Ironically, the Continental Mark IV is the most “American” car ever. It’s the ultimate counterpart to that most continental/ European car ever, the VW Rabbit/Golf Mk I that appeared about the same time. The Golf was a brilliant triumph of modern design: space efficiency, economy, light weight, visibility, sparkling performance and handling. And in Europe, the Golf became known as the “classless” car; one that didn’t make a statement about its owner. The Mark? Well, take all those qualities, turn them upside down, inside out, and then toss them out the window. Americans have long had ambivalence about “modern” anyway; it hinted at socialistic and intellectual influences that didn’t always sit so well. The most modern American car ever was the Corvair, and look how that turned out. Even the Kennedy Lincolns were a touch too modern. America was ripe for the first true post-modern car, and Ford was the obvious company to make it.
That shouldn’t be surprising. Ford’s inner battle with modernity was as deep-seated as Ol’ Henry’s anti-semitism. The Fords were intrinsically a conservative bunch, and they knew how to convert that to sales. We covered the story of the Zephyr in Part 1 of this series, but here’s the recap: In the depth of the Depression, modernity (and socialism) flowered, and the radical Lincoln Zephyr prototype of 1934 turned the classic (conservative) car proportions on its head. With a wimpy, drooping “hood” (that was “empty”), and the engine hidden in its tail, it was profoundly European in layout and design; a bigger VW Beetle, right down to the styling cues. Oh, and before we forget, the Fords turned down an opportunity to buy the whole VW operation for peanuts right after the war.
Ford’s made sure that the production Zephyr ended up with a proper front engine and grille, but its short hood and long body were mighty modern nonetheless. But within a couple of years, Edsel fixed that, with his custom-made granddaddy Continental. Lengthen the hood, move the passenger compartment back, lower the whole thing, and presto! The classic car formula was reincarnated, and Ford never forgot the lesson. Mostly, anyway; they temporarily forgot about the “classic” grille.
In 1940, reviving the traditional radiator would have been all wrong. The first Continental still deftly balanced modern with traditional cues. And the Mark II of 1956 with a classic grille would have been scoffed at by the true elite that was expected to cough up the princely sum it cost. But by 1968, everything had changed; more correctly, it was in the process of changing. And Ford’s brilliance in the late fifties and the sixties lay in exploiting those changes.
The 1958 Thunderbird and the 1964 Mustang, which we included in our “Five Most Revolutionary Cars” series, were the first two hits of that winning streak that culminated in the big Marks. The T-Bird revived the long hood-short tail formula, and the Mustang made it affordable to everyone. Now it was time for the grand slam finale, and perhaps the boldest of the three. Slapping a “classical” grille on the front of the 1968 Mark III was an incredibly insightful and daring move, and one that set off an avalanche.
That fake shiny shell planted so proudly on the front of the longest hood (over six feet) in post-war history tackled two different challenges that Ford presciently saw. It was a response to the rapidly rising fortunes of Mercedes, whose traditional radiator shell was quickly becoming an icon. A less significant nod to Rolls Royce didn’t hurt either. But the real breakthrough was in tapping into the latent power of the most potent symbol that the target demographic of the Mark grew up with: the Duesenberg.
That ultimate expression of world-class design, technology and prestige was the most influential but least affordable icon of the classic era, and gave us the enduring expression “doozy”. For the boys and young men who struggled through the deprivations of the Depression, thanks to the post-war economic exceptionalism period, many were now of the right age to indulge that latent fantasy. Years of schlepping their bratty baby boomer kids in the station wagon were over, and for those whom the Mark spoke to, many answered; especially the Mark IV.
The Mark III may have popped the cork on the whole trend, but it still showed a hint of restraint. And like the Mark I was Edsel Ford’s baby, and the Mark II was William Clay Ford’s toy, the Mark III was Henry Ford II’s personal pet project. He approved all the final details, interior and exterior. The Mark III was a hit in its own right, handily equaling Cadillac’s knife-edge Eldorado, which had a decidedly more “modern” grille. But the Mark IV was a monster, unleashing a pent-up demand for relatively affordable ostentatious pretense the likes of which had never been seen before. It creamed the Eldorado in sales by almost two to one.
Bigger, longer, lower and heavier than the III, the IV actually had less interior space and its trunk was pathetically small. The accommodations were plush, but this nadir of space efficiency was remarkably cramped. The Golf offered a better seating position, not to mention the ability to see anything outside. Never mind; trying to make comparisons like that are utterly irrelevant.
There is a moderating and restraining influence of modernism. The Mark IV unleashed a back lash that presaged the whole rise of America’s conservative swing. Automotively speaking, that swing quickly got ugly: that fake classic grille unleashed the whole neo-classic hell that soon descended on the seventies, the Bugazzi being just one of the many monstrosities the Mark IV spawned. Not to mention fake grilles on the front everything from Granadas to K-cars. Thank you Hank, for your brilliant insight into the true American psyche.
Is it too much of a stretch to correlate the big Marks with the rise of Ronald Reagan? The Mark II was the flashy high-paid actor in the fifties, chafing against the high tax rates that made the Mark II so unaffordable. The Mark III corresponded to his California governor years; that liberal and trendsetting state portending the coming national swing. And the Mark IV and V marked the conservative upswing that led to his election in 1980.
Of course, the big Marks met their demise just as Reagan took power. But perhaps the downsized and truncated Mark VI of 1980 is the fitting symbol of his presidency: big ideas always sound their best before they actually get put to the test. In any case, America’s love for big cars finally met its reality check in the early eighties oil shock, and suddenly Diesel Rabbits were selling for as much as Mark VIs. And the irony of calling these cars “Continentals” was greater than ever.
But that was just another temporary swing on the (oil) pendulum. The big Marks were history, but big Navigators soon took their place. Anyway, driving a flashy car was soon to be supplanted by the flashy house with its neo-faux-classical front “grille”, the McMansion. Borrowing that remarkably effective All-American prefix and evoking another famous Ronald, shall we just sum it up and call the Mark IV the McDuesenberg?