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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.)
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.
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 march 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.
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.
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, whereas 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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