Driven by Design: Lincoln Continental
(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.