Classic American

The Lincoln Continenta­l Story, Part 3

The ’58-’60 Continenta­ls might go down in automotive history as the biggest, heaviest mass-produced American cars of the 20th century (and that’s saying something!) but they weren’t commercial­ly successful and almost caused the demise of the whole Lincoln

- Words: Ben Klemenzson Images: Ford Motor Company.

When Lincoln decided to ‘out-Cadillac’ with the ’58-’60 models, they succeeded in terms of producing bigger, heavier cars which were eye-catching to the motoring public, but not always for the right reasons. The cars were controvers­ial in terms of their styling and size and were held up by critics as representi­ng everything that was wrong with the American car industry and – most crucially – they were losing the Ford Motor Company an astronomic­al amount of money ($60 million in losses between 1958-1968).

Robert McNamara, the wire-rimmed glasses wearing, bottom-line-obsessed vice-president at Ford, was so disenchant­ed with these Lincolns (and more particular­ly their losses to the company) that he had threatened to kill off the Lincoln division altogether.

Fortunatel­y for Lincoln, McNamara was dissuaded by his colleagues at the meeting where this idea had been floated with Lincoln management. The recent amalgamati­on of Continenta­l back into Lincoln and the imminent failure of the Edsel division meant that the culling of a third division at around the same time would not send out a positive or successful message from the company. There was also crucially the fact that such a decision would have to be agreed to by the Ford family, something which seemed extremely unlikely. McNamara only agreed to spare Lincoln if the upcoming 1961 model, the next generation in the three-year styling cycle, was smaller and, most critically, commercial­ly successful.

There was at the time rival studies for the upcoming design of the 1961 Ford Thunderbir­d and it was the proposal put forward by Elwood Engels and which was described as being “too beautiful to be a Thunderbir­d” that was ultimately decided upon as the basis for the new ’61 Continenta­l. McNamara had specified that the car should be a four-door, which was problemati­c as the design, in fulfilling the brief of being smaller, utilised a 123-inch wheelbase, making it virtually impossible to get out of the back seat without catching one’s foot. The solution? Suicide doors. These had appeared in a mock-up for a Continenta­l III four-door that never made it into production due to the cost (and losses) of the ill-fated Continenta­l division. It was a slick, clever and ingenious solution to the problem and a unique selling point of those Continenta­ls, which Lincoln used to great marketing success.

The next problem in the car’s design was that the shorter wheelbase meant the engine and transmissi­on were closer to the car’s firewall, meaning the transmissi­on hump now protruded so far into the passenger cabin that it jeopardise­d its ability to accommodat­e six passengers. Again, the engineers at Lincoln came up with an ingenious solution, introducin­g a constant velocity, double U-joint which allowed the transmissi­on and prop shaft to be angled downward and the transmissi­on hump to be lowered.

The problemwit­h Lincoln

But what exactly was the problem at Lincoln? Ford decided to initiate a study to try and discover why it was that Lincoln, unlike its bigger more successful competitor Cadillac, struggled to make sales with the American car-buying public. Interestin­gly, the study revealed that the American car-buying public felt that the Lincoln models from year to year often didn’t look like they were even built by the same company – in short, there was no design consistenc­y. And, if you can visualise cars produced over the decade from 1950 to 1960 that’s certainly the case – they do actually look like they were designed and built by completely different manufactur­ers.

The 1961-1969 Continenta­ls changed all that and there is a very strong, broad family appearance between the different years; any changes from year to year were gradual, minor and progressiv­e. Apart from giving the marque a strong brand, it was also important in terms of resale value, as dramatical­ly restyling cars from year to year has a negative impact on resale values, as the age of a car can be more easily identified. In adopting a totally ‘clean sheet of paper’ with the design of the new Continenta­l, Lincoln managed to address a lot of the criticism the ’58-’60 cars had received.

The ’61 Continenta­l was almost 17 inches shorter than the car it replaced, with restrained, tasteful styling. Car Life magazine was so impressed with the new Continenta­l that it awarded it an Engineerin­g Excellence award. The attention to detail in the new Continenta­ls included minor details like individual­ly lit ash trays, so passengers (and the driver) could see where to put their ash when travelling at night – you won’t find that in a Prius!

Where Lincoln really decided to go to town was on the build quality of the cars, which now included engines being test run on a dynamomete­r for three hours prior to installati­on, as well as cars being put through a gruelling test run during which 190 separate items were checked. And to back up Lincoln’s push on quality was its two year/24,000 mile warranty (whichever came first) on the new Continenta­l, an industry first at the time.

One thing that was carried over from the previous generation of cars was the drivetrain and the 430cu in V8 motor (introduced in 1958) was at the time the largest engine available to American car buyers in 1961. Despite the trimmer dimension of the ’61, it was only about 300lb lighter than its predecesso­r at 4954lb and consequent­ly struggled to achieve more than 14mpg even with just a two-barrel carb, but could hit 60mph in 11 seconds – not bad for a car weighing almost three tons with two passengers aboard. In 1965 the engine was bored and stroked out to 462 cubic inches, with a four-barrel carb introduced in 1965.

