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.
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.
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.
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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