Appearances are supposed to matter in Washington, D.C., especially around the monumental center of the city. On Capitol Hill, people worry about neighbors installing inauthentic windows; on the Mall, forces clash over whether the World War II memorial will obstruct the view.

But a major part of Washington’s streetscape has been radically rebuilt, and for the worse, without drawing notice: the District’s limousine fleet.

This is not about the after-dark limos—the swimming-pool-long ultrastretches or expanded Hummers and Lexus 4x4s that bus kids to the prom. It’s about the omnipresent schools of black four-door sedans, with tinted windows and leather seats, that carry executives, diplomats, and politicians around town. They are Official Washington on the move, infusing the traffic flow with stately seriousness.

Only these days, that gravitas is lacking. Four years ago, Ford Lincoln Mercury changed the design of its Lincoln Town Car, the sedan that has set the limo-industry standard for a dozen years. The old Town Car looked regal—”modeled after classic Rolls-Royces, after carriages built for kings,” says Tom Mazza, executive director of the National Limousine Association. Along with Michael L. Bromley, Mazza is co-author of Stretching It: The Story of the Limousine. The new one is flatter and rounder, like a bath sponge—a milquetoast sedan that blends in with the common traffic. Lincoln designers, Mazza says, “tried to ‘Euro’ the car…. [They] wanted to make the car look like a Mercedes, Jaguar, or BMW.”

The past Town Car ruled the market by looking like what it was: a big, dominating American car. “The whole thing with a limousine is to project authority and comfort,” says Chris Hinkel, a sedan limousine driver for 20 years. And that, drivers and limo-company owners say, is just what the Town Car used to do.

“It was just a commanding beast on the road,” Mazza says.

The windshield was steep; the hood, fenders, and trunk formed one long, forward-slanting line. The sides were flat, with doors that looked like doors: rectangular and upright, easy to get in or out of. The windows spread all the way down to elbow height, rather than ending at shoulder height like the edge of a bathtub.

And there were extra windows—small passenger windows behind the C-pillars, the columns between trunk and roof. Once you were in the rear seat, you could lean luxuriously back and peer out of them.

But the old Town Car was not for the indolent. Finished with a high trunk, the car looked stacked and powerful. Hollywood loved it: The Town Car was the getaway car in Heat and the vehicle of choice for drug-boy gangsters in Out of Sight. It was beautiful in a corner pivot—big and muscular, the inside front fender rising, the engine revving under the hood as the driver spun the wheel with a flat palm, the steering cables whining, the outside rear tire spitting gravel. Badass.

You could be young in the ’90s Town Car. John Cusack drove one in Grosse Pointe Blank, same as his middle-aged nemesis Dan Aykroyd.

The car was like a suit: It conveyed seriousness and authority, no matter the wearer’s age. Out-of-town businessmen, disembarking at the Willard, seemed endowed with a new slickness stepping out of those big rear doors. Clubgoers climbed out smoothly and stylishly, as if they, too, were on an important mission.

But like Brooks Brothers deciding it needed to sell corporate-casual clothes, Lincoln Mercury concluded after the 1997 model that the Town Car needed to be less square. Literally. A press release from the new car’s debut bragged about a “more flowing design”—made possible, in part, by eliminating that old C-pillar window. The visual mass of the car shifted forward, from the rear seat to the front.

In the name of “European styling,” the windows on the new model are bowed like the vista dome on a train car, converging on a much smaller roof. The rear doors curve back in a half-oval, making them harder to get out of, and the threshold looks higher off the road. The whole thing appears lifted from the bottom and squished from the top. Rather than commanding the road like its predecessor, the current Town Car is styled to look, in Lincoln’s words, “user friendly.”

Lincoln Mercury spokesperson Jay Joyner is quick to point out that next year’s model, the 2003 Town Car, is getting fender and hood changes to make it more square. But Mazza dismisses the changes as “minor and cosmetic.”

The 2003 car, like the present ones, won’t stand out from the ordinary cars in D.C. traffic. In its soul, it won’t really be a limo.

