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
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.