Look At What I Found!: 1956 Continental Mark II Convertible by Hess & Eisenhardt

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
look at what i found 1956 continental mark ii convertible by hess eisenhardt
Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth. TTAC thanks Mr. Barry Wolk for graciously making his car available for this photo shoot.

You can divide collectors into two main groups, generalists and specialists. In my taxonomy Barney Pollard and the Sultan of Brunei would be generalists and Joe Bortz would be a specialist. Some people collect Chevys. Others collect just “tri-five” mid 1950s Chevrolets. Of course for every specialty there’s a subspecialty, so some people collect only ’57 two-door Chevy pillarless hardtops with fuel injection and factory two tone paint.

Barry Wolk is a specialist. He collects Continentals. There’s his big black 1977 Lincoln Continental Town Car along with his 1956 Chris Craft Continental wood boat. He’s even got a Porsche Continental. In the mid 1950s, importer Max Hoffman convinced the headquarters in Stuttgart that Americans bought cars with names, not numbers, and the 356A with the 1500cc engine was briefly marketed in the US in 1955 and 1956 as the Continental. Ford, having established prior use for that model name in the late 1930s, complained and Porsche changed the badging from “Continental” to “European” before reverting to alphanumerics. One reason why Ford was concerned is that in 1955 they were about to relaunch the Continental brand with the Continental Mark II. Barry has one of those Continentals too, but as you might expect from a specialist collector, Wolk has a very unique Mark II, a Mark II convertible. Even more unique than that, it’s one of only two Mark IIs made into convertibles by Ford Motor Company.

The Mark II was designed with an open top in mind. One of the five original styling models was a convertible and the body and frame were designed to deal with the additional stresses an open car experiences. Ford’s short lived Continental Division, though, never made any production convertibles. Over the years a number of conversion companies have tried their hands at making convertible Mark IIs. While the results have been attractive, some Continental enthusiasts are ambivalent about them. There are two custom convertible Mark IIs extant, however, that the Lincoln Continental Owners Club considers to be authentic Ford Motor Company products. There is usually only one way that a customized car will be accepted as authentic by the kind of car clubs that are devoted to 100 point restorations. That’s if the customization has been done by the manufacturer, as with show cars and concept vehicles. Correspondingly, vehicles that start out as engineering and executive special builds (like the one of a kind 1968 Z-28 convertible built so that ragtop fanatic Pete Estes would sign off on the Z28 program) and end up in private hands are also accorded authenticity once their provenance has been established. So in the case of William Clay Ford’s personal Mark II, which had a 460 V8 drivetrain retrofitted into the car by Ford’s Dearborn fab shop in the late 1960s, the LCOC considers it to be 100% Ford.

The Mark II was in development when Chevrolet introduced the Corvette. To make a small two-seater in a hurry, the Mark II’s design was scaled down to make the 1955 Thunderbird. Later, the T-Bird would return the favor as Elwood Engel’s proposal for the 1961 Thunderbird had two doors added to make it into the classic ’61 Lincoln Continental

Barry Wolk’s Mark II convertible falls into that category. For a long time, it was thought that there was just one “official” Mark II convertible, commissioned by the Dearborn headquarters and built by the Derham Custom Body Company. Apparently there were supposed to be three Derham Mark IIs but there is no record of any others existing. Originally used as a show car, it was later given to Mrs. William Clay Ford for her personal use. Mrs. Ford subsequently sold it to a Ford executive who was a member of the LCOC. In time it passed into the possession of another LCOC member, Walter Goeppinger. Based on communications he had had with Wm Clay Ford, Goeppinger was convinced that he had that rare automotive bird, a one of one, and that his Mark II convertible was the only legitimate one of that one. Based mostly on Goeppinger’s claims, the car that Wolk ended up owning was said to be a counterfeit, not authorized by FoMoCo. The Derham Mark II car currently is owned by the Gilmore Museum.

