Like the Wind: The Lincoln Zephyr and Continental

The original Lincoln Zephyr is often overshadowed by its glamorous offspring, the Lincoln Continental, but both are milestone cars. The sleek, streamlined Zephyr saved Lincoln from extinction during the Depression and marked Ford’s first tentative step into the middle market. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we look at the origins and evolution of the 1936-1948 Lincoln-Zephyr and 1940-1948 Lincoln Continental.

1939 Lincoln-Zephyr four-door sedan catwalk badge

BRIGGS MANUFACTURING CO.

Several people played important roles in the Zephyr’s development, but the car would probably not have existed at all were it not for Walter O. Briggs, the president of the Briggs Manufacturing Company. Founded from the former B.F. Everitt Co. in 1910, Briggs had long been one of Detroit’s largest body suppliers. It wasn’t quite as big as Fisher Body, which by 1927 was wholly owned by General Motors, but Briggs nonetheless produced more than 500,000 bodies a year for a variety of manufacturers.

Briggs also provided engineering expertise; its engineers helped to design, though not manufacture, the pioneering 1922 Essex Coach. By the late twenties, Briggs had also added styling services to its repertoire by purchasing New York-based coachbuilder LeBaron, which was relocated to Detroit to become Briggs’ “captive” coachworks.

While Briggs had many clients, for many years the most important was the Ford Motor Company. Briggs had gotten its first Ford contract in 1910 and by the late twenties, Ford accounted for more than $160 million of Briggs’ annual gross receipts. Ford had taken an increasing percentage of its body production in-house, but Briggs still built many of Ford’s commercial and specialty bodies.

1939 Lincoln-Zephyr four-door sedan prow
A V-12 engine was one of the Zephyr’s major selling points against other cars in its class, all of which had eights. The L-head engine provided decent power and reasonable fuel economy for its size — up to 18 mpg (13 L/100 km) cruising — but quickly acquired a dismal reputation for reliability that it has never really shaken. (author photo)

By 1930, however, the relationship between Briggs and Ford was becoming rocky. Being a Ford supplier in those days was seldom easy under the best of circumstances. Not only were margins razor-thin, Ford’s contract with Briggs gave Ford purchasing managers free and complete access to Briggs’ records, which sometimes resulted in Ford’s taking issue with Briggs’ business practices as well as its accounting. Back in 1927, for example, Henry Ford had learned of and then quashed a proposed merger between Briggs and the rival Murray Corporation of America.

Ford was often wary of suppliers who were too closely tied to his rivals and neither he nor hard-bitten Ford production chief Charlie Sorensen was happy with the amount of business Briggs was now doing for the Chrysler Corporation. Supplying Chrysler itself was one thing, since the Chrysler marque didn’t compete directly with Ford, but by 1930, Briggs was also building bodies for DeSoto; Dodge (which Chrysler had acquired in 1928); and, most problematically, Chrysler’s new Plymouth line, which was aimed directly at Ford’s Model A.

While Walter Briggs didn’t have a lot of recourse with Sorensen, there was another possibility: Edsel Ford, who in those days was the president of both Ford and Lincoln. Unlike his notoriously mercurial father, Edsel was a refined, soft-spoken gentleman of conservative but impeccable taste and sound judgment. He could be stubborn about certain things, but he was neither as intractable nor as dogmatic as was his father. In other words, Edsel was a man with whom Briggs stood a chance of reasoning.

1939 Lincoln-Zephyr four-door sedan side
The Zephyr was as much a Briggs project as a Lincoln: The basic design and concept were created by Briggs stylist John Tjaarda (with some styling input from Ford’s Bob Gregorie); Briggs did much if not all of the body engineering; and Briggs handled the tooling, body assembly, paint, and trim. Lincoln provided the engines, running gear, and final mechanical assembly. (author photo)

In 1932, Briggs hired a man named Howard Bonbright to head a new Ford Polices and Relations department. As the name suggested, the department’s purpose was to manage the company’s vitally important relationship with Ford Motor Company. However, since Bonbright was also a close friend of Edsel Ford’s, his real job was to give Briggs a connection to Edsel that didn’t involve going through Sorensen.

As Briggs may have known, Edsel had relatively limited influence over Ford-branded products, but had enjoyed almost free reign over Lincoln since the departure of founders H.M. and Wilfred Leland in mid-1922. Briggs already had some work from Lincoln, including a few hundred LeBaron semi-customs, but that alone wasn’t much help. Lincoln had never been a high-volume operation and with the onset of the Depression was looking decidedly terminal. Lincoln’s sales had dropped precipitously since 1929, but its costs remained high and by 1932, Sorensen wanted to pull the plug. To do more business with Lincoln, Briggs was first going to have to come up with something for Lincoln to sell.

