Lincoln Continental

The First Fifty Years - 1940 - 1990

 The Lincoln Company had been in the business of making cars for almost 20 years before the "Continental" was introduced in October. 1939.  Yet that very name would eventually become synonymous with the company and its image.  The 1940 Continental was daring and modern, with a distinct international air about it;  the precedent it set would challenge the makers of subsequent Continentals for the following 50 years.

The roots of the Continental model lay in the attitudes of Americans toward European style. As the Nineteenth Century merged into the Twentieth, it became apparent that for some Americans at least a wistful glance across the Atlantic was paramount to being fashionably chic and cultured. Such an attitude could not, of course, be universally praiseworthy. To be an expatriate American living in Paris during the Twenties was considered, sadly, by some to be a prerequisite to literary stature. But in the Thirties the continental vogue was of happier circumstance, as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers glided to the strains of a tune that heralded the beautiful, the daring, the subtle, the ultra new - The Continental, a dance of passion and fashion, of moonlight and romance. In the last year of the Thirties, there was introduced a car that bore the same name, the continental qualities of which, its enthusiasts believe, lost nothing in translation from dance to automobile.


It was not, of course, the first Continental automobile in the United States. There are at least four others recorded in the annals of the American automobile industry, as early as 1906 in Indiana and as late as 1933 in Detroit, but these versions were about as "continental" as Paris, Illinois, is French. Speak automotively of the Continental and the average American enthusiast will immediately respond "Lincoln!" Here was a Continental that was just what its name implied.



To find a beginning for the Lincoln Continental story presents some difficulty. As historians like to point out, the car wasn't really conceived, it just sort of happened - and as such the developments leading to its ultimate reality do not fall into well-ordered place. Indeed, the Lincoln Continental idea might be taken back to the early Teens, when Edsel Ford, then just a teenager himself, first became attracted to European automotive design and began putting together a scrapbook of custom cars from the continent that he particularly liked. It might be taken back to the Twenties when Henry Ford bought the Lincoln Motor Company, put Edsel in its presidency and allowed him to produce some of the loveliest cars of the classic era.



But wherever and at whatever point its beginnings might be placed, one thing is certain - the story of the first Lincoln Continental begins and ends with Edsel Ford. Volumes have been written about the often turbulent relationship between Edsel and his father. Suffice to say here that Henry was an unswerving autocrat, his son an unstinting aesthete. Edsel was the president - read administrator - of the Ford Motor Company, Henry was the boss. If cars can bespeak the man, Henry was the Model T, Edsel the Continental.




The Depression and its aftermath had forced many fine-car manufacturers to the wall. The marques that survived either rode out the lean years on the profits of their popular-price small models or moved into the production of compromise cars that traded on an honored name. In Lincoln's case, the big luxury K series was continued until 1940. At the same time an effort was made to attract more buyers and to fill the price gap between the Ford and the Lincoln. What was needed was a new car. What resulted was the Lincoln-    Zephyr, introduced in 1936.


Initially, the Zephyr was conceived as a dream car by John Tjaarda, stylist at Briggs Manu­facturing Company, a supplier of Ford bodies. It was introduced in 1933 as part of the Ford Exhibition of Progress, and was later placed on display at the Century of Progress exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair. With unitized body construction, teardrop shape, automatic trans­mission and a rear-mounted V-8 engine, the Zephyr was a striking, totally different car. Pro­duction seemed inevitable, for Edsel Ford knew that to survive, the Lincoln Division needed a lower-price car. But he also knew that he needed it right away. Since the experimental Tjaarda car would have required extensive retooling to get into production, the Zephyr idea was con­sequently given to the Lincoln styling section, recently established by Edsel for just that pur­pose. Edsel's basic development directive, strongly influenced by Henry Ford, was that the new car must make use of existing Ford technology wherever possible.