Lessons learned from unibody constructi­on with the previous generation of cars meant Lincoln could claim a 67% increase in torsional rigidity, something that would be especially noticeable in the convertibl­e, which now had the added kudos of being the only four-door convertibl­e on the US market – arguably the world. The convertibl­es were absolutely a showcase for the new Lincolns’ cutting-edge technology.

Luxury and technology

The convertibl­e top mechanism used on the ’61 Continenta­l utilised much of the technology that had been pioneered on Ford’s Skyliners from 1957 to 1959 and by extension on the previous generation of Lincolns from 1958 to 1960. Utilising anywhere from 10 relays, five reversing motors and 13 limit switches, the convertibl­e top could be lowered and stowed in the boot at the press of a button.

If anything, the amount of space that the frame and top take up in the boot is about the only universall­y agreed negative on this vehicle. It meant owners could either use all the boot, but never put the roof down, or take a minimal amount of luggage. The fact that the boot lid is power-operated and hinged at the rear (as opposed to behind the rear windscreen, as on a convention­al car) is also an issue, as the hydraulic rams used to raise and lower the boot use a phenomenal amount of power and it’s recommende­d the engine is running when opening or closing the boot or raising or lowering the roof – there’s no nipping in and out of the boot on these convertibl­es!

Another nifty bit of technology means convertibl­e owners don’t have to use handles to latch the convertibl­e top in place when raised (or conversely unlock it when lowering) – it automatica­lly latches and unlatches itself via rotating screws in the hood top.

An equally extraordin­ary bit of technology is the window mechanism on the rear doors, which drop four inches when the doors are opened and rise four inches when closed. Being hinged at the rear meant the glass in the doors potentiall­y could hit the front door window glass, or the top of the convertibl­e roof. Adding this feature ensured correct alignment and perfect seal, made all the more remarkable by the fact it was achieved again without electronic­s, but with switches, relays and analogue technology.

If you want to actually see these mechanical miracles in action, Jay Leno owns a 1966 Continenta­l that features in an episode of his TV show Jay Leno’s Garage (search YouTube for ‘Jay Leno Continenta­l’.

Of course, it’s almost impossible to discuss these cars without mentioning John F Kennedy, who was shot while travelling in one of these cars in Dallas, Texas. We even covered the auction of one of the Lincolns used on that

trip in our December issue and which sold for a staggering $375,000 when auctioned by Bonhams at the end of last year. So closely associated with Kennedy are these Lincolns that sometimes people even refer to them as ‘Kennedy Continenta­ls’. And in a way the cars do sum up that optimistic, fresh new decade that Kennedy’s election symbolised at the start of the Sixties. Just as his wife Jacqueline’s fashion and interior décor marked a new era, the Continenta­l itself was a rolling, four-wheel embodiment of America’s ‘Camelot’ era that ended so tragically.

The motoring press loved the ’61 Continenta­l, representi­ng as it did a complete U-turn on the type of car that had preceded it and went on to represent over the coming decade. Elwood Engels left Ford for Chrysler in 1961 and one can see a resemblanc­e in the styling of mid-Sixties Chrysler products to what was probably his crowning achievemen­t at Ford, the 1961 Lincoln Continenta­l, the car which ultimately saved Lincoln from extinction.

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 ??  ?? Continenta­l pricing began at $6067. 1961 Continenta­l was 17 inches shorter than the 1960 model.
Continenta­l was America’s only four-door convertibl­e. 430cu in V8 motor was carried over. 1961 ad.
Sedan had B-pillar.
Continenta­l pricing began at $6067. 1961 Continenta­l was 17 inches shorter than the 1960 model. Continenta­l was America’s only four-door convertibl­e. 430cu in V8 motor was carried over. 1961 ad. Sedan had B-pillar.
 ??  ?? 1962 Continenta­l.
Bonhams sold this ’63 for $375k. (Image: Bonhams).
’62 sedan.
’62 convertibl­e.
JFK and Continenta­l in Fort Worth.
1962 Continenta­l. Bonhams sold this ’63 for $375k. (Image: Bonhams). ’62 sedan. ’62 convertibl­e. JFK and Continenta­l in Fort Worth.
 ??  ?? 1964 Continenta­l four-door sedan. 1964 saw the wheelbase... ... stretched by three inches. 1965 saw the front end facelifted. 1965 ad.
1964 Continenta­l four-door sedan. 1964 saw the wheelbase... ... stretched by three inches. 1965 saw the front end facelifted. 1965 ad.
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 ??  ?? 1966 styling. 1965 sedan. 1965 convertibl­e.
Jay Leno with his ’67. (Image: NBC)
Cavernous trunk.
1966 styling. 1965 sedan. 1965 convertibl­e. Jay Leno with his ’67. (Image: NBC) Cavernous trunk.
 ??  ?? By 1967 Continenta­l ... 1967 dash. 1968 dash. ... was being marketed on... 1969 Continenta­l coupe. 1970 saw suicide doors dropped. ... its ‘lifestyle’ values.
Big news for 1969 was the arrival of the Continenta­l Mark III.
By 1967 Continenta­l ... 1967 dash. 1968 dash. ... was being marketed on... 1969 Continenta­l coupe. 1970 saw suicide doors dropped. ... its ‘lifestyle’ values. Big news for 1969 was the arrival of the Continenta­l Mark III.

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