Historiography: the Mighty Continental

2016 10,000 Lakes Concours d'Elegance
1940 Lincoln Continental at the 2016 10,000 Lakes Concours d'Elegance – All Photos by Randy Stern

When I was a toddler, you had a few choices for luxury cars. One of them became an icon for the era. A symbol of "Camelot" in many ways than one. And, yet, it inspires an upcoming new car.

The Lincoln Continental served as the ultimate product for the Ford Motor Company. Whether it was sold as its own division, or a beacon for the entire lineup, the Continental name evoked the finest of everything.

That was exactly the intention of Edsel Ford, Henry's son and champion of the original Continental. His idea was to craft a car that was the pinnacle of the automobile. He looked to Europe for inspiration – on both sides of the potential conflict known as World War II. From Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Delahayes, Maybachs, and Tatras came a kernel of an idea. Instead of following suit with the automakers that once catered to the wealthy – Duesenberg, Pierce-Arrow, Peerless, Marmon, Auburn, etc. – create something modern and gorgeous. Make it worldly.

As a result of his interest in creating a worldly luxury car, Edsel Ford had a 1939 Lincoln-Zephyr convertible custom made for him. The inspiration was passed through the Lincoln division until it was decided to make it into production the following model year.

Lincoln was not an internal invention of Ford. The Dearborn giant bought the Lincoln Motor Company in 1922 after the latter company went into bankruptcy. The luxury car maker started in 1917 by Henry Leland – the founder of Cadillac – and his son. Though taking the name of the late President Abraham Lincoln, Leland figured he would go after Cadillac on their own terms. Money got the best of the company, in which he found a lifeline from Henry Ford. From there, Ford ensured that Lincoln would only build luxury cars that competed against Cadillac, Packard and the rest of the top end of the market.

Edsel Ford ran Lincoln from 1923 and put his stamp on every one since. They were known for high performance V8-powered cars, Edsel enabled his engineers to stretch the boundaries of engineering further. It was not unusual to see 12-cylinder cars in the marketplace. Edsel oversaw the development of the Lincoln-Zephyr for 1932, which included a V-12 engine. By 1936, the Lincoln-Zephyr continued onto a smaller wheelbase with V-12 power and exclusive bodywork.

Back to Edsel's own 1939 Lincoln-Zephyr convertible. What he commissioned with his car was something that foretold the future of the American automobile. It was streamlined further with an overall lower body profile. Running boards were eliminated from the car, a conventional windshield was installed and the only chrome seen on the car was in its grille. The result was a profile that was subtle, but elegant. It was decided that Lincoln would build such a car in both convertible and coupe form.

2014 10,000 Lakes Concours d'Elegance
1942 Lincoln Continental

In the fall of 1939, the 1940 Lincoln Continental arrived at showrooms across the country. Every inch was as amazing as the last. In the rear was the spare tire wedged between the trunk and the rear bumper. The entire rear end was streamlined and integrated with the rest of the profile. Though convertibles only had the door windows to show, the coupe offered large windows between the B- and C-pillars. Underneath the Continental's hood was a Lincoln-Zephyr V-12, giving power to the graceful exterior.

There was one way to describe the Continental: A personal luxury car. Even with custom bodied models built in the 1920s and 1930s, no one ever labeled a car as such. Both the 1940 and 1941 models embodied exactly what Edsel Ford had intentioned for it's most prestigious car.

The first generation models continued for a short run in 1942, as our country was going to fight in World War II. Once the war ended, Lincoln went back to building the first generation Continental models for the 1946, 1947 and 1948 model years. At that time, the Zephyr name was dropped, leaving the Continental alone on the top rung of the Lincoln lineup. By the end of the 1948 model year, Lincoln was ready to roll out a new postwar version of their luxury car. Instead of being distinctive, it became an oversized version of a Mercury.

It seemed that Lincoln may have lost its way. Cadillac was the all-conquering luxury car by 1949, while Packard decided to go in a very different direction. Imperial was just the top Chrysler and part of the lineup in 1949. It would take the "price war" and a booming economy to figure out what to do with the Continental nomenclature.

