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 so 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 a 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)

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.

1936 Lincoln-Zephyr sedan grille © 2007 Pat McLaughlin per
Ford design director Bob Gregorie’s principal contribution to the original Zephyr’s design was the grille, although Gregorie and Briggs stylist Holden (Bob) Koto also refined various exterior and interior details. (Photo © 2007 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

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.

LINCOLN ZEPHYR

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.

1936 Lincoln-Zephyr sedan front 3q © 2007 Pat McLaughlin per
The original Lincoln-Zephyr was 202.5 inches (5,145 mm) long and 70.5 inches (1,790 mm) wide on a 122-inch (3,100mm) wheelbase. Curb weights were in the 3,500 to 3,550 lb (1,580 to 1,610 kg) range. (Photo © 2007 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

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.)

1936 Lincoln-Zephyr sedan rear 3q © 2007 Pat McLaughlin per
From this angle, the Zephyr does look a little like the later Volkswagen Beetle, although we’re skeptical about assertions that the Beetle was inspired by the Zephyr. Ferdinand Porsche and Erwin Komenda did see and comment favorably on Tjaarda’s mock-up and the production Zephyr, but we think it’s more accurate to say that both Tjaarda and Porsche drew on contemporary European developments from the likes of Paul Jaray and Tatra’s Hans Ledwinka, among others — as evidenced by Porsche’s 1931–32 Zundapp and NSU “people’s car” prototypes, which were created before any of Tjaarda’s Sterkenburg concepts were shown publicly. (Photo © 2007 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

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.

1939 Lincoln-Zephyr four-door sedan
All four-door Zephyrs (and 1946–48 Lincoln sedans) had rear “suicide” doors. Note the high seats, one of the benefits of the low floor permitted by the semi-unitized construction. Originally, the seats had chrome frames much like those of the early Airflow, but these were deleted in 1938. (author photo)

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.

1939 Lincoln-Zephyr 4dr-sedan trunk
The Zephyr’s luggage space was reasonably good, but on early cars, the trunk was only accessible from inside the passenger compartment. On 1936 Zephyrs, lifting the decklid revealed only the spare tire. Starting in 1937, the spare was mounted on this fold-out bracket, although getting at the cargo area was still awkward. (author photo)

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.

1937 Lincoln-Zephyr three-passenger coupe © 2007 Pat McLaughlin per
Probably intended as a price leader, the three-passenger Lincoln-Zephyr coupe initially had a list price under $1,100, although this was raised early in the year to $1,165. Note the new grille, one of the major exterior styling changes for 1937. (Photo © 2007 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

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.

1937 Lincoln Model K convertible © 2011 Pat McLaughlin per
You could have had four Lincoln-Zephyr sedans for the price of this 1937 Model K convertible roadster by LeBaron, which was probably why only 25 examples of this body style were sold between 1937 and 1939. The Model K featured a 414 cu. in. (6,787 cc) V-12 with 150 hp (112 kW), although with a curb weight in the neighborhood of 5,700 lb (2,585 kg), performance was more dignified than brisk. (Photo © 2011 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

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.

1938 Lincoln-Zephyr convertible front 3q © 2009 John Lloyd CC-BY 2.0 Generic (modified by Aaron Severson)
A 1938 Zephyr convertible coupe shows off its new dual-grille nose. John Tjaarda’s early drawings for the Zephyr included a convertible version, but he said later that Ford decided the convertible didn’t have enough market potential to be worthwhile. Open body styles were belatedly introduced to the Zephyr line in 1938, but always sold poorly. (Photo: “Zephyr” © 2009 John Lloyd; resized and modified 2013 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

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.

1938 Lincoln-Zephyr convertible sedan front 3q © 2011 Pat McLaughlin per
In addition to the convertible coupe, the Lincoln-Zephyr catalog in 1938–39 included a four-door convertible sedan. Four-door convertibles were on their way out by the late thirties and the convertible sedan’s sales were dismal. Fewer than 800 were built before the model was dropped in 1939. This rare survivor has been modified extensively to accommodate a disabled driver. (Photo © 2011 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

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.

1939 Lincoln-Zephyr four-door sedan front
Although the 1938 grille theme was adopted to improve radiator airflow, the new nose was apparently not a complete solution to the Zephyr’s overheating problems. Lincoln subsequently enlarged the grille openings twice: first in 1939 and again in 1941. (author photo)

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.

