Like the Wind: The Lincoln Zephyr and Continental

THE LAST PREWAR ZEPHYRS

All 1940 Lincoln-Zephyrs got yet another facelift that included bigger windows, sealed-beam headlights — recently introduced and shortly to become standard on all U.S. cars — and a new dashboard with a column shifter and the instrument cluster in front of the driver. To compensate for the Zephyr’s steadily increasing weight and ever-more-powerful competition, the HV-12 was bored out to 292 cu. in. (4,787 cc), bringing output to 120 gross horsepower (89 kW) and 220 lb-ft (298 N-m) of torque. The slow-selling convertible sedan and town sedan were dropped, although there were a few Brunn-bodied town cars, mostly for senior Ford executives.

1941 Lincoln Continental coupe front 3q © 2011 Pat McLaughlin per
A 1941 Lincoln Continental coupe shows off its distinctive hardtop roof, not shared with any Zephyr. Note the fender-mounted parking lights, common to all 1941 Lincolns, and the pushbutton door handles, a Continental exclusive. Like all ’41 Continentals, this car wears “Lincoln Continental” badges; it’s no longer identified as a Zephyr. (Photo © 2011 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

The 1941 Zephyr differed only in minor details, the most obvious being the relocation of the parking lamps to atop the front fenders. The major mechanical changes were slightly wider wheels, a vacuum-operated power top for the convertible coupe, and the availability of Borg-Warner overdrive, which could be fitted either lieu of or in addition to the two-speed axle. (The usefulness of ordering both was unclear unless you were planning to enter an economy run, as at least one Zephyr owner did in 1941.) The Continental, no longer badged as a Zephyr, also added pushbutton outside door locks, vacuum-operated power windows, and, on cabriolets, a power top.

Since the Model K was now well and truly dead, the Zephyr was no longer a junior car but the mainstream Lincoln. For 1941, Lincoln also added a pair of long-wheelbase Custom models, a sedan and a limousine, loosely comparable to Cadillac’s Series 75 formal cars. Both Customs were 225.3 inches (5,720 mm) long on a 138-inch (3,505mm) wheelbase, created by mixing and matching doors and other components from the standard cars. Total 1941 Custom production amounted to only 650 units, although that was still better than the Model K’s final two years combined.

1941 Lincoln Custom side © 2011 Pat McLaughlin per
A long-wheelbase 1941 Lincoln Custom. Why did the Custom have a 138-inch (3,505mm) wheelbase? Historian Jesse Haines suspects it was because the optional Borg-Warner overdrive unit was exactly 13 inches (330 mm) long, so Customs with overdrive could share the same driveshaft as non-overdrive-equipped standard-wheelbase cars. If that was indeed the primary rationale, we don’t know why Lincoln didn’t make overdrive compulsory on the long-wheelbase models, which as far as we can determine it was not. (Photo © 2011 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

Lincoln comfortably outsold Cadillac again in 1940, but although Lincoln sales held steady in 1941, Cadillac moved ahead by a comfortable margin. Cadillac’s attractive new styling may have been partly responsible, but a more likely reason was that Cadillac had terminated the LaSalle marque while introducing a comparably priced Cadillac Series 61 line. At the same time, Series 62 prices were cut more by more than $200, making both the Series 61 and 62 lines directly competitive with the Zephyr.

Nonetheless, the Zephyr did beat Packard’s One-Twenty in 1941 despite the Packard’s significantly lower prices, which in some cases undercut a comparable Lincoln’s by $200 or more. Lincoln’s V-12 may have been a sales advantage, whatever the engine’s problems. Cadillac and Packard’s multicylinder engines were all gone by 1941 and rivals like Auburn and Marmon had perished years earlier.

THE FINAL FACELIFT

The 1942 Lincoln line, launched less than 10 weeks before America entered the war already raging in Europe and the Pacific, introduced the final iteration of the original Zephyr design. The bridge-and-truss structure was retained, but the body was extensively revised, enough so that some sources describe it as all new. The ’42 was substantially longer and wider than before, with larger doors and windows, and its weight increased by as much as 230 lb (104 kg).