By 1955, the people at Lincoln came up with a great idea: Build the best car in the world. Not an easy task, if you ask anyone at Rolls-Royce. Yet, the victorious Americans and their booming economy were able to do so. The first act Lincoln did was to create a new division – Continental. It was not a new thing, since Chrysler finally separated Imperial to go on its own.

With the Continental division in place, it meant creating a network of exclusive showrooms for the new car to be sold. It also meant firming up a limited run per year for the new model. The flip side of the new car was its price as it was valued for exclusivity. For the new Continental, its owner would have to pony up $10,000 – five times the price of the average Ford model – for the privilege of ownership.

Do you know what else cost $10,000 in 1955? A Rolls-Royce Phantom IV.

2016 10,000 Lakes Concours d'Elegance
1956-57 Continental Mark II

What we received was a modernized version of the original Continental. The Mark II was clearly lower, with an integrated "tire kit," long fenders braced with flowing line, a huge grille and the most powerful V8 ever made by any Ford unit. For the 1956 model year, the large coupe reigned supreme above all comers. Within the final quarter of 1955, 1,300 units were delivered to their well-heeled customers. Throughout the calendar year 1956, an equal number of Mark IIs were sold. Their owners included starts of film and music, along with the richest of the rich. The Mark II ran for two model years only, when it got to compete against its closest match – the 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.

The problem with the Mark II was the price of the car seemed to be unjustified. Exclusive? Absolutely! But, it was not in the nature of American automakers of that era to build such an exclusive and ostentatious product for the money it was asking. Let alone that Ford lost $1,000 on each Mark II sold. The beautiful car was a losing cause by the end of the 1957 model year.

Still, the mystique of the Continental name was undeniable to luxury car buyers. To continue the brand, it had to survive in a tighter budget. The solution came in the form of the all-new Lincoln body for 1958. It was longer than the Mark II, sleeker than anything on the road. It wore a design that rubbed its pedigree in your face. While the same body style was offered in Lincoln models, the Continental Mark III was sold in two- and four-door versions, starting at the affordable price of $6,000.

Though they were intriguing, their hedge on the luxury market was reeling because of the pain of the Recession of 1958. Sales were slow, but the economy recovered in time for the 1959 model year. Continental continue to sell their high end Lincolns under its own brand with the Mark IV in 1959 and the Mark V in 1960.

Then came "Camelot." John F. Kennedy became President of the United States. With the arrival of him and the First Lady, Jacqueline, and the look and feel of the country began to change. The end of the 1950s meant the end of tail fins and massive chrome fixings on automobiles. While other manufacturers and brands toned down their fins and chrome, Ford envisioned a completely different kind of Continental and Lincoln.

It began with an economics lesson. By 1960, Ford counted $60 Million of loss revenue on the oversized Lincolns and Continentals. The first thing Ford did was to fold the Continental division into Lincoln. From there, the new 1961 model would see it under one nomenclature – the Lincoln Continental – instead of three.

Then came Elwood Engel. The Vice President of Design at Ford would craft a modern sedan for the new age. He was working on the new Thunderbird for 1961, which was also a modern design for the ages. The two were intertwined, but the Lincoln Continental would be more revolutionary. The car shrunk by 14.8 inches in length, 8 inches in wheelbase and a weight loss of 85 pounds. The smaller car made up with its presence, sculpted by its exquisite design. It also packed a huge engine underneath its hood – a 7.0 liter V8.

Lincoln Continental
1962 Lincoln Continental

The 1961 Continental was a ground breaking car for its time. Its run gave Lincoln a modern competitor against traditional Cadillac and the over-the-top Imperial. The slab-sided design was kept on through 1969, even with a sharpening of the overall design for 1966 and the addition of a more prominent nose for 1969.

The name Continental yielded strong brand equity through the 1960s. So much that Lincoln returned to the Personal Luxury Car market with a Thunderbird-based coupe. After the Mark II was done, Ford explored this segment through the second and third generation Thunderbirds from 1958 onward. This spurned General Motors to create an equal – the 1963 Buick Riviera. Once Cadillac introduced the 1967 Eldorado, Lincoln was developing the Continental Mark III for 1969.

