The Lincoln Company was founded by Henry Leland in 1917. This was the man who had rescued Henry Ford’s second venture from collapse and renamed it Cadillac. When Lincoln hit financial problems in 1922 Henry snapped it up for $8 million and promptly reneged on ail his promises to leave Leland in control by summarily dismissing him. Ford left the new acquisition to his son Edsel, his own attention being completely directed towards the Model T. Edsel said that while his father made the most popular car in the world, he planned to make the best.
After the Wall Street Crash Lincoln’s sights were somewhat lowered, and their products owed more to Ford than to any other influence. Then the Briggs coachbuilding firm produced a car designed by Tom Tjaarda; Edsel saw it as a new small Lincoln, and after revision to accept a new V12 engine, the Lincoln-Zephyr was born. It was on this successful base that Edsel decided to have a personal car built for himself in 1938. He got Bob Gregorie, whom he had appointed head of the styling department he had created in 1932, to handle the styling for him, but his major instruction was to ‘make it as continental as possible.’
Gregorie complied, but it was Edsel who insisted that an externally-mounted spare wheel in a special carrier was an essential part of ‘being continental.’ This one-off for Edsel incorporated a 12-inch stretched Zephyr hood and chopped-down Zephyr doors on the specially-built chassis. The rest of the body was handmade to Gregorie’s 1/10-scale clay model. The result was an elegant, well-balanced shape which was destined to be a classic, despite the fact that it had simply been handbuilt to fulfill one man’s dreams.
Lincoln power was standardized on the 266ci L-head V12 introduced for the Zephyr, which at the beginning produced some 110hp at about 3600rpm. It also gave maximum torque at an incredible 400rpm, making it almost strong enough to scale vertical walls and making the gearbox virtually redundant. Unbelievably there was also an overdrive on the three-speed gearbox, operated from a knob on the steering wheel and effective over about 20mph.
By the time Edsel’s personal car was finished the V12 was giving an improved 120hp, and with this sort of power on tap he set off on his annual pilgrimage to Palm Beach. He returned with over 200 orders for the car which was now called the Lincoln Continental.
Edsel was so pleased with the car that he had already ordered two more for his sons, Henry II and Benson. Now, however, it went into production as a handbuilt item in order to build a limited quantity of 500, for the 200 who had seen the car at Palm Beach and those other of Edsel’s friends and contemporaries who could afford it. By late 1939 only 25 had been made, but in 1940 -in the slightly shorter Zephyr sheet metal for the model year – 404 Continentals were made, 54 coupes and the rest cabriolet versions.
In 1941, with only minor detail changes, the Continental really caught on; America liked it, to the extent of 400 cabriolets and 800 coupes (the only two body styles available) in the model year. Perhaps in 1942 the Continental would have sold even better, though the styling changes which squared up its appearance now made it look rather heavier and more cumbersome than Edsel’s original. In fact it was about six inches longer, and most of that was overhanging chrome – the new bumpers were much bigger than before, and the almost delicately scalloped grille on the original had given way to a more traditional but heavyweight arrangement. Engine capacity went up to 292ci, taking the power up to 130hp.
But only 336 Continentals were made; 1942 was the year the United States entered World War II, and the factories were turned over to the production of war matériel – the very thing Leland’s original Lincoln Company had been formed to do and the cessation of which, in 1918, had brought him to Henry Ford’s doorstep. In this conflict, though, it was the Ford empire which churned out a huge quantity of vital supplies — at one time the Willow Run Plant made a complete Liberator bomber every hour.
In 1943 Edsel Ford died; he had taken over from his father in 1941 after an ugly power struggle which ended when Henry Ford suffered a stroke. After Edsel’s death an 80-year-old Henry resumed his post as President and Chief Executive, but he abdicated in favour of Henry II in 1945 and it was left to his grandson to resurrect the car-making capacity when the war was over. Like the products of practically every other American auto maker, the 1946 Fords were little more than revitalised 1942 models – and that included the Continental. Both prewar models went on sale once more in January, the cabriolet now termed a convertible coupe, at fractionally over $4000 – little more than they had cost in 1942.
Still powered by the V12 mounted in the same standard 125-inch wheelbase and devoid of most of the vulgar brightwork of the time, they simply bore their name in script lettering on the hood. The most noticeable change which distinguished the prewar Continental from the rushed-into-the-showroom 1946 model was the thick-barred eggcrate grille. The first full year after the end of hostilities saw a total of 446 almost evenly split between coupes and convertibles. In 1947 the Continental enjoyed its most successful sales year as another almost even split of coupes and convertibles ran to 1569 units. Sales were nearly as good for the unchanged 1948 cars, but this time sales of the 1299 cars were heavily biased in favour of what were now called club coupes – nobody wanted the convertibles.
Production of the $5000 car was halted before the end of the year as Ford’s energies were concentrated once again on low-price volume production; at the time Ford boasted only one car in their entire range which cost more than $2000. There was little room for the anachronistic handbuilt Continental in the bustle of the postwar boom, and in any case the man who had seen his own dream turn into a production reality was no longer there to protect it. With shorter wheelbases and cars which were altogether more practical Lincoln enjoyed poor-to-middling fortunes through the next decade and only in 1961, when the company produced a car of such elegant styling that the design team won an industry award, was the Continental name, now indelibly established as belonging to a marque of superlative style and excellence, once more affixed to a Lincoln hood.