E. T. "Bob" Gregorie was chosen to head the new styling staff, and under his guidance the production Zephyr took shape. Although the advanced idea of unitized body/frame construc­tion was retained, the engine went back to the front of the car, the automatic transaxle gave way to a standard three-speed, a transverse leaf spring was installed at the rear, a solid rear axle was employed, and mechanical brakes were specified, all of which was standard Ford practice at the time. The same could be said of the engine . . . almost. After some experimentation with an aluminum-block version of the thoroughly successful Ford V-8, Lincoln Chief Engineer Frank Johnson directed development of yet another V-12 engine. While it shared its 2.75-inch stroke and many internal parts with the Ford V-8, this was in fact a unique, 75-degree engine with aluminum heads displacing 267 cubic inches and rated at 110 horsepower at 3 900 rpm.



Riding on a 122-inch wheelbase, the slim and elegant car that finally went on sale in 1936 was remarkably faithful to Tjaarda's show-stopping prototype. The name Zephyr was chosen as a tribute to another Chicago World's Fair debutante, the Burlington Zephyr, one of the country's first railroad streamliners. The new Zephyr sold for $1320, and sold well: 15,449 units in its first year, some 10 times more than the Model K sold in the same period. The sales peak was 1939, when 29,000 Zephyrs were delivered. John Tjaarda's dream car had succeeded beyond anyone's dreams, and the future of the Lincoln Division was assured.



The Zephyr was made even better a year later, a subtle restyling further distilling its sleek lines, completely removing the last vestiges of running boards in the process. Two significant additions for the year were a column-mounted gearshift lever (the first from Ford) and the adoption of sealed-beam headlights. But the success of the Zephyr did not lie simply in its sales figures. In 1951, the car was designated by the Museum of Modern Art as "the first successfully designed streamlined car in America." Indeed, it was even more than that. It represented a radical departure in body design from all the Lincoln motorcars that had preceded it, set the styling theme for later Fords and provided the basis for what was to be one of the most beautiful cars ever built in the United States . . . the Lincoln Continental.




Edsel Ford returned from a European vacation in September 1938. There was nothing unusual about that; his role as Ford president took him all over the world. Nor was there anything noteworthy in his request to Gregorie to build him a special convertible coupe. Since the early Thirties, Edsel had had a one-of-a-kind Ford built for him about once a year. The synergistic combination of these two events, however, gave rise to a Lincoln that was "strictly continental."



The one-off design that Gregorie sketched from Edsel's inspiration was drawn from the Zephyr, and the final version was finished in the traditional Eagle Grey paint scheme with gray leather trim. Rumor has it that this new Lincoln was so well received during a trip in Florida that Edsel took 200 blank-check orders back to Dearborn with him. Such was the interest that, following the construction of a second prototype, the Continental was approved for production as part of the 1940 model line. It premiered in the Ford Rotunda in October 1939 as the Lincoln Continental Cabriolet, the top model in the Zephyr line, priced at $2840. What separated the Continental from its contemporaries was that elusive quality of striking individuality combined with perfect proportion. Mechanically, it shared much with the Zephyr. With an overall weight of 3615 pounds, however, function took a back seat to form. It was a car meant not for the race track but the boulevard, dedicated to the discriminating motorist.



Every Continental was virtually handmade. By the end of the first selling season, 350 Cabriolets had been assembled. A hardtop Coupe model, derived from the Cabriolet, was intro­duced mid-year and 54 examples were built. By 1941, it became a member of the Lincoln family in its own right, and the Zephyr name was dropped from its model designation. Other refinements for the year included push-button door handles and an electrically operated top that replaced the vacuum-operated model used previously. Continental production was held to just 100 units per month for the 1942 model year. Public taste in automobiles now seemed to be moving toward frontal mass, as well as toward the longer, lower, wider theme that would be dominant in American automotive styling for many years to come. The new Continental, which underwent substantial redesign for 1942, reflected these trends, in that it was 4.5 inches wider, 7 inches longer and about an inch lower. The modest weight gains that went with the restyling were offset by a power increase to 130 horsepower in the V-12, achieved by increasing cylinder displacement to 306 cubic inches, making this the largest version of the Zephyr engine built. As a portent of things to come, the aluminum cylinder heads were replaced by cast iron owing to the shortage of aluminum due to its military applications.



