Crossing Continents : Part One

The legacy of the 1961 Continental lays heavily upon Ford’s Lincoln division. Today we begin an examination of two concepts aimed at re-establishing that defining car’s visual pre-eminence.

Just masterful. Image credit: old car brochures

Europe does not have a monopoly on history or heritage. Long shadows of the past also haunt the American automotive landscape, as the big-name US automakers struggle, just like their European counterparts, to reinterpret the past while straining for relevance in a rapidly approaching future.

European sophisticates are fond of looking at the products of the US automakers with a mixture of lofty disdain, some pity and a good dollop of condescension. However, not only is such behaviour unseemly, it belies not only a wealth of engineering innovations which emanated from Detroit, but a number of outstanding, truly landmark car designs.

Amongst those, the 1961 Lincoln Continental stands, alongside vehicles like the 1935 Lincoln Zephyr, the 1936 Cord 810, the Cadillac 61-series of 1948 and the 1953 Studebaker Starliner (to name a few) as a defining shape in the evolution of, not only the American car, but the automobile itself.

The ’61 Lincoln heralded a new aesthetic, a clean break with the previous decade’s visual profusions. Ford’s Lincoln division created a new, more sophisticated, less self-conscious image of American high-end style – one where (slightly) less equalled so much more.

More compact than the car it replaced, yet appearing longer, lower and more desirable, nothing spoke of modernity in 1961 like a Continental. And while it may not have given GM much to worry about from a sales perspective, its reception sent Cadillac’s design team a chilling message – one which would be received, understood and acted upon.

Image credit: .all car index

So it was inevitable when Ford, some thirty years later, seeking to reinvigorate the Lincoln brand, harked back to the car which embodied Jacqueline Kennedy’s effortless chic as inspiration for a new era. Credited to Ford’s Ghia atelier in Turin, although overseen by Lincoln advanced design studio head, Tom Scott, the 1996 Sentinel saw Ford’s nascent Edge design themes lightly caress mid-’90s retro, with mostly positive consequences.

It’s clear the Sentinel’s designers drank deeply from the ’61 car’s sheer surfaces, the 1996 concept carrying the earlier car’s themes of visual length, with the body drawn towards the wheels, and the disciplined use of brightwork, which appears sparingly to add punctuation and enrich what might in lesser hands have been an uncompromisingly austere shape.

Image credit: Carstyling.ru

Like the decade-earlier Cadillac Voyage, the Sentinel’s canopy was glazed, lending the appearance of an aircraft cockpit and coupled with the showcar’s sinister black paintwork, suggested as much Gotham City as Grumman Aerospace. But with its taut silhouette and mildly slammed appearance, it too harked back to 1961.

While clearly intended to evoke that of both the ’35 Zephyr, and Edsel Ford’s 1940 Continental, the frontal aspect could also be seen to echo that of the previous year’s Renault Initiale concept from Patrick le Quément’s studio – a car Ghia’s stylists would undoubtedly have been aware of.

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Aft, the intention was to harmonise with the nose treatment (as indeed did the ’61 car), but apart from the tail lamp placement, there is arguably little here which says Lincoln. However, taken as a whole, the Sentinel combined the visual drama, and outright theatre (especially those reverse-hinged rear doors) of the original with a powerful sense of menace. What it lacked, one might argue however, was the original’s easy grace.

But while the exterior was all sharpness, taut surfaces and angles, the Sentinel’s interior was all softness and sweeping curves. The coffee-coloured, suede-lined cabin was a shrine to simplicity and calm, offering the occupants a serene environment while the exterior did all the tough talking.

Yet despite its creation and the varied influences from which it sprang, the Sentinel was not only visually cohesive and accomplished but thoroughly, unapologetically American. With Ford looking to move brand-Lincoln away from the shopworn Town Car aesthetic towards the Premier Automotive group with models such as the 1998 LS, observers hoped the Blue Oval would sanction a production flagship based upon Sentinel themes.

An engineered version of the concept allegedly utilised a stretched Jaguar platform, (probably the LS platform also shared with Browns Lane) so it wasn’t beyond reason to envisage such an occurrence, but Ford, for whatever reason didn’t act and the Sentinel lay dormant – at least until arch-rival Cadillac grasped Dearborn’s discarded baton and subtly made it their own.

Certainly, these European eyes can see the nascence of Cadillac’s ‘Art and Science’ design theme in the Sentinel’s confident forms. But Ford hadn’t finished reimagining its Continental heyday. A new generation of non-American designers would seek to revive Ford’s most upmarket nameplate for the new millennium by evoking Camelot once more.

Continued…

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

7 thoughts on “Crossing Continents : Part One”

  1. Underlying this article’s subject is the matter of stylistic evolution. If aesthetics were utterly subjective and not rooted in some general preferences then designers would have an easier time creating cars as striking as the Lincoln. They don’t: there are sweet spots in the form world and Lincoln landed on one in 1961. Subsequent designs have not been as satisfying and note the Sentinel recaps the 1961 car. It’s controversial to say it: there might be ideal forms which will always have more visual appeal than others.

    1. The Sentinel concept: ‘To the Vel Satis-mobile, Batman!’.

      It interests me how familiarity and context influence how a design is viewed – what looks fresh and modern one year / decade can look quaint / fragile / fussy the next. On that point, my initial reaction was that the original Lincoln’s rear is a bit long. It’s still a landmark design, though.

      I think that there could be ideal forms or combinations of shapes; I wonder to what extent what ‘looks right’ is learned and what is instinctive. I suspect that a lot of our preferences are learned.

  2. Interesting article, especially as I have just watched this video on the amazingly complex 1966 Lincoln Continental convertible.

    1. No offence, Mark, but I couldn’t watch this video even if they’d reanimated Elwood Engel himself to spill the beans.

      Jay Leno is just too annoying, half-informed, hollowly enthusiastic a presence for me to bear. His ‘chats’, particularly with people who theoretically have something interesting to tell, are simply cringe-worthy. Not to mention the fact that the (lack of) production values of this particular programme make it appear as though Leno’s 14-year-old nephew, Sheldon, is in charge of photography, sound and editing. Which could (again: theoretically) be charming, if this wasn’t coming from the heart of the US entertainment industry, which still is the best funded and most professional of its kind, worldwide.

    2. While I couldn´t devote a whole 50 minutes to it, I didn´t find what I saw all that bad.
      It´s a bloke chatting about a car. If you like Jay Leno and you like old cars you might like this video a bit. It´s a very special car he has to talk about. What might be hard to take is Jay Leno´s casual spending of money. He “just had to have it” he says with five other car in the background in his huge garage. Indeed.

  3. In early 2016 I wrote this about the current Continental: “I am reasonably confident that nice a car as the Lincoln might be to sit in and drive, it will not be among the most successful of its kind. Most likely it’s another item to add to the list of failed luxury cars.” I am not pleased to be proved triumphantly correct in my prediction.

  4. Charles: the question of what looks right is to some extent learned. However, I think what we learn is not accidental. The general proportions of a fine saloon involve a long bonnet because that is what a large engine requires. That may not be true now so maybe people under 30 will have a different idea. It is true for a lot of car enthusiasts. The way the glasshouse is set back is related to the engine placement and also