Travel: The Continental Pt. 15: You Can Come Home Again

The Continental Pt. 15: You Can Come Home Again

By Christie Grotheim
October 15, 2012

(This article is the final installment of the 15-part series, The Continental, written by Christie Grotheim with photography by Niklas Andersson as the couple sets out on a six-week road trip across and around the United States in their 1979 Lincoln Continental. Click here to read the full series.)

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Wixom, just outside of Detroit, was our last big destination. After all her hard work and perseverance, it was time for our car to meet her maker and return to her birthplace. We were headed to the manufacturing plant where she had been built and rolled off the assembly line in 1979.

Wanting her to look her best, we cleaned out and vacuumed the interior, finding three lighters tucked in folds of the cushy seats. We drove her through a car wash. Rather, we drove in and stopped, following the posted instructions. The car remained stationary while the sprayers and dryers moves all around it. I don’t think the contraption was built for a car the size of the Continental, because the mechanical arms moved in too close, making it a frightening experience—and also somewhat ineffective—the nozzles barely reached her front and back ends.

What’s more, when we exited, our car made a new sound: a flapping in rhythm with the wheel rotation. Something was crushed, bent or damaged, but we couldn’t see any problem with the wheels so we hoped it would work itself out before we reached the plant just across the highway.

Though the Ford Wixom Assembly Plant closed its doors in 2007, it was one of Ford’s largest and oldest manufacturing sites and at its height expanded to 4.7 million square feet. It opened in 1957 and in those fifty years it manufactured 6,648,806 automobiles: Ford Thunderbirds, Ford GTs, Lincoln LS… and Lincoln Town Cars. In fact, the last car produced was a white chocolate Lincoln Town Car which rolled off the line at 12:55 p.m. on May 31st,  2007.

We knew it had been closed but wanted to drive in and explore the abandoned factory. By chatting with people in town, we learned that it was going to be torn down soon and converted to a Renewable Energy Park. When we pulled into the parking lot we were blocked by a guard at the gate. Construction—or deconstruction—was already in progress and we weren’t allowed to enter, but noting our vehicle they allowed us to park on the long driveway entrance and take as many photos as we wanted.

Construction workers were streaming out of the building, leaving for the day. As they passed they made comments about the car—they knew their history and understood the significance of us being there. Each one smiled when they saw our car and asked the year. Many had a story to tell.

“You made it just in the nick of time,” one guy said. “They’re tearing this whole thing down on Friday.”

We had delivered her home just in time. And she delivered us home in time, two days later, through Cleveland, Niagara Falls, and finally to our front door in the West Village. We completed the circle, the circumference of the country.

We had driven 4,500 pounds of solid American steel over 13,000 miles. We visited 13-mechanics across the country which isn’t bad considering we drove through 32-states, another country, one district, and 40-national parks and state forests.

Now that we are back, in hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing. Yes, we had some car problems, and yes, some parts felt rushed. But we saw so much. Experiencing America by driving across it you feel every inch: riding the earth’s curves, rolling across its open spaces, crawling across its deserts, ascending its mountains. Forever driving into horizons. What strikes me about the trip now is not just the highlights—the Grand Canyon, the national parks, the big cities—it was the things we saw in between those things.

Niklas and I have an on-going post-trip argument. When he overheard me tell a friend on the phone that I drove about one-third of the time, he said he thought it was more like one-fourth, because he did more driving in the cities. I feel my estimate is more accurate and besides many times I offered to drive when he wanted to continue. But either way I know I drove almost every single day for hours on end. We drove and drove and drove, but instead of driving each other crazy, our car drove us closer together.

As spacious and comfortable as the Continental is, we shared the same space for two months, rotating between the front lounge seats, breathing the same air, always within arms reach of one another. The furthest we were away from each other was perhaps from the tent to the car or standing a few meters apart on some beach, and the longest we were separated was to use the restroom. But it wasn’t too much togetherness—it was not even enough. I already miss that blissful feeling of being in the car together, holding hands, saying nothing. I miss looking back through the opera windows (my favorite feature) framing everything in oval.

The memory is made stronger by the fact that we did it in that car. Niklas’s crazy, hair-brained, illogical, unsensible idea had come to fruition. We had originally thought we would sell the car afterwards, but we can’t. The sentimental value is far too strong.

It’s ridiculous to keep a car of that capacity in the city. It’s unnecessary, it’s insane, it’s irrational, and it’s expensive. We pay for insurance when we hardly drive her. We have to deal with parking. The rattle is back with a vengeance, and we will eventually have to take her back to the shop.

But it’s also glorious, it’s wonderful, it’s unique, and most of all, it’s an experience.

– – –

Niklas Andersson is a lighting designer and photographer from Gothenburg, Sweden, who has recently set his sights—and lights—on New York City. With a passion for ’79 Lincoln Continentals and a love of the open road, he offers a unique perspective, from both behind the wheel and behind the lens.

Christie Grotheim is a New York-based writer whose personal essays can be found at Ducts, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and Smith Magazine. Though her workspace is in the West Village, she prefers writing longhand from the passenger seat with the world whizzing by and the wind in her hair.

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Greg Lewis
Greg Lewis
7 years ago

fantastic!! i have a 79 town coupe same color as your car,it is a arizona car, now living in australia with me, i love my lincoln and drive it as much as i can,i am planning a road trip around my country in him(have been around the country many times but never in the lincoln), yes it’s thirsty,yes it’s huge,yes thing’s go wrong,but what a way to spend a few month’s..hope you still have the cream dream and keep it forever.all the best to you !!!

Gabriel Marin
Gabriel Marin
7 years ago

What a great reading. The desire of making a road trip has been increasing each time I read a chapter of this wounderful story. I don’t even own a car (working on it), yet my love and passion for them is undescribeable, only planes might get to the same level. Petrolicius and these stories are just making it worst, and I thank you for it!

Chris Hill
Chris Hill
10 years ago

What a wonderful, inspiring read this series has been. The mechanical issues probably felt like the end of the world at the time but I expect now they feel insignificant in comparison to the experience as a whole, almost a fair price to pay. For the longest time I’ve wanted to do an epic road-trip around the States in a classic (being on the other side of the Atlantic makes it all the more difficult to organise) and reading about your experience has added fuel to my fire. Thank you for sharing.

10 years ago

Awww, I don’t want it to end! My kids were awe-struck looking at the map of where all you went!