CENTURY OF PROGRESS
In the fall of 1933, a full-size wooden mockup of the rear-engined car became part of Ford’s traveling Exhibition of Progress. The following May, Briggs exhibited the mockup at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago, where Ford planted observers in the crowd to assess reactions to the car’s streamlined styling.
The mockup’s public appearances later led some observers to assume it was a concept car that Ford decided to put into production. In fact, the opposite was true: By the time the mockup was shown, development was already well under way — there were several prototypes by that point, some front-engined, some rear-engined; some running, some not — and Ford had made at least a tentative commitment to build the car. We assume Ford could still have canceled the project if reaction had been very negative, but the mockup was an offshoot of the production program, not the other way around.
Fortunately, the mockup’s looks were favorably received. Four out of five fairgoers said they liked it, although about half expressed doubts about the rear engine. Since Edsel already had similar reservations, the public response was the final nail in the coffin for Tjaarda’s original powertrain layout, which was subsequently abandoned.
With the decision to use a front engine, the mid-engine Sterkenburg’s rather featureless sloping nose was no longer practical. The front-engine prototype had a different front-end treatment, but its slim waterfall grille looked enough like that of Chrysler’s controversial new Airflow (and, probably coincidentally, the later 1936 Pontiac) to make Edsel uneasy. In early 1935, he dispatched Bob Gregorie, whom Edsel had recently appointed as Ford’s design director, to Briggs to come up with something new.
Gregorie quickly drafted a fresh front-end treatment with an alligator hood and a raked two-piece grille that formed a sharp, prow-like nose, a theme to which Gregorie knew Edsel was partial. Gregorie and Briggs stylist Bob Koto also refined some other exterior and interior details, but despite the nose job, the basic shape of Tjaarda’s original Sterkenburg remained largely unmolested.
The new Lincoln went into production later that year and made its public debut in New York City that November. It was christened “Lincoln-Zephyr,” a name probably inspired by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s new Burlington Zephyr, a streamlined diesel-electric locomotive with stainless steel skin that had been introduced with great fanfare the previous April. (We don’t know whether Lincoln had to pay a license fee for the use of the name, but it’s worth noting that the locomotive Zephyr’s stainless steel body was developed by Budd, which also built some bodies for Ford in those days.)
The Lincoln-Zephyr was less sophisticated than was Tjaarda’s original concept, with a front engine, a conventional three-speed sliding-gear transmission, mechanical Bendix drum brakes (with rather skimpy lining area for the car’s size and weight), and Ford’s hoary but effective transverse leaf spring suspension. However, the Lincoln-Zephyr was nonetheless one of the most technically daring products Ford had yet offered in series production.
Although it ended up considerably heavier than Tjaarda anticipated, the Zephyr’s structure, which had a bridge-like skeleton welded to stressed exterior panels (including the roof, which had no fabric insert or wood bracing), was very stiff and surprisingly light for its size, a dividend of Tjaarda’s past experience designing aircraft structures. A 1936 LaSalle, one of the Lincoln’s direct rivals, was over 200 lb (91 kg) heavier while Chrysler’s conceptually similar Airflow was heavier still, something Tjaarda later attributed, with obvious glee, to calculation errors by Chrysler consultant Alexander Klemin, a friend and former professor of Tjaarda’s. (Since the Airflow was developed in partnership with Budd, which at the time probably understood more about unitized construction than any other company in America, we doubt the reality was that simple, but it was certainly true that many early American unit bodies were substantially heavier than they needed to be.)
The Zephyr’s modest weight and V-12 engine provided excellent performance. The early Zephyr was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 16 seconds or less and a top speed in the 90-95 mph (145-153 km/h) range, which was better than the already sprightly Ford V-8 could manage. Lincoln also boasted of fuel economy of up to 18 mpg (13.1 L/100 km), surprisingly thrifty for a big car in those days. Unfortunately, owners would have numerous headaches with the HV-12 engine, which was afflicted with marginal cooling (due in part to the peaked grille limiting airflow to the cooling fan, mounted on the front of the crank), inadequate oil circulation, and poor crankcase ventilation. The engine’s propensity for turning its lubricating oil to sludge was not helped by lack of a dipstick, which made it difficult to assess the condition of the oil without draining it. Vapor lock was also a problem in hot weather.