The United States' entrance into World War II brought a quick halt to all automobile production. Lincoln's war effort included production of tank engines, bodies for amphibians and over 140,000 Jeep bodies. When production resumed after the war, the 1946 Lincolns, like so many other American automobiles, were simply face-lifted 1942 models. At $4500 they were considerably more expensive. A highlight of the early postwar period was the choice of a bright yellow Continental to pace the 1946 running of the Indianapolis 500.




Sales of the Continental topped 1659 in 1947, its best year ever. At the end of the following year, however, the Continental line was discontinued. The practical reasons, high production costs foremost among them, told only part of the story. The death of Edsel Ford on May 26, 1943, had really sealed the fate of this "Queen of Classics." It would not be long, however, before inspiration and tasteful elegance would give rise to an heir in shape and spirit.



In the meantime, Lincoln entered the Fifties with a new look that first appeared in 1949. Two models were offered, a 121-inch wheelbase Lincoln and a 125-inch wheelbase Lincoln Cosmopolitan. The standard Lincolns featured a split windshield, while the Cosmopolitans offered a one-piece version along with unique chrome spears over the front wheel wells. A new Continental was also proposed but never progressed any further than concept drawings. The old Zephyr V-12 was consigned to history at this point, and both the new models shared Lincoln's new 337-cubic-inch V-8, Ford's largest flathead ever. Both also rode on completely new chassis, an X-shape design with coil springs mounted inside wishbones up front and Ford's new Hotchkiss drive at the rear. The new elements in Lincoln design and engineering would prove particularly attractive to the public: A record 43,983 cars were sold in 1949.



Nineteen-fifty Lincolns were even better. Lincolns had been the transport of choice of the White House since the days of Calvin Coolidge, but President Eisenhower and the Secret Service were impressed enough with the 1950 line to order 10 specially built Cosmopolitan limousines. One later received a unique Plexiglas roof and continued in presidential service until 1961.



Joining the Lincoln ranks at the top of the line in 1952 was the Capri, one of the Fifties' freshest designs. The Capri's front bumper, like that on all subsequent Lincoln models, was for the first time integrated into the front styling of the car. Its wraparound design was a styling cue quickly adopted by other manufacturers. Ford's new $50-million research center began to repay its investment with several significant innovations for the 1952 cars. Foremost among them was a new 317-cubic-inch overhead-valve V-8. A 7.5:1 compression ratio helped deliver 160 horsepower at 3900 rpm. Meanwhile, owners of the 5324 Continentals built between 1939 and 1948 were pressuring Ford for a successor. The return of the Continental, an American luxury car with the flair of European elegance, was inevitable. William Clay Ford, Edsel's son, was 14 years old when he joined his father for rides around Hobe Sound, Florida, in the original Continental. For reasons nostalgic and aesthetic, he was anxious to revive the project. His appointment in July 1952 as manager of the newly established Special Products Operations provided the impetus for its accomplishment.



The Mark 11 was conceived, as Edsel would have desired, in the stylist's studio. Four of the country's top independent automotive designers were asked to submit sketches of a car that would recapture the essence of the Lincoln Continental within a contemporary framework. In a strictly judicial process, Ford executives viewed the sketches and selected their favorite. With­out knowing the originator of any of the sketches, Ford executives, to their obvious delight, chose the design submitted by the Lincoln styling studio. On October 6, 1954, William Clay Ford announced that the Continental Mark II would become a production reality. One year later, it made its public debut at the Paris Auto Show. Private showings soon followed in major U.S. cities. The word was out: The Continental was back. Its heritage was obvious in tl continental spare, the short rear deck, the close-coupled passenger compartment, the long, lc hood. The Mark 11 was an entirely new car, sharing neither frame nor components with al other Ford or Lincoln car. Power came from a 368-cubic-inch V-8 engine whose horsepower rating, like Rolls-Royce's, was never revealed, although none doubted that it was sufficient.


The Lincoln Continental Mark II cost $10,000, making it the most expensive motorcar the country since the Duesenberg. And at 4825 pounds (5190 with air conditioning) it was also the heaviest. In 20 months 3012 examples were produced. The line was discontinued 1957; the market in the mid-Fifties for a $10,000 car was severely limited. Yet in its two-year production run, the Mark II Continental established for itself a number of superlatives. In a period marked by overstyling and ostentation, the Mark II was a statement of good taste and classic simplicity, dignified and elegant. Such a car is forever remembered.



