By on February 8, 2010

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.

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42 Comments on “Lincoln: A Brief History Up To 1961...”

  • avatar

    Thank you, thank you , thank you.

    Edit: The other common link between Lincoln and Cadillac? Henry Ford himself. What eventually became Cadillac was the first company founded by Henry Ford, who was leveraged out of the company prior to it being purchased by Leland. Detroit was a small universe then, because the original investors in what became Ford Motor Comapny were the Dodge brothers, Horace and John!

    • 0 avatar

      The story of Henry Leland is quite interesting, considering the way things have been going in Detroit lately:

      Leland did not exactly sell off Cadillac to GM; he and his son Wilfred continued to run it until 1917, and quit following a tiff with Billy Durant about World War One. In fact, Wilfred saved GM in 1910, when it was on the brink of financial collapse.

      Henry Ford’s involvement with Lincoln was ugly. What he did to the Lelands was quite brutal.

  • avatar

    Until recently, when my car industry interest was piqued by a shopping frenzy, I didn’t realize that ‘Continental’ referred to the brand’s European ambitions, rather than to the size and maneuverability of the vehicles thus marked.

    My wife (then girlfriend) and I rented one in LA in 1999. It was a truly impressive vehicle, particularly for us: we were used to a 1993 Escort that became exciting to drive at 55 and downright thrilling by 80.

    The Lincoln’s sheer scale was almost unfathomable, and its posh ambiance was utterly bizarre; it was like someone had slung an English gentlemen’s club under a zeppelin and was towing it with a Peterbilt. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had a fireplace.

    As for performance, what it lacked in road feel it also lacked in maneuverability. You didn’t drive it so much as navigate it.

    I do remember its funky (rear-projection?) gauges with needles sweeping behind the digits being quite cool, though.

  • avatar

    Move ahead to the later lincolns. the ugly cars featured on this page aren’t even worth commenting on.

  • avatar
    John Holt

    Did Tjaarda go on to design the VW Beetle? Imagine that ’34 Scarab body design on a shorter wheelbase and you have a dead ringer for the Bug.

  • avatar

    One point of clarification: the Mark II’s rear deck was functional. Open the trunk and there’s a spare tire smack dab in the middle. Which wouldn’t work without the tire hump.

    One interesting tidbit: the odd ’58-60 Lincolns and Continentals were stillborn Packard designs from the mid-1950s, as Packard was dissolved during that time and its design staff found a new home at FoMoCo.

    Since I’m a huge Lincoln dork, I’m looking forward to the next installment. Thanks, Paul.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Sajeev, regarding the rear deck tire bulge on the Mark II: it’s a classic chicken/egg which came first issue: the bulge was “functional” because they wanted it there stylistically, not because there was no other way to store a spare in a modern car.
      The 1956 Packard Predictor was an influential show car, and elements can be seen in the’58 Lincoln, but it’s incorrect to say that it was a “stillborn Packard design”. Dick Teague, the designer of the Predictor, did not go to Ford, nor did “the design staff”.
      The ‘58 Lincoln would have been too far along in its development cycle in 1956 to completely crib the Packard, and except for the rear-sloping window, the two really aren’t all that similar in detail. Lots of show cars at the time had similar design cues.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed. Excellent points, Paul.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      How the heck were you supposed to get anything in the trunk with a huge tire in the way?

    • 0 avatar

      Couldn’t have been worse than trying to put something in the trunk of a Ford retractable hard-top… probably just the opposite than clumsy access with much room, the retractables had wide-open access but (if the top was down) little more than space for a suitcase (car actually had a tub in the centre which held a specially-provided suitcase.)

    • 0 avatar

      The spare tire hump on the Mark II was a matter of oneupsmanship. There was a huge fad in the mid-fifties for “Continental kits” — external spare tire mounts decorated to become a styling feature — which was inspired at least in part by the original Continental. When the Mark II was designed, they realized that a conventional external spare would seem to be following the trend, rather than leading it. They needed a variation that would acknowledge the original without imitating it, thus the under-the-decklid spare. It was not exactly a practical approach if you wanted to, you know, put luggage in the trunk.

    • 0 avatar

      At least it would be easy to retrieve the spare tire in the event of a flat.

      Speaking of which, I can see this being a reason for the demise of the idea (and sales of the car, for that matter). Imagine a well-to-do customer scuffing up their clothes by the exposed spare after placing and removing articles from the trunk a couple of times. The idea of them exclaiming, “It’ll be the last time I buy a car like this!” would not be far-fetched.

  • avatar

    I remember running across a 1958 auto magazine that featured the opening paragraphs of 2 complimentary articles, located one above the other on the page. The first article headline proclaimed in large type “Why The Continental Failed”. The second article on the the bottom half of the page had the headline “Why The Edsel Will Succeed”. I truly savored the irony of that page.

  • avatar

    The only reason Henry I bought Lincoln was so that he could have the last word over Leland. Ford hated Leland for having fired him from the Henry Ford Co in 1902, and he had the patience and wherewithal to nurse hid grudge. The Ford archives have lots of nasty memos to Leland from Ford. Eventually Leland and his son quit, and there followed a long and nasty lawsuit abot the company, the art obkects in the factory, and the Presidential Lincoln collection. Ford won on all counts, and the Lincoln memorabilia was the heart of the Ford Museum collection.