So when Barry Wolk bought his Mark II, he was more interested in it as a thing of beauty, “rolling sculpture”, than its authenticity. Then, when he was invited to join the LCOC he started to research his own car’s provenance. It turned out that his car was indeed commissioned by Ford Motor Company in 1955, only by the automaker’s Chicago sales division, and that it was actually the first Mark II convertible made, before Dearborn started working with Derham. According to the Benson Ford Research Center in Dearborn, Wolk’s car was the 137th Mark II made, and it was built and shipped to the Chicago Ford distributor as an “introductory unit”, to be used on showroom floors to attract traffic but still owned by Ford Motor Company. Ford’s Chicago distributor, though, shipped the unit soon after to Hess & Eisenhardt, known for their limousine and hearse conversions. The intention was to show the car to gauge interest from potential customers in the Chicago area. There was apparently some thought given to producing a retractable hardtop version of the Mark II and work was begun on development. That would take time, so using a company like Hess & Eisenhardt was a quick way to get an open body Mark II in front of the public, though development on the retractable hardtop continued. When the Mark II was discontinued, Ford shifted development of the hardtop convertible to it’s more mainstream cars, resulting in the legendary Ford Fairlane and Galaxie Skyliner coupes of the late 1950s.

Though the Mark II had indeed been designed from scratch to accommodate an open body, Hess & Eisenhardt didn’t take anything for granted. In addition to adding a folding soft roof (based on Mercedes Benz mechanicals), a steel hoop was added to the body for reinforcement, and 1/8″ steel plates were welded to the top of the car’s frame rails.

Note the exhaust pipe running between the rocker panel and frame so the car could ride as low as possible.

The Mark II was designed with a “cow belly” ladder frame that retained foot room while allowing the car to be lowered. Additionally, special exhaust manifolds were designed to route the exhaust horizontally out of the engine compartment, then down inside the fender and back towards the rear end through a space between the rocker panels and the frame. Normally the exhaust would have been routed under the frame. To maintain proper body to frame clearance on the convertible, Hess & Eisenhardt shaved the rubber body mounting bushings by the thickness of the steel reinforcing plates. Early air conditioned luxury cars carried a lot of the equipment under the parcel shelf behind the rear seat. Because of the folding top’s mechanism, the a/c components were moved into the trunk, so between that and the “continental” spare tire location, there’s not much trunk space.

Next to the cast aluminum valve covers with Lincoln stars, are the darker grey exhaust manifolds routing the exhaust pipe into the fender and out to the back of the car.

But this isn’t a car to be filled with luggage for a long trip, it’s a car to be seen in. Still, Wolk says that it’s the best riding car he’s ever driven, stable well over 80 mph on the highway. He insisted that the Mark II’s massive drum brakes stop as well as modern discs stop. As a man of some means it’s not like he hasn’t driven contemporary luxury cars, so his opinion carries some weight. Mrs. Wolk drives a BMW Z3 roadster so I’m sure that when they’ve taken it in for routine service a BMW salesman or two has tried to sell them a sedan.

As mentioned, when he first bought the car, Wolk was interested in its styling, not its history. While the car was on display at the Ford headquarters in connection with their ’03 centennial, an older gentleman approached Wolk and told him that the workmanship was Hess & Eisenhardts. That piqued his curiosity and Wolk started looking into his car’s background. Eventually a long retired shop manager for the conversion company was located and he remembered the processes involved in making the car, down to markings on the modifications that verified that Wolk’s car was the same vehicle. Other former H&E employees have concurred that Wolk’s car is the first Mark II convertible.

Like with many 1950s cars, Ford got clever with the exhaust tips and fuel filler. Those are Wolk’s blue jeans reflecting in the chrome’s shinier-than-mirrored finish.

Since then Barry Wolk has become a bit of an expert on the Continental Mark II. You can read his account of the car’s history here, with some additional materials here. Or you can just search for [continental wolk]. Barry’s rather proud of his cars.

