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Lincoln Continental illustration

Lincoln Continental: Edsel Ford’s American dream car

Put in charge of the newly-acquired Lincoln Motor Company, Edsel Ford famously said: ​​”Father made the most popular car in the world. I want to make the best car in the world.”

When the Lincoln Continental was launched in 1939 it was the culmination of Edsel’s vision – an instant design classic that took its styling cues from European cars.

In production on and off for more than 80 years, the Continental may never have been the best car in the world, but it’s certainly one of the most significant.

We look at the Continental up to 1980.

Edsel Ford was on holiday in Europe with his wife Eleanor in 1938 when he was struck by the elegance and style of the cars on the continent.

On his return home, he challenged Bob Gregorie, a former yacht designer who joined Ford in 1931, to create him a new and stylish Lincoln.

Gregorie based the new car on his Lincoln Zephyr design of 1936, lengthening the bonnet by 12 inches, removing the running boards, and chopping four inches from the body to lower the car.

The result was a low, sleek cabriolet with the spare tyre mounted to the rear of the car at the request of Edsel, who asked for the prototype to be delivered to him at his winter home at Hobe Sound, Florida.

Lincoln Continental prototype, 1939

By the time the car was nearing completion at the start of 1939, he had already ordered two more for his sons Henry II and Benson, with slightly shorter bonnets and an inch higher ride – more in keeping with what the production car would become.

With the prototype duly delivered, Edsel’s new car turned so many heads among his friends in Florida that – legend has it – he returned to Michigan with orders for 200 more.

Plans for full production were put in place, and the car was given a name in keeping with its European-inspired design – the Continental.

Lincoln Continental goes into production

Production of the Lincoln-Zephyr Continental began on October 2, 1939 for the 1940 model year, with 25 examples hand built by the end of the year.

Lincoln Continental cabriolet 1940
Early production cabriolet

In all, 404 Continentals were built in the first year of production – 350 cabriolets and just 54 rare coupes, priced at $2,640 for either model, the equivalent of $52,574 in 2023.

Under that long bonnet was Lincoln’s 292 cu in Model H V12 engine, producing 120bhp and propelling the car beyond 90mph.

Renowned architect Frank LLoyd Wright declared it “the most beautiful car in the world”, and bought two.

For 1941, the Zephyr name was dropped and the car became simply the Lincoln Continental, and demand remained high until 1942, when production for civilian vehicles was halted after the bombing of Pearl Harbor saw the US enter World War II.

Lincoln Continental 1941 coupe
A 1941 Continental coupe

Production of the Continental resumed after the war in 1946, but without its chief champion in command – Edsel Ford had died aged 49 in 1943.

What’s more, designer Gregorie departed in the subsequent corporate management reshuffle and, although the Continental’s design was refreshed, there was no longer any future vision for the car, nor room in the market for a small production, highly personalised luxury car.

Lincoln Continental cabriolet 1946
Refreshed look on the 1946 cabriolet

When the final first generation car rolled off the production line, 5,324 had been made. But it was a hiatus, and not an ending, for the Continental.

William Clay Ford Sr and the Continental

Appropriately, it was Edsel’s son, William Clay Ford Sr, who was responsible for bringing the Continental back in 1956.

Lincoln Continental Mark 2 1956
Mark 2 Continental of 1956

William joined the Ford board in 1949, a year after the death of his grandfather Henry and, within a couple of years, he was heading up a team dedicated to creating a new Continental.

Ford had been lacking an upmarket brand to compete with General Motors’ Cadillac and the Chrysler Imperial, and the company’s executive vice president Ernie Breech had received a stream of letters asking when a new Continental would be produced.

Among them was a missive from the great American author John Steinbeck, who wrote: “Many years after my Model T period, I had a Continental convertible -­ surely the most beautiful car ever made in America. I would want to beg to be high on the list for one of the first (new) Continentals. There will undoubtedly be a great scramble for them… I had many cars in my life, but none that so satisfied my soul as the Continental. She was a real lady.”

Like our illustration of the Lincoln Continental: Edsel Ford’s American dream car at the beginning of the article?

Download a free high-quality poster version here.

In summer 1952, the Special Products Division (SPD) was formed to design and build the new car, which William wanted to feature “a functional, enduring design emphasising an air of distinction and elegant simplicity.”

The final SPD design, which beat off competition from outside designers invited to pitch for the work, was long, low and rakish, with a running prototype delivered the day before Christmas in 1954.

On Christmas Day William drove the prototype to his mother’s house to show her the car he had developed partly in tribute to his father Edsel, her late husband.

The new Continental was given its own premium division above Lincoln and was painstakingly hand-built to very high standards, with a price tag to match.

1956 Lincoln Continental
Pretty in pink

At $9,966 ($103,677 today), it was the most expensive US-built car on the market and competing head on with the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud.

Unsurprisingly, the rich and famous were attracted by such prestige and exclusiveness, with owners including Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Cecil B DeMille, with Warner Brothers giving Elizabeth Taylor a car custom painted to match her eye colour.

Ford was said to lose $1,000 on each of the 3,000 cars made over two years, but its celebrity clientele made it a successful image-builder for the company – and maybe, just maybe, William had fulfilled his father’s vision to build the best car in the world.

The “slant-eyed monster”

Ford’s bean counters were now in charge, and the third generation Continental had to meet much stricter cost controls and achieve a sale price of $6,000.

Its competition was no longer to be Rolls-Royce and Bentley, but its main rival Cadillac, and hand-built cars were out in favour of the new production line at Wixom.

It would share its chassis, and much of its exterior, with the Lincoln Premiere, differing only in its reverse-slant roofline featuring a retractable ‘breezeway’ rear window, a unique grille, and trim.

Lincoln Continental slant-eyed monster
The slant-eyed monster

The car was nicknamed the “slant-eyed monster” in the Ford design studio because of its enormous size and radically angled headlights.

The Continental design was tweaked three times between 1958 and 1960, moving from mark III to mark v, the changes mostly around the bumpers and grille.

The ‘out there’ styling is widely regarded as an aberration and the car didn’t sell well, with serious discussions among Ford’s hierarchy of discontinuing the Lincoln and Continental names – hardly surprising given Lincoln lost $60m on the ‘58-60 cars ($569m in 2023).

Lincoln Continental 1958
An aberration?

Instead, the Lincoln marque was consolidated into one car for 1961 – and what a car it was.

Birth of a design classic

When designer Elwood Engel joined Ford in 1955, he was assigned to the Special Products team and given a brief to come up with a proposal for the 1961 Thunderbird.

Instead, Ford’s bosses saw his design as the fourth generation Lincoln Continental, if it could be made into a four-door design.

The only way of achieving this without extending the length shown on the two-door clay model was to fit rear-hinged rear ‘suicide’ doors.

1961 Continental with suicide doors
1961 Continental with suicide doors

Henry Ford II was the prime advocate for the resulting coach-style doors, saying they gave the car a unique selling point that would set it apart from its competitors.

Much smaller than the car it replaced, the new Continental was available as a four-door sedan and convertible, and its sleek, clean lines had motoring journalists reaching for superlatives.

Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated wrote that the Continental was “one of the plushest wolf traps on the road. It’s as quiet as the love life of a bass, and it rides as smooth as spilt fudge on a canted stove. Its looks will equal any car in the nation”.

For the first time in the US, the car came with a two-year, 24,000 mile warranty, and Car Life magazine gave the Lincoln its annual Engineering Award, describing its quality as “second to none”.

1961 Lincoln Continental interior
1961 Lincoln interior

Increased sales duly followed, with 22,303 sedans and 2,857 convertibles sold in 1961.

Over its nine years in production (extending each model’s lifespan was a conscious decision by Ford), the Continental underwent mid-cycle restyles to keep the design fresh.

In 1965, the ‘electric shaver’ front end was replaced by a blunter bonnet with an upright grille, while a whole new body was fitted from 1966, making the car five inches longer, and inch higher and wider, while the V8 was enlarged from 430 to 462 cu in.

1966 Lincoln
New body for 1966

In all, 334,335 sedans and convertibles were sold between 1961 and 1969, the model’s final year.

Lincoln Continental mark III – again

The unqualified success of the 1960s Continental saw Ford give the green light for a fifth generation – curiously called the mark III, as if the marks III, IV and V from 1958 to 1960 had never existed.

After the unitary construction of its predecessor, the new Continental reverted to a body-on-frame make-up, using a stretched version of the Mercury Marquis chassis to save on development costs.

This made it impossible to fit the coach-style doors, the car reverting to conventional front-hinged doors.

When it was launched in 1970, the new car was offered in two-door, four-door, and four-door Town Car, which featured a vinyl roof.

1970 Lincoln Continental town car
Four door Town Car

The longest car ever made by Ford, its covered headlights and Rolls-Royce style grille made the Continental every inch a status symbol.

Lincoln Continental 1972

Motor Trend magazine described a car that still maintained “an image of mystique that can’t be matched on the Dow Jones affluence meter”.

Testing a mark III with a Cadillac Eldorado, it was the Continental that offered something a little extra “from a strictly plush, posh, luxury standpoint”.

“It fully achieved its ideal of quiet, restrained luxury, devoid of flamboyance or ostentation.”

Two engines were offered to buyers, a 460 cu in V8 with 365hp and, from 1977, a 400cu in V8 in California, reducing horsepower to 159. The 460 was dropped in 1979 to comply with new emissions standards.

Like our illustration of the Lincoln Continental: Edsel Ford’s American dream car at the beginning of the article?

Download a free high-quality poster version here.

Lincoln Continental downsized

With federal fuel-economy standards an existential threat to Ford, 1980 saw a downsized Lincoln Continental – while Ford also released a downsized Continental mark VI.

The mark VI was distinguished by front fender vents and an opera window, and would continue in production until 1983.

1980 Lincoln Continental

The standard car featured better fuel economy, having shed 800lbs and 14 inches in length, and a range of new technological features such as a digital instrument panel, a trip computer and electronic fuel injection with computer-controlled engine management.

Under the bonnet was a 5-litre V8 producing 129hp, with the option of a 351 cu in Windsor V8 with 140hp.

The Continental continued in various guises until its last hurrah in 2020, but who’s to say it won’t be back one day?

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