1942 Lincoln Continental coupe front 3q © 2011 Pat McLaughlin per
All standard-wheelbase 1942 Lincolns were 8.7 inches (222 mm) longer and about 4 inches (102 mm) wider) than the 1941s and had a 3.5-inch (89mm) wider front track. The 1942 models were also about an inch (25 mm) lower, thanks to a switch from 16- to 15-inch wheels. (Photo © 2011 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

The styling made the new Lincolns look even bigger than they were, with boxy fenders, heavier bumpers, and a more conventional profile than before. The earlier Zephyr’s sleek lines were largely gone and in appearance, the 1942 could easily have been a contemporary GM car. (In fact, some of the clays for the aborted 1941 LaSalle were broadly similar, including an inverted T-shaped grille theme.) We assume that the redesign was driven by commercial pressure, since Gregorie often said that Edsel Ford hated visual bulk and fussy detailing and the 1942 Lincolns had an abundance of both. Admittedly, by 1941 the Zephyr’s original design was six years old and the Streamline Moderne look was a little passé, but the new cars looked less graceful and more ordinary than they actually were.

The revised styling was accompanied by some significant mechanical developments. To cope with the additional weight, the HV-12 was bored out to 305 cu. in. (4,998 cc), giving 130 hp (97 kW) and 235 lb-ft (319 N-m) of torque despite a slight reduction in compression ratio. The previous aluminum heads were traded for cast iron, probably due to new government restrictions on strategic materials, but the engine’s lubrication system was belatedly upgraded with revised oil passages and a more powerful oil pump. While this at least partially mitigated one of the engine’s persistent issues, the bored-out engine’s cylinder walls were now thin enough to create new problems, both on the production line and in service.

Even more problematic was Liquamatic, Lincoln’s hastily concocted response to GM’s Hydra-Matic, which had been introduced as an option for Cadillacs in 1941. Introduced in October 1941 and also offered on 1942 Mercurys, Liquamatic was a semiautomatic transmission combining a conventional clutch with a fluid coupling and an electrically controlled, vacuum-operated three-speed gearbox rigged to allow automatic shifts between second and third. On Lincolns, this was combined with Borg-Warner overdrive, giving, depending on your perspective, either three or six forward speeds. (Theoretically, the overdrive would function in all forward gears, but in practice, you got no more than two shifts either up or down.) Low gear could only be selected manually.

1942 Lincoln Continental coupe front 3q © 2011 Pat McLaughlin per
For 1942, Continentals of course retained their external spare tire mounts, but Zephyrs now carried their spares beneath the trunk floor, allowing easier luggage access. The green car visible behind the Continental’s tail is a 1941 Lincoln Zephyr. (Photo © 2011 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

As with comparable semiautomatic setups offered by other manufacturers in this period, Liquamatic was a belt-and-braces arrangement whose complexity outweighed its convenience. It was also expensive, listing for $189 where Cadillac buyers could specify the fully automatic Hydra-Matic for only $135. Worse, Liquamatic was underdeveloped and unreliable. Only a few hundred were sold and dealers converted many back to conventional transmissions with overdrive. Surviving examples are now very rare.

Had it not been for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Liquamatic’s problems might eventually have been sorted, but civilian automotive production was halted by federal order in early 1942. The last prewar Lincolns were completed on January 31. As a result, Lincoln production totaled only about 6,500 units for the model year, including 336 Continentals.

POSTWAR ENCORE

Development of a next-generation Lincoln began around 1941 and continued on and off after the war began and Ford converted to military production. According to Bob Gregorie, the eventual postwar Mercury designs closely reflect the styling themes originally planned for Lincoln, which included both fastback rooflines and integrated fenders. There was also to be a closer relationship between Lincoln and Mercury in both styling and structure, including the introduction of a junior Lincoln intended to fill the gap between the two brands.

