While Dearborn tout’s the brand’s 100th anniversary, a bit of history must be told prior to its inclusion into the company.
In February of 1922, a luxury car manufacturer was bought by Henry Ford to become part of his great empire of automobiles. No one expected Ford to enter into the luxury car market at a time when the Model T continued to sell to the masses. The deal would eventually made sense for the Lincoln Motor Company, as it was given a deeper lifeline to take on Cadillac and Packard with Ford’s coffers behind the brand.
We often forget that Lincoln had been around for some before its purchase by Ford. While Dearborn tout’s the brand’s 100th anniversary, a bit of history must be told prior to its inclusion into the company.
The year 1917 might not be the best year to start a new automotive firm. The USA’s involvement in World War I was heating up as they assisted the effort to propel the Germans back beyond the trenches. However, a dispute between Henry Leland and his employer – General Motors – prompted him to start a new company to compete against the brand that he helped created in 1903. He envisioned his new company to become the next Cadillac.
The Leland-GM dispute was over war production for the War Department’s efforts in Europe. It was not clear to the details over his dispute with William Durant, the President of GM at the time.
It seemed rather interesting that Leland’s Lincoln would begin production of the Liberty V12 aircraft engine as one of their first manufacturing activities. The Lincoln plant was the final assembly for the engines, utilizing parts from other automakers, such as Ford, Packard, Marmon…and Cadillac.
Three years after its founding, Lincoln finally was recognized as a manufacturer of automobiles. Its plant in Detroit switched from building aircraft engines to producing its first automobile – the Model L. Designed by Leland’s son-in-law – a ladies hatmaker – the Model L was made exclusively with a body from a coachbuilder – a common practice for luxury cars in the 1920s. Once a customer buys a Lincoln, the body is commissioned to a coachbuilder to complete the car. These coach built vehicles were made specifically to the customer’s individual taste.
Lincoln was not on good financial footing at the early years of the 1920s. Leland was accused of falsifying tax returns and was a target of rumors of tax evasion. Yet, Lincoln went into bankruptcy by the end of 1921.
It was not Henry Ford who wound up purchasing Lincoln from receivership. His son, Edsel, wanted Ford to position itself into the luxury car market. In essence, it was Edsel Ford who spearheaded the transaction. That deal included Leland to run the division under Ford’s ownership. Unfortunately, he never got along with either Henry Ford or Edsel. After a couple months, Leland and his family left Ford and left Lincoln behind.
As soon as the Lelands “left the building,” the Lincoln division would be Edsel Ford’s own pet project. The first thing he did was to create efficiencies within the Detroit plant towards reducing the cost per vehicle. The Model L would be the division’s only vehicle with coachbuilders still customizing a majority of the chassis provided by Lincoln. Sales did turnaround by 1923, towards returning its first profit at the end of that year.
Lincoln kept the Model L in production through 1930. It almost survived the Stock Market Crash of the previous year. Still, the division had plans for an all-new model for 1931 – the Model K. It was not just an all-new chassis. The Model K would introduce the world to Lincoln’s signature V12 engine. This engine would attract well-heeled customers who have risen above the Depression of the 1930s. Some have said that this V12 was better than the ones offered by Cadillac and Packard.
The Model K would remain in the Lincoln for the entire decade. However, it would soon be joined by a car that would help extend Lincoln’s success as a luxury car brand – the 1936 Lincoln-Zephyr.
By the mid-1930s, the influence of Art-Deco would finally take hold across the automotive industry. Aerodynamics lent to sleeker body profiles with an eye for art. The Lincoln-Zephyr was not the first car to follow this design language. It did arrive at a time when Cadillac was playing with GM’s “Turret” styling – and caught its main competitor off guard.
The Lincoln-Zephyr was also smaller than the Model K, but larger than the Ford V8 DeLuxe. It was also priced right between the two, challenging the Le Salle and a new Packard One-Twenty. This was a new class of luxury car that helped manufacturers through the tail end of the Depression by bringing grand luxury cars down to a scale both in size and price. Eventually, it would become Lincoln’s vanguard model through the start of World War II.
However, the Lincoln-Zephyr did not skimp on performance. It came with Lincoln’s V12 engine. Customers expected top shelf performance when they collected their Lincoln-Zephyr.
Edsel Ford knew he had a great automobile in the Lincoln-Zephyr. However, he had a grander idea. In his travels to Europe, he noticed how luxury cars exuded a style that was even more sleek and stylish, while producing great performance. He was looking at what one would call “next level” luxury.
The development of the first Lincoln Continental came from the chassis of the Lincoln-Zephyr. The result was an iconic touring car that pushed the boundaries of America luxury car design through the 1940s and World War II.
(PUBLISHER’S NOTE: You can read all about the history of the Lincoln Continental here. I will henceforth reference the Continental for the context of the story, as it is an integral part of Lincoln’s history as a brand.)
The Lincoln-Zephyr did not exactly go away at the restart of production after the end of World War II. The Continental would become the flagship of the Lincoln lineup, but it was only available in coupe and convertible. The H-Series would still provide customers “regular” sedans and two-door models for the balance of the 1940s.
For 1949, the H-Series and Continental were dropped in favor of a dramatically new lineup of Lincoln models. The changes were astounding with modern styling that shook up the fine car segment. Ford spearheaded a styling movement that would push Mercury and Lincoln into areas that were never explored by automotive stylists. The sleek bodies were round, bulbous, and offered something unique in the marketplace. In addition, the Lincoln Lido was introduced as its pillarless hardtop body style, following an industry-wide trend.