Though nearly overshadowed by the Mark II, the Capri and Premiere models of the late Fifties deserve praise in their own right. Stylist Bill Schmidt noted that the crisp lines of the 1956 models "grew out of observations made while skin-diving in the clear waters of the Bahamas." They were the longest, lowest, most completely restyled and reengineered luxury cars of the year. They were also among the most admired designs of the times and the first cars ever to be cited for excellence by the critical Industrial Design Institute. Several features of the new cars were noteworthy. Buyers could choose from over 52 exterior and 22 interior color combinations, and a new instrument panel incorporated aircraft-style switches and controls, creating one of the most pleasing and functional panels of the decade.




The final years of the Fifties saw domestic automotive stylists caught up in a frenzy of unrestrained national self-expression. Whatever critics may say of this period, it was undeniably the zenith of a design idiom that was pure Americana. The men of Lincoln were no more immune to the passion for fins and chrome than their contemporaries, and as a result the 1958, '59 and '60 Lincolns were memorable as distinctive tributes to the end of an era. Evolved from the striking designs of 1956 and '57, the Lincolns that closed out the decade were even bolder in their lines, angles and trim. They were also substantially longer, at 229 inches overall, the longest production cars in the world at the time, as well as heavier. And this in turn dictated more power. The new 430-cubic-inch V-8 produced 375 horsepower and could hurry 5000 pounds of Lincoln to 60 mph in under 10 seconds.


Though Lincoln had quietly created several significant styling milestones in the Fifties, plans were in the works for yet another new look. The Sixties would soon be known as the space age and Lincoln had set its sights on the stars. In November of 1960, Lincoln introduced what the press called "a radically redesigned" version of the Continental. Its simple and sparing lines, in contrast to the garishness of the times, symbolized a refinement in the Lincoln lineup. There had been 12 Lincoln body styles in 1960; the following year the company concentrated on just two, a four-door sedan and a four-door convertible. The sedan's center-locking doors, a result of the reduced wheelbase, are remembered today as one of the 1961 Continental's most novel features. A similar innovation on the four-door convertible, the last such body configuration ever offered by an American manufacturer, used a unique rear-window-adjustment mechanism that ensured adequate weather sealing even without a rigid top or center post.



The decision to endow these Continentals with the classic simplicity of the Mark II was lauded by the press and public alike. In June of 1961, less than a year after their introduction, the Continentals won Lincoln its second award from the Industrial Design Institute. Since then, the Lincoln Continental line has endured. Refinements have been made, to be sure. In 1966 a two-door coupe joined the line, and all three models enjoyed belt and fender lines that were given a graceful upsweep along with a new "power-dome" theme in the hood. In 1968, the four-door convertible was discontinued as more owners expressed an interest in closed cars.



The 1966 Continental coupe prefaced a new rendition of the classic Mark, the Mark III. The Mark III shared many of the attributes that had made the Mark II such an esthetic success; its long hood, short deck and unique trunk lid were all testaments to the truest of Continental traditions. It was a personal car, with a wheelbase almost 9 inches shorter than that year's Continental. Sumptuous luxury, including leather seats as an option, was supplemented by generous performance from a 460-cubic-inch V-8. The Mark III and the other Continentals boosted Lincoln sales to a record level of 61,378 cars in 1969. Unlike its predecessor, the Mark III accounted for a substantial portion of the success, over 23,000 cars in all, its list price of $6910 made Lincoln ownership possible for more people.



In 1970, the Continental series, which had become the mainstay of the Lincoln family, received its first all-new body in nine years, shedding some 300 pounds in the process. Particular emphasis was devoted to comfort and convenience in the new design, with increases in interior and luggage capacities, as well as easier access afforded by wider doors. The new Continentals helped Lincoln record its second-best sales year ever, and in 1971, the Divisional Golden Anniversary, production soared another 3000-plus units, to 62,642.  


