There’s a lot of talk about “gateway drugs” in this country—but in my experience, it’s irony, more than any particular plant or powder, that ends up getting people hooked. Let me give you a quick example. About two years ago, Sirius XM temporarily replaced the “Love” station with “Yacht Rock,” a playlist that relied heavily on the mirror-polished pop perfection of acts like Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers, Toto, and Christopher Cross. The name “Yacht Rock” was a nod to , in which young actors portrayed musicians from that era with outrageous wigs and tongues planted firmly in cheek.
Everything about the Yacht Rock channel, from the logo to the lazily louche tone of the between-song station identification, was triple-dipped in irony. But a funny thing happened along the road to Hipster Town: The channel became so popular that Sirius XM made it permanent. Turns out that quite a few people, your humble author included, have a genuine affection for the music.
Most knowledgeable Yacht Rock aficionados agree that the genre peaked in 1977, with the release of Steely Dan’s timeless Aja. The 39-minute-and-58-second disc took more than a year and several million dollars to complete, as Donald Fagen and Walter Becker pursued their vision down to the smallest detail. There have been multiple books written to explain the album, but I think the best way to describe its appeal is this: Aja is what happens when you take a less-than-completely-serious idea and execute it with the utmost seriousness. The lyrics to “Deacon Blues” are alternately caustic, self-loathing, and detached—but the music is produced as if the fate of the world rested on every note.
After thoroughly examining the 2018 Lincoln Navigator Black Label “Yacht Club” at the Detroit Show earlier this week, I have come to the conclusion that it is the Aja of automobiles. The fundamental concept behind the Navigator is risible, at the very least: A three-ton, $97,000 monument to conspicuous consumption, capable of towing an Airstream across Death Valley at 90mph with all seven seats occupied—but which will mostly be used by suburban parents to carry a few grocery bags and, just maybe, a toddler the approximate size of a roast turkey.
Pretty much everything a Navigator can do is easily accomplished by the much cheaper Expedition, or the even more affordable F-150 Supercrew XLT. The only conceivable reason to buy a Navigator is to broadcast the naked fact of your wealth to people who can’t recognize more subtle signs—such as or an Anderson & Sheppard suit or a fist full of hundred-dollar bills. The Lincoln Continental, which is perhaps the most outstanding domestic luxury automobile ever built, can make some claim to taste and breeding. The Navigator, by contrast, will hit the egos of your envy-stricken suburban neighbors like a Floyd Mayweather punch to the gut.
If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because it almost exactly describes a very special series of Lincolns from 40 years ago. The 1977 Mark V was already the most outrageous sled on the boulevard, possessed of razor-sharp edges and pornographic proportions, but the four Designer Series Editions took that curb appeal and cranked it to the max. You had the choice of Bill Blass, Cartier, Givenchy, or Pucci. No matter which one you chose, you could be assured that nothing out there could match your flash—not even a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, which looked like a poleaxed Austin Princess next to the 230-inch majesty of the Mark V.
I went to school with a friend whose father had a ‘77 Mark. He would pop in an 8-track—in my memory, of course, it was Aja—and my friend and I would sink into the velour pillows of the rear seat and imagine ourselves as conquerors of Studio 54. My mother called it a pimp-mobile; she drove a Volvo and used French words in casual conversation. I thought my mother was a killjoy and said as much.
The Mark V barely made it to the Reagan era; its place was taken by the squashed Panther-platform Mark VI, blobular Fox-platform Mark VII, and the disco volante Mark VIII. Lincoln faded and shrank to front-wheel-drive Continentals, Town Cars with livery-grade interiors, and frumpy Navigators that looked like exactly like the half-baked Expedition facelifts they often were. The mojo once possessed by the Mark V vanished into thin air, seemingly never to return.
Until now. The stellar Continental is a voice crying in the wilderness, but this Navigator is the authentic resurrection of Lincoln. In Yacht Club trim, it shines from stem to stern with bespoke interior design, whitewashed teak trim, top-shelf upholstery, and mile-deep paint. This particular interior scheme is meant to pair with a very Givenchy-esque steel blue; thus specified, the Navigator appears to the eye like a massive sapphire in a four-prong stainless steel setting.
I have no doubt that some of the customers in the Navigator’s segment will be utterly horrified by the unbashed and unapologetic luxury of the Yacht Club trim. That’s fine. They can get one of the less opulent variants, or they can just buy a black S-Class with a black interior like everybody else who was born with chronic imagination deficiency. There’s plenty of precedent for that decision; back in ‘77, there were people who bought beige 240D Benzes instead of a Mark V, no doubt stuffing an old Prestige-era Miles Davis tape in the 8-track and feeling very self-satisfied with their hair-shirt approach to upper-crust existence.
Certainly there will also be some buyers who test drive a Yacht Club on a whim, the way my father evaluated a Sky Blue Signature Series Town Car in 1982, making a few wisecracks about the color and the overwrought interior and the general ridiculousness of the thing. They will approach as skeptics and depart as converts, discovering a genuine affection for the Aja-esque seriousness with which the Black Label accoutrements are executed. I know that I did—and that I was immediately struck by a Deacon-Blues-esque sadness that my lifestyle of muddy mountain biking and greasy-fingernail club racing is entirely incompatible with the blue-and-white Yacht Club leather.
It will be a while before my circumstances adjust to the point where I can enjoy a Black Label Navigator the way God and Lincoln intend. I’m not worried. This product, and the philosophy behind it, has legs. I suspect there will be Black Label Lincolns for quite some time to come. You can sneer at them all you like; if you give the product a chance, however ironically brief, you might find yourself a believer. To quote one of the lesser-known tracks from Aja:
Well the danger on the rocks is surely past
Still I remain tied to the mast
Could it be that I have found my
Home at last