Journal: Driven by Design: Lincoln Continental

Driven by Design: Lincoln Continental

Avatar By Yoav Gilad
March 8, 2014
11 comments

(This article is part of the Driven by Design series.)

Photography by Sean Lorentzen for Petrolicious

Fifty years on, Lincoln finds itself in a similar situation. But let’s back up. In many respects the fourth generation Lincoln Continental was the antithesis of a luxury car. It represented the consolidation of the Lincoln brand as it replaced the Capri and Premiere models, and absorbed the Continental marque. This merger of luxury lines was a financial requirement as Lincoln hemorrhaged cash over the previous few years due to continued hand-assembly. Sadly, while they lost money Lincoln simultaneously lost market share.

The problem was that Lincoln was trying to out-style Cadillac when Caddy already controlled nearly 75% of the luxury car market. Since 1948, Cadillac had defined taste. The fact that a 1956 Continental Mark II cost as much as a Rolls-Royce (about $10,000) and that a recession hit in the late ‘50s didn’t help either (and ultimately doomed another Ford brand—Edsel). Lincoln clearly needed to change direction and the new (fourth generation) Continental was just the change they needed.

Much like the Oldsmobile Toronado wasn’t intended to be a production car, the Connie (as it’s known affectionately) was never intended to be a Lincoln. Obviously, it was too small and would have represented a decrease in overall length from its predecessor, scandalous in those days. It was actually designed as a Ford Thunderbird proposal. But when Mr. Robert McNamara (eventually the first person to become President of Ford Motor Co. that wasn’t a ‘Ford’, and later the US Secretary of Defense) saw designer Elwood Engel’s rejected, austere model, he selected it, on the spot, as the next Continental.

The design that McNamara chose was lengthened and modified slightly from Engel’s original design to make it less of a Thunderbird (for instance, the round taillights were dropped). But it turned out to be a sales success with over 25,000 units sold in its first year alone. It’s not hard to understand why: even today, it’s thoroughly modern. The proportion is a conventional front-engine, rear-wheel drive, with the rear doors pushed as close to the rear wheels as possible, giving the car ample dash-to-axle (the distance from the front wheels to the dashboard) length and speaking to a large, powerful engine.

The most striking things about the Continental however, are the sheer surfacing that runs the length of the car and absence of ornamentation. This is how Lincoln announced that they were going to do their own thing and stop trying to design gimmicks to compete with Cadillac. They designed a serious car, with nothing fanciful or frivolous about it, that demanded respect. Most people think that a lack of decoration indicates a lack of design. It’s usually quite the opposite: an abundance of details and surface changes usually speaks to a lack of confidence on the designer’s part, as though they’re trying to convince you of their mastery by adding knickknacks.

This is why the decorations in profile, aside from the Continental script on the rear fender, are limited to wheelhouses that are rearward swept to give the car a bit of motion and the slight rise to the rear fenders (in addition to the slightly covered rear tires and wheels). This effectively thickens the rear adding visual weight, which coupled with the C-pillar, easily communicates the car’s rear-wheel drive layout.

There is one detail however that is a bit of a curiosity. It is well known that the Continental has rear suicide doors. And while grouping the door handles certainly looks more organized, they were not initially planned. They were actually added by the engineers to aid in rear entry and exit as hinging them on the B-pillar caused the engineers to bump their feet on the door when trying to exit the car.

Much like the rear doors that were designed to function as they do out of necessity, yet became one of the Connie’s iconic features, so too did the car, designed to decrease costs and save the brand become an icon of American auto design. By redefining what a luxury car was and eschewing the era’s conventional wisdom, Lincoln surged back from the brink. I hope they can do it again.

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Mark T. JordanIlmor RouladenBradford HamiltonNathan LelandEddie Relvas Recent comment authors
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Mark Jordan
Mark Jordan

In the mid-’70s I had a ’62 hardtop, robin’s egg blue with a medium silver-blue leather interior. Found the car in Burbank with 105K on the odo for $500, filled it with gas and drove up I-5 to Northern Cal, where it was my DD for three years. A strong, capable cruiser, it drove smaller than it looked.

Ilmor Rouladen

My grandfather had a ’65. I rode around in that with him for 5 years as a kid. I remember loving that car so much!

Bradford Hamilton
Bradford Hamilton

A few things, McNamara was not at the board meeting when this design was approved. In fact, the stylist were afraid of McNamara because he told them that if do so much as ad an inch to the length of the Continental, he was cancelling Lincoln all together. Elwood’s Thunderbird was designed in the spirit of the Mark II, hence the connection. It was Henry Ford II that selected the design saying it was too elegant to be a Thunderbird.

Nathan Leland
Nathan Leland

Maybe all they need to do is offer a four-door ‘vert again. Give it the presence of the Continental and they could be well on their way.

Eddie Relvas
Eddie Relvas

Another personal favourite, and an interesting read. I had no idea about the T-bird connection either. The design is oh-so-cool, and I agree that the lack of gimmicks shows how neat and resolved the design is. I’ve wanted one for ages, and I actually avoided watching the opening credits to “Entourage” to keep me from going nuts… this is the epitome of cool.

Alvin Chiu
Alvin Chiu

That Kennedy/Johnson bumper sticker is definitely a nice touch.

Todd Cox
Todd Cox

Even if you put a gun to my head and demanded to know why I so deeply love this automobile, I don’t think I could. I used to pass two on the way to my high school every morning, and something about them grabbed and held my attention even though they were starting to become yard rot. I loved them and pined for them. This is such an elegant, tasteful, well-proportioned car that it is difficult it came from America. The beauty in how reserved and deliberate the lines are and the use of chrome to stand off the deep… Read more »

Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange

Love these. Also trying to think of other production 4 door full convertibles made post WW2. Can’t be many?

Mark Jordan
Mark Jordan

Matthew, I believe Frazer (as in Kaiser-Frazer) built a 4-door convertible around 1950-51. Google ’em and some pics will show up.

Dustin Rittle
Dustin Rittle

I always did like these old Lincoln Continental. From the slab sided good looks to its most recognized trademark the ‘suicide doors’ the car just has a very powerful presence when you see one driving down the road. One fact i never knew was that it was originally meant to be a Thunderbird which i think is very interesting part of the article. thanks again for a good read