The Hi-Life Bar & Grill of NYC calls this 1936 Lincoln Zephyr its mascot. With their neon signage and art deco styling, its hard to separate the business from the car. This mostly original automotive relic can be found parked outside the bar, welcoming patrons to a different time.
With nearly 1.7 million residents in an area measuring less than 23 square miles, Manhattan is the densest of the five New York City boroughs. The island is broadly broken up according to the four cardinal directions and then further divided by locales with blurred borders. The Upper West Side boasts world-class museums, parks and restaurants but if you want a taste of local flavor, look out for the street-parked 1936 Lincoln Zephyr. You’ll find the Hi-Life Bar & Grill nearby.
The Hi-Life recalls a time between the end of Prohibition and the advent of the second world war. This throwback theme has been done in the city, but the Hi-Life brings more to the table and you don’t even need to go inside to find it.
“We opened in 1991 to celebrate restaurants, lounges, and bar and grills that proliferated in the ’30s and ’40s,” Hi-Life proprietor Earl Geer told NewYorKars. “There were a few remaining joints that I was inspired by like the Lenox Lounge and McHale’s and many others. I had those in mind when I built Hi-Life. I had two places: one on the east side that ran for 25 years and one on the west side. The idea of the Zephyr was to have a vehicle to go back and forth between the two restaurants and the same time feature our era, style, and neon signs as we circled around New York City.”
The car and the bar
Two years after he opened the original Hi-Life, Earl opened a second location on the east side in 1993. He also sought out a mechanical mascot for his bars and found what he was looking for in a 1936 Lincoln Zephyr.
“I knew this sort of zoot suit guy that was dealing in gangster mobiles, so to speak,” Earl said. “He found me this one and shipped it in from California. It was cleaner when I got it. It’s getting a little shopworn but it still looks good at night!”
The car was moved between the two locations until 2016, when the east side Hi-Life closed in 2016 due to high-rise construction.
“We had a great business there,” Earl said. “We were part of the upper east side landscape for many years.”
Style at an affordable price
The Lincoln Zephyr was produced from 1935-42 and introduced for the 1936 model year. These cars rolled off Ford’s Lincoln assembly line in Dearborn, Michigan and popularized the streamlined shape in the U.S. The original motor was a 4.4-liter V-12 that produced 110 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. Power was sent to the rear wheels via a three-speed manual transmission. The 1936 Lincoln Zephyr weighed in at about 3,300 pounds and topped out at 90 miles per hour. The original base price was about $1,275.
The Zephyr was introduced with two body styles: a two-door fastback sedan and four-door sedan coupe, Convertible coupes and sedans became available later on and engine displacement was increased towards the end of production. Lincoln highlighted the Zephyr’s standard features in sales brochures and advertising, including: roomy luggage compartment, low roofline, concealed spare wheel, wide doors, electric clock, 100-mph speedometer, locking glovebox, safety glass, hydraulic shock absorbers, and roomy seating for six.
Earl got his black 1936 Lincoln Zephyr in original condition but has made some changes since then. He fitted modern brakes and converted it to an automatic while swapping out the V-12 for a 1980s Ford V-6 unit. The interior and exterior are untouched. The odometer is busted, but Earl pegs the mileage at about 100,000 or so.
“My father was a car buff and he said, ‘One of these days you’re gonna run this thing into a crowd and not only ruin your business but you’re gonna hurt somebody—I don’t trust these brakes anymore,'” Earl told us. “I said okay, you’re the expert. That was one of the last things he did. He helped me convert it right before he passed away. It wouldn’t have even occurred to me. I would have kept fixing it, but he had the idea to make it safer.”
Not going anywhere
As any New Yorker knows, once you leave a parking spot, it’s gone. Earl moves the car when he needs to, such as during street cleaning, but it mostly stays sedentary. He uses a parking lot in Harlem but it’s time-consuming to go retrieve the car and come back to find no available spots.
As the winter approaches Earl puts it away for some TLC before bringing it back out in the spring. He has no plans to let the car go.
What’s it like to drive“When I’m driving around it’s like a celebrity on wheels.”
“The car handles fairly well but it’s very very heavy,” Earl said. “It’s a tank. You really feel that weight underneath your butt when you’re moving around. I used to take it to the Hamptons to show off or do an event, but lately I’m just puttering around.
“It’s a real showstopper! When I’m driving around it’s like a celebrity on wheels. When I’m stopped everyone wants to take pictures of it and take selfies with it. We get positive number of great reactions just by having it next to the restaurant. People get it that it’s a ’30s car and has that old style with the neon sign. If they don’t know Hi-Life, they get the association just by seeing the car.”
The Hi-Life Bar & Grill has stayed open during the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Sandy, and dozens of blizzards and blackouts. The business has struggled as have countless others during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the staff are doing what they can to stay open while maintaining safety standards.
The restaurant is now open for limited indoor seating, outdoor dining, and delivery/takeout. Things were busy during winter as people enjoyed the heated outdoor seating and business is picking up as spring comes to the city. Check out the official website at hi-life.com for more information and to book a reservation.
If you’re in the neighborhood, you can stop by the Hi-Life at 477 Amsterdam Avenue, on the corner of Amsterdam Ave. and 83rd Street. Just follow the neon!