• Lincoln Continental: A Look Back

Times were hard for most people. Fresh off an expensive, drawn-out and disastrous war, in the aftermath of financial collapse, the population as a whole wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about buying big, American luxury sedans. Even though there were some true greats on the drawing board, most had to wait for a nation just entering its richest era to demand more prestigious transportation. Afterward, old ideas and names came back, and makes like Lincoln experienced a renaissance. That was the story in 1938...and again some 75 years later.

Of course, the difference between then and now is that the nation just entering its richest period isn’t the United States, but China. Say what you will about them, but the Chinese (like many current and former communist countries) absolutely love big, American luxury sedans — without a doubt, more than most Americans do. Makes like Buick, Cadillac and Lincoln have found a wonderfully enthusiastic market among people who spent decades quietly watching American presidents cruise those prestigious badges around the capitalist capitol. Or, in at least one sobering example, a certain city in the lower Midwest.

Now, having recently discovered money, they want their own.

And after a 14 year hiatus, Lincoln is ready to give it to them, in the form of a reborn Continental. Oh yes, there’s a load of irony in that...but the good news is that China’s long-rebuffed love of American luxury has triggered kind of a bounce-back on our own shores. For the first time since the dark days of the Smog Era, American luxury makes like Lincoln have become serious contenders to take the halo of quality from Germany. Maybe it’s taken a bit of outside perspective, a look to the present from the past, to remind us of of just how great some of our greatest once were...and could be again.

So continue reading to take a look back at one of them now: the inimitable Lincoln Continental.


Imagine you’re the son of the world’s greatest car manufacturer. You’re rich, you’ve got the best designers in the world at your beck and call, and an entire factory at your disposal. You’ve got a little vacation planned in Florida this summer, where you’ll be hanging out with some of the richest and most influential rich kids of your time. Now, imagine your industrialist dad left you with a work ethic; you’re no spoiled trust fund brat.

Now...there’s some opportunity in this "vacation."

Imagine you’re the son of the world’s greatest car manufacturer

In 1938, Edsel Ford commissioned his father’s chief stylist Eugene T. "Bob" Gregorie to build him a "special little sports car." Of course, it had to have a huge engine — preferably the biggest V-12 that would fit under the hood. And it had to be modern, at least as cutting edge as say, the recent Chrysler Airflow. It had to be sleek and fast, and not look out of place among the luxury racing yachts the idle rich sailed around Florida. No problem for Bob Gregorie — he’d started out designing yachts, and later worked for no less than Harley Earl at General Motors.

Reportedly, it only took Gregorie an hour to sketch out his design for Edsel’s vacation car. It was based on the current Zephyr; but where the Zephyr was long and pointy-nosed, the "Continental," as it would come to be called, was low and wide in appearance. Where the Zephyr had front fenders largely divorced from its hood, the Continental’s hood joined with the fenders to make one smoothly rounded front end.

Some have said since then that this joining of the fenders to the hood was really just Bob trying to avoid extra design time and bodywork in building Edsel’s little vacation car. Other people say it was a deliberate statement. But either way, this design would go on to change the shape of pretty much every automobile ever produced after that.

Lincoln Continental: A Look Back
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1948 square fender

But...you know the law of unintended consequences; never fails. With its short trunk and no little channel to mount a spare between the front fender and hood, the Continental was all out of space to carry an extra tire for Edsel’s trip to Florida. His last minute fix: Just bolt the thing to the back of the trunk, put a cover over it and go. This external, covered, rear-mounted spare would become the Continental’s signature styling cue...even when it eventually became just a hump on the trunk lid.

The car was a huge hit when it showed up in the Sunshine State the next year, and Edsel immediately started making plans for production.

First Generation: 1939 to 1948

Lincoln Continental: A Look Back
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1941 Continental
Unfortunately, about this same time some tanks showed up in Poland

Unfortunately, about this same time some tanks showed up in Poland. That diverted some of Ford’s resources, meaning that the two dozen Continental copies made in 1939 (and 400 of those made in 1940) used custom, hand-beaten body panels. By the time the machine dies were ready to press Continental body panels, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto had already started planning his own tropical vacation...to Pearl Harbor.

Early 1942 models showed up with more squared-off fenders, since that was the trend at the time. The change from earlier models was and remains...controversial. Some love them, other people think they’re ugly compared to earlier models. One way or the other, it’s a change that marks 1942-and-after models.

Automotive production stopped completely in 1942, during which time Lincoln went to manufacturing parts for the war effort; as it happens, not for the first time. Lincoln actually started out assembling Liberty aircraft engines during the first world war.