It’s tasteful but the Mark II brings the bling. That ashtray (remember ashtrays?) is for rear passengers. Front passengers had their own lighters but used an ashtray mounted on the dash. Today they’d say the car has 5 power ports.

Wolk’s car is beautifully restored and a show winner. Of course with two frame off restorations in less than 80,000 miles, it should look good. Flawless doesn’t do the car justice. The beautiful not-quite-dark-blue paint shows off the car’s contours exceptionally well and looks like it’s about a quarter of an inch thick. The fit and finish is the equivalent of any of today’s ultra luxury marques, not surprisingly because the Mark II indeed cost as much as a Rolls-Royce when new (about the cost of two Cadillacs or three Thunderbirds). The brightwork on the car is jewellike. The combined effect of the blue paint and silvery chrome is visually arresting. No gold plated blingmobile ever looked this good. The quality of the car’s finishes is such that in processing the photos for here and for the more extensive gallery at Cars In Depth I had to leave out some photos because the paint and chrome picked up clear reflections of some chubby redheaded dork in shorts, white socks and black loafers wearing a TTAC cap. Actually, you can see Wolk’s own blue jeans in a couple of the shots.

The owner of the three Ford family Mark IIs joked on My Classic Car that the car has 150 lbs of chrome in the plating. That may not be an exaggeration. To begin with, though brightwork is used tastefully on the car, it’s all over the place. The door jams have chrome plated panels on both the door and the striker plate. All the hardware for the door, including the latch mechanism, is chromed. Ford even had stainless steel trim polished and then chrome plated. The grille with tiny egg crating is also chrome plated, as are rings inside the frenched headllamps. The only exterior brightwork that isn’t chromed are the satin finished aluminum hubcaps, the matte finish being set off from the chrome and having some contrast from all that shiny stuff that looks just right. If the paint looks 1/4″ thick, the chrome on the grille and bumpers must be 1/2″ thick. All that blue and chrome is set off by an interior in blue and white leather upholstery.

All the door hardware was chrome plated from the factory.

I didn’t want to be rude and ask how much his own car is worth but Wolk said that Mark IIs are surprisingly affordable, that $80,000 will buy you a show winner and for the cost of a modern family sedan you can get a nice driver. One reason for their relatively low cost is that they aren’t that rare. Though Ford only made about 4,000, about half still exist, about the same percentage of Corvettes made, and most Corvettes weren’t made 55 years ago nor do their fiberglass bodies rust. The surviving Mark IIs’ longevity has to be at least in part due to the care with which the Continentals were assembled. The cars, including the drivetrains, were pretty much hand made. Something like seven coats of topcoat paint were used. The engines were essentially blueprinted, with hand picked and balanced parts. The brake drums were carefully balanced in sets. All that care resulted in cars that were pretty durable. As rare and as perfect as it is, it’s no trailer queen. Wolk drives it to car events and meets, putting about 2,000 miles a year on it. Wolk said that the car has only stranded him once, when an a/c compressor failed, seized and melted a fan belt. Another factor in their affordable collector value (well, for hardtop Mark IIs) is that restoration costs are kept in check by the Mark II’s use of mechanical components from the bigger selling Lincolns. That may also explain why so many of the Mark IIs are drivers, not museum pieces.

The a/c components had to be moved for the roof mechanism, so between that and the “continental” spare tire, there’s just enough room for a car show’s worth of folding chairs and car care products.

