Into the Great Wide open. Continental tour bus. Two musicians buy a thirsty Lincoln and set out to explore the States. What’s the best way to top off a year’s exchange in the USA? For musician Marcus Warner, it was to buy a 1970s V8 barge and embark on an epic, 10,000-mile road trip. Photography Marcus Warner/Connor Read.
Last year, I spent 12 months as an exchange student in Long Island, New York. Feeling the need for some classic wheels, I acquired a two-door 1985 Mercury Grand Marquis, but it turned out to be rubbish and by March 2017 I’d bought a 1977 Lincoln Continental MkV for $5000. Despite the car looking like a Rolls-Royce on steroids and getting barely nine miles to the gallon, I thought it would be perfect for a road trip – but neither I nor my co-pilot Connor expected that adventure to last for 35 days and more than 10,000 miles across America, from our start in New York to San Francisco and back, taking in the Sierra Nevada, Route 66 and the Blues heartlands of Memphis and Nashville.
‘AS I STEPPED OUT AND SAW THE LINCOLN HEAD FOR THE HORIZON, I REALISED MY MISTAKE’
The trip didn’t get off to a good start. Just four hours in, somewhere in New Jersey, we pulled over to find a puddle of coolant under the car. After burning myself while bypassing the knackered heater core, we eventually got back under way and made it to Ohio, where we pitched our tent in a quarry before heading west the following morning. The Linc has a 23-gallon fuel tank and I’m fairly certain you burn off the first two just coaxing the carburetted 7.5-litre engine into life, with a lot of pumping and feathering of the throttle. Once it gets going, however, driving the Continental is a fantastic experience – albeit one where everything happens in slow motion.
With money tight, we booked the cheapest room we could find in Chicago – a $20 Airbnb a mile south of Englewood, the backdrop to Spike Lee’s 2015 gang violence musical Chi-Raq. How the car didn’t get stolen (and we didn’t get murdered) remains a mystery, and hearing gunshots nearby in the middle of the night was enough to tell us we didn’t belong there.
‘THROUGH EL DORADO THE LIGHTS FAILED, AND THE DARK MOUNTAIN ROADS WERE TENSE’
Leaving Chicago, we headed north-west on Interstate 90, stopping in Wisconsin at a cheese shop with a giant cow outside. The cheese was pretty good, but at this point I realised that the car was leaking coolant again. We stayed in a motel, very much against our policy of booking accommodation in advance to save cash (I only had about $200 left in my bank account by that time). After the overheating delays, we had some time to make up – we’d already had to skip a visit to Niagara Falls – so the interstate beckoned.
The V8 doesn’t really roar so much as chug, and I learnt quickly to not so much as look in the direction of the throttle unless I was prepared to burn off $5 of fuel; on open roads we managed as much as 16mpg, around town it was more like half that. The engine, though torquey, is laughably underpowered given its size and the Linc’s immense weight. After a seemingly endless spell of interstate driving, we pulled over and pitched our tent outside a spooky-looking abandoned farmhouse. I made a video explaining that, if we didn’t make it out, I loved my family.
Fortunately, though, we survived the night and continued driving towards our accommodation in Basin, Wyoming… and then it began snowing. Soon we were in a blizzard, and with two inches of compacted snow on the road I seriously considered turning the car around before we hit a tree. When it came to manoeuvring, everything I’d ever heard about American cars was perfectly demonstrated in this 19ft-long land yacht. I found that I wasn’t steering the Continental so much as navigating it: turn the wheel a few times and several minutes later the front end gently starts to move; a few more minutes and the rest of the car begins to follow.
I didn’t tell Connor how worried I was, although I think he could tell. Just when I thought that we couldn’t go any further, the road began to descend and the snow turned to rain. We knew we were driving through some incredible scenery but at 10:30pm we couldn’t see it, and arrived at Basin at midnight.
The next three days were spent in Yellowstone National Park. I’ve never been so cold in my life as I was in that tent. It rained and snowed for two nights solid, but it was worth it. We then headed into Montana, and my favourite part of the trip. I loved the quietness, the emptiness and the vastness of this state. Pitched up a few miles outside Butte, I wasn’t too fazed by the isolation – until I heard howling in the distance at 4am…
With just a day to get to Seattle, we were way behind schedule. The Lincoln was still leaking coolant – this time from the radiator – but we’d already spent $120 on accommodation so had to cross our fingers and hope. We made it through the rest of Montana, Idaho and Washington with no issues. Sunburnt, unwashed and exhausted, we arrived in Seattle at around 9pm.
