Like the Wind: The Lincoln Zephyr and Continental


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 812 cabriolet © 2009 Pat McLaughlin (used with permission)
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.



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!


Our sources for this article included Dennis Adler, Speed and Luxury: The Great Cars (Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 1997); C. Edson Armi, The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988); the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996), “1936-1948 Lincoln Zephyr,”, 18 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1936-1948-lincoln-zephyr.htm, accessed 19 May 2013, and “War Casualties: 1943-45 Fords, Mercurys, and Lincolns,” Cars That Never Were: The Prototypes (Skokie, IL: Publications International, 1981): 42–45; John Barach, “1942 Cadillac,” Motor Era, January 2012, www.motorera. com/cadillac/cad1940/ CAD42S.HTM, accessed 19 June 2013; Thomas E. 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Gregorie,” 4 February 1985 [interview transcript], Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/Design/ Gregorie_interview.htm (transcript), last accessed 19 May 2013; Vincent Curcio, Chrysler: The Life and Times of an Automotive Genius (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); David Donald, The Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft (New York: Orbis Publishing/Aero Publishing/Barnes and Noble Books, 1997); “Eugene T. 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Lewis, “The First Mercury & How It Came to Be,” Special Interests Autos #23 (July-August 1974), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Mercurys: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002): 4–11; Richard Langworth, “In the Track of the Zephyr,” Automobile Quarterly Vol. 14, No. 2 (1976): 194–207; David L. Lewis, “Lincoln Cosmopolitan: The Gleam in Edsel Ford’s Eye,” Car Classics April 1973, reprinted in Lincoln Gold Portfolio 1949-1960: 5–17; “Lincoln Model Year Production, 1921-1980,” The Hemmings Book of Lincolns: 118; “Lincoln Zephyr” [Dutch brochure, c. 1936]; Frank Marcus, “Mythbusted! At long last, science answers the question: Do the 1959 Chevy’s gullwing fins produce lift?” Motor Trend Classic #7 (September-October 2006): 52–57; Paul Niedermeyer, “Automotive History: Hans Ledwinka’s Revolutionary Tatras,” Curbside Classic, 10 February 2011, www.curbsideclassic. com/ automotive-histories/ automotive-history-hans-ledwinkas-revolutionary-tatras/, last accessed 17 June 2013, “Lincoln Week: An Illustrated History of Lincoln up to 1958,” Curbside Classic, 17 June 2013, www.curbsideclassic. com/automotive-histories/ lincoln-week-an-illustrated- history-of-lincoln-up-to-1958/, accessed 17 June 2013; “Trackside Classic: 1955 Union Pacific EMD E9: The Last of the Classic Diesel Streamliners (GM’s Greatest Hits #10),” Curbside Classic, 12 July 2012, www.curbsideclassic. com/ curbside-classics-american/ trackside-classic-1955- union-pacific-emd-e9-the-last-of-the- classic-diesel-streamliners-gms-greatest-hit-10/, accessed 30 May 2013; “1939 Plymouth,” Special Interest Autos #22 (May-June 1974), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Plymouths: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. 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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;, 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. 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Add a Comment
  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.

    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.)

  11. Your article is a great read. My husband and I purchased a 1947 Lincoln sedan and are in the middle of restoration. What a fun car. So much room and it’s amenities for that time are amazing.I cannot find any info on how many sedans were built. Would you have that info? Thanx, Kay

    1. The sources I have don’t give a breakdown by body style for non-Continental postwar cars (1946–1949), which suggests that Ford never released such a breakdown and may not have ever had one. (Ford Motor Company was in a dreadful organizational state immediately after the war, so that wouldn’t be altogether surprising.) Before the war, though, sedans consistently outsold club coupes or convertible coupes by a huge margin, so there’s no reason to assume that wasn’t also true after the war. The total for non-Continental Lincolns for 1947 was 19,981, and my guess (which is of course a guess) would be that at least 80% of those were sedans.

  12. My grandfather had a 1941 Lincoln Zephyr Coupe, I was told there were only 3 in South Africa at the time.
    I only have a few pictures, would have been awesome to own one today, despite the dodgy V12.
    It is an amazingly elegant and beautiful car.

  13. I recentlyfound a 1938 Zephyr and in the process of rebuilding $$$$

  14. Thank you AAron for the detailed research you managed to glean from, no doubt, “voluminous” amounts of documents…and expertly organized it into a very readable, informative and interesting format!

    Noticing that you published the article on June 30, 2013 and the reader comments span from 2013 up to March 2018…reminds me of the saying “the gift that keeps on giving”!!

    This past April 2018, I purchased a 1948 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet Chassis 8h-176279 (85K miles) which is in the process of being shipped from Garner, NCX to me in Tehachapi, CA, and I also purchased a 1948 Lincoln Continental Coupe Chassis 8h-181381 (32K miles), which is being shipped from Sioux Falls, SD to me.

    Since this is my first endeavor to own HV12 Lincoln Continentals, continuously owned 1950 and 1960 Jaguars since 1963, I am a neophyte and “stranger in a strange land” with regards to these magnificent examples of “form and function”…so, what ‘caveats’ should I know about the operation/maintenance of them?

    Your comment on July 11, 2013 is quite informative and helpful, does it apply to these 1948s?

    FYI, I purchased the ‘assembled build record’ from the Henry Ford Foundation for both cars, chassis 8H-176279 was assembled on Nov 20, 1947 & shipped to Vernon Sales & Service, Inc. in Framingham, MA on Dec 2, 1947; chassis 8H-181381 was assembled on Mar 23, 1948 and shipped to Consolidated International Company in Memphis, TN (?) on Mar 26, 1948.

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