At the top of the range was the Lincoln Cosmopolitan. They were larger than the mere mortal EL Series and offered a level of luxury formerly found on the Continental. However, a shift a new design for 1952 pushed the Cosmopolitan name to the bottom of the Lincoln range to make way for a new top-of-the-line Capri model. By giving it a nameplate that reminded customers of the Mediterranean coastal resort town, Lincoln customers expected to be treated to a feast of “continental” luxury and prestige.
The drawback of the Lincoln lineup from 1952 through the heart of the decade was the obvious nod as a more upmarket version of a Mercury. To have a fine car remind potential customers of a mid-priced model was an affront for customers looking for something as special as Cadillac. The same level of disappointment was shared with potential customers at Chrysler and Packard.
The 1956 model year saw a new Lincoln lineup and another shuffling of trim levels. The Capri became the middle model, giving way to the Premiere at the top of the lineup. The styling improved and became more distinctive than the Mercury. Still, the 1956-57 Lincoln lineup could be seen as more “patrician” and “dowager” compared to Cadillac and the Forward Look Chrysler and Imperial models.
Meanwhile, the Continental name returned as its own separate brand on one of the most desirable cars of its time – the Mark II. Because of the cost and expense in producing the halo coupe, the Continental name returned to a new larger Lincoln body. The new 1958-60 Continental would be the ultimate expression of the Lincoln brand, while still offering Capri and Premiere models.
Lincoln returned to becoming an innovative luxury car brand with the introduction of the 1961 Continental. Gone were the “lower” trims, as Lincoln concentrated on the Continental nameplate to drive the direction of the brand through the 1960s and 1970s. Instead of having a model to match the Cadillac Series 62 and Series 60, there was only one Continental to offer its customers.
Lincoln positioned itself for growth and the expansion of the luxury car segment with the Mark series personal luxury coupes. The lineup of the Continental and the Mark would carry Lincoln deep into the 1970s. However, the OPEC Oil Crisis sent a message to the American automotive industry to create a line of fuel saving vehicles to match the imports. After all, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class became a more attractive proposition for luxury car consumers in the 1970s due to its smaller size, more efficient drivetrains, and better-than-average build quality.
Cadillac introduced the Seville, based on GM’s X-Body “compact” cars. Lincoln followed suit with the Ford Granada/Mercury Monarch-based 1977 Versailles. The smaller Lincoln added a Mark series grille, the faux tire hump, a landau-type vinyl roof, and overstuffed leather seats to what was essentially a Monarch sedan. The Versailles was powered by an all-V8 lineup.
The 1980s marked serious change for Lincoln. It would deliver the best sales volume years in its history by finally beating Cadillac at their game. Lincoln done so by concentrating on two of Ford’s corporate platforms – the Fox and Panther. The Panther platform would be the home of a new 1980 Continental and Mark VI. By 1982, the Continental would receive a new name – Town Car. The Town Car name had been around for several years as Lincoln’s answer to the Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham.
It was not the end for the Continental name. The nameplate was transferred to the Fox platform on a smaller bustle-back neo-classical styled model. By 1982, you had a three-model Lincoln lineup that would continue for the balance of the 1980s.
What will change in that decade is the styling. Ford’s aerodynamic design language would transform the Panther-platform Mark VI to the iconic Fox-platform Mark VII. That car would propel Lincoln to the top of the luxury car charts across the 1980s.
The Continental name would be transferred to a new platform by the 1988 model year. By producing it on the FN9 platform, the 1988 Continental would become the first Lincoln to have front-wheel drive. This would spawn generations of Lincoln models using this type of drive format.
The 1990s would take Lincoln into a new segment – the SUV. The Ford Expedition would serve as the basis of the Lincoln Navigator. In turn, the Navigator would spawn a new kind of American luxury vehicle that continues to be relevant today. Who knew it would become the brand’s flagship today?
Ford’s shopping spree of international automakers would also deliver an interesting twist to the Lincoln brand. The 2000 LS was a result of a collaboration with Jaguar for a mid-sized luxury sedan to compete with the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and BMW 5-Series. While a good car, it was derided by “traditional” Lincoln customers.
However, the luxury car market was evolving to chase the German brands rather than the American ones. The new century would have Lincoln try to reinvent itself constantly. The brand tried various model mixes but would end up with a lineup devoid of sedans and coupes. The current North American market lineup is strictly SUVs.
Another twist in Lincoln’s century-long history would be its emergence in a market that was hungry for luxury cars – China. Recently, Lincoln showed off a new electric sedan that may never see the light here in North America. The brand has been adaptable to the few markets they currently serve.
The 100-year history of Lincoln is one of curiosity and hope. Curiosity that brought up questions as to why the brand took a left turn from its greatest success some 35-plus years ago. A once innovative brand that defined luxury several times over has now been turned into a shell of itself today.
Market forces aside, there was something to be said about a Lincoln Continental from the 1940s or the 1960s. The tales of how the Lincoln-Zephyr would an influential vehicle of its time. How switching the Mark coupe series into an aerodynamic tour-de-force would bring more customers to Lincoln than ever before – beating Cadillac in the process.
One would take comfort that on every large luxury SUV comparison, the Navigator’s interior was given the highest marks over its competitors. That’s something worth celebrating.
Perhaps there is hope. Hope that Lincoln will continue to be a luxury car leader in China. Hope that it can create excitement in its home markets.
For now, all we have is history – a hundred years of the Lincoln Star.
All photos by Randy Stern