The Truth About Cars » henry black http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 23 Apr 2014 15:44:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » henry black http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com Curbside Classic: 1946 Lincoln Continental – The Most Imitated American Car Ever http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-1946-lincoln-continental-the-most-imitated-american-car-ever/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-1946-lincoln-continental-the-most-imitated-american-car-ever/#comments Tue, 07 Dec 2010 16:54:05 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=375951

This car is a jaw-dropper, a true classic, and a lucky find that rivals the CC logomobile, but it’s misnamed. By all rights, it should be the Edsel American. It was Edsel Ford’s fine taste and encouragement that made the original version of this trend-setting car happen, and in the process created a car that set the template that every American personal luxury coupe/convertible has been trying to measure up to ever since. An aggressive face on a very long hood, a close-coupled body, a short rear deck, and dripping with the aura of exclusivity and sex: a timeless formula. All too few of the endless imitators got the ingredients right, or even close, as our recent Cougar CC so painfully showed. But that didn’t stopped them from trying, just like I never stopped looking for this Continental after I first saw it almost two years ago. It was well worth the effort.

Since the original Continental has a lot of history attached to it, we’re going to step back a bit and put in into context. A more comprehensive background can be found in my Lincoln History Up to 1961, but here’s the semi-condensed version: Unlike his father, Edsel Ford had a very artistic side and was a lover of fine cars. Travel to Europe exposed him to the latest styling trends, and his oversight of Lincoln during the classic era resulted in superbly designed cars.

The Depression essentially ended the era of these expensive toys and also ushered in the aerodynamic era. This resulted in a radical re-thinking of the automotive configuration, with pushed-forward passenger compartments, small pointy hoods and long tapering bodies, sometimes with rear engines. Lincoln adopted John Tjaarda’s radical rear-engined concept, but toned it down and adapted it to use main-stream Ford mechanicals. The resulting 1936 Zephyr (above) was quite successful, because unlike the similarly advanced Chrysler Airflow, it kept at least some semblance of a traditional pointed hood, even if shorter in proportion to the rest of the car than its predecessors.

For sedans, this re-arranging of the automotive real estate was eminently logical for the roomier interiors that resulted. But it really wasn’t so suitable for coupes and convertibles. As handsome as this ’37 Zephyr coupe is, it lacks the raw visceral appeal that the long-hood classic-era cars exuded so powerfully.

Now there were perks along with the endless pains of being Henry Ford’s (only) son. Edsel had commissioned a number of one-off “Specials” and customs since he was sixteen, including three sporty cars that represented his vision of sophistication and latest European trends. All three of them were thus dubbed “Continental”. He came up with the basic concept and certain details of these cars, and handed them over to Bob Gregoire to make the renderings that resulted in the hand-made final results.

In late 1938, Gregoire drafted the latest of the series (he claimed in thirty-five minutes) with input from Edsel, and the resulting car was shipped the following March to its happy new owner in Florida, where the Fords spent much of the winter.  The 1939 Continental was built on the Zephyr chassis, but the passenger compartment was now well set back (again) resulting in that long hood, and the whole body was lowered and the side-boards completely eliminated (sectioned and channeled). It was a superb reconciliation of the traditional with the streamlined trends, and an instant classic. And the exposed spare on the rear quickly became known as the Continental Spare, an affectation that still haunts us today.

Ironically, our featured car lacks the eponymous spare, and its owner may even go so far as to customize the rear end to eliminate any lingering clues to its disappearance. Now that’s a gutsy move, and one I can respect. A Lincoln American indeed, if not an Edsel.

Edsel was bombarded with open check books as he drove his new toy around Palm Beach (one per mile, he claimed), so he called back to Dearborn and ordered the Continental to go into production. As it was essentially a hand built car, only some four hundred were produced in 1940. The first one was given to Mickey Rooney, which quickly had the rest of Hollywood fighting to be seen in one. Like most successful halo cars, its impact was way beyond the sheer revenue numbers.

After a brief two-year run, the Continental hibernated through the war, and re-emerged in 1946 with a drastically re-styled front end. I will admit to generally preferring the original’s more delicate prow, but ironically perhaps, the ’46-’48 Continental’s much heavier and bolder front end actually completes the enduring formula that would be copied so prolifically.