Like the Airflow, the Zephyr provided above-average ride comfort and a spacious interior. The passengers sat within the wheelbase on wider-than-normal, chair-height seats, initially with chrome seat rails like the early Airflow’s. There was still a driveshaft hump, but it was low and relatively slim. Visibility was surprisingly good except to the rear, where the driver’s vision hampered by the small backlight and thick sail panels.
The Zephyr’s greatest impact stemmed not from its technology or its performance, but its styling. Unlike the Airflow, which had elegant detailing but a rather dumpy shape, the Lincoln-Zephyr looked sleek and futuristic. Lincoln even stole a match on GM with the Zephyr’s semi-faired headlamps, a feature GM styling chief Harley Earl had wanted for some time, but had as yet been unable to get. Fender-mounted headlamps were nothing new — Pierce-Arrow had offered them since 1913 — but they were generally mounted atop the fender rather than faired into it. In all, the Zephyr was a fine example of the Streamline Moderne idiom and proved very influential, not least for Ford; the 1937 Ford, for instance, bore a pronounced resemblance to the previous year’s Zephyr.
ZEPHYR TO MARKET
It’s easy to criticize the Zephyr’s Ford-derived running gear, but it did help to keep costs and thus prices at a competitive level. Had Ford kept more of Tjaarda’s original specification, the Zephyr could easily have fallen into the same trap as Packard’s 1932 Light Eight, which had been cheap enough to lure customers away from the more expensive models, but not cheap enough to be a real volume seller.
The 1936 Lincoln-Zephyr was offered only as a two- or four-door sedan with starting prices of $1,275 and $1,320, respectively. Its most obvious rival was probably the LaSalle, which cost around $100 less, but was slightly smaller, had three-year-old styling, and used an Oldsmobile-derived eight with less power and cachet than the Lincoln V-12. Interestingly, the Packard One Twenty was more than $200 cheaper than a Zephyr, priced more in Buick territory, while Chrysler’s Airflow cost at least $25 more than a comparable Zephyr.
The U.S. economy was still not in good shape in 1936, but had recovered enough to once again make middle-class and near-luxury cars a salable proposition. The Zephyr was stylish, comfortable, and far more practical than the big Lincolns, which despite their undoubted quality and beauty were cumbersome and conspicuous in a way from which many upper-class buyers were shying away. Naturally, the Zephyr was also substantially cheaper. The least-expensive Model K cost more than three times as much.
In its first year, the Lincoln-Zephyr sold 14,994 units, the large majority of those four-door sedans. By comparison, sales of Packard’s Fourteenth Series One Twenty totaled more than 55,000 units, but the Zephyr sold an order of magnitude better than Lincoln’s dismal 1935 tally. The Zephyr also outsold LaSalle by nearly 2,000 units and topped combined Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow sales by more than 3,700 units.
Some Zephyrs were also sold in Europe and there was a right-hand-drive version for the U.K., although with 36 RAC taxable horsepower and a price in the vicinity of £500 (enough to buy four Ford Model Y sedans), the Zephyr was obviously not a car for working-class Britons. Its V-12 engine, however, did find its way into a handful of British-built cars, including a prototype Brough Superior, the quick but very expensive Atalanta, and a few 1938 Allards.
The 1937 Zephyr had a revised dashboard with a central instrument panel, some minor trim revisions, and a touched-up grille that looked curiously like that of the 1935 Chrysler Airflow. More usefully, the spare tire was now carried in the trunk on a swing-out rack that could be raised to allow external access to the luggage area. Another helpful and popular addition was an optional Columbia two-speed axle that worked in all three forward speeds. Since the Zephyr had a 4.44 axle, the Columbia axle made for much more relaxed highway cruising. Even today, a Zephyr in third-overdrive feels perfectly comfortable at modern 65–70 mph (105-112 km/h) freeway speeds while direct third starts to sound rather busy over 50 mph (80 km/h).
For 1937, Lincoln lowered prices a bit for the carryover coupe sedan and four-door sedan while adding two new body styles: a three-passenger coupe and a town limousine with center divider window. Again, buyers strongly preferred the four-door sedan, which accounted for more than 75% of the nearly 30,000 Zephyrs sold for the model year — by a substantial margin the best Lincoln had ever done. The limousine accounted for only 139 of those sales and its introduction appears to have been mainly a sign of the continuing decline of the big Model K, which now sported Zephyr-like headlights that didn’t quite suit its more traditional shape. Zephyr-like lights and a Zephyr-like grille also appeared on the 1937 Ford.
