Now, having waxed eloquent about driving the big boat, let me explain mechanically how I have gotten my '78 with the 400-V8 running perfectly. Very, very reliable car. Yet, any car this old, especially one that sat too much like mine, is going to need work to get it back to factory condition. And it has been no small amount of work, but the payoff in a sweetly running, fine-tuned machine has been worth it. I have driven 52,000 miles since 2007, and mostly trouble free while actually driving. Even if a system is having a problem, this car gets you there. I also tow my boat with it, and you don't even know the boat is back there if you don't look.
My '78 was owned by a doctor who really neglected it. It had 82K miles when I picked it up in 2007, and had done so much sitting, which cars don't like. It was parked near the ocean, and due to salt air, rust had gotten a good hold, due to the cracked vinyl top, which had allowed water to pour in all around the front and rear windshields.
This design was the Achilles' Heel of this car, and is why you see more surviving Cadillacs of this vintage than Lincolns. Once that vinyl top cracked up, if it was not repaired immediately the car developed cancer. The metal was no good. I read somewhere that due to a fight with the steel unions in the mid-'70s, Detroit decided to buy Japanese steel, which was of inferior quality. I believe it, as I have seen so many domestic cars of the mid-to-late '70s succumb to rust, across the board.
So I have been restoring my Lincoln mechanically, while driving it nearly daily and leaving the rust for last - because it will have to be off the road for quite a while for major rust surgery. The metal around the opera windows underneath the vinyl top is just gone, as well as a lot of metal around the windshields. This is going to be a fight. But, now it is running so sweet, I have the incentive to finish the job. Here is what I have done over the last six years. It's a big list, but I'm a mechanical perfectionist who restores and paints each system as I work on it, and demand factory-fresh functioning:
1. Carb rebuild - twice. First time, the car had sat so long the gaskets had all dried up and it leaked everywhere. Second time, it was just time.
2. Front brakes & rotors & master cylinder, brake hoses and rebuilt calipers - brakes seized up due to many years of sitting. Now that it's driven daily, new front pads every 25,000 miles in city driving, and they stop well once you learn to leave proper following distance.
3. Upper control-arm bushings and strut-rod bushings - these were dry-rotted from sitting and quickly wore out with driving around my badly potholed town. New ones keep the car tracking tight.
4. Idler arm - badly potholed town - Needed doing at 95K miles - nothing abnormal about that.
5. Front wheel bearings and rear axle bearings. It's a big heavy car and these last about 60K miles, as do the fronts, if your roads are bad.
6. Remote electric trunk release - froze up from never being used. New latch for $5 from the junkyard.
7. Frigidaire, six-cylinder R12 A/C system (these were used on the big GMs, too). Had not worked for years. New heater core, compressor and receiver-drier, flush all system components with denatured alcohol and blow-dry with air compressor, re-seal evaporator box with Home Depot caulk tape, replace all O-rings, new R12 Freon off of eBay - blows ice-cold and automatic-temp control works fine. These systems were bulletproof if regularly used. Big note though: the '78s ran hot due to retarded camshaft timing for smog. If living in a hot climate, do what I did, get rid of the 5-blade non-clutch flex fan and buy a big 7-blade non-flex cooling fan off eBay and pair it with a non-thermal clutch and the proper-length spacer - makes the A/C and car run much cooler!
8. After flushing years of rust out of the cooling system, a freeze plug sprung a leak - a $2 fix.
9. Thermostat. On the 400-V8, a Cleveland engine, there's a special thermostat. I went through 3 aftermarket thermostats and though they looked right, I never could get the engine temp hot enough in the winter until I bit the bullet and bought the original Motorcraft RT-139 stat. Problem solved.
10. New, well-made Autozone copper-brass lifetime-warranty radiator at and hoses at 115K miles.
11. General power-steering-hose leakage from age and leaky reservoir due to people (including me) incorrectly prying on it. Replace hoses and straighten and reseal the reservoir. I accidentally pried against the Hydro-Boost auxiliary reservoir while removing hoses and caused a leak - my fault - so rebuilt Hydro-Boost. It's a Saginaw pump, so use "Power Steering Fluid," spec ESW-M2C128-C or -D, NOT Type F! Will make much less noise and foam less. Do not mix the two types. Since I was already fixing the P/S system, I threw in a rebuilt steering box for $125, as it was a little leaky and sloppy. Now the steering is tight, and doesn't leak a drop!
12. Shocks all around - THREE TIMES - every 20K miles of city driving like clockwork. Horrible roads in my town, + the car is just too big for the shock design and eats 'em up. Buy 'em once at O'Reilly Auto with lifetime warranty and get them free forever!
13. Tires, 3X - the biggest nuisance expense of owning a '78 Continental. They scrub the edges off way before the center, despite proper alignment. Beautifully cushy ride. Door sticker says 26 PSI all around (!) and that's exactly what I run in my badly potholed town (30 PSI highway), because it rides so smooth & I'd rather buy tires than tear up the suspension. Rotation helps, but there's only so much you can do... choose your poison - busted suspension, rattling teeth and lower back, or tires.
14. Adjust bands on the bulletproof C6 transmission. Extremely simple operation - buy the band-adjustment nuts from a Ford dealer - still available. Now it shifts better and will last much longer. Use Multi-Vehicle ATF in transmission, specified for vehicles that can run MERCON - NOT TYPE F! Original CJ fluid is no longer made, and was superseded by MERCON. Type F shifts harder (though it slightly extends trans life) and will detract from the luxury ride. Type F doesn't mix well.
