Although Lincoln’s earliest cars were dismissed as homely, in the decades to come, it would spawn some of the most respected and memorable designs in the automotive industry. This week, we take a look at one of Lincoln’s finest stylistic achievements, the elegant and understated 1961–1963 Lincoln Continental.
When Henry Martyn Leland first conceived the Lincoln automobile in 1919, he declared that his goal was to build the world’s finest motor car. Astute readers will note, however, that he said nothing about building a beautiful car. While the engineering and workmanship of the early Lincoln left little to be desired, its lackluster styling contributed to mediocre sales, which hastened the company’s descent into receivership in 1921 and subsequent purchase by the Ford Motor Company.
By the late 1930s, with the Leland-engineered Lincoln Model L gone and the subsequent Model K fading away, the situation had been reversed. Hobbled by Henry Ford’s penury and eccentricity, Lincolns now lagged the industry in many areas of engineering. The popular Lincoln-Zephyr line had relatively advanced semi-unitary construction, but it was saddled with Ford’s traditional beam-axle front suspension and a troublesome flathead V-12 engine whose unhappy reputation would probably have made the perfectionist Henry Leland contemplate ritual suicide. On the other hand, thanks to the taste and refinement of Lincoln president Edsel Ford, Lincolns had exceptional styling — even trumping GM’s Harley Earl with advanced features like integrated headlamps.
Edsel’s finest aesthetic achievement was the Continental. Styled by E.T. (Bob) Gregorie, it was essentially a tastefully customized 1939 Zephyr created for the personal use of Edsel Ford. Although intended as a one-off, it soon attracted the attention of Edsel’s well-heeled friends, who inquired how they could get one of their own. The Continental was introduced as a production model in 1940. Sold in very limited numbers, it was nonetheless widely admired, with fans that included noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright. A heavy-handed facelift spoiled the looks in 1942, but the Continental survived until 1948 and remains among the only postwar cars to be acclaimed a true Classic by the Classic Car Club of America.
Edsel died in 1943 and two years later, his son, Henry Ford II, assumed control of Ford Motor Company, which was by then in very dire straits. Limited resources and organizational chaos led to odd-looking, half-hearted late-forties Lincolns that excelled neither mechanically nor stylistically.
THE CONTINENTAL MARK II
In 1955, Ford decided to revive the Continental, this time transforming it into its own separate marque, distinct from Lincoln. The result was the 1956–1957 Continental Mark II, a low-slung two-door hardtop coupe with a finely detailed interior. The Mark II was widely considered a stylistic triumph, hailed as a welcome break from the typical ostentation of the period. Except for its rather contrived decklid hump (an homage to the original Continental’s exposed spare wheel), the Mark II was understated and elegant. Its engineering was again very conventional, but it was a monument to refined taste that Edsel Ford would likely have approved.
Alas, the Mark II’s critical adulation did not translate into sales success. Sales for the two years were fewer than 1,800 and Ford lost about $1,000 on each one. The Mark II was discontinued after only two model years and its successor, the 1958 Continental Mark III, was little more than a lavishly trimmed, over-decorated version of the standard Lincoln. The Continental division, which had never really gotten off the ground, was shuttered in July 1956 and rolled into Lincoln-Mercury division.
Lincoln itself nearly went the same way. Its 1950s sales had never been terribly impressive and its 1958 models were an expensive flop. Lincoln’s losses for 1958–1960 ultimately totaled around $60 million and that did not include the losses of the Continental division or of Edsel, which was rolled into a new Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln division in January 1958.
THE FASHION CONSCIOUSNESS OF ROBERT MCNAMARA
Automotive historians love to repeat the conventional wisdom that Robert McNamara was oblivious to styling and thought all cars should be boxy and utilitarian, like the compact Ford Falcon. That characterization is not really supported by the recollections of Ford stylists of the era, including Bill Boyer, John Najjar, and Gene Bordinat. It’s certainly true that McNamara lacked a sophisticated understanding of automotive design; according to Najjar, the designers often had to educate McNamara on the technical aspects of their craft. McNamara also had a distaste for unprofitable, limited-production halo cars like the Continental Mark II. Nevertheless, former senior stylist Elwood Engel later noted that McNamara was surprisingly style-conscious; some of the products McNamara championed proved to be highly influential stylistic milestones. In fact, McNamara’s style consciousness helped to save Lincoln from the chopping block.