1947 Lincoln convertible front 3q © 2011 Pat McLaughlin per
Postwar standard Lincolns, no longer called Zephyrs, had a new grille and various detail changes, although they were still basically continuations of the 1942 Zephyr line. Convertible coupes were available until the end of production in early 1948 and seem to have been preserved in disproportionate numbers, but were always very rare when new. Total drophead production barely amounted to one good year’s worth of four-door sedans. (Photo © 2011 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

Most of the design work was done by the spring of 1943, but the development was interrupted by the illness and death of Edsel Ford, who passed away on May 26 at the age of 49. Gregorie was subsequently fired and the plans he and Edsel had originally envisioned for the postwar cars underwent many changes under the company’s new administration.

Lincoln returned to civilian production in September 1945. For the most part, the 1946 Lincolns were warmed-over 1942 models with minor styling changes, although the three-window coupes and long-wheelbase Customs were dropped, perhaps to streamline production — materials were still in short supply, so it made sense to concentrate on the most popular styles. The engine reverted to its 1941 displacement and compression ratio, now giving 125 hp (93 kW) and 214 lb-ft (290 N-m) of torque. Durability was apparently still not the V-12’s strong suit, so there were further changes to the oil system a few months into production.

Postwar Lincoln dashboard
Postwar Lincoln dashboards were also similar to the 1942 version and singularly ornate even by the standards of the period. Note the column-mounted shifter, adopted in 1940, which Lincoln advertised as the Finger-Tip Gearshift. (Photo © 2011 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

Another casualty of the war was the Zephyr name, which was used by Ford in other markets, but didn’t resurface in the U.S. until 1978 — and then for Mercury, not Lincoln. We’re not sure why; Gregorie said the original plan called for the Lincoln-Zephyr name to be applied to the new junior Lincoln. Standard 1946 cars were simply called “Lincoln,” although the Continental remained available in both coupe and cabriolet form. Also discarded on postwar cars was the Liquamatic transmission. Lincoln wouldn’t have a fully automatic transmission until 1950 and even then, they had to rely on GM Hydra-Matics until 1955.

Still, in the immediate postwar sales rush, none of that made a lot of difference. Buyers, desperate for new cars and flush with cash, didn’t even balk at prices that were now over 40% higher than before the war. Sales for 1946 were more than 16,000 units and probably would have been higher if Lincoln-Mercury (the two brands were formally combined into a single division in late 1945) had been able to build more cars. As it was, Ford was hampered by materials shortages, outside labor problems, and production quotas. Sales for 1947 topped 21,000, about the same as Lincoln’s prewar volume, and a further 7,769 cars were built for the short 1948 model year. Production ended in early 1948 as Lincoln prepared for the launch of the all-new 1949 models, which bowed on April 22.

Postwar Lincoln Continental cabriolet front © 2009 Pat McLaughlin per
There was originally supposed to be an all-new 1949 Lincoln Continental, but that plan was shelved during Ford’s postwar reorganization under the new administration of executive vice president Ernest R. Breech. The Continental, of course, would return in 1956 as the Continental Mark II, but Lincoln has yet to offer another 12-cylinder production car. (Photo © 2009 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

The 1949 Lincolns ended up being considerably more orthodox than the Zephyr. As late as the summer of 1946, plans still called for unit construction and a V-12 engine, but both were eventually dropped in favor of conventional body-on-frame construction and a big 90-degree V-8, essentially a scaled-up flathead Ford engine also used in heavy-duty trucks. As with other new Fords, Lincoln’s transverse leaf springs and solid axles were dropped in favor of independent front suspension and Hotchkiss drive. The new models were no prizes aesthetically and suffered a multitude of teething problems, but sold reasonably well anyway. However, it would be many years before Lincoln again presented any great sales threat to Cadillac or started any industry trends.

17 Comments

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  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.

  10. Brough Superior was a motor cycle, I doubt they used a Lincoln engine!
    Otherwise very interesting reading, thanks.
    jp

    1. They also built a small number of very expensive cars between 1935 and 1939. On further investigation, it appears the Lincoln-powered model was a single prototype rather than something built in any kind of series. (My admittedly cursory research on this point when I originally wrote the article was unclear on how many there may have been, although it was obvious that there weren’t many.)

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