The design philosophy was simple: If you want to re-engage with Rolls-Royce, then "put a Rolls-Royce grille on a Thunderbird." Leave it to Lee Iacocca to put forth those marching orders back in 1965. The result is the genesis of a new Lincoln look – a Rolls-Royce inspired radiator grille, with hidden headlamps, landau roof and the return of the "Continental tire kit" hump. Luxury car buyers flocked to the Mark III because it was on a traditional chassis with rear-wheel drive, instead of Cadillac's (using Oldsmobile's design) front-wheel drive format. Pricing was almost the same, but it was clear that the Mark III drew its share of attention wherever luxury cars congregated.

By 1970, it was time for an all-new flagship car. The Lincoln Continental melded some of its 1960s design language onto a car inspired by the Mark III. The car itself grew – just fractions to the full-sized Cadillacs and Imperials. Even with variations on grille texture, including a version of the Lincoln Mark Series "Rolls-Royce grille," and minor updates, the big Continental weathered the oil crisis and the call to downsize to meet better fuel economy demands. This generation of Continental ended in 1979, where Lincoln did cave into to the downsizing trends with a leaner model for 1980. It would be called the Continental for one last time, until the name was switched to a smaller, neo-retro model in 1982. The big Lincoln would be called the Town Car from 1981 until its demise in 2011.

The Continental name was applied to the Mark Series through the 1980s. The equally long Mark IV became more successful than its predecessor, especially with its oval "opera windows" on the C-Pillar. They were one of the cars that made the scene in the 1970s. For 1977, the Mark IV arrived with sharper lines and details. They would become downsized for 1980 in the Mark VI. In fact the Mark VI was offered in a four-door for the first time. It was in 1984 when Lincoln would use the Continental name in the Mark Series for the final time in the 1984 Mark VII. Ford's aero design language arrived at Lincoln, spawning the best Mark Series model ever – and carried the brand towards luxury car sales leadership in the middle of the 1980s.

Yet, there was still a Lincoln Continental to sell. Instead of being the flagship model of the brand, it wore a different kind of image. Lincoln envisioned the Continental to become the boldest statement for the brand – wearing in-your-face exterior styling and exuding the latest technology on board. The Fox platform spurned the first of such Continentals for 1982. The design was part of a neo-retro design movement that began at Cadillac with the Seville. The idea was to give that classic 1930s look in a modern car – prominent radiator grille, slanted back with a trunk that was not unlike what was offered in 1935-48. These designs were sharpened to adapt to 1980s tastes. They were charming, but the public were indifferent to them for the most part. By then, the German luxury car brands were starting to encroach on the Americans, taking conquests for their higher quality and better engineered products.

There were two last gasps for the Continental name. From 1988-2002, the front-wheel drive Ford Taurus platform played host to two different generations of Continentals. At first, V6 power rode underneath the hood, eventually giving way to a V8 engine. They wore the latest technology, but their designs fell short of expectations for the name. In the end, customers weren't buying it. They not only had choices from Germany to consider; the Japanese begin eating into domestic luxury car sales.

The Continental name resided in the dustbin of Dearborn's deepest catacombs. For fourteen years, it only elicits memories of its namesake. During this time, Bentley resurrected its most famous name for its newest products – Continental. Some people will tell you that it is not the same as the iconic Lincoln that wore the same name. I'm sure Ford and Bentley's corporate gatekeepers, Volkswagen, have discussed what to do when this fall comes around.

2017 Lincoln Continental
2017 Lincoln Continental

That is when the mighty Lincoln Continental will return.

Mighty is an apt term to describe the Lincoln Continental. It's history included Presidents, celebrities and the captains of industry. The shadow that was cast 77 years ago with Edsel Ford's private Lincoln-Zephyr now looms over the next Continental. It is a legacy of luxury excellence that its newest owners and enthusiasts must remember now and forever.

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