1939 Lincoln-Zephyr four-door sedan dashboard
Lincoln-Zephyrs had a centrally mounted instrument panel from 1937 to 1939, perhaps to facilitate production of right-hand-drive models. By the end of 1939, most potential RHD markets were at war, so later models once again put the instrument panel on the left in front of the driver. The 1938 and 1939 Zephyr’s shifter emerged from the center stack rather than the floor, but Lincoln didn’t adopt the increasingly popular column shifter until 1940. Note the dual glove boxes, a useful touch. (author photo)

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.

1939 Lincoln-Zephyr four-door sedan instrument panel
Most of the many iterations of the Zephyr’s instrument panel are very attractive, with a lot of Streamline Moderne detailing. However, they aren’t the most legible and the obsession with symmetry is sometimes taken to extremes. (author photo)

1940 Lincoln-Zephyr dashboard © 2011 Pat McLaughlin per
Now mounted directly in front of the driver, the instruments of the 1940 Lincoln-Zephyr dashboard are considerably easier to read, albeit no less stylish than before. However, the fascination with symmetry is still evident. What looks like a second clock on the passenger side of the dash is actually an ashtray. (Photo © 2011 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

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.

1939 Lincoln Continental rear 3q © 2011 Pat McLaughlin per
This is no ordinary Lincoln Continental, but Edsel Ford’s original converted 1939 car. (It was originally painted gunmetal gray, Edsel’s favorite color.) Note the lack of even vestigial running boards and the exposed spare. Edsel’s car did not have the body-color cover that production models provided for the spare tire. (Photo © 2011 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

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.

1939 Lincoln Continental front 3q © 2011 Pat McLaughlin per
Since Edsel’s car was based on a 1939 Lincoln-Zephyr, it lacks sealed-beam headlights, which were included on all production models. Note the absence of the 1939 Zephyr’s standard “catwalks,” removed when the hood was sectioned. (Photo © 2011 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

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.

1940 Lincoln Continental cabriolet front 3q © 2009 Pat McLaughlin per
A 1940 Lincoln Continental shows off its elongated hood and front fenders, which are about 7 inches (178 mm) longer than the standard Lincoln-Zephyr’s. The deletion of the Zephyr’s catwalks also makes the early Continental look unusually clean for an upmarket car of this era, but according to Gregorie, that was as much a matter of necessity as aesthetics; Lincoln simply had no budget for the extra tooling new trim pieces would have required. Note the new sealed-beam headlights, added to all 1940 Zephyrs, including the Continental. (Photo © 2009 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

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.)

1940 Lincoln Continental cabriolet rear 3q © 2009 Pat McLaughlin per
The Continental’s trunk and rear deck were reshaped to achieve the desired long-nose/short-tail proportions, with a new decklid to provide a semblance of luggage access despite the external spare. The body-covered spare tire cover was added to all production Continentals, presumably for a tidier appearance. (Photo © 2009 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

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.

AFTERWORD

John Tjaarda remained at Briggs/LeBaron at least until the late thirties, sometimes effectively running the design studio while design chief Ralph Roberts was out of the country. Tjaarda still hoped to see broader application of his Sterkenburg concepts, developing a scaled-down version that he promoted as a “world car” in hopes of appealing to European manufacturers (Chrysler did the same thing with an abortive scaled-down Airflow around the same time). There were no takers and the war in Europe finally put the project on the shelf permanently. After the war, Tjaarda left the auto industry and settled on a farm in Romeo, Michigan. He died in 1962, a few years before many of his ideas became popular for racing use.

Bob Gregorie returned to Ford in 1944 at the request of Henry Ford II, but was never entirely comfortable with the company’s new leadership, particularly following new executive vice president Ernest R. Breech’s decision to subordinate styling to engineering chief Harold T. Youngren. In late 1946, not long after the rejection of Gregorie’s second proposal for the 1949 Ford (his team’s original design having become a Mercury instead), Gregorie resigned to pursue non-automotive design work. He died in 2002.

Walter Briggs died in January 1952 at the age of 74. The following December, his family sold their interests in the company — including all of Briggs’ factories and the LeBaron name — to Chrysler.

1940 Lincoln Continental cabriolet side with Cord © 2009 Pat McLaughlin per
Unlike the Zephyr, the Lincoln Continental’s capital-C Classic status has never really wavered, although the Continental was really just a customized Zephyr (and one about whose aesthetics we must confess to having rather mixed feelings). Here, an early production Continental sits near another Classic of the same period, a Cord 810/812 cabriolet. (Photo © 2009 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

Over the years, the Lincoln-Zephyr has acquired a rather mixed reputation, sometimes being demoted to a sort of footnote in the history of the Continental. However, even if the Continental had never existed, the Zephyr would still be a great success by most standards. It sold well, saved Lincoln from going the way of Peerless and Duesenberg, was stylistically very influential, and demonstrated that buyers were not categorically adverse to aerodynamic design if it was attractively presented. In 1951, the Zephyr was even selected as one of eight cars exhibited at New York’s prestigious Museum of Modern Art alongside luminaries like the Cord 812 and Mercedes SS.