So, the Continental languished until production started back up in 1945. After the war, the Continental came back with three year’s worth of pent-up chrome and interior trim. The first generation went out of production in 1948.

It was the last time a V-12 would ever see the engine bay of an American luxury car.

Second Generation: 1956 and 1957

Lincoln Continental: A Look Back
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1957 front

The Continental name once again sat fallow for a few years as Ford re-tooled for a whole new lineup of fully modern cars. When it came back, a lot had changed about the Continental — the spare tire had been integrated into the trunk lid, it had a whole new body, and a brand new overhead-valve Y-block V-8 engine. But probably the biggest change was that this Continental wasn’t a Lincoln.

By 1955, Lincoln had merged with Mercury to become Lincoln-Mercury, and it had gone in a different styling direction. Ford spun off the Continental Mark II to become its own car line — a line of one. Seems a little strange, but it’s not so different than what VW did with the Bugatti Veyron, or the Bentley with its (ahem) Continental.

In 1956, the Continental MkII was one of the most expensive cars in the world.

Does that seem like an odd coincidence? It shouldn’t. In 1956, the Ford Continental MkII cost $10,000, making it one of the most expensive cars in the world. It easily rivaled Rolls Royce. It’s also interesting to note that even at this price point, Ford lost money on every single car sold. That’s exactly the same situation VW found itself in with the Veyron, Toyota with the LF-A, and many other manufacturers with their own ultimate supercars. But those cars and the Continental all served the same basic purpose: They were all effectively self-funded marketing exercises; halo products designed to show off the best those brands could do and catapult them into world-class prominence.

And the Continental Mark II certainly did that for Ford.

Third Generation: 1958 to 1960

Lincoln Continental: A Look Back
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1958 front

Obviously, the problem with not making money on cars is that...well, you’re not making money on cars. That’s kind of an issue if your business model involves selling them for a profit. In those two years alone, Ford lost a crushing $60 million on the Continental...but not because it was a bad car.

The MkIII might be the largest and heaviest unibody car ever produced.

The Mark III certainly was big enough to justify its price tag. If size equaled luxury in the 1950s, then this 19-foot, 6,000-pound behemoth was only slightly less luxurious than the yachts that inspired its predecessor. Sharing a platform with its Lincoln sibling, the Continental Mk III all but defined the idea that living in the lap of luxury meant taking up as much space on Earth as humanly possible. It was the definitive luxo boat.

And it had more in common with boats than you might think. Like its seafaring cousins, this land yacht was a unibody. Not just any unibody, either — by some accounts, it might be the largest and heaviest frameless car ever produced. Which, in retrospect, is a terrifying proposition given the state of unibody construction in the 1950s. If you’re, um..."lucky" enough to drive one of these classics on the street today, it might be be best to avoid hitting potholes and speed bumps at speed. Otherwise, when the chassis snaps in half, you’ll go from owning one Continental to a pair of Ford Falcons. And nobody wants that.

Still, the technology was seen as cutting-edge at the time. Expensively cutting-edge, accounting for a big chunk of the $60 million Ford lost on this fantastically 50s land yacht.

Fourth Generation: 1961 to 1969

Lincoln Continental: A Look Back
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1965 front

Depending on who you ask, this generation might be the {}definitive Continental. Ford had brought the Continental back under the Lincoln umbrella, and lowered its ambitions from Rolls Royce-competing halo car to up-market superstar. It was a wise move, and it started with a new designer by the unlikely name of Elwood Engel.

The fourth generation might be the definitive Continental

Engel, like his predecessor, had previously been a student of Harley Earl’s at General Motors in 1939. After serving as a mapmaker in the South Pacific for a few years, he reconnected with a friend and former classmate from Harley Earl’s school, named Joe Oros. Oros was now working for Walker Design, which was run by yet another classmate from Harley Earl’s school. Oros got his friend the job, and from there on Elwood worked for Walker. While there, he designed farm equipment, women’s shoes and household appliances...pretty much anything anybody wanted to be pretty. While nobody’s saying Elwood’s talents might have been wasted on pumps and toasters, his "magnum opus" wasn’t exactly something you’d find in most kitchens of the era.

The Walker Design firm had once designed cars for Nash, but dumped them when Ford came knocking in 1947. Elwood’s friend Joe had recently contributed to the design of the Ford Thunderbird, and would later work on the design team that penned the original Mustang. He talked Walker into taking Elwood off of toaster duty and putting him on the Lincoln account.

The result: Probably the most classic full-sized Ford of all time.