The Lincoln-Zephyr was good for Briggs, which made the body stampings and handled the welding, paint, and trim, with the Lincoln plant then performing final mechanical assembly. The profits from the Zephyr in the late thirties probably helped to balance a continuing decline in Briggs’ Ford business. While the companies’ relationship improved after the Zephyr’s development (Briggs designers styled the 1935 and 1936 Fords), Ford now turned to outside body companies only for body styles that were either too complicated or sold in too small numbers to be economically produced at the Rouge.
AN ACCIDENTAL FASHION TREND
By this time, Lincoln had gotten an earful from owners and dealers about the Zephyr’s overheating problems. Frank Johnson asked Bob Gregorie if the stylists could come up with some way to provide better radiator exposure. Gregorie considered the problem and had an inspiration: Turning the radiator on its side and adding a grille on either side of the nose would greatly improve radiator exposure without spoiling the Zephyr’s prow-like nose.
Stylist Dick Beneicke applied this idea to good effect, creating a handsome new front-end treatment for the 1938 Zephyr that featured “catwalks” along the sides of the nose and twin quarter moon grilles. At the same time, the headlights were now fully submerged in the front fenders and wheelbase was also stretched 3 inches (76 mm), which combined with the new nose and revised rear fenders to add 7.5 inches (190 mm) to the Zephyr’s overall length. This added weight (about 75 lb/34 kg for the four-door sedan), but improved the Zephyr’s proportions, making it look even sleeker than before. A convertible coupe and a four-door convertible sedan were new additions to the lineup, although their sales were disappointing.
The Zephyr’s new face was an unexpected sensation and even Harley Earl was allegedly gobsmacked the first time he saw it. Many automakers at the time were very attached to the traditional upright radiator grille as a point of visual identification — Packard’s sales organization had already seized on the Zephyr’s lack of a consistent grille design as a point of attack — and buyers had not reacted well to past departures from orthodoxy like the aforementioned Packard Light Eight or 1934 Airflow. However, the Lincoln-Zephyr’s dual grilles were quite attractive, making the car look wider and lower, but still recognizably a Zephyr. Low-and-wide grille treatments of various kinds soon became the fashion in Detroit.
With such acclaim, one might have expected the 1938 Zephyr to sell better than ever, but the U.S. economy, which had been steadily improving for several years, had slipped back into recession, leading to sharp declines in new car sales. Ford’s sales, for example, fell more than 50% for the 1938 calendar year. Perhaps the clearest sign of the positive reception for the new styling was that Zephyr sales declined less than most: around 35%, to around 19,000.
Nonetheless, the Lincoln-Zephyr had now outlived the Airflow, which expired after the 1937 model year, and still managed to outsell the similarly priced LaSalle and the 1938 Packard Eight (nee One-Twenty, a one-year-only name change). The Model K Lincoln, meanwhile, sold only 416 units and was clearly dying. It would cease production in 1939, although leftovers were still available into 1940. Even so, Lincoln outsold Cadillac by two to one for the second year in a row.
According to Bob Gregorie, the strength of the Zephyr was also a factor in the decision to create the first Mercury, development of which began toward the end of the 1937 model year. At this stage, there was no mechanical or sales relationship between Lincoln and Mercury (that would come later), but the success of the Zephyr indicated that Ford could be successful outside the low-priced field and strengthened Edsel’s argument that Ford needed an additional line to bridge the gap between the most expensive Ford and the cheapest Lincoln-Zephyr, which in 1937 amounted to about $400. The first Mercury 8 was launched in late 1938 as a 1939 model.
Zephyr sales improved about 10% for 1939, although Lincoln would not approach its 1937 peak again until the early 1950s. The 1939 Zephyr had some additional cosmetic changes, including concealed running boards and a newly optional custom interior package with brighter colors and color-matched trim, as well as a few important mechanical ones, including the belated adoption of hydraulic brakes. Lincoln’s most significant development for 1939 was something more personal: the first Continental.
