By on December 7, 2010

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.

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39 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1946 Lincoln Continental – The Most Imitated American Car Ever...”

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    This is a seriously butt-ugly car. Reminds me of the garish miscegnations that Mitsuoka is notorious for.

  • avatar

    I adore the original effort by Bob and Edsel.  Staggering.

    The later changes are like excessive make-up on a beautiful woman-it mars rather than enhances and distracts from the real beauty.  Icky.

    The opposite of “lipstick on a pig”-it’s like having a poster of Gisele Bundchen in a trench coat and gorilla mask-whats the point?


  • avatar

    Hopefully the eventual restoration is tasteful.  I do however see the pull to make it into a chopped, “slammed”, dragster-like monster being irresistible for an owner.

    • 0 avatar

      That has so much hot rod potential.  The stance is great as it sits.  I wouldn’t chop the roof, but I would tastefully customize the front-end if it was mine.  Metallic burgundy paint with a black roof, and chrome those steel rims and call it good.
      Oh yeah, gotta yank that SBC and put in a worthy engine.  With that long hood, maybe a Viper V10.

  • avatar

    Love the waterfall grill on that Chrysler, although the gun-slit windows are a bit much even by today’s standards.  As for the 46 Conti, it does look like the perfect ride for your slumlord villain.

  • avatar

    What, no opera windows and a bare metal roof? Pshaw.

  • avatar

    Interesting . . . so this is where designers got the inspiration for the 2007 Navigator grille (at least the lower one).

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Darn the new owner should have dropped a 460V8 out of a late 60s Lincoln in that bad boy.  Or Ford Diesel power FTW!

  • avatar

    The ’40 and ’41 Continentals were gorgeous. The ’42 facelift bulked up the car and the slathering of chrome for ’46 was unfortunate. Interesting that the owner put in temp, oil, and battery gauges below the dash instead of using the same gauges that were already in the instrument cluster.

  • avatar

    A beautiful car…unfortunately, the drivetrain wasn’t nearly as good as the styling. The Lincoln V-12 was the most problematic powerplant of its day. I do believe, however, that this restyle appeared for the brief 1942 model year.

    • 0 avatar

      The boxier fenders and bluff nose came along for ’42, but the upper and lower grilles were thin horizontal bars instead of the heavy chrome crosshatch.

  • avatar

    It looks like it’s fuel should be testosterone, not gasoline. That is one seriously machismo styled car.

  • avatar

    And you all thought the 1969 Cougar looked bloated.

  • avatar

    Geeber is correct about the restyle.  The original production Continental was the 40-41.  And I use the word “production” loosely, as these cars were virtually hand-built in really low numbers, even for Lincoln.  Everyone considers the original Continental as the purest.

    The 1942 Lincolns were all new.  The V-12 was bored out and paired with the new LiquaMatic transmission.  The LiquaMatic was a disaster and virtually all were swapped out for standard 3 speed units after a short time.  The larger V-12 (a bit over 300 cid) was also a disaster, taking all of the V-12’s problems and making them worse. 

    After the war, the 42 Lincolns were given a bolder grille, but that was about the only change, other than reverting back to the 1941 powertrain.  Even so, it was still an engine with problems.  In addition to the cooling system issues, these cars had hydraulic valve lifters and low oil pressure was a perpetual problem that when added to the too-hot engines resulted in early death by sludge.  I have read that if these were wound out and run at higher rpms, they would last a good long time, but nobody drove Lincolns like that.  So they were lugged at low rpms and needed rebuilt at 30K miles.  A lot of owners did not even wait for the 49 Lincoln V8 and swapped in a 46-48 Mercury unit.  Also, every one of these came with a 3 speed manual transmission, as Ford had no automatic available, and the GM HydraMatic would not appear in Lincolns until the 49 models.  I have also read that the postwar Lincoln was about the only car that never developed much of a waiting list (Continental excepted).  They were really not well thought of when new, particularly at the prices they were charging. 

    In 1973, my best friend’s dad owned a 47 Lincoln sedan.  Not the Continental, but the regular Lincoln (no longer called Zephyr after the war).  This was a BEAUTIFUL black low mileage original car that I got to ride in a few times.  Howard’s car still had the V12, and it was the quietest idling car I had ever heard up to that time.  I walked around the front of the car, got in and waited for him to start it.  Instead, he eased the clutch out and started backing up.  Howard had owned several of these as a kid because you could buy a REALLY nice car really cheap in the early 50s if you could keep the V-12s running.

    A couple of final thoughts.  Paul, the musty smell you remember may have been leaking hydraulic fluid from the hydraulic power windows.  These were really cool – the windows went down silently with the push of the button.  Back up the same way except for the quiet whirrr of the hydraulic pump under the hood.  Also, I still remember the beautiful plastic in the car.  The steering wheel and shift know were the most beautiful translucent crimson I had ever seen.  This was the era where plastic was luxurious and this plastic was first rate.  The car was beautifully trimmed inside.  It is unfortunate that the color, the lowered suspension and the lack of brightwork conspire to make this example look pretty homely.  While these were not my favorite of the Continental grilles, they were quite attractive cars in stock form.

    • 0 avatar
      Uncle Mellow

      “It is unfortunate that the color, the lowered suspension and the lack of brightwork conspire to make this example look pretty homely”
      Agreed. The suspension and wheels, in particular, spoil the looks.