Getting paid to write about cars is a cool gig, no doubt. You get media access to things not open to the general public, you get to meet top shelf car guys, you get to drive a variety of cool cars for free, and you rarely pay to get into any car related event. Sometimes, though, the sense that you are being privileged is palpable. It’s trite to use it for an inanimate object like a car, but while taking these photos I had the feeling of being in the presence of greatness, like seeing the Hope Diamond. The Mark II may be an inanimate object but it sprang from the imaginations of some pretty creative people, with one objective, to make the best with no compromises. Though they met that objective, the Mark II wasn’t a commercial success. After initial sales that were far far better than expected, the big recession of 1957 cut sales by almost 90% and after only two years the Mark II ws discontinued and the new Continental Division, started just for the Mark II (though planned for more models like a four door version), was shuttered. The short line on the Continental Mark II is that Ford Motor Co. lost $1,000 on every $10,000 Mark II. Actually, that would have been less than half a million dollars, not a huge sum even back in 1957. After all, Ford was about to lose something like $200 million on the Edsel. Most likely that $1,000 doesn’t include the costs of setting up an entirely new division. At the very least, the Mark II was successful in baiting General Motors into selling an even more extravagantly priced Cadillac, the $13,074 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham. Still, the Mark II was a landmark design and the convertible version is a concrete example of what could have been.

The Mark II sits next to another of Barry Wolk’s Continentals

A note about Look At What I Found! I’m not sure if there’s a rulebook and I haven’t asked Murilee or Paul N. about what’s proper, but unlike other cars in this series I didn’t just happen upon the H&E Mark II convertible. I had written another LAWIF! about a late 1970s Lincoln Continental Town Coupe and have recently posted, on Cars In Depth, some classic prewar Lincolns and Mark IIs that I’d seen at local car shows, and had been researching the Mark II when I found out about the car.

Another Continental. Porsche importer Max Hoffman didn’t think Americans would buy cars without names so for about a year, the 356 was sold in the US as the Porsche Continental… until Ford complained because they were about to revive the name for the Mark II.

When I realized this car was located in the Detroit area I started to search to see if I could find a contact email address for Mr. Wolk. It’s a small world. On his Facebook page it said that we had a Facebook friend in common, my younger sister. My nephew is getting married next weekend and I did some embroidery for the chuppah, so I’ve been on the phone a bit with my sister. I asked her how she knew Barry and she told me that he’s a cousin by marriage. The world is smaller yet. It so happens that his wife and my mom are second cousins. Normally I’d be a little reluctant to just call a private collector up and ask to shoot his or her car, but how could mishpacha refuse? Besides, to say that Barry is proud of his car would be to grossly underestimate his affection for the car. When I asked, he told me that he loved having the car photographed, and a moment’s searching on the internet will show that he’s made the car available for both photo and video shoots. When I got to their home, the Wolks had already put the car on the drive. Their garden and landscaping was in full midsummer bloom and Barry had suggested that it made a great backdrop. It was a beautiful Michigan day and he was right. I’m hardly a skilled photographer, but with a subject like Wolk’s Mark II convertible, it’s hard to take a bad shot. The car simply has no bad angles.

Yet another Continental, this one a near original ’56 Chris Craft. Wolk bought it as a “prop” for his Mark II but now is getting into wooden boats. Even when the garden isn’t in bloom, the Continental looks great.

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2 of 40 comments
  • Warm_ky_jelly Warm_ky_jelly on Apr 29, 2012

    "The Truth" needs to dig a little deeper about Barry's Mark II. The true old-time Mark II experts, most of which have now passed on to their just rewards, almost to a man, agreed that Barry's convertible WAS NOT a factory/dealership ordered modified Mark II but in fact a vehicle that had incurred roof damage during shipping and was modified instead of being scrapped. Barry has a rather LARGE ego and if you revisit some of the posts from long ago on the Linclon bulletin board at www.LCOC.org you can follow the threads on the true authenticity of the Wolkmobile. Barry has even stated numberous times that he has quit entering his vehicle in judged competition because, to paraphrase,"the judges don't know what their talking about and the true history of the car". Barry is rewritting a portion of the history of the Mark II and his car in general, mainly because "those that know" are no longer around to refute his made-up "facts".

  • Barry Wolk Barry Wolk on May 01, 2012

    Love people like this that don't use their real names.

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