15. Install SunPro temperature gauge under lower-left dashboard to replace the idiot light - this is a MUST, so you can detect a coolant leak, for example, or see if your A/C is going to overheat the car on a 100-degree day if your engine isn't tuned right.
16. Water pump and timing chain. This is the BEST fix I ever did, and is why my '78 runs so bleepin' great now, with cold A/C:
In May I finally sprung a water-pump leak after a high-speed highway run. When you pull all the accessories off the front of the 400 and get all the way down to the water pump, you're knocking on the door of the timing chain, so now it's mandatory to fix a '60s/'70s Ford design flaw - the nylon-toothed camshaft gear. It is shot, trust me, after 35 years, and it's making your 400 or 460 sluggish by retarding the timing with excess slop more than it already was from the factory.
What you are going to do here - depending on your state's emissions-test regiment - is turn your 400-V8 motor into the 1971 version by putting a non-smog-retarded timing gear set on. Do not, in any circumstance, replace it with the stock gear set, because this fix is the single best thing I ever did to wake up my motor, and it takes a lot of sweaty work to get down to the timing chain. I will say that getting the timing chain cover back on without pulling the oil pan was the toughest timing-chain job of my life.
I used the Comp Cams timing gear kit #2121 for the 400-V8 and immediately got 10% better gas mileage, more and smoother power, engine runs 10-15 degrees cooler, and A/C blows colder. My car is night-and-day different, by adding back the 4 degrees of camshaft advance that Ford took away in the mid-'70s due to misguided emissions attempts. It will idle perfect ('the stock '78s were so hard to tune properly due to the smog junk) and have a smooth, bottomless gas pedal after you un-strangle the motor. I would also bet that the 10% better mileage will offset any emissions increase, and so you really aren't violating the spirit of the smog equipment. It takes skill to do the timing chain on a 400 and to get the new gears aligned just right, so be careful, or pay a pro!
So... yes that was a lot of work, I admit! But with any older car, you have to do the work to catch up with the neglect of previous owners, and the effects of time, especially when the car isn't driven much. But once you invest that time.... it took me six years working on it while using it as a daily driver to get it to its current state, where now it's mechanically done and it's time to fix the rust and paint and enjoy the restored classic. But during those six years, my '78 has overall been stone reliable, easy on my lower back, and overall just a great ride :)
If you choose to buy one of these, my main advice would be: buy one as rust-free as you can. I was forced to buy this particular rusty '78 because I needed a car right away after wrecking another. The rest of the car has good mechanical bones!
Wow, what an amazing post! Tons of great info, thank you! Like you, I own a 78 Continental with the 400, and let me tell you, it's a slug beyond words.
I have rust issues on the car as well, but it's mainly the rear window trim where the vinyl top is. Rust literally has eaten away on the right side of the sheet metal underneath the vinyl itself. There's a huge rust hole that goes straight into the trunk! I am planning on repairing it very soon, as I have been slowly repairing other minor rust spots that just pop up on the car, especially on the top aluminized chrome trim on the fenders and doors. Water sits underneath it, and rust starts.
I also agree with you about these cars, there is just something about them that gets you hooked! They are so stately and powerful looking cars that IMO, not even the full size Cadillacs in the 70's could match 70's Lincoln's in its presence. They look like they were sculpted to perfection.
I have owned my 78 for a year now, and so far, it hasn't let me down yet. I did a few repairs on my own, the water pump was one, including the water outlet pipe that cracked due to old age and being aluminum :(. Replaced the outlet with a cast iron one that I am sure will never crack. The 400 is slow as hell, but it runs, and gets going once it's on the freeway. The C6 is bulletproof and heavy duty, this is one of the reasons why I love the older Lincoln's 60's-70's compared to the 80's on up, is because they were overbuilt using strong mechanical components that you didn't have to worry about breaking down, unlike the 80's Town Car's problematic AOD's and even weaker 5.0 engine.
The quality of the exterior trim was excellent on the 77-79 Conti's. Metal is strong and solid. The interior dash is very cheap and poorly fitted tho, but looks nice and honestly that's what matters to me more, because I really don't like the looks of the 77 dash; it's too plain and boring for a luxury car.
I have the base model, which comes with power cloth bench seats that are extremely soft and comfortable! You totally sink into these things. It's funny because as this car gently glides down the road, when going over a bump or high/low roads, while your body is being forced down on the downforce, it pushes your butt into the seat. Since these seats are so soft, it feels like you're driving on a cloud, as the seats act like an extra suspension for the car!
Best riding car I have ever driven hands down, and I've driven quite a few. The body is tight, there are no creaks or rattles, and it's extremely quiet. I did however have to add some rubber foam tape to the door seals to help quiet the ride even more, as I was getting some wind and road noise entering the cabin. You can get this stuff at Home Depot in the Doors section. It's basically the same stuff that you use to seal door gaps in your home. It's cheap and works great. I recommend everyone to do this.
I will take your advice on the mechanical upgrades and apply em to my 78 one at a time. I know changing out the timing gears and camshaft can make worlds of a difference, including replacing the intake manifold with a performance Edelbrock one, and adding a dual exhaust system can really bump up the HP in these slugs.
"I read somewhere that due to a fight with the steel unions in the mid-'70s, Detroit decided to buy Japanese steel, which was of inferior quality".
I don't think this is true, as the unions' mafia overlords (who drive big luxoboats) wouldn't allow for such a thing.
The rust just forms near the vinyl top because that's the main area that the workers never rustproofed.