Earlier in the year, Elwood Engel, the head of Ford’s advanced design studio — a narrow basement room that stylist Colin Neale dubbed “the stiletto studio” — had been working on an alternative concept for the 1961 Ford Thunderbird. Thunderbird styling was ordinarily the purview of chief Ford division stylist Joe Oros, but at the time, a ferocious debate was taking place over the T-Bird’s future styling direction. Oros and Engel’s boss, styling VP George Walker, favored a more upscale, luxurious theme, but Ford general manager Jim Wright wanted to return to the sportier flair of the early “Little Bird.”
Walker compromised by exploring both ideas. He ordered Oros to work on a sporty T-Bird for Wright, but also authorized Engel to develop a more formal version as a potential alternative. When models of both concepts were presented to the corporate Product Planning Committee in July 1958, Oros’ sporty design (primarily the work of Alex Tremulis) got the production nod, but almost everyone was impressed by Engel’s version, which built on an earlier Lincoln proposal by designers John Orfe and Howard Payne and may also have taken some influence from the recently released P3 Taunus 17M, from Ford’s German subsidiary.
McNamara was not present for that meeting, but visited Engel’s studio a week or so later and was very impressed by the full-size clay model of Engel’s rejected Thunderbird proposal. The model gave McNamara a brainstorm: the possibility of transforming the design from a two-door hardtop into a four-door sedan — not for Ford, but for Lincoln. As it happened, Lincoln-Mercury general manager Ben Mills had already had a similar idea and the version of the model McNamara saw included several changes Mills had requested toward that end.
At that time, McNamara was extremely displeased with Lincoln’s dismal sales and the lackluster design already approved for 1961. He was prepared to terminate the brand outright rather than continue to lose money on it. After a lengthy debate with Mills, McNamara agreed that Lincoln would be reprieved, at least temporarily, if Engel could make his Thunderbird concept into a viable four-door sedan.
FROM THUNDERBIRD TO CONTINENTAL
Engel’s original design had been a two-door hardtop coupe, about the same size as the 1961 Ford Thunderbird: 205 inches (5,207 mm) long on a 113-inch (2,870mm) wheelbase and about 76 inches (1,930 mm) wide. To make it a four-door Lincoln, Engel’s team had to stretch the original design’s wheelbase by 10 inches (254 mm) to allow room for rear doors and widen the car by 2.7 inches (69 mm). Even then, executive engineer Harold Johnson found that the close-coupled proportions made rear-seat access difficult. Rather than accept that limitation, which would have been a sales impediment, Johnson proposed rear-hinged back doors, an idea he had previously explored for the abortive four-door Continental Mark III. It was an unusual feature for a postwar car and offered another mark of stylistic distinction.
All this work required weeks of frantic overtime for Engel’s designers, who worked day and night even on the weekends. Overworked as they were, the stylists knew that the future of the division — and hence their ongoing employment — was on the line. Fortunately, their efforts were not in vain. McNamara liked the resulting design and ordered it moved to the regular Lincoln-Mercury studio to be readied for production.
Although still enormous by today’s standards, the new Lincoln was considerably smaller than its 1958–1960 predecessors, which both McNamara and Ben Mills had felt were much too big. The 1960 Lincoln had been a whopping 227.2 inches (5,771 mm) long and 80.3 inches (2,040 mm) wide on a 131-inch (3,327mm) wheelbase. The 1961 Continental was a ‘mere’ 212.4 inches (5,395 mm) long and 78.6 inches (1,966 mm) wide on a 123-inch (3,124mm) wheelbase. Factory curb weight dropped by 326 lb (148 kg), although a Continental with air conditioning still tipped the scales at more than 5,200 lb (2,368 kg). Overall height decreased from 56.7 to 53.5 inches (1,440 to 1,359 mm), prompting the adoption of a lower driveshaft tunnel (made possible by adding a unique double-Cardan joint to the leading end of the driveshaft) to maintain headroom. Despite the sizable exterior dimensions, the Continental’s interior room was closer to its Thunderbird cousin’s than to full-size luxury rivals. (On ’63 models, the rear deck was raised in a belated attempt to improve trunk space.)
The 1958–1960 Lincolns had been offered in a full assortment of body styles, but the 1961 Lincoln Continental was available only as a four-door sedan or a four-door convertible, the latter a body style that had become very rare since the war. In hindsight, not offering the popular two-door hardtop body style was a mistake — hardtop coupes accounted for around 20% of Cadillac sales at that time — but Lincoln-Mercury designers and engineers didn’t want to risk compromising McNamara’s support by proposing anything that would drive up tooling costs.
