Travel: The Continental Pt. 7: Lincoln Takes On Cadillac

The Continental Pt. 7: Lincoln Takes On Cadillac

By Christie Grotheim
October 5, 2012

(This article is part of the 15-part series, The Continental, written by Christie Grotheim with photography by Niklas Andersson as the couple takes a six-week road trip across and around the United States in their 1979 Lincoln Continental. Click here to catch up on the full series.)

“Amarillo by mornin’. Up from San Anton’. The only thing that I’ve got is just what I’ve got on…”

The lyrics of George Strait kept running through my head, and occasionally came out through my mouth as we headed toward West Texas. I sang the verse again and again, my country accent increasing with each rendition along with the volume. If Niklas became annoyed, he didn’t let on. Westward bound, we were both on cloud nine. It felt like a real turning point—the second phase of the trip. Our plan for the day was to drive through Amarillo to the Cadillac Ranch to explore and take photos before traveling a couple of hours south where we would camp for the night in the canyons.

Cadillac Ranch is an art installation consisting of ten old Caddies half-buried nose first in the ground, with back ends up, tailfins pointing skyward as if saluting the sun. They face west in a line arranged by year, from the 1949 Club Sedan to the 1963 Sedan de Ville. Standing tall and evenly spaced, they can be to seen from far and wide in the flat open space of the panhandle.

Eccentric millionaire Stanley Marsh commissioned a San Francisco-based artists’ collective called The Ant Farm to help him in the creation of a unique work of art for his sprawling ranch in 1974. The group acquired ten used Cadillacs—mostly purchased from junkyards and averaging only $200 each—and stuck them in the dirt along the historic remains of Route 66. The cars were meant to represent the “Golden Age” of American automobiles.

What better way to arrive at such a monument than in our ’79 Continental Town Car, our Golden Girl. As any fellow Lincoln owner can understand, we wanted to make a statement. And that statement was: “We are driving a well-preserved, fully-functional Lincoln into a rusting Cadillac graveyard.”

Once we purchased our vehicle, I was made aware of the on-going competition between Lincoln and Cadillac for the domination of the luxury automobile industry in America for much of this century.

Niklas had specifically narrowed our car search down to an exact year, the year when Lincolns ruled over Cadillacs in both length and luxury. Cadillac scaled back in 1977 and left Lincoln in a league of its own; in fact, by 1979 the Continental was the largest mass-market automobile produced worldwide.

This alone won Niklas over, but the battle between the two brands goes far beyond size. Lincoln was established in 1917 by Henry Leland, an automotive parts manufacturer who had founded Cadillac in 1909, before the companies were bought by Ford and GM respectively. So it really comes down to a long-standing sibling rivalry. Like competitive sisters, they have tried to outdo each other for decades.

In 1936 Lincoln launched the Zephyr, named after the train that inspired its protruding aerodynamic nose, while Cadillac produced the Phaeton. The ’40s gave rise to the glamorous Continental, yet Cadillac was actually the first to introduce a Town Car in 1940.

This short video from the fifties is a good example of Lincoln’s marketing—as well as the ongoing feud. In the sixties, there is no doubt that Cadillacs chauffeured important people around, but it was the ’60s era Continentals—known for their suicide doors—that were chosen to be used as our country’s presidential limousines.

When we arrived at Cadillac Ranch in our presidential vehicle, we were disappointed that we couldn’t pull right up next to the sculpture for maximum impact, but had to leave it far behind and walk into a dusty field. Even so, as we neared the installation it was spectacular. The cars were so layered with graffiti that they became an abstract blur of color; you had to walk between them to see their individual shapes.

I enjoy interactive art, and these were, in every sense of the word. You could climb in them and on them. Half-used spray paint cans were scattered all around, begging to be picked up. Their frames and fins created powerful silhouettes and I couldn’t help but appreciate the design of the era. The attention to detail, the curves, the flair, the overall pizzazz that, frankly, both Cadillacs and Lincolns in their evolution are missing today.

And there have been many transformations to the installation; at first the cars displayed their original paint jobs—aqua, banana yellow, sky blue and gold, but in no time visitors started scratching their names in the cars. Windows were smashed by vandals, and the chrome, radios, speakers and even some of the doors disappeared to souvenir hounds.

Surprisingly, Marsh and The Ant Farm were tolerant of this public deconstruction of their art and eventually even encouraged it. The vehicles have been repainted various colors for special events: once all white for a television commercial, another time pink in honor of Marsh’s wife’s birthday, once black to mark the passing of one of the original artists. The cars were briefly restored to their original colors for a Route 66 landmark restoration project, and recently they were painted rainbow colors to commemorate gay pride day. They have changed with the times but remain meaningful, giving each wave of visitors a fresh canvas on which to make their mark.

Continuing across Texas, we rarely encountered another car on the highway and once again felt like we ruled the road. After eternal grasslands, we started to see slight hills, cacti and red rocks: hints of things to come. We got our first taste of the visually delicious desert.

When we reached the canyon and hiked to the edge, the earth opened up to us, revealing nature’s own installation. It looked as if it had been split open with a huge hammer and pulled apart by giant fingers. Deep reds, sepias, and pink tones were revealed on the raw exposed walls, stretched and striated.

Who won in the end in the battle of the brands? Who knows. At least cars designers in earlier eras focused on elevating their products to an art, rather than mass-producing the plastic eggs on wheels you see today, motivated only by functionality and economics. It really didn’t matter anyway. What lay in front of us wiped away all previous thought, and was far more powerful than any manmade structure, be it auto or be it art.

Niklas Andersson is a lighting designer and photographer from Gothenburg, Sweden, who has recently set his sights—and lights—on New York City. With a passion for ’79 Lincoln Continentals and a love of the open road, he offers a unique perspective, from both behind the wheel and behind the lens.

Christie Grotheim is a New York-based writer whose personal essays can be found at Ducts, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and Smith Magazine. Though her workspace is in the West Village, she prefers writing longhand from the passenger seat with the world whizzing by and the wind in her hair.

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