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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.