Continental: The Finest of Fords
Edsel Bryant Ford was the only son of Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company. As a boy, Edsel loved to look at cars. He cut out pictures from magazines and spent hours studying and analyzing what made this car sporty and that one elegant. In 1922 at the age of 25, Edsel’s father made him president of newly acquired Lincoln Motor Company. There he applied some of those early design studies as he worked with the various custom coachbuilders to create splendid custom bodies for well-heeled customers.
One morning in the fall of 1938, Ford Motor Company’s chief or design, E.T. Gregorie, thought he had come up with something to spruce up Lincoln’s rather slow selling lineup; a Lincoln sports car. He drew some sketches that placed a long hood and lower beltline on the existing Lincoln Zephyr frame. After seeing the sketches over lunch Edsel loved it. “How fast can you have one built?” He asked. Five months later the car was ready for his march holiday in Florida. It was called the Continental and was a sensation among the affluent “snow bird” set. Many asked how they could get one. The following year the Continental was introduced for sale to the public.
The 1940-41 Continental was universally acclaimed among aficionados of automotive design. Renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, called the Continental the most beautiful car ever built. It was elected in 1951 by the Museum of Modern Art as one of the eight best designs of the automobile’s first half century. With such elegance comes exclusivity. Only 1650 Continentals were made.
At about the time of the Continenal's launch, Edsel's health began to fail. He did not have much imput on Lincoln's look, which was substantially revised for 1942. Lincoln management wanted to bring the Continental in line with the prevailing look. This was unfortunate, as the Lincolns of the day were not very pretty. After a few post-war model years, which Edsel never saw, the Continental name disappeared entirely.
Continental Reborn as America’s Finest Automobile
When the Mark II project began in the early 1950s, William Clay Ford, Edsel’s youngest son, had two goals in mind. He wanted to honor his late father’s love of beautiful design. At the same time he sought to create a halo brand that would project aura of style and prestige over the Ford Motor Company.
Benson threw everything into creating the Continental Mark II. He hired famed industrial designer Gordon Buehrig who did the revolutionary Cord 810/812, to create the innovative unit-body platform. This allowed the interior to be dropped down into a pan, making for a much lower car with no loss in headroom. Designers dubbed this the “cow belly.” It gave designer John Reinhart, formerly of Packard, the freedom to create bold proportions; long hood, short deck and elegant, understated lines unblemished by the chrome affliction of the day.
The 1956 Continental’s $10,000 price tag was at the time nearly as stunning as its looks. That was twice the price of an ordinary Lincoln, more than any Cadillac, and nearly as much as a Rolls Royce. This was a car for America’s high society. In fact, in some one of the earlier uses of paid product placement, a Continental found it’s was into the movie High Society with Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly. Old Blue Eyes himself had a Continental, as did Elvis Presley, Lana Turner and Cecil B. DeMille. World leaders, President Eisenhower, the Shah of Iran and Eva Peron, each had one. As did captains of industry like R.J. Reynolds, Howard Johnson and Henry J. Kaiser.
Clearly, Continentals were not meant for the masses, and its production figures bore that out. In two years only 2994 of the beautiful coupes were made. Another perhaps 20 prototypes and pre-production cars were built, including at least two convertibles that were absolutely stunning.
It is estimated that Ford lost about a thousand dollars on each Continental they sold. There were two ways to interpret this: 1.) Continental cast a halo of prestige over the Lincoln Capris and Mercury Montereys parked nearby in Lincoln-Mercury showrooms, and represented $3 million worth of image advertising, or 2.) Continental was a $3 million cash drain on a company that was about go public. Unfortunately, the bean-counters’ view prevailed.
Some numbers are more difficult to crunch than others, however. An automobile purchase is as often based on emotion as much as economics. Beans can be counted, but what makes a car attractive is more elusive. That is unfortunate because without understanding emotion it is impossible to grasp the indirect benefits of a car like the Mark II. A halo car is a ring of grace that, if done well, shines a bit of glory on the lesser models of its lineage. Even though each lost money, a halo such as the Continental should have been recognized as adding overall value to the company.