    • 0 avatar

      Leland did not fire Henry Ford from the Henry Ford Company in 1902. Ford’s former backers hired Leland to appraise the company’s holdings months after they had already forced Ford out; they planned to liquidate the company. It is definitely true that Ford treated the Lelands brutally after ‘rescuing’ Lincoln in 1922, but I don’t think it had any connection to his earlier company. Wilfred Leland’s book gives no indication that Ford held Leland responsible for his ouster from the Henry Ford Company, and given Wilfred’s bitterness after his father’s death, he was not inclined to pull any punches when it came to the Fords.

  • avatar

    So, basically, if we are starting around 1940, Lincoln made a good looking car for a year or two, then agin in the mid ’50s for a year or two.

    As we’ll see, they would repeat the trick in the early sixties and make it last 5 or 6 years.

    Other than that, they built cars that were really ugly and dull.

  • avatar

    I don’t care what anyone says, but the photo of the chrome grill on the 1948 Continental Mark I is a thing of beauty…maybe not timeless beauty, but certainly more than today’s (yesterday’s?) Hummer of beauty or those new “baleen-mouthed new Lincolns”. Maybe it’s a bit like rococo architecture in that it’s useless today, maybe not practical, and somewhat of an eye sour…but I think we’re all better off for it.

    • 0 avatar

      Look also to the grille of the MkII … it is a die-cast wonder (probably contributed mightily to the loss on each car) perhaps second only to the eldorado grille of the same era.

  • avatar

    Could this thread be complete without mentioning that a Continental was Sonny Corleone’s death car?

    • 0 avatar

      No, it couldn’t. Anyone else meet an untimely death in a Lincoln car of that vintage?

    • 0 avatar

      Jayne Mansfield? If memory serves me correctly.

    • 0 avatar

      Nope. Jayne died in a ’66 deuce and a quarter:

      The amazing thing is that the kids in the back seat survived. Mariska said that they were asleep, and I presume lying down on the seat.

  • avatar
    Facebook User

    The 40-41 Continental is the most beautiful silhouette of US cars. I believe the 41 had push button doors making the view even more eye easy than the original. It was a hint at some great designs to follow in the next two decades from the once big three. Were I able to be a collector that issue would be my first purchase and for that matter would be happy stopping there and simply relishing its classic lines.

  • avatar

    My father had a 4 door 58 when I was a 7 years old. The fact that the inverted back window went down was very cool & provided the fastest way to clear the ever present cigarette smoke. Interesting that it was unibody as I also remember the night the “ass end broke” as my father said. It sounded like we had been rear-ended. Those Lincolns had the largest rear overhang ever.. and she let lose after 7 years old with 85,000 miles on the clock….an old car & not worth fixing in those days.

  • avatar

    I actually like that 55 Lincoln. Aside from the hockey-stick trim at the rear wheel, it’s a nice piece of conservative(before that meant mind-numbingly boring)styling. The 58 is hideous.

    Love the add at the top, “Hood is 7 inches longer”. Can you imagine a car company bragging about hood length these days? Compensating much?

  • avatar

    Paul, you are hitting some serious middle school memories. When I was in 7th grade in the fall of 1972 and when all of my car-crazy friends were oogling at Muscle cars, I had a serious thing for old Lincolns.
    My best friend’s dad had a 1947 Lincoln (they were no longer called Zephyr after the war) sedan. A big, black, pristine low-mile beast of a car. Had the original V-12, and it was nearly silent at idle. It also had the most beautiful translucent red plastic steering wheel I had ever seen.
    You do not capture how truly awful that flathead V-12 was. In contrast to the real Lincoln V-12 of the senior cars (that was a fabulous engine), the Ford-derived unit was usually good for about 30K before the need for a rebuild. In addition to the cooling problems, they often suffered from marginal oil pressure due to hydraulic valve lifters and an undersized oil pump. They were bad sludgers, unless regularly revved to high rpms, which no Lincoln drivers ever did. Also, Lincoln offered no automatic transmission until 1949, and then it was a GM HydraMatic.
    The classic Continentals often had Mercury V8s installed in place of the 12. This was perhaps the only car right after WWII that did not have long waiting lists. As a teenager, my friend’s dad had a whole bunch of these, that he recalled as wonderful cars that could be bought cheaply if you knew how to deal with the V-12’s many issues.
    You also gloss over the 1952-55 “Road Race Lincolns”. During the Carrera Pan Americana Mexican Road race run in those years, the Lincolns were the ones to beat. IIRC, they came in 1-2-3-4 one of those years. They were lightweight, handled well with the new ball joint front suspensions, and had a fairly stout V8. They are also, in my opinion, one of the best looking cars of the 50s (the 55 in particular.)
    Finally, I believe that the 1958-60 Lincoln was the largest unit body ever built. I always kind of liked these (the 59 and 60 in particular) but my same friend’s dad would just shake his head and tell me what utter pieces of crap they were. He had a much higher opinion of almost anything built in the 40s or 60s than about any 50s US car.
    The Contintal cabriolet in your top picture is perhaps the best looking car from the 1st half of the 20th century. Also, the 46-48 Contintal was at one time the only postwar car recogniced by the Classic Car Club of America (CCCA) that officially designated what was and was not a Classic.
    This is gonna be a great week.