The restyle is also the equivalent of a sex change operation: the original is a delicate, graceful and feminine car, none of which comes to mind when confronted with this butch bomb. So strictly speaking, the Continental was aptly named for its first edition, but what reappeared after the war was utterly all-American. Understandably so, since the swagger in America’s psyche after WWII was all-too obvious.

Perhaps that also helps explain why the ’46 Conti has been the object of endless replication; it so utterly embodies the self-confidence and all-time high national testosterone levels that winning the biggest war ever induced. No wonder there was such a huge Baby Boom. And no wonder older guys were the primary target for its off-shoots. And (again) no wonder that the peak years for the personal luxury coupe market was during the seventies and eighties. Our war heroes were hitting middle age, and Viagra hadn’t been invented yet. But instead of buying a Mark IV, they should have gone out an hunted up the real thing instead, because this car is guaranteed to get your sperm count up.

I say this from experience (no, not my own). In 1973, I had an evil landlord in Iowa City. Henry Black was his name, and he would trade rent for slave labor from his starving student tenants during the summer to build additions and whole houses to his ramshackle slum called Black’s Gaslight Village. He was a big, heavy-set ornery old cuss, and walked with a cane (which he also treated as a weapon), and must have been well into his seventies. And he kept a quite young and attractive wife under virtual-house arrest in his big old Victorian. We only ever got peeps of her through the front door when we paid the rent; he never let her go anywhere, especially in his only car, a mean black ’46-’48 Continental coupe just like this one. Maybe he was worried about all the young male students. It was all like some Gothic novel.

I worked for him one summer building a cottage for future student tenants out of old railroad ties, creosote smell and all (this was before students financed their lifestyle, spring breaks in Mexico and summers in Africa with endless student loans). It was also before building permits were mandatory. Anyway, I vividly remember¬† riding with him in his musty old Continental to the hardware store, where he’d wait outside. Being twenty at the time, it was a bit hard to imagine, but old Henry Black was still fathering little kids with his locked away bride (unless students were sneaking in). The kids actually got to come out once in a while.

If I’ve digressed inappropriately (again), sorry; but the memories of hearing the flathead V12 in Henry’s car cough to life and his ivory-handled cane sliding against me in the curves are irrepressible after being exposed to this beast today. But if you’re wondering why there’s no engine shots, it’s because the troublesome Zephyr V12 is long gone; a healthy sounding Chevy small block does the burbling instead. And it may well not be the first transplanted engine either; the twelve had such a bad rep folks were tearing them out back in the late forties already and replacing it with the flathead Lincoln V8 that succeeded it.

The Zephyr was not an expensive car, so Ford had his engineers cobble up a budget twelve that was not much more than the Ford V8 and a half. But undersized water passages exacerbated the flathead’s intrinsic thermal issues, and as a result bores warped, rings wore out, oil burned and didn’t get properly circulated for other reasons as well. It only made some 120 hp from its 292 cubes, so performance was none too impressive in the 4,000 lb Continental, even when it ran properly. Admittedly, the post war engines had many of their ailments fixed, but the bad rep stuck.

I first ran into this car on the street a year and a half ago, and almost had an accident (in my pants). It’s not like I was expecting to find an original Continental at all, but then this comes burbling down the street. I caught up to the driver at a light, but he was in too much of a hurry to stop for photos. And I’ve been lusting for it ever since. Well, good things sometimes happens to those that lust hard enough, and I finally caught up with it again on a rare sunny December day here. Drew, its owner, bought it a couple of years back, and is still mulling over its future. A chopped top maybe?

Or maybe not; Drew is tall like me, and the Conti is none too roomy already. This is definitely a “personal” coupe, and not nearly as big, at least on the inside, as one might expect. But whatever direction he takes it, I’m sure it will serve him well, even into old age, should he feel the desire or need to keep it that long.

Over two hundred other Curbside Classics are just a click away

]]> http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-1946-lincoln-continental-the-most-imitated-american-car-ever/feed/ 39 Lincoln: A Brief History Up To 1961 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/curbside-classics-lincoln-week-part-1-a-brief-history-up-to-1961/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/curbside-classics-lincoln-week-part-1-a-brief-history-up-to-1961/#comments Mon, 08 Feb 2010 19:43:25 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=344577

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.

More new Curbside Classics here

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