The Continental Mark IV, introduced in 1972, was made even more personal in 1976 with four Designer Editions. Bill Blass, Cartier, Givenchy and Pucci each gave their sense of style to a unique model of the Mark IV The following year saw the introduction of the Continental Mark V which joined the Lincoln Continental. The downsized Versailles also appeared. It was the beginning of a new generation of Lincolns, each designed for the demands of performance and efficiency that Americans would expect from the automobiles of the Eighties. For 1980, Lincolns were an average of 775 pounds lighter than their predecessors, with corresponding improvements in fuel efficiency, handling and technology. A key development in the latter category was the introduction of the Ford Electronic Engine Control (EEC) system. Employing an onboard microprocessor and sensors monitoring several engine functions, the new engine management system helped deliver remarkable fuel economy for a gasoline-powered luxury car. Other sophisticated electronic options included an information center that furnished data such as elapsed time, distance to destination, average speed, etc.



The Continental remained faithful to the traditional idea of automotive luxury by providing interior spaciousness and comfort, a powerful 5.0-liter V-8 and the serene ride that only a car of its proportions could provide. As an example of technology furthering traditional comfort, it appealed to those who resisted the idea of smaller size and reduced comfort in an automobile. Its engine was governed by one of the world's most advanced onboard computers, a system with the power to conserve fuel, ensure easier starting in cold weather and even diagnose engine malfunctions. Specially located and tuned body mounts filtered out road noise and vibration. The result of all this engineering was a ride that recalled the magnificent Lincolns of earlier years, a prime reason for the Continental's sales success. Accordingly, subsequent models would feature evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, changes.


In 1981, the Continental was renamed the Town Car, perpetuating its role as a symbol of Lincoln's commitment to true luxury automobiles. At a time when the appearance of many domestic luxury cars has become increasingly homogeneous, Lincoln's Town Car remains a distinctive example of time-honored tradition enhanced by technical innovation. The 1988 Town Car, for example, carries a 5.0-liter V-8 featuring sequential multi-port fuel injection, roller-valve tappets and fast-burn combustion chambers, placing it with today's most advanced and efficient V-8 engines. Inside, the Town Car's uncompromised spaciousness makes it the roomiest U.S.-made car, with a degree of interior comfort increasingly rare in other luxury cars.



 Making the interior even more inviting in 1987 was a new Ford JBL Audio System that pumped 140 watts of high-fidelity music through 12 speakers. Earlier, in 1983, a new chapter in Lincoln history opened with the Continental Mark VII, without a doubt one of the most significant luxury automobiles of the Eighties. It was ample proof that Detroit could make a technologically advanced automobile, using the latest devel­opments in electronic engine management, aerodynamics and chassis design, without sacrificing a high level of passenger comfort. Inside, this marriage of form and function was carried further by precise analog instrumenta­tion, a high-fidelity multispeaker sound system and articulated leather-upholstered sport seats. The result was an automobile that Car and Driver called "the overall American standard in this class" and one of its 10 best cars for 1986. For 1988, the LSC's performance has been further improved with a 225-horsepower High-Output 5.0-liter V-8, now shared with all Mark VIIs. Handling has also been enhanced with larger P225/60R-16 performance tires mounted on 16x7-inch aluminum wheels.



The 1981 transition of the Continental into the Town Car created an opening for a new interpretation of the Continental, which appeared in 1982. From its aerodynamic contours to the sophistication of its interior, this new Continental was designed for the luxury-car owner with an eye for contemporary style and an appreciation of a more personal approach to auto­motive design. The Continental's evolution bore witness to the technical enthusiasm that has shaped all Lincolns. In 1984, it received an electronic air-suspension system unlike anything offered by any other manufacturer at the time. In fact, electronic sophistication was everywhere apparent, from the EEC-IV computer controlling its 5.0-liter engine to an onboard driver­ information system. For 1986, the Continental was further improved with sequential multiport fuel-injection, offering increased levels of performance and fuel efficiency. As always, its five ­passenger interior was graced with leather or cloth seating surfaces and an instrument panel and doors trimmed in genuine walnut veneer.  