The main reason for the Zephyr’s diminished status is probably the V-12 engine, whose problems were never addressed as quickly or as thoroughly as they should have been. Even at its best, it lacked the silken refinement of its V-12 predecessors, sounding and feeling more like a Ford V-8 than a premium engine. Over the years, a lot of Zephyr V-12s ended up on the scrap heap in favor of less exotic but more reliable V-8s — either Ford or Mercury flatheads or postwar OHV engines. That’s understandable but unfortunate; the idea of a “small” V-12 in a car like this is very intriguing.

1939 Lincoln-Zephyr four-sedan front 3q
For our money, the 1938–1941 Lincoln-Zephyrs are the most attractive of the breed. Heretical as it may sound, we find them better-looking than the Continental in most respects. This lovely and well-kept example, a 1939 Zephyr four-door sedan, remains very much as it left the factory more than 70 years ago. Even the rubber door and trunk seals are original and still remarkably supple. (author photo)

Aside from the engine, we suspect Zephyr’s image has also suffered from its Ford-derived running gear and the stigma associated with many of the luxury brands’ early forays into cheaper territory. However, if its solid axles and transverse leaf springs were far from cutting edge, they at least worked well, which can’t be said for many contemporary ventures into new technology. In any event, the Zephyr was hardly a dressed-up Ford DeLuxe, as one ride in the Lincoln will quickly confirm.

We find the Zephyr quite appealing. If it doesn’t have the presence of a big Packard, it’s nonetheless handsome, comfortable, surprisingly solid, and beautifully detailed inside and out. It’s also an interesting glimpse of the sort of direction the Ford Motor Company might have gone had Edsel Ford possessed the sort of influence his title suggested: not exactly radical, but forward-thinking, open to new ideas, and executed with impeccable taste.

# # #

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to thank Roger Morrison for the opportunity to see and ride in his amazingly original 1939 Lincoln-Zephyr sedan (and to see his collection of Capehart automatic phonographs, which are a wonder). Special thanks are also due to Bob Nichols and Pat McLaughlin for the use of their photos, without which this article would have been substantially more difficult — we had been about ready to postpone it to a later date!


NOTES ON SOURCES

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Norbye, “Half-Hour History of Unit Bodies,” Special Interest Autos #18 (August-October 1973): 24–29, 54; Jim O’Clair, “Columbia two-speed rears,” Hemmings Motor News June 2006; Howard Payne, letter to the editor, Hemmings Classic Car #87, December 2011, p. 42; “Presenting for 1942 … The Finest Lincolns Ever Built!” [advertisement] 29 January 1941, reprinted at www.curbsideclassic. com/ automotive-histories/ automotive-history-lincolns-liquamatic- drive-failure-to-upshift/, accessed 19 June 2013; Productioncars.com, Book of Automobile Production and Sales Figures, 1945-2005 (N.p.: 2006); Railtoln Owners Club, “History of Cars,” n.d., railton. org/category/ history, accessed 1 January 2017; Satch Reed, “Lincoln Zephyr,” Second Chance Garage, www.secondchancegarage. com, accessed 19 May 2013; C.J. Riley, The Golden Age of Passenger Trains (New York: MetroBooks, 1997); Graham Robson and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Volkswagen Chronicle (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1996); Frederick C. Russell, “The Lowdown on 1942 Cars,” Mechanix Illustrated December 1941: 69–73, 153–157; Alfred P. Sloan with John McDonald, My Years with General Motors (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964); “The New for 1939 Lincoln Zephyr” [Lincoln-Zephyr brochure], Lincoln Motor Company, Form 7033, October 1938; Mark Theobald, “Briggs Mfg. Co.,” “Budd Co.,” and “John Tjaarda van Sterkenburg,” Coachbuilt, 2004, www.coachbuilt. com, accessed 19 May 2013; Tom Tjaarda, “I Remember My Father,” Special Interest Autos #10 (April-May 1972): 50–53; and “Your new ride is waiting,” [Lincoln-Zephyr brochure], Lincoln Motor Company, Form 7749, December 1937.


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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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