In honor of our greatest president’s birthday this Friday, it’s going to be Lincoln Week at Curbside Classic. We’ll start with a brief history of the brand to set us up for the sixties, when our featured cars begin.
Cadillac and Lincoln shared an almost identical early biography. Both were founded by “Master of Precision” Henry Leland. And both were eventually sold off to their current corporate owners. Caddy was first, having been founded in 1902, and quickly establishing itself as the “Standard of the World”, which actually reflected Leland’s obsession with standardized precision parts that could be interchanged rather than some inflated PR claim. Caddy went to GM in 1909, and after WW I, Leland started Lincoln.
By 1922, Lincoln was in trouble and this time Ford came to the rescue. It particularly gave son Edsel Ford an opportunity to engage himself in something slightly out of Henry’s control-freak influence over the Model T and A. The Lincoln Models KB and KA were highly regarded during the classic era, with superb engineering, large V12 and V8 engines, and the finest custom coachwork. Except for a visual example here, we’re going to skip over the classic era because it was a dead end, and is largely irrelevant to the continuity of the brand, post WWII. That’s not in any way a reflection on these exquisite cars, but we can’t do them justice here.
The car we’ll start with is the Lincoln Zephyr of 1936. The Depression was killing the classic big cars, which created an opportunity for fresh thinking on a smaller and more affordable scale. The Zephyr was Lincoln’s counterpart to Chrysler’s Airflow; both of them arising out of the new obsession with streamlining everything from trains to toasters. The Zephyr had its origins in a series of radical rear-engine designs by John Tjaarda, using airplane-type stress analysis to prove the advantages of unit construction. The prototype that led to the Zephyr is below.
Tjaarda did his work in conjunction with Briggs, one of the major pressed-steel body builders of the day. Eager to find a client for their efforts, they ended up at Lincoln. But the radical rear-engine construction, which was remarkably similar to the Tatra 77/87 of the same vintage, was highly ambitious. Since the Tatra was a favorite of my childhood, it’s no wonder I transferred that to the Zephyr after our move to the USA, as there were still some around on the streets of Iowa in the early sixties. Interestingly, Briggs built almost the complete Zephyr for Ford at its own plant, leaving Lincoln to install the drive train and mechanicals. It was a foreshadowing of outsourcing to come.
The final production Zephyr was only radical in its semi-unit construction. The streamlined styling was toned down enough to make it palatable to conservative buyers, unlike the doomed Airflow. And under the skin, the Zephyr was anything but radical, using the same transverse leaf spring suspension as the Model T, and its engine was essentially a 12 cylinder version of the Ford flathead V8, but suffered even more severely of that design’s inherent thermal deficiencies. The small V12 developed a bad rep, and many were later swapped out. But it didn’t keep the Zephyr from being a commercial success, at a critical time as the big Lincolns fell out of favor.
Now we get to the real beginning of the Lincoln Continental DNA. Edsel Ford commissioned a special one-off convertible for him to use during his winter vacation in Florida in the winter of ’38-’39. Edsel laid out the basic shape and design, and it was executed by Bob Gregoire. With the idea of capturing a decidedly European flavor, the “Special Lincoln-Zephyr” became known as the Continental. And everyone who saw it wanted one. So in 1940, the Continental cabriolet was put in production. As is readily apparent, its design cues have been rehashed by Lincoln ever since, most notoriously again right now, with the baleen-mouthed new Lincolns aping the original Continental grille, in a highly exaggerated and garish way.
The handsome (if not exactly brilliant) Continental survived for ten years, right through 1948, but not without losing its delicate face to a heavier and somewhat overpowering mug for the bulk of its ten year run. I had a notorious slumlord in Iowa City in the early seventies, Henry Black, who’s only car was exactly like one of the later ones as shown below. I have vivid memories of riding in it with him to the hardware store (I was briefly an indentured servant of his). It suited his personality perfectly, and he undoubtedly drove it until he couldn’t drive anymore, although I doubt legalities had anything to do with that.
I rather prefer the more delicate original, but isn’t this 1948 Continental Mark I a perfect foreshadowing of Marks to come? Moving right along, we’re going to have to skip the plebian Lincolns of the fifties, which had some interesting moments, but for the most part lived deep in the shadows of Cadillac’s exuberant fins for the whole decade. Even the Imperials from 1955 on were much more interesting. Here’s a quick glimpse of what we’re missing.
Instead, lets give the remarkable Continental of 1956 some time. Technically, Continentals from 1956 through 1958 weren’t actually Lincolns at all, because the Continental division was given brief autonomy in Ford’s ambitious but disastrous attempt to go mano-a-mano with GM, by having five separate divisions: Ford, Mercury, Edsel, Lincoln, and Continental. Well, that sure didn’t work out so well, and not only did Edsel and Continental bite the dust, but even Lincoln was almost killed. More on that later.
The Mark II was a very ambitious attempt to recreate the Continental mystique and compete with the most expensive European luxury brands. Priced at $10k ($80k adjusted), its then very lofty price was more than twice what a Coupe DeVille went for. Extreme quality measures and small-scale production meant that each Mark II was built at a hefty loss.
Stylistically, it’s a mixed bag. If it didn’t have the fake grafted-on “continental” rear spare tire cover stamped into its trunk lid, it’s just remotely possible that we might have been spared decades of that over-worn cliche. That alone spoils it for me. But it certainly manages to convey an air of exclusivity, in an authentic way that its legions of Mark successors never could.
Meanwhile, the big Lincoln introduced in 1958 was another ambitious and expensive bust. The ’58-’60 Lincolns were far bigger than anything Americans had ever laid their eyes on, since the Depression, in any case. A vast and rather bizarre land-yacht, it also had by far the biggest engine (430 cubic inches) of the times. It did feature unibody construction, although that didn’t keep them from weighing less than some 5,000 lbs. Arriving right in time for the nasty recession of 1958 doomed them, and they only widened the gap to the far distant best selling Cadillac. As a child, I found these Lincolns to be awe inspiring on some primeval level that included fear of such an utterly incomprehensible and alien device, which was reinforced by their scarcity on the streets.
So that takes us to the dawn of the sixties, with Lincoln in danger of being axed altogether. As is so often the case in actual life as with our automotive expressions of it, near-death has the remarkable ability to draw out new levels of risk-taking and creativity. That was certainly the case with Lincoln, as we’ll see in our next Curbside Classic.