THE STERKENBURGS

Around the time he hired Howard Bonbright, Briggs also hired stylist John Tjaarda, formerly of GM’s Art and Colour section. Tjaarda was Dutch — his family was from Sterkenburg in Friesland — and had an aviation background. He had studied aerodynamics in England, served as a pilot and flight instructor in the Royal Netherlands Air Force, and worked for Fokker before emigrating to the United States in 1923. Tjaarda had joined the coachbuilder Locke & Co. in 1925 and done some work for Duesenberg before joining GM in 1930.

Since about 1926, Tjaarda had been toying with concepts for a car of his own design, which he labeled “Sterkenburg.” These concepts went through several iterations, most with streamlined shapes and a variety of advanced features, including a mid-rear engine on a detachable subframe; rubber suspension, conceptually not unlike that of the later BMC Mini; and unitized construction with a “carcass” of light body panels hung on a rigid skeleton, built around a tubular backbone.

1939 Lincoln-Zephyr four-door sedan rear 3q © 2013 Bob Nichols per
From the rear and rear three-quarter, the early production Zephyr looked quite a bit like Tjaarda’s original except of course for the absence of any provision for the rear-mid-mounted engine. The distinctions are more apparent in profile: The production car has a somewhat shorter tail and a longer nose and front fenders as well as (obviously) a completely different nose treatment. (Photo © 2013 Bob Nichols; used with permission)

(We should interject here that the likely inspiration for the Sterkenburg’s unit construction was contemporary Lancias, not aircraft practice, as is often supposed. While the advantages of monocoque construction were well understood in the aviation world before World War I, stressed-skin aircraft were not common until the mid-thirties and faced considerable institutional resistance even then, in part because monocoque structures were more expensive to manufacture.)

The Sterkenburg concepts existed only on paper, since Tjaarda had yet to find any patron willing to fund a prototype. However, Briggs responded with interest. In this era, independent body companies were often more open than any of the major automakers to new ideas, presumably enticed by the revenue potential of licensing a hot new idea to a larger manufacturer. During this same period, for example, the Budd Company was actively promoting both unit construction and front-wheel drive. In Tjaarda’s concepts, Briggs saw something he could potentially sell to Edsel Ford.

Briggs and Bonbright arranged an opportunity for Tjaarda to show off his Sterkenburg designs to Edsel, who was intrigued. According to Ford designer Bob Gregorie, Edsel was not overly impressed by Tjaarda (who was a temperamental bon vivant quite different from Edsel himself) and had serious reservations about putting the engine behind the passenger compartment, but thought the rest of the package was promising. Edsel knew that Lincoln desperately needed a product that could be sold in greater numbers than the big Model KA and KB, which were dying on the vine, and that could also fill the yawning $2,450 gap between Ford and Lincoln. Since such a car would need to be a clean-sheet design anyway, there was no reason not to explore new ideas. With annual sales around 3,500 units and falling, Lincoln no longer had much to lose by trying.

A SECRET PROJECT

At Edsel’s suggestion, Briggs gave Tjaarda a separate studio where he could work on the Sterkenburg in secret even from other Briggs employees. The object was not much to discourage industrial espionage as to prevent Sorensen and Henry Ford from catching wind of the project — not an unlikely possibility given Ford’s impromptu audits — before Edsel was ready to tell them about it.

Tjaarda, understandably pleased that his ideas were finally coming to fruition, developed two alternative versions of his concept: one with his preferred mid-rear engine, the other with a more conventional front engine. There were also tentative plans for a convertible, although this was tabled at a relatively early stage.

The original plan was for the car to use a much-modified version of Ford’s new flathead V-8 with an aluminum cylinder block to match its aluminum heads. The goal for the all-aluminum engine was 100 gross horsepower (75 kW), although Tjaarda’s account suggests that the engines actually installed in the prototypes produced 80 to 85 hp (60 to 63 kW), compared to 65 hp (48 kW) for the standard 1932 Ford V-8 and 75 hp (56 kW) for the 1933. However, since the new car was expected to weigh no more than a run-of-the-mill Ford coupe and have significantly better aerodynamics, performance would nonetheless have been quite good for the era. Tjaarda’s concept also called for overdrive and an automatic transmission; we have no details on the latter and it’s not clear from our sources if there was ever a working version of it.