But raw numbers could not quantify this. And so the accountants shut down the Continental division before 1957 came to a close. The fate of Continental reportedly broke William Clay Ford’s heart. For many years after its death, he showed little interest in Ford cars. The essence of the Mark was cast to the Dearborn winds.
The Forgotten Continentals
After an all too brief mourning period, the Continental name was unceremoniously transferred back to Lincoln for 1958, ‘59 and ‘60. It was affixed to massive and graceless behemoths called the Continental Mark III, Mark IV and Mark V, a new one for each year. So uninspiring were these chromed land yachts, that the company would make them as ethereal as a bad dream. In several internal histories, the ‘58-’60 Lincoln Continentals, like some Soviet general expunged from official photos after he’d fallen out of favor, are not even mentioned.
The 1961 Continental: The Car that Saved Lincoln
Many consider the 1960s a golden age for the automobile. One of that era’s icons was the 1961 Lincoln Continental. With a clean sweep of designer Elwood Engle’s pen, the be-finned and chrome encrusted cretians of the Fifties were rendered extinct. Glitzy baubles and purposeless decorations that had substituted for design were replaced with fine proportions and clean lines. Engle made this Continental elegant without resorting to excess.
It seems strange to say that of the most beautiful cars of all time was given life by one of the most notorious bean counters of all time. Robert McNamara, Ford’s head of automotive operations and number cruncher extraordinaire, delivered had this mandate: If the next Lincoln didn’t make money then the storied marque was history. A design for the new Lincoln was already in the works, but no one was particularly enthusiastic about it. McNamara turned the assignment over to Elwood Engle. With a shortened timeline and minimal budget, Engle’s only alternative was to piggyback the upcoming ’61-63 Thunderbird and its low, sleek, unit-body platform. This placed a limitation the Lincoln’s size and weight. The new Lincoln was a foot and a half shorter and 400lbs lighter than its predecessor. Sleek lines and perfect proportions conveyed road presence rather than sheer bulk. That was quite a concept in twilight of the 1950s.
One of the Continental’s most distinct features - those “suicide” doors - were also inspired by financial constraints. The rear door on one side of the car used the same innards as the front door on the other side, saving tooling costs. Lincoln also lacked the funds for a 2-door body, very popular at the time. Thus frugality not style led to the first American 4-door convertible in a dozen years.
It must have taken great courage for Ford executives to have green-lighted such a radical departure from the style of the day. Even more so to keep it after the new car failed to ignite Lincoln’s sales figures right away. While much of the blame for the shortfall was due the absence of a 2-door coupe, one cannot help but wonder the fate of Lincoln had Mr. McNamara remained at Ford through the final sales tally of 1961. He had by that time accepted President Kennedy’s request to be secretary of defense. Lincoln was safe for another year. Patience was rewarded. Unlike the unfortunate ’58-60 cars, Continental sales grew each subsequent year, going from 25,000 in ’61 to over 40,000 in ’65. You could say that John F. Kennedy may have saved the Lincoln Continental. That is ironic given that three years later their fates would again cross.
Lee Iacocca’s Mark
Legend has it that while on a trip to Europe and unable to sleep, Ford’s master marketer, Lee Iacocca, had a brainstorm. It involved a big coupe with a Continental-style tire bulge, and a long hood capped with a Rolls Royce-looking grill. A long distance phone call to Dearborn that night got designer Dave Ash working on a prototype. The result was a knockout. Iacocca loved it. When it was shown to Henry Ford II, he reportedly said that he’d like to take it home.
With its long hood and short deck, the car’s visual kinship to the Continental Mark II was unmistakable. A revival of the Mark nomenclature seemed obvious. That is, until someone remembered the forgettable 1958-60 Continental Marks III, IV, and V. They couldn’t call this big beauty the Mark VI – not with a straight face. Since most people at Lincoln-Mercury preferred to forget those cars anyway, they were officially forgotten. The Continental Mark III was (re)born. The magic of marketing makes a Mark for the masses.
