The Truth About Cars » Mark IV The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 23 Jul 2014 18:25:17 +0000 en-US hourly 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 (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 » Mark IV Curbside Classic: 1946 Lincoln Continental – The Most Imitated American Car Ever Tue, 07 Dec 2010 16:54:05 +0000

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

]]> 39 Curbside Classic: 1973 Continental Mark IV Thu, 11 Feb 2010 20:19:37 +0000

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?

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Curbside Classic: 1985 Lincoln Town Car Wed, 10 Feb 2010 22:20:28 +0000

Thirty-two years is a long time. That’s how many years the Panther chassis-based Town Car will have been made when the last on rolls off the line in 2011. And to what can we credit this remarkable longevity? Brilliant engineering; or insightful marketing strategy? How about a big helping of GM’s boneheadedness mixed in with equal dashes of Ford cheapness and stubbornness. Sometimes you just get handed things handed to you on a platter. Although in the case of the Panther TC, it took a couple of years of anxiety before Ford realized what had been given them: the keys to the last traditional American car.

It was not a happy beginning though. After reluctantly abandoning the out sized Lincoln barges of 1979, having hung on years longer than GM, Ford bit the downsizing bullet. And it hurt. If ever GM’s styling prowess was put to a difficult and unasked-for task, it was the vast resizing of their large cars in 1977. And they pulled it off with remarkable results. It helped that their ’71-’76 cars had become inflated walruses, but the B-Bodies of 1977 maintained a sense of dignity, proportion and style, despite the radical pruning.

One would think that the extra couple of years Ford took for their grand liposuction would pay off. Not so; the 1979 LTD and Marquis looked boxy and ill-proportioned on their 114″ wheelbase, especially so the ungainly coupes. And the Lincoln, riding a slightly longer 117″ wb, suffered from the same maladies. The coupe versions in particular, both the Town Coupe and the truly pathetic Mark VI, were painful to look at, like a victim of horribly botched cosmetic surgery. Instead of starting with a clean sheet, it looked like a scissors and paste version of a bad photo-chop.

Sales went into free-fall. In 1981, less than 70k Lincolns were sold; one third of just a couple of years earlier. The ’81 recession didn’t help, but Lincoln jumped the shark with these. The Town Coupe was such a mess that it was euthanized within a couple of years, and the Mark VI slogged along a few years longer. Meanwhile GM was selling its handsome E-Body coupes in record numbers. But then came the great act of self-mutilation.

In 1985, GM launched its second bout of wholesale miniaturization, and this time they jumped the killer whale. The FWD Caddy DeVille was now barely bigger than a Chevy Citation. Yes, it was a miracle in terms of interior space utilization in relation to exterior length, but that was not the criteria that counted for much of anything at the golf club. And in that most painful chapter of GM’s self-destruction, it handed Ford the keys to Town Car immortality, success and big profits.

Everything is relative, and compared the the mini-Caddys, yesterday’s truncated Lincoln was suddenly today’s “traditional” land yacht. And there was a huge market of traditionalists wanting one. Sales exploded: in 1985 over 167k Lincolns found newly appreciative owners. In 1988, Lincoln actually outsold Cadillac, a feat that would have seemed absurd to contemplate a few years earlier. And the Town Car was the backbone of Lincoln’s resuscitation.

A gaggle of other Lincolns didn’t hurt, mostly. The T-Bird based Mark VII had a nice run, and actually provided a pleasant driving experience, in the LSC version. It epitomized Ford’s abilities to make do with what they had, but with some honest and genuine feeling (and results).  The FWD V6 Taurus-based Continental was the Mark VII’s polar opposite; Ford laid an egg with that, and its stink was all-too obvious, all too soon.

But Ford left the TC mostly alone, save for a couple of major restyles along the way. GM saw the error of its ways, and tried a rather embarrassing comeback with the Caprice-based ’93 Fleetwood. But that soon went away to make production room for more Suburbans and Escalades. It wasn’t a serious threat to the Town Car’s hegemony by then anyway, especially since fleets had long adopted it as their own. A simple and rugged RWD BOF car is what everyone from taxis, police and limo operators found to be the cheapest way to get the job done, and the Panthers were willing to oblige. Ford is keeping its TC line running through 2011 to give them a chance to stock up and prepare for the end, whatever that means. But the end is in sight, for the lucky and plucky Town Car. Note to Ford: send a Thank You card to GM before you turn off the lights on the TC line.

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Curbside Classics Lincoln Fest: Doors To All Nine Parts Open Here Wed, 10 Feb 2010 02:30:51 +0000

The suicide doors of perception to Curbside Classic’s Lincoln week-long love/hate fest open here:

Part 1: A Brief History of Lincoln up to 1961

Part 2: 1965 Lincoln Continental

Part 3: 1968 Lincoln Continental

Part 4: 1970 Lincoln Continental Coupe

Part 5: 1977 Lincoln Town Car

Part 6: 1985 Lincoln Town Car

Part 7: 1973 Continental Mark IV

Part 8: 1989 Lincoln Mark VII

Part 9: 1977 Lincoln Versailles

Part 8: 1986 Continental

Part 9: Mark VIII and Finale

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