McNamara insisted that the new Lincoln be profitable, but he also wanted it to be reliable, which had been a sore point for Lincolns of the late fifties. Many small details of the 1961 Lincoln Continental were designed to improve quality and corrosion resistance. All cars were given an extensive dynamometer run-in and a 12-mile (19.3-km) road test prior to delivery, so that they were essentially already broken in by the time they reached the dealer. To back up these measures, McNamara instituted a two-year, 24,000-mile (38,640 km) warranty, longer than any domestic car of the time.
All 1961 Lincolns were Continentals; the previous Capri and Premiere series were dropped. Prices were ambitious; the sedan started at $6,067, $569 more than a Cadillac Sedan de Ville and $423 more than a four-door Imperial Crown Southampton. With air conditioning and other extras, the sticker price rose to around $7,000, enough to buy two well-equipped Ford Galaxies.
1961 LINCOLN CONTINENTAL: THE CRITIC’S DARLING
As with the Mark II, the new Lincoln Continental won great acclaim from critics, who appreciated its tidier dimensions, clean styling, and obvious attention to detail. It won Car Life‘s 1961 Engineering Excellence Award and was awarded a bronze medal by the Industrial Design Institute, which rarely recognized automotive designs.
Again like the Mark II, this adulation was not reflected in sales, which were up only fractionally: 25,164, compared to 24,820 for 1960. Admittedly, 1961 was not a good year for the industry in general, but Lincoln management was disappointed that the new car didn’t do better. Had McNamara still been at Ford when the 1961 sales were tallied, Lincoln might not have survived, but by then, McNamara had moved on to Washington to accept an appointment as secretary of defense.
Sales of the nearly identical 1962 and 1963 Continentals were slightly better, although Cadillac still outsold Lincoln by around five to one. Still, Lincoln was once again profitable, albeit marginally, and its survival was no longer in question. Lincoln also returned to the limousine market in 1962; the coachbuilder Lehmann-Peterson began offering modest numbers of luxuriously trimmed stretched Continentals.
Low sales and the high tooling costs of the Continental’s unit body encouraged Lincoln to retain the same basic body until 1969. There were relatively few mechanical changes, but the purity of the original styling was gradually diluted by years of annual facelifts. For 1964, the body shell was heavily revised and the original curved side glass was replaced with flat windows, a cost-saving move that appalled the original designers. After 1966, the Continental also got a rather contrived power bulge hood and an exaggerated rear-fender kick-up, reminiscent of GM’s big cars. By the end of the decade, the Continental was beginning to look flabby and a little tacky, but sales improved steadily, aided by the belated addition of a two-door hardtop in 1966.
CONTINENTAL REDUX: THE 1964 IMPERIAL
The Continental produced at least one obvious imitator: Chrysler’s 1964 Imperial. The similarity was no coincidence because the 1964 Imperial was also styled by Elwood Engel. When George Walker retired in 1961, Engel was the leading candidate to succeed him as Ford’s VP of styling, but it didn’t happen, and Engel departed instead. (Gene Bordinat later alleged that Ford management actually fired Engel for misuse of the corporate expense account.)
Whatever the actual reasons for Engel’s exit, Walker subsequently introduced him to Chrysler president Lynn Townsend, who hired Engel to replace Virgil Exner, fired in the wake of the 1962 Dodge and Plymouth disaster. We don’t know what explanation Walker may have given Townsend for why Engel had been passed over at Ford, but to our knowledge, Engel’s subsequent Chrysler career was free of scandal.
The 1964 models were the first Chrysler products designed wholly under Engel’s leadership and the new Imperial borrowed heavily from his own well-regarded design.
Styling is naturally a very subjective matter, but it seems fair to say that the original Continental, the Mark II, and the early-sixties Continental were sophisticated designs that appealed more to cognoscenti than to the general public. All were clean, elegant, and well-proportioned, which appealed strongly to designers, but was perhaps too anodyne for the hoi polloi. By comparison, the contemporary Thunderbird’s array of visual gimmicks trod perilously close to Camp, but buyers couldn’t get enough of it. It was not until Lee Iacocca introduced the 1969 Continental Mark III, an overgrown T-Bird with an ersatz Rolls-Royce grille, that the Continental brand seem to hit the market where it lived.