This new car was a full 14.8 inches shorter than the last Continental, almost 4 inches lower and about 1.5 inches narrower. Weirdly, it still weighed about the same...but it was so much smaller than anything the public expected from the make that Lincoln’s first advertising photos featured women driving the car. The logic being, a man would make it look too small. Or maybe the women were just fans of Elwood’s shoe work. We’ll never really know.

We do know this, though: Everyone was a fan of the Continental’s "suicide" rear doors. Not just because they were cool, which they were. But more because, thanks to the car’s shorter dimensions, engineers kept hitting their feet on the door pillars while climbing into the back seat. So they hinged the doors from the back, thinned the pillars, and another classic styling cue was born.

Mr. Elwood’s Opus has gone on to wide fame in several movies and TV shows. It first showed up in in Goldfinger in 1964, then as Oliver Wendell’s car in Green Acres. Later, we’d see it in Animal House, Hit and Run, Last Action Hero, and in The Matrix. More recently, it’s been in Kalifornia, Inspector Gadget, Spider Man 2, and in the opening sequence for Entourage .

But, the Continental’s most notable film appearance saw it as part of a very different entourage. The film was a silent, low-budget affair, done in black and white on a cheap 8 mm camera. It was shot in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963...as was the American president.

Lincoln Continental: A Look Back
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JFK limo

John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln Continental would go on to become the single most widely known automobile in the history of film.

Perhaps it was those few moments of film, burned into the retinas of so many for so long, that would ultimately sear the Lincoln Continental into our collective consciousness. Forever more, even those who couldn’t tell a Lincoln from a Chevrolet would know there was something special, something important about this car. Just the shape...those long flanks, the wide grille book-ended by vertical strakes, those low, wide proportions...something about the Continental’s very silhouette became a part of the entire world’s cultural memory.

Not bad work, for a shoe-maker’s opus.

Up to 2002

Lincoln Continental: A Look Back
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Conti Mk Mntg

For the sake of everyone’s souls, it’s probably best to just summarize the next couple decades. Warning: If you drink, now would be the time. And make it a double. Just try to work your way through, though...it gets better.

Generally like the generation it defined, the Continental spent the next 20 years selling out to lower and lower common denominators, inevitably getting wider, slower and less attractive. Through the 1980s, it aspired to the heights of middle-management mediocrity, while trapped in a box and desperately falling behind its competitors through sheer lack of capability. By the 90s, the Continental had softened in both appearance and persona, having lost all ambition apart from slowly wasting away via hopeless boredom on the golf courses of America. At the turn of the century, this outdated relic of a bygone age had outlived its relevance, and seemed to know it. A quietly unremarkable death followed in 2002, and the Continental slipped away, steeped in the bittersweet pretenses of past glories, but too senile to remember any of them.


Anyone else ready for another shot?


Lincoln Continental: A Look Back
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2016 Lincoln Continental Concept

With the new Continental, Lincoln’s not just relying on staid and stale reminiscence; in a very real way, this luxo-barge is meant to be everything the original was back in the 1940s. Granted, it’s got an EcoBoost V-6, and it may or may not be front-wheel drive. Ford’s refusing to say right now...which probably means it is. In which case, it will probably handle like a barge...but as we’ve seen so far, that’s not exactly out of character for a Continental. Granted, a lot of Ford’s chassis have provisions for all-wheel drive, so it’s a possibility. That would at least put it theoretically on par with that other Continental. But even if not, Lincoln’s betting that this car’s customers will care a lot more about comfort and cost than corner exit speeds.

Still, we should probably hope this doesn’t end up being the world’s most expensive wrong-wheel-drive car. In every other way, it seems like a fantastic return to form for the brand...potentially Bentley speed, style and substance for 7-Series money. That would be an incredible new chapter in the Continental’s story, and do real honor to such an important name.

But, no matter what happens, it’s the Continental’s story that’s really important.

It’s the story of a century, and the people who lived it. Born into the world of the great and good, it once seemed this favored child’s greatest ambitions would end with yachting vacations in Florida. But the Continental proved better than anyone expected; it’s been to the highest highs, and come crashing back to Earth on melted wings. Like a lot of the people who drove it (not least of whom being Edsel Ford), sometimes this legend’s reach exceeded its grasp. Like some of the people who worked on it, the Continental has long been an icon of the ambitious; those definitive Americans, those hopeful up-and-comers who weren’t afraid to fail for the smallest chance of success.

History can and does repeat itself...sometimes in different places, at different times.

Maybe we’d do well to remember that.

Richard Rowe
Richard Rowe
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