    • 0 avatar

      Richie Brockelman chic.

    • 0 avatar

      I remember reading that the sales of the postwar Lincolns weren’t that hot. Continentals may have had waiting lists because all of that handwork slowed down production, so Ford could not produce that many.

      Lincoln dealers were glad when the first postwar Lincoln appeared, but it was quickly outclassed by the new Cadillac, which featured the first tailfins, and, for 1949, the outstanding OHV V-8 and Coupe de Ville hardtop. Plus, the quality of the 1949 Lincolns was terrrible.

  • avatar

    Thanks Paul. Informative and hilarious.  Never knew the Beast had conjured up such troubling history.  At least I let my wife out of the house for an hour or two each day.

  • avatar

    I remember seeing a lot of these in the 60’s with Olds and Cad engines as well as later Ford OHV V8’s. These were never common cars, but I’ll bet the V12 engines are much less common yet.
    Somewhere out in the shop I have a 1953 Rod & Custom magazine with a metallic green customized Continental of this vintage on the cover.

  • avatar
    Jerry Sutherland

    I watched a Lincoln of this era go through a smaller auction in September with no reserve.It was appraised at 70,000-it was an original low mileage unrestored car and the couple who owned it were well into their 70s.They were talked into no reserve and the car sold for 20K. The wife broke down and headed for the restroom and the husband just hung around the car clearly in shock.
    It was clearly a museum quality car that they’d babied for decades but you could see the disaster coming like a car stuck on a train track-this was the wrong auction for this car and they were given really bad advice by the auctioneer.
    Saddest car moment I’ve witnessed in a long time.

  • avatar

    The original design is reflected in today’s Lincolns because it is a beautiful and graceful design. Th split Baleen Whale Lincoln grille appearing across the model line today grew out of the Continental’s split waterfall grille.

    The Post-War redesign however is neither beautiful nor graceful, but instead powerful and muscular. It looks like it was bolted on like a steam locomotive cattle guard. You can actually envision the car without it because it just doesn’t fit the design of the fenders and hood. It is a model update only, not really the kind of fashion statement the previous front end suggested.

    As to whether you consider this year’s design to be more American than the previous year’s, will depend upon how you see America.

    And Mickey Rooney in 1941 was the Hollywood equivalent to Cee Lo Green today – Lincoln would kill to get a similar image like that in 2010, instead of Roger Sterling. It is hard to believe, that at one time, Lincoln had a youthful image among America’s wealthy. Packard and Duesenburg were the old rich fart’s cars pre-WWII.

  • avatar

    I have had 4 Lincoln Continentals, all 62-65s. And have been a member of the Lincoln and Continental Owners Club since the early 80s. While I have to admit that the first series cabrios are very handsome, never much cared for the juke-box fronts that began in 42 and the coupes do nothing for me. (LOVE that original back seat, tho!) When I was growing up in suburban Connecticut in the 60s one saw quite a few of these as daily drivers; most had been converted to Cadillac or Olds OHV V8s.
    When I finally got to drive one of these a few years back, a $100K restoration, I was rather disappointed. The V12 sounded (and performed) like an old Mopar flathead 6. Even the “clunk” when you released the clutch. But classy, very classy.

  • avatar
    Mike C.

    In general terms I find the bulbous cars of the 30-‘s to early 50’s the least attractive of old cars.  But this one has beautiful proportions that somehow transcend this design language….

  • avatar

    Sonny Corleone got machine gunned in a ’41  Technically speaking, he got “sub” machine gunned — Thompson Model 1928.
    Contrary to popular opinion, it was not Barzini’s button-men who iced Sonny.  If the old Don told Sonny once, he told him a thousand times, “Never hand a toll collector a hundred dollar bill.”

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    It’s odd, but as a classic car lover, these have never really done it for me…to me, it’s always looked as if it’d had the roof of another, smaller car grafted onto it.

    BTW, it’s funny Paul, but I’ve notice that a great number of the cars you spot, have the inside driver’s door trim missing…wonder why that is?

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    The second-generation Continental is arguably the single best example of how American automakers have been so lacking in good taste that they will take a true classic and utterly trash it.  Paul tries to be nice but why bother?  The ’46 is a travesty.  That its designer expressed a preference for it over the original says all you need to know about post-war American automotive design.
    I’d nominate the 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk as a runner up to the ’46 Continental as the worst restyling of a modern classic.

    • 0 avatar

      Bob Gregorie was interviewed extensively for the book Edsel Ford and E.T. Gregorie: The Remarkable Design Team and Their Classic Fords of the 1930s and 1940s, and he was surprisingly dismissive of the original Continental.

  • avatar

    Were the 40-41’s oil painitings they would hang in the Louvre. Definitely the work of a da Vinci.
    The 46 Continental could not cut it in Heimie’s House of Schlock and School of Paint by Numbers. Was t

  • avatar

    And he kept a quite young and attractive wife under virtual-house arrest in his big old Victorian.

    You know, I was kind of expecting this article to take a Baruthian turn here. I’m not sure if I’m disappointed…

  • avatar

    It looks like the progenitor of this;

  • avatar

    I thought the 46 Cont is the prettiest car of the mid-century, bought a cabriolet, still V12, Love it

  • avatar
    Mister Mike

    Great writing Paul. Thanks for the details. This baby may not be the most attractive of the 40s Lincolns but ugly? . . . that’s crazy talk!

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