THE BIRTH OF THE CONTINENTAL
With all the adulation the Lincoln Continental has subsequently received, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it was originally just a moderately customized Lincoln-Zephyr, the latest in a series of personal cars that Bob Gregorie designed for Edsel Ford during this era. We’ve discussed the Continental’s predecessors in our article on Edsel’s 1934 Speedster, so we won’t recap them here, but suffice it to say the Continental was at least the fourth in the series.
The previous one-offs that Gregorie had done for Edsel were Ford-based and Edsel and Gregorie initially considered basing the latest car on either a Ford or Mercury. The main reason they did not was that it would disrupt the normal production lines, something that Edsel knew would antagonize Sorensen. Edsel’s 1934 Speedster had been built by the now-defunct Aircraft Division, but that option no longer existed by the fall of 1938, when Edsel and Gregorie started talking about doing another personal car.
Gregorie pointed out that with the imminent demise of the Model K, there would shortly be an unused bay at the Lincoln factory at West Warren and Livernois Avenues where a one-off car could be assembled without involving the Ford production people. Edsel agreed, so Gregorie retrieved the blueprint for the Zephyr and spent a half hour or so sketching out changes. Edsel was happy with the results — by this time, Gregorie had a keen understanding of his boss’s tastes — so Gregorie had modeler Gene Adams create a 1/10th-scale model. Gregorie later recalled that the model so pleased Edsel that he actually cracked a smile, a rare breach of his normal reserve. Gregorie’s chief draftsman then used the model and Gregorie’s sketches to prepare full-size production drawings.
The starting point for the Continental was a Zephyr convertible coupe, which was sectioned to lower the beltline about 3 inches (76 mm). The seats and steering column were repositioned to match. The running boards were removed, the windshield was pushed aft, the hood lengthened, and the doors fitted with slim chrome window surrounds like those of the new Mercury. The rear deck was shortened and squared off and the spare mounted externally. The only mechanical change was a new air cleaner, necessary to clear the lower hood.
Because the car was designed shortly after Edsel returned from a trip abroad and was called a Continental, it’s popularly assumed that its styling was influenced by European coachwork, a notion Gregorie himself found somewhat puzzling. Automotive writer Griff Borgeson later argued that the Continental design cues — a close-coupled two-door fixed-head or convertible coupe with long-hood/short-deck proportions, a top with blind rear quarters, and a rear-mounted external spare — actually constituted a well-established body style dating back at least to the early twenties. Some examples of that style were even called called Continentals, e.g., the Waterhouse-designed Continental Coupe body offered in 1932 for the Stutz SV16 and DV32. Gregorie’s own remarks on the matter are consistent with Borgeson’s conclusion that the Continental was not a radical European concept, but a straightforward interpretation of a relatively familiar and predominantly (though not exclusively) American theme.
The customized Lincoln was painted Edsel’s favorite shade of gunmetal gray and delivered to him the following March in Hobe Sound, Florida, where Edsel and his family vacationed. In practical terms, the car left much to be desired — the unaltered engine had to cope with hundreds of extra pounds of lead filler, cowl shake was excessive, and the seams where the body had been sectioned leaked in the rain — but the styling was an unqualified hit with the Treasure Coast upper crust.
Understandably pleased, Edsel called Gregorie from Florida and asked him to do a second car that could serve as the prototype for a limited-production model. Gregorie had a second car built, this one painted yellow, which he subsequently retained for his own use. The production version received formal authorization in April. Later that year, Ford sales boss Jack Davis delivered the first production car to actor Mickey Rooney on the MGM Studios lot in Los Angeles.
Initially, the Continental was available only as a cabriolet, although Lincoln created a coupe in April 1940 by the simple expedient of adding a permanent steel top to the cabriolet body. Only 54 coupes were built in 1940 along with 350 cabriolets. Ford didn’t authorize regular body tooling until the 1941 model year, so early series-production Continentals were built more or less by hand and were probably not profitable despite their $2,840 list price, a sum that in 1940 was enough to buy a regular Zephyr convertible coupe and a Ford De Luxe Tudor sedan.
However, the Continental helped to fill the gap left by the departure of the Model K and gave Lincoln its own style leader to match Cadillac’s popular (albeit cheaper) Sixty Special. Continental owners included luminaries like architect Frank Lloyd Wright and designer Raymond Loewy, each of whom converted his Continental into a singularly ugly de ville. (Lloyd Wright’s car, customized after it was damaged in an accident, had no backlight at all and featured curious half-moon rear quarter windows.)