In true student fashion, I completely forgot about the radiator until the second night, but we had to tackle the problem before it got worse. Eventually, we found a motor factor with the only MkV radiator in the state of Washington and fitted it in the car park, along with changing the oil and filter. With that, we left Seattle and returned to the sweet pines of Route 101 as we traversed the Olympic National Park.
We spent the following four days on the Pacific Coast Highway, alternating between campgrounds and pitching our tent on the beach. We found a wall of mussels in Oregon and cooked them over a campfire and drank beer. It is still one of the best meals of my life. Next up was California, where we went out of our way to discover the Lost Coast, a stretch of the CA-211 that reminded us of Scotland, and was virtually deserted. We nearly killed the Lincoln getting there, but it was worth it: I’d been waiting my whole life to see the redwood trees, and they did not disappoint.
By 29 May we’d reached our next checkpoint, and spent three nights in a dodgy neighbourhood in Oakland because we couldn’t afford to stay in San Francisco. We commuted in the Lincoln on the final day, taking in the iconic Lombard Street before heading east towards the Sierra Nevada. Yosemite was closed due to record snowfall, which made us chuckle until we realised we’d miss it, which became my biggest regret of the trip. It was while on Route 50 through the El Dorado National Forest that the headlights failed, and on the dark and twisty mountain roads we were both quite tense.
The car then behaved for a while before getting progressively worse, so we admitted defeat, pulled over and pitched up. We were another day behind schedule, but arrived at Mono Lake in good time the following morning. The scenery was incredible and we actually did some exercise, hiking and visiting the hot springs, but two days later we hit the road again, bound for Las Vegas on Nevada State Route 95. It was hot, but somehow the MkV trundled on without complaint. After a night in Vegas and a buffet breakfast at one of the lesser casinos, we headed to Dolan Springs, hungover and dehydrated. Then the fuel pump packed up.
Fortunately, the car chose to die about half a mile from Autozone, where we bought a new fuel filter, which did nothing. We managed to limp the car back, and set about replacing the pump in the 120º heat. The old one came out easily enough, but the new unit was a slightly different shape and proved a nightmare. Five hours later night fell and we were still there. Every hotel we tried was either closed or full, so we trudged dejectedly back to Autozone and pitched the tent in the parking lot.
I was woken at 5am by a tickling sensation on my face: a cockroach. As the sun rose, I moved the tent to the other side of the car for a few more minutes of shade – the next thing I knew there was an elderly lady peering at me and saying: “Is he dead?” I opened an eye: “Oh, he’s okay.” Top tip: when reattaching a fuel line that screws on, if it keeps popping out of the thread, try detaching it at the other end first. I was cursing myself by the time we left at 11am, but at least the Lincoln was working. If I never return to Nevada in my life, I’ll be quite happy.
Our target was to make Monument Valley by that evening, dropping in to see the Grand Canyon along the way. As the sun began to set we reached it, and ‘dropping in’ turned into two hours before we had to move on. It was then that I remembered the headlight issues, but we soon worked out that the fault was with the switch, and by not using the high beams for three hours we arrived at our campsite at about 1am.
The next day, things got crazy. I was woken at 7:45am when a bloke popped his head into my tent and said: “Hey, do you mind if I borrow the keys to your car real quick? I’m running away – going on vacation!” He had a big smile on his face and, in my sleep-deprived state, I assumed he was joking and that I’d parked in the way or blocked someone in. I handed him the keys, but as I stepped out of the tent and saw the Lincoln disappearing toward the horizon, I realised my mistake. Everything we had was in that car.
I was still too tired to be worried. After all, if you’re going to steal a car, why take a 1978 Lincoln? It’s hardly inconspicuous. Our host had a feeling he knew the guy and, after speaking to the police, he called my mobile phone, which was still in the Continental. “Stephen, these kids would like their car back now,” he said, and the phone went dead. About an hour later we got a call to say that the MkV had been found and converged upon by a squad of police officers. It turned out that the chap who took the car had taken a boatload of drugs the previous evening, and was suffering a bit of a breakdown.