1939 Lincoln-Zephyr four-door sedan front suspension
The Zephyr’s transverse leaf spring suspension has been much derided as old-fashioned and rustic, but it should be noted that (a) even the Chrysler Airflow lacked independent front suspension, (b) many early independent suspension designs introduced more problems than they solved, and (c) the Zephyr’s suspension is really quite effective. Ride quality is firm, but not unpleasantly so and handling is surprisingly composed for a big car of this era. (author photo)

Later that summer, Edsel broke the news of the project to his father and Charlie Sorensen. Although neither Sorensen nor Henry was necessarily receptive to ideas they hadn’t come up with themselves, they were amenable to the proposal with certain provisos, including the deletion of the planned independent suspension in favor of Ford’s customary beam axles, transverse leaf springs, and torque tube drive. However, Ford and Sorensen did okay Tjaarda’s semi-unitized “bridge and truss” construction, probably because Briggs had agreed to underwrite the tooling costs as well as actually manufacturing the bodies. We suspect the latter point was a major factor in Henry Ford’s acceptance of the project; Henry had little interest in luxury cars, but could seldom resist a bargain.

The aluminum V-8 didn’t make it past the prototype stage. We don’t know if there were problems with the aluminum block (something that would still pose manufacturing challenges more than 25 years later), if the engine fell short of its intended output, or if Edsel Ford decided the modified V-8 lacked an appropriate sense of occasion; perhaps all of the above. In any case, Edsel canceled it and ordered Lincoln chief engineer Frank Johnson (a longtime Lincoln veteran who had worked with the Lelands at Cadillac even before Lincoln was formed) to develop a new V-12 for the new car.

The new engine, sometimes called the HV-12, was a 75-degree L-head V-12 with a one-piece cast iron block. The HV-12 was neither an adaptation of Lincoln’s big V-12s nor one and a half Ford V-8s, although it was closer to the latter than the former in architecture and shared some of the V-8’s components. In its original form, the new V-12 had a bore of 2.75 inches (69.85 mm) and the same 3.75-inch (95.25mm) stroke as the flathead V-8, giving a total displacement of 267 cu. in. (4,380 cc). With a compression ratio of 6.7:1, higher than any other contemporary Ford or Lincoln engine, the HV-12 made respectable 110 gross horsepower (82 kW) and 186 lb-ft (252 N-m) of torque with a usefully flat torque curve.

1939 Lincoln-Zephyr four-door sedan trunk
All production iterations of the Zephyr’s HV-12 engine retained the original 3.75-inch (95.25mm) stroke, shared with the prewar Ford and Mercury V-8s, but the bore was increased twice: first in 1940, from 2.75 inches (69.85 mm) to 2.875 inches (73.03 mm), giving a displacement of 292 cu. in. (4,787 cc); and then again in 1942, to 2.9375 inches (74.61 mm), giving a displacement of 305 cu. in. (4,998 cc). The latter proved too much of a stretch for the manufacturing accuracy of the time, potentially leaving the cylinder walls perilously thin, so postwar cars reverted to the previous 2.875-inch (73.03mm) bore. From 1938, the engine also had hydraulic lifters. (author photo)

15 Comments

Add a Comment
  1. LOVED this article! Of course I love the time period of vehicles that this article mainly dwells in, but great info and great photographs!

  2. This is an excellent story that gives these cars their due. The Zephyr was an influential car that shows how Ford styling, under Edsel Ford and Bob Gregorie, was able to stay abreast of GM and Harley Earl, and even beat them to the punch a time or two.

    It also makes one realize the loss when Edsel Ford died in 1943, before he had the chance to run the entire company. His postwar plans for the Ford Division were particularly interesting, with the line-up of a relatively large Ford and a compact Ford. That line-up forecast the 1960 Falcon and Galaxie.

    The management team brought in by Henry Ford II took one look at this plan, and decided it was not feasible. The larger Ford became the 1949 Mercury, and the small Ford was shipped to Ford’s French subsidiary, where it became the postwar Vedette. A crash program resulted in an all-new car that debuted as the 1949 Ford.

    If Edsel had been able to bring his product plans to life, one wonders how that would have affected the rest of the industry.

    Of course, the Ford Motor Company was headed for bankruptcy after the end of World War II, so Edsel still would have grappled with the need to get the company on sound financial footing.

    Given that Henry Ford I didn’t die until April 1947, and Edsel refused to directly confront his father, the company may have been too far gone by the time he was able to assume real power.

    1. It’s difficult to see Edsel taking power unless his health were much better and his father either became seriously incapacitated or died suddenly. Even then, I have to wonder how Edsel would have fared in the bloody power struggle that would almost certainly have followed between him and Harry Bennett. Henry Ford II dealt with that by gathering what allies he could (including John Bugas and John Davis, who probably would have supported Edsel, as well) and eventually forcing Bennett out, but Henry was driven to some extent by desperation: His father was dead and various people (including the feds) had made it clear that Ford was in a rather dire state. Edsel was not a confrontational person in general and had the disadvantage that a lot of Ford’s old-guard executives had never had much respect for him. Again, Henry II and Ernie Breech’s solution was a general purge, but that doesn’t seem like Edsel’s way, particularly if Bennett set the board against him.