An all-new generation of Continental for 1988 continued the Lincoln traditions of quality craftsmanship and imaginative engineering. A study in contemporary functional efficiency and classic elegance, the '88 Continental was the first front-wheel-drive motorcar in Lincoln history, as well as a rolling showcase of leading-edge technology. Perhaps the most salient example of Lincoln engineering advancing the state of the automotive art was the Continental's new computer-controlled, dual-damping, four-wheel, independent air-suspension system. Operat­ing on information fed by sensors monitoring vehicle speed, throttle position, steering-wheel turning rate, steering-wheel angle, brake actuation and ride height, the system's microprocessor continuously varies pressure in air springs integrated with the car's shock-absorber struts. The shock absorbers also featured dual-damping capability, and the net result was a suspension system that instantly adapts itself to varying road conditions. And this in turn provided the '88 Continental with a unique combination of traditional high-quality, luxury-car ride and the agility normally associated with sports sedans. Augmenting the unique adaptability of the suspension was a new speed-sensitive variable-assist rack-and-pinion power steering system. At its heart was a patented microprocessor-operated control valve that proportions steering assist to vehicle speed, providing full assist for parking lot maneuvers, decreasing progressively to 50 percent assist for improved stability and road feel at highway speeds.



Like its companions in the Mark VII series, the 1988 Continental employed four-wheel anti­lock disc brakes (ABS). Considered one of the most important automotive advances since World War II, ABS is governed by a microprocessor that compares rotational-speed information fed by sensors located at each of the car's wheels. When information from one or more of the sensors indicates that wheel lockup is imminent during braking, the microprocessor modulates hydraulic pressure with up to 10 pulses per second in the appropriate circuit to ensure continued rotation of the wheel or wheels in question. As a result, braking efficiency is maximized regardless of the condition of the road surface. More important, preventing front-wheel lockup ensures retention of directional control in emergency situations.


Consistent with the advanced technology that dominated the 1988 Continental, its 90-degree 3.8-liter V-6 was reengineered from top to bottom. Controlled by one of the most sophisticated electronic engine management systems in the world - Ford's EEC IV - the Continental V-6 featured new aluminum. cylinder heads and intake manifolding, a higher compression ratio and electronically controlled multi-port fuel injection. In addition to a pair of crankshaft counterweights, a counter-rotating balance shaft was added, providing the operational smooth­ness that has been a Lincoln hallmark over the years.



The Continental's exterior reflected a contemporary concern with aerodynamic efficiency, as well as a commitment to the classic Lincoln traditions of proportion and style. Flush side­ window glass and aircraft-style doors that merge into the roofline not only reduced drag but also limited wind noise. A flush-mounted windshield, angled at 58.6 degrees, flush rear win­dow, halogen headlamps and integrated bumpers also contributed to the Continental's drag coefficient of 0.36, first among domestic luxury sedans.


Inside, the new car combined the sumptuous appointments and quality materials that have distinguished Lincolns since the beginning, with state-of-the-art electronic comfort and con­venience systems. The Continental's new Electronic Instrument Cluster with Message Center employed the latest in liquid-crystal display (LCD) technology to keep the driver informed of basic operating information - speed, fuel level, coolant temperature, etc. - as well as trip monitoring data and service information. A new automatic climate-control system incorporated a sun-load sensor, to automatically compensate for the heat buildup that accompanies bright sunshine. Sound-system choices ranged from the excellent AM stereo/FM stereo /cassette as standard equipment to the critically acclaimed Ford JBL Audio System, available in 1988 with a compact disc player. Surrounding all this modern wizardry was a cabin that pampered its passengers with the rich furnishings and serene silence Lincoln owners have always expected.


The 1988 Continental proved a success in the market. For 1989, air bags became standard equipment. Still daring, still modern, the Continental entered its golden-anniversary year in a style that reflected that of the famous first model. Henry Ford may not have understood his son Edsel's Continental in 1940, but 50 years later, its continued success recalled his words on the day (in 1922) he acquired the Lincoln Motor Company, "We have built more cars than anyone else, and now we are going to build a better car than anyone else."


“The First Fifty Years” from the publication of the same name, which was presented to owners of  new Continentals and Marks by the Ford Motor Company.


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