For the record, your author has never been particularly impressed with the looks of either the original Continental (which we find less appealing than the Zephyr on which it was based) or its 1960s descendant, but we do generally approve of the Mark II. However, your author’s mother, who generally regards automotive styling with profound boredom, once spotted a photo of the Mark II on a magazine cover and immediately declared it the ugliest car she had ever seen.
As the EPA reminds us, your mileage may vary.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1961 Lincoln Continental,” HowStuffWorks.com, 11 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1961-lincoln-continental.htm, accessed 11 February 2009, and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Thomas E. Bonsall, The Lincoln Story: The Postwar Years (Stanford, CA: Stanford General Books/Stanford University Press, 2004); David Crippen’s 1985 interview with Gene Bordinat for the Benson Ford Research Center (“The Reminiscences of Eugene [Gene] Bordinat, Jr.,” Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673 Benson Ford Research Center, University of Michigan, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/ Design/Bordinat_interview.htm, accessed 13 February 2009); Jim and Cheryl Farrell, “Saving Grace: The Design Story of the 1961 Lincoln Continental,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 20, No. 2 (August 2003), pp. 28–41; Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); and Michael Lamm, “1961 Lincoln Continental,” Special Interest Autos #34 (May-June 1976), reprinted in Lincoln Continental 1961-1969 Performance Portfolio, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000), pp. 130-136.
Additional information on the original Continental came from Arch Brown, “1941 Lincoln Continental: Edsel Ford’s Legacy,” Special Interest Autos #122 (March-April 1991), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Lincolns: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002). Some information on the ill-fated Mark II came from “Mark II Meets Eldorado Brougham,” Special Interest Autos #2 (November-December 1970), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Cadillacs: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 94-101, and Mark J. McCourt, “Collector Buyer’s Guide: 1956-57 Continental Mark II,” Hemmings Classic Car #7 (April 2005), pp. 88-93.
We also consulted a variety of period road tests, including “Lincoln Goes Continental 1961: A description of one of America’s most important new car designs,” Road & Track December 1960; “Car Life Road Test: Lincoln Continental” and “Car Life Engineering Excellence Award: 1961 Lincoln Continental,” Car Life March 1961; Tom McCahill, “McCahill Tests…Lincoln Continental,” Mechanix Illustrated March 1961; Wayne Thoms, “America’s Luxury Cars: Cadillac, Imperial, Lincoln Continental,” Motor Trend May 1962; “Introducing the ’63 Cars: Lincoln Continental,” Car Life November 1962; Jim Wright, “MT Road Test: Lincoln Continental: Most of the changes in this new model are under the skin…” Motor Trend July 1963; “Torture Testing the Continental,” Car Life October 1963; “Lincoln Continental ’64,” Motorcade October 1963; Bob McVay, “Lincoln Continental Road Test,” Motor Trend April 1964; “Car Life Road Test: Lincoln Continental: Sheer Luxury, Built to Last,” Car Life July 1964; “’65 Lincoln Continental: Tremendous trifles improve a modern classic,” Motorcade October 1964; Bob McVay, “Lincoln Continental Road Test,” Motor Trend April 1965; Tom McCahill, “McCahil tests the posh Lincoln Continental,” Mechanix Illustrated May 1965; “Six Luxury Cars: A subjective, seat-of-the-pants evaluation by the editors,” Car and Driver, July 1965; “Driving the Continental,” Motor Trend February 1966; John Lawlor, “Testing a Tradition,” Motorcade May 1966; and Bill Kilpatrick, “Lincoln owners like its precise handling, deplore workmanship,” Popular Mechanics July 1966, all of which are reprinted in Lincoln Continental 1961-1969 Performance Portfolio, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000); and Bill Sanders, “Arrival of the Fittest,” Motor Trend April 1969; Bill Sanders, “Big change from Dearborn: 1970 Lincoln Continental,” Motor Trend August 1969, which are reprinted in Lincoln Cars: Lincoln Continental 1969-76 (Brooklands Road Test Books), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1992); and “Lincoln: there’s little change in the luxury car from Dearborn,” Motor Life December 1959, reprinted in Lincoln Gold Portfolio, 1949-1960, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1990).
Some details on Hess & Eisenhardt, which made the presidential limo in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated, came from Mark Theobald, “Hess & Eisenhardt,” Coachbuilt, 2004, www.coachbuilt. com, accessed 13 February 2009.