    • 0 avatar

      As to that Classic Car Club of America designation, still is. The Lincoln Continental was the last car they allowed in, and nobody’s ever added more – at least the last time I looked (which was about twenty years ago).

  • avatar

    I gotta admit I loved the 58-60 Lincolns (regular rear sloping rear window) and Continentals (reverse slope retractable rear window). The Continentals (called MK III, IV, and V for their respective years, something that Fords kinda ‘forgot’ when it came time to due the luxury coupe thing again) were more expensive and had a higher interior trim level.

    To me, they were the essence of the ’50’s, not the ’59 Cadillac.

  • avatar

    I collect Chryslers and Imperials myself. I have a 63 Imperial lebaron that I am restoring, 73 Imperial lebaron, and my latest addition is a 78 New Yorker Brougham 2 door. I would like to get an exner designed 57-62 2 door new yorker or 300, but so far most that I have run across in decent shape are a bit steep for my budget.
    I have been around and driven lincolns, as my x fatherinlaw owned a mark V and 76 town coupe.
    I owned a 77 town car back in the early 90’s for about a year or so.
    Although I am chrysler man there are a couple of lincolns that are among the best looking cars ever made in my book. If I could afford one there would be a mark 111 sitting in the building with my cars.
    I can count the cars from the 80’s that I would own on one hand, unfortunately there’s nothing from the 80’s from chrysler worth owning for us mopar guys. But my favorite car from that decade is the MrkV11 lsc hands down. the only other lincoln that I care for from a styling standpoint is the engel designed continental ragtop from the 60’s and maybe a 70-73 town coupe.

  • avatar
    the duke

    Nice write-up Paul. I definitely look forward to discussion on the 1961, as it was always one of my favorites (and greatly inspired Brook Stevens in the re-design that became the GT Hawk).

    And while I know you couldn’t cover them all, and arguable they are not that influential, I feel the 1957 Premier is a car that never gets its due. I’ll take a convertible in coral.

    And because I really like odd-duck old cars, I also have a soft spot for the late forties/early fifties Cosmopolitans, especially the suicide door sedans.

    Yes, I have an illness.

    • 0 avatar

      I always thought the Cosmopolitan with the Hudson fastback styling was really cool … In the mid 1980’s, I ran into a guy in my hometown that had just bought one out of a barn … and was on a kind of trial drive after getting the flat-head engine running … (I don’t know the year and couldn’t find a picture, sorry.)…

      Also liked the Lincoln rag-top Eva Marie Saint was driving in North by Northwest.

    • 0 avatar

      +1 on the Premiere, a really nice looking car for its time

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    My favorite is the 1956 Lincoln Premiere. The optional continental kit added approximately 24-inches to it’s already considerable 223 inches.

  • avatar

    How dare you not show us a beautiful Zephyr coupe?? Well you can see one here a 1937 though I have a slight preference for the 1939 model.
    These are better with the fender skirts on too.

  • avatar

    Paul- was there 6 divisions or just 5?(2 Mercury divisions?) A minor editing comment to an otherwise great writeup.

  • avatar

    Abraham Lincoln “our greatest president”? I once believed that high school textbook lie. Think about it. The Founders of America seceded from England. The Southern States Voted to secede from the Union. Voting is a peaceful act. What is the difference? Lincoln could have said, “Go, you will be back in 10 or 20 years anyway”. But no, he sought to use force to prevent them from leaving the Union. He went through general after general until he found a drunk and a psychopath to do his dirty job for him. He was only “elected”, if you can call it that, by less than 40%. The South had essentially no president during those years and no representation. Where in the Constitution was Lincoln authorized to use force to prevent them from leaving the Union? Nowhere in it. He acted totally outside of any legal authority or law. Moreover, slavery was legal by the Dred Scott decision until long after the war. The South was unhappy due to intimidation by Bully North, unfairness in taxation and freight rates and industrial North against agrarian South. How many innocent people were killed in the Civil War? Also, this war was the first ratcheting up of federal government power which obliterated the very reason the country was formed in the first place to limit federal power. This was the reason we have lost almost all our rights today. Do not celebrate a criminal lawbreaker named Abraham Lincoln who gang raped our Constitution. He was nothing but a criminal outlaw. You have been lied to and brainwashed by the “experts” in history who write all the lying history books.
    I am an old hot rodder from Sierra Madre. 1937 chev coupe; Zolotone like a speckled bird. Full race GMC engine. 1937 Ford with full race blown Chrysler engine; took to Bonneville when I was about 17. Couldn’t get it running right luckily for us or would be long dead.
    Winfield J. Abbe, Ph.D. Physics

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