The new Lincoln Continental Mark III was introduced in the spring of 1968. While this handsome car was not quite in the league of its ancestors in terms of exclusivity, it was far more of a commercial success. Over 85,000 of the opulent coupes were sold in a run of three-plus years. That’s more than 28 times as many cars as the Mark II sold, and 45 times the original Continental. With the addition of the Mark III, Lincoln sales doubled. Moreover, the Mark was reported to earn a profit of over $2000 per car. That extra $160 million in pure profit likely put Lincoln solidly in the black for the first time in its history.
Following the unfortunate path all American cars seem destined to take with each new version, the Continental Mark IV of 1972 grew a bit larger and fatter.
Government mandated impact resistant bumpers in 1973 (front) and 1974 (rear) made it less graceful, though it still oozed presence.
The 1977 Continental Mark V was an improvement. It had crisper lines and was 300lbs lighter. But less mass didn’t mean less bulk. They were still bloody enormous.
Leaving a Mark on Hollywood
A big black sedan rolls into a dusty Utah town with evil on its mind. “Its” mind? Surely you mean the driver’s mind. Elliot Silverstein's The Car (1977) is a modern Biblical tale about Satan appearing on earth in the form of a demonic car. The Devil’s choice of wheels; a Lincoln Mark III built by famed Hollywood kustomizer, George Barris. No Academy Awards here, but a good horror flick for Car Guys.
There were many awards handed out for Philip D'Antoni's The French Connection (1971), where New York City narcotics cop, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman), pursues smugglers from Marseilles whose drug mule of choice is a Continental Mark III.
And if you watched detective shows on TV in the 1970s, you might remmember the fad of having various handicaps place on the hero - perhaps to even the playing field. Ironsidewas wheelchair bound, Barnaby Joneswas old. In Cannon, William Conrad played well-fed detective Frank Cannon. There weren’t many cars he'd fit into. He fit into a Mark IV.
The scene was so griping that only a certifiable Car Guy – we can’t help ourselves – would notice that it was in front of a ’41 Continental Coupe’ that Sonny Corleone met his end in Francis Ford Coppela’s The Godfather.
Sometimes a Mark is a Stain
During the 1970s, the Continental name had eclipsed the parent make in prestige. All Lincolns were called Continental in some form. Lincoln could have done a Cher or Beyoncé and ditched the sir name completely, then set on a fresh new path of American luxury. Instead Lincoln beat its prodigy into submission with a stubby little sedan they called a Continental. In many ways this flaccid car reflected America at its time of time of deep soul searching. In the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Carter age, Detroit had stumbled on the retro-bustle-back look of the early 80s. It started with the 1980 Cadillac Seville. Thankfully, it ended with the 1982 Continental.
Reborn for a New Age
The Continental was completely redesigned in 1988. As far as driving dynamics, it was easily the best Lincoln ever. It used a stretched Ford Taurus platform, meaning this new Continental was a front-driver – the first in Lincoln’s history. It was also the first Lincoln to have a 6-cylinder engine. Perhaps more importantly, the ’88 Continental was the first Lincoln since the Mark III to have a customer waiting list. For more than a year the new Continentals sold regularly for over sticker price, a much-needed boost to the bottom line of Lincoln and its dealers. At least it was for a while. By the time this writer was handed the keys to one at a Hertz counter in 1991, supply and demand had passed each other going in opposite directions and discounts were plentiful. Even so, nearly half a million of these FWD Continentals were sold over a dozen years.
The 2017 Continental. No marketing executive worthy of his designer suit lets a good name stay dead forever. We can at least be grateful it got Lincoln to finally ditch its stupid alphanumeric nomenclature.
Continental was born out of Edsel Ford’s desire to build beautiful cars. The 1940 Continental was Edsel’s dream materialized. The 1956 Continental Mark II was a son’s tribute his father’s esthetic. The 1961 Lincoln Continental was also an expression of Edsel’s quest to build beautiful cars, and it saved his beloved Lincoln. Each stands today as a work of art in automotive form. Even the 1968 Continental Mark III was a fitting tribute to what the name stood for: style, elegance and exclusivity, albeit in mass-produced form. But therein lies the problem. Exclusivity cannot be mass-produced and remain exclusive.
Copyright@2018 by Mal Pearson