home, almost invariably in a Town Car. Just got laid off? You’ll get a voucher for a ride in that case, too. After all, the company has an interest in you “leaving the neighbourhood,” Andy adds.
But the Town Car served Lehman Brothers executives and the broke teenagers overfilled with pre-ban Four Loko. Because in what the Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) broadly defines as “For-Hire Vehicles” (FHVs) the Town Car was also king.
Basically, anything that isn’t a yellow cab falls under the FHV umbrella. They drive people around, but legally aren’t allowed to pick up anybody waving their arm at the curb. That’s how the city divides labour between cabs and hire cars. The world of FHVs includes Black Cars (which are pre-arranged/account-based), luxury limousines, and Livery Cars (aka “Community Cars”) that you can dial-on-demand. Until not too long ago, the Town Car dominated all of these segments.
Especially in the pre-Uber era, Livery or “Community Cars” were readily available where yellow cabs didn’t really want to go (which was almost everywhere except Manhattan). These were car services that you had to dial by flipping open your Motorola Razr. And if it was a busy night, you had roughly one and a half seconds to announce your location to the dispatcher before being placed on hold. And being on hold wasn’t knock-off Kenny G tickling your earlobes. No, being on hold meant listening to the superhuman dispatcher juggle nine callers at a time while directing a fleet of Town Cars over the radio.
My sister, Nastia, a loyal Bushwick Car Service user in the mid-2000s, remembers the dispatcher’s chant each time she called and announced her location: “Evergreen... Evergreen... Evergreen... Evergreen.. Evergreen.” It all went on at an auctioneer’s pace.
Then there were the commercials for the bigger car service companies, which were completely out of control. Carmel, a Manhattan-based car service, flooded TV networks and airwaves with ads. Granted, there were others, like Dial 7, but Carmel ads were the ones to remember. Anybody who was in New York during Obama’s first term remembers.
You’d be watching an early season of Jersey Shore, when JWoww punches Mike The Situation in his orange face. Or perhaps you were into The Apprentice, and a man—no less orange—was about to say “Yurr Fired.” Invariably, there’d be a cut to a commercial break, and, if you were in the New York area, you’d likely see four women sat at a footpath cafe:
“...He comes when I call,” one says, from behind a tall glass of red wine.
“...He takes me shopping,” says another.
“...He takes me to the theatre.”
Beneath the women, a large caption in Law and Order font reads: “NEW YORK WOMEN TALK ABOUT CARMEL.” And at the centre of a table, there’s a large share plate of what looks like seafood, romaine lettuce, and a large puddle of ketchup.
And then, the unforgettable punchline:
“Sometimes, he just takes me home at night...” Cue the arrival of none else but a silver Lincoln Town Car.
The rate at which Lincoln Town Cars have disappeared from New York City streets is surreal. After some hours scrubbing an NYC Open Data list of all For-Hire Vehicles currently active in New York City (which, to my deep frustration, only includes VIN numbers and not makes and models), I’ve calculated that there are 2,568 Town Cars still in service. That’s 2,568 Town Cars out of 119,422 total active For-Hire Vehicles, or roughly 2% of the total. Once the For-Hire flagship of New York City, the Town Car is now a critically endangered species.
But if you look hard enough, you can find some of the 2,568 Town Cars still in service—which, if you consider New York City’s 6,000-odd miles of roadway, is not as easy as it seems.
Dial 7 is a New York City car service behemoth dating back to the 1970s, and it still has a sizable cohort of drivers who operate Lincoln Town Cars. Yoel Sharabi, the General Manager of Dial 7, says that “many customers request only the Lincoln Town Car because it’s very roomy, has a comfortable ride, and gives a sense of protection that only a big car can offer.”
Despite rigorous TLC and triennial New York State vehicle inspections, the ageing Town Cars are preserved for as long as possible because they are “unique from everything else.” But, still, Yoel estimates the Town Cars at Dial 7 will remain for another “one or two years of service” though he’s admittedly not “definitive” about that timeline.