Detroit, it turns out, is not interested in making actual limousines. “The limousine market does not drive the luxury-sedan market,” laments Sara McLean, publisher of Limousine and Chauffeured Transportation magazine. Instead, retail consumers dictate what’s available for limo companies to buy. The limo industry buys “only 5,000 or so examples a year,” McLean says, “so we have little say in how the top-end cars look.”

What happened to the Town Car, McLean says, is that Lincoln set out to lure the now aging baby-boomer crowd, which is used to sporty, driver-friendly imports, into buying Lincolns. At the same time, the traditional Town Car retail market, the luxury-seeking parents of the boomers, was simply dying out. And so, Lincoln press releases declared at the time, the 1998 model was built with an eye to “meeting the needs of both loyal Lincoln Town Car customers and a new generation of full-size luxury car buyers.”

It is a car designed around the driver, not the rider. “Our executive customers are different from a retail customer,” McLean says. “If you’re chauffeured, you want a big roomy vehicle.”

But limo companies aren’t turning to Cadillac for relief. After the 1997 model year, Cadillac shut down the plant where it made the Fleetwood, its former top-of-the-line limousine-size sedan. “It was so sad to see that Fleetwood go,” McLean says, “but the retail market had flat-lined.”

And it’s all but impossible to keep using the older models, roomy as they are. “Customers just demand new cars,” says Reginald Tymus, owner of Capital City Limousine and president of the Washington Metropolitan Limousine Association. “Even if I like that older car, and I do—when it came out it was the, well, it was just the car. It was graceful; it was the authority in cars. It didn’t have the European look. It was gorgeous. I just love it. People call me old-fashioned, but if the car is obsolete, there is just no work for it.”

If body styles stay the same for a while, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old cars can still look current. But when a manufacturer restyles a body, Tymus says, “I have a year at most before I have to change the body style of my fleet.” Because Baltimore gets a less lofty clientele than D.C. does, he says, he can “unload” older cars up there, where they may last another year.

Only one of the 35 cars in Tymus’ limo fleet is an old-model Town Car, a 1997, which he says he keeps around for “emergency prom calls.”

“Of all the cars,” he says, “that is the last car out.”

The ’90s Town Car is finished, Hinkel says. “If you’ve got a passion for an older car,” he says, “it’s a passion that’s not going to get any fulfillment.”

Dean B., an independent professional driver, still uses a black-on-black ’94 Town Car, Signature Series. He doesn’t want his last name to be used in print, and he finishes his answers with “sir.” Ford Lincoln Mercury lost part of its distinct identity when it gave up on those cars, he says. When you pull up in one, he says, “you know you’re pulling up in a Lincoln, sir.”

In the mornings, he polishes his machine with Liquid Glass. Broken pieces of taillight plastic are carefully patched with almost perfectly matching red tape. Several of his customers, he says, have remarked happily on riding in his older machine.

Most of the other old Town Cars in D.C. have a ruder existence now: They’ve been transformed into taxis. Company script and colored paint clutter their clean lines, covering and clogging the panel edges and chrome “Lincoln” and “Town Car” lettering.

Golden ages in limousine design come and go, McLean thinks. The Town Car made the ’90s a great period, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the glorious Cadillacs of the ’70s. Those Caddies live on in old movies: ferrying CIA bigwigs in Three Days of the Condor, the naive rich around the Grand Old Opry scene in Nashville—and friends of presidents, complete with driver and footman, in Being There.

A real limousine looks like power and prestige. The makers of The Matrix, looking for a limo, ignored the current Town Car, reaching back to the early ’60s for a Lincoln Continental: black and chrome like a shiny pistol, with suicide rear doors.

McLean says she hopes that spirit will finally inspire carmakers again. The retro period in car design has already given us a new Volkswagen Beetle and a Ford Thunderbird coupe. Maybe a limousine with grandeur will be next, restoring grace to the streets of Washington.

“Everything is looking like a Camry to me these days,” she says. “Maybe the next period will ricochet back to big.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Gina Triplett.