Miraculously, the Lincoln was undamaged and with all the contents still inside. The whole process took four hours from start to finish, and after thanking our hosts for their help we struck out for Colorado, some 11 hours away. We drove east as fast as we could, and as night fell I realised that my glasses had gone missing during the debacle that morning, so not only was I driving with no main-beam lights, but I was also half-blind – and very careful.
Fortunately we made it safely and spent the next three nights in Colorado, the first of them just recovering from the previous three. But then it was time for the car to defy all expectations once again. On the way up we had vapour lock, and on the way down hardly any brakes, but the Lincoln had conquered Pikes Peak. Yet another epic experience to tick off the bucket list.
After visiting the Garden of the Gods, a local park, we threaded the Lincoln south through New Mexico then Texas towards Oklahoma. We enjoyed Bricktown in Oklahoma City; visited Graceland, Elvis’ house in Memphis; and spent $100 (each) that we didn’t have on beer while listening to country music on Broadway, Nashville. With the 20th of June looming – the date when we needed to be back in New York – we stopped off to see a mate who lives in Roslyn, just outside Philadelphia. After sleeping on the floor of my friend’s grandma’s apartment, we turned back to New York for Connor’s flight. We made it with two days to spare.
Having put 10,000 miles beneath its wheels in 35 days, I took the Lincoln to a local garage for attention. Like its occupants, it was tired. The brakes were making the car nearly undrivable, the headlights were all but useless, the passenger window was broken and the radio only came on if we hit a particularly large bump. The heater had stopped working, as had the indicators, and by then the V8 was drinking even more fuel than usual. But what an incredible ride!
We’re home now, but the Lincoln is still in New York, waiting patiently for the day when I can ship it over and get behind the wheel once again. The MkV certainly won’t be much use on any track days, but that isn’t why I bought it. When you’re surrounded by leather, chrome, faux wood and even a Cartier clock, every second is relaxing. The power steering is effortless, the three-speed transmission is surprisingly smooth and bumps in the road are translated into a slight rocking motion. It was like floating across the USA on a sofa – albeit one with a V8 and a chassis long enough to bridge two postcodes.
From top: Marcus, Connor and the Continental pause in Monument Valley, Utah; padded vinyl roof – note opera windows! – makes the perfect seat to take in the Mono Lake Scenic Viewpoint, California.
Clockwise, from left: about to take a dip in Wild Willy’s Hot Spring, California; wowed by the redwoods on the way back from the Lost Coast, California; camping on Ruby Beach, Washington; the Lincoln’s V8 gets hot and bothered outside a cheese shop in Wisconsin.
Clockwise, from left: American roads give endless opportunities for epic images – here in Wisconsin; Devil’s Tower, Wyoming provides the backdrop for the MkV’s imposing rear view; Connor salutes the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.
Clockwise, from above: Lincoln looks at home on The Strip, Las Vegas, Nevada; an ambition fulfilled – seeing the stunning California redwoods; glorious wide open spaces of Nevada reveal the thinking behind US car design!
Clockwise, from left: atop the iconic Pikes Peak, Colorado; where else but the Grand Canyon, Arizona; Route 287 in beautiful Montana provides a change of pace; seeing double in Roslyn, Pennsylvania.
TECHNICAL DATA SPECIFICATIONS LINCOLN CONTINENTAL MkV
Sold/no built 1977-’1979/228,862
Construction steel chassis frame, steel body
Engine all-iron, ohv 16-valve 6590/7536cc 90º V8, with single Motorcraft carburettor
Max power 166bhp @ 3400rpm-208bhp @ 4000rpm / SAE
Max torque 319ft lb @ 1800rpm-356ft lb @ 2000rpm / SAE
Transmission three-speed column-change automatic, driving rear wheels
Suspension: front independent, by wishbones and anti-roll bar rear live axle, trailing radius arms; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
Steering power-assisted box, four turns lock-to-lock
Brakes 11 ¾ in (300mm) discs front, 11 ½ in (292mm) drums rear, with servo
Length 19ft 2in (5850mm)
Width 6ft 7 ½ in (2020mm)
Height 4ft 3 ¼ in (1349mm)
Wheelbase 10ft ½ in (3060mm)
Weight 4852lb (2201kg)
0-60mph 14.1 secs/11.6 secs
Top speed 109mph/116mph
Price new (1978 USA) $12,099
Price now (2017 USA) $5000