There is the Town Car’s supposed successor, the praying-mantis shaped MKT, but it’s not quite the same. “The MKT is no Town Car, but it gets the job done,” Yoel concedes.
The arrival of app-based car services like Uber and Lyft is what, in Yoel’s view, has changed the industry tremendously. In the pre-Uber era, Dial 7 adhered to a “standard of comfort and luxury” that the Town Car was best-equipped to provide. Nowadays, ride-sharing apps “have brought smaller and smaller cars into the industry, and people don’t mind it.” As such, the era of Town Car is too coming to an end even at Dial 7, as smaller and “greener” front-wheel-drive sedans enter the mix.
Town Cars aside, Dial 7 has lost a “significant number of drivers since the arrival of ride-sharing apps.” And even those who have remained at Dial 7 often “bounce between Dial 7 and Uber as they wish” yet “work longer hours” and “make less money than they used to.” Yoel has a hard time understanding why drivers switch to ride-sharing apps. As Yoel puts it, “they’re building a business that will ultimately fire them in favour of autonomous vehicles.”
Dial 7 does have “a loyal customer base,” according to Yoel, which includes both people who don’t use smartphones and—perhaps most importantly—those who relish the option of a classic Town Car.
I reached out to Mago, who drives one of the very few remaining Lincoln Town Cars at Bushwick Car Service, a neighbourhood-oriented company that’s much smaller than Dial 7. Originally from Mexico, Mago has worked in car service for 16 years and has driven Lincoln Town Cars exclusively. His current Town Car is the final edition—a 2011 model with over 250,000 miles on the clock.
Mago is a fan the Lincoln’s reliability and the relative ease of repair. Surprisingly, the V8 Lincoln’s gas mileage does not seem to bother him. But Mago expects to keep his trusty Town Car in service another two years, tops. His next purchase will be “a bigger car.”
Inevitably, the topic of ride-sharing apps came up, and Mago admits that, over the past few years “many drivers at Bushwick Car Service have switched to Uber” and that, generally, “business has slowed down.”
But just like at Dial 7, there is a loyal customer base at Bushwick. Mago says that a lot of his regular customers only “speak Spanish” and prefer to use “only cash.” In a city with 800 spoken languages, there are plenty of other neighbourhood-oriented car services like Bushwick. And these car services accommodate immigrant communities in ways that largely depersonalised and cashless ride-sharing apps cannot.
My conversations with drivers in the Russophone enclave of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn tell a similar story. Yes, Uber and Lyft have taken a lot of business, but there are still customers who prefer to dial a number and get in touch with a Russian-speaking dispatcher. That said, the Town Car appears to be gone for good in Brighton Beach. The drivers and dispatchers I spoke to, unlike Mago, lamented its gas mileage. Toyota is now king in those parts.
It isn’t necessarily a surprise that the V8-powered, body-on-frame Town Car has been made obsolete by smaller, front-wheel-drive crossovers and sedans. The same can be said about the traditional car services increasingly overshadowed by smartphone apps. For better and for worse, technology is changing.
What’s lost is the egalitarian luxury of the Town Car. Nowadays you’ll have to contend with whatever Camry or Altima Uber spits at you. And if you want to be fancy, it’ll have to be some SUV, or something German. Maybe a Cadillac, if you’re a patriot.
But no car exists today that can simultaneously fill all the segments, from plebeian to prestige. Try getting Alec Baldwin into the backseat of a Toyota Camry. He’ll probably punch you in the face. The living-room-like back seats of the Town Car are a different story—they’re fit for a prince, yet accessible to the pauper.
So, next time you hail down a ride in a Lincoln Town Car, savour it. Savour it before the few that remain are crushed, or, worse yet, hoisted above a warehouse along the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx, draped in a banner that reads: “$$$ WE BUY GOLD $$$.” Savour it, because you’ll never experience a more comfortable ride for less than 10 bucks ever again.