      In any case, a lot of Breech and crew’s judgments were basically sound. For example, the Light Car, like the Chevrolet Cadet, was based in large part on the mistaken assumption that the economy was going to slump back into depression after the war, which was what happened after World War I. What those predictions didn’t fully consider was the vast extent of the militarization of American industry, which meant there were huge numbers of people who for the last three years had been working a lot and saving money that they hadn’t had any real opportunities to spend. Even after the postwar blitz ended, I think the main reason buyers sometimes [i]said[/i] they wanted compacts was the (again mistaken) assumption that smaller cars would mean smaller, prewar, pre-inflation prices. The people who were really adamant about smaller cars bought Ramblers, and based on the sales numbers there, that wasn’t really anything Ford yet needed to worry about…

  3. Great story. I recently watched the Henry Ford bio on PBS…twice. The Zephyr is a fascinating look at the company and Edsel in particular.

    PS. There is a problem with the description of bore changes in the caption to the last picture on the first page.

    1. Oops, you’re right. It should be fixed now. Thanks!

  4. I recall hearing somewhere that the V-12 was good for only 30,000 miles between overhauls. Is this correct?

    1. Well, keep in mind that even the better engines of that era typically needed an overhaul by 50-60,000 miles.

      Because of the crankcase ventilation issues, the V-12 tends to be happier if you do a lot of highway driving, which allows the engine to warm up enough to get the blow-by out of the oil. In short-range stop-and-go driving, the oil takes a beating and you may be testing the cooling system’s capacity, especially if the weather is very hot. The consensus I saw was that regular oil changes (some people recommended every 1,000 miles) are important, in part because with no dipstick, changing the oil is a useful way to keep an eye on the engine’s internal condition.

      So, depending on how an owner actually used the car, the model year (some of the issues were mitigated, if not necessarily resolved, over time), and how the car was maintained, I can see that some were due for an overhaul earlier than normal for the era, although I suspect saying, “They were all like that” would be an exaggeration.

  5. An excellent treatment of one of the favorite cars of my youth. In the late 60s-early 70s, my best friend’s father (Howard) owned a low mile original 1947 Lincoln sedan. I fell in love with that car and all other early Lincolns by extension.

    Howard had told me that he had owned many of these during his youth in the early 50s. He related that these V-12 Lincolns could be purchased dirt cheap but, if a guy knew his way around them, you could drive a really luxurious car on a low budget.

    Another problem with this engine was the hydraulic valve lifters. These were chosen to make the engine a quiet runner (which it was) but further taxed an already overmatched lubrication system by making many more places for oil to go, thus lowering oil pressure at low revs. As you state, most people did not drive these cars hard enough to keep the engines lubricated well.

  6. My Great-grandfather had a ’38 or ’39 Zephyr sedan. None of the old photos I’ve seen of it show the grill close enough to tell what year for sure.

    Great article!

  7. This was an excellent article. I also wanted to say thanks for adding the “read all” button. I don’t have internet at home and the button makes it possible to read the whole article on my kindle!

    1. Yeah, adding a “read all” option and better page navigation were high on the list of goals for the new content management system. The elderly system I had before would not have supported that without writing a patch myself, which I doubt would have worked well.

  8. Great story , I am in the process of purchasing a ford Lincoln zephyr 1940 3window coupe and it need a lot of work , are they as rare as I’m told and if there was only 54 produced on 1940 roughly how many are still around, also it has the correct steel body VIN

    1. The three-window coupes were quite rare, although the total was more in the realm of 1,500–1,600 in all. As for how many still exist, I couldn’t tell you. The U.S. doesn’t have a national vehicle registration database, so any number you see is going to be a rough estimate and may not include survivors in barns or what have you that haven’t been registered for on-road use in years.

  9. We measure fuel efficiency in kilometres per litre in India

    1. Which makes plenty of sense, of course. Assuming I’m doing my math correctly (which is always a question), you can approximate km/L consumption by multiplying the U.S. mpg figures by 0.425.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click here to read our comment policy. You must be at least 18 to comment. PLEASE DON'T POST COPYRIGHTED CONTENT YOU AREN'T AUTHORIZED TO USE!
Except as otherwise noted, all text and images are copyright © Aaron Severson dba Ate Up With Motor. (Terms of Use – Reprint/Reuse Policy) Trademarks referenced herein are the property of their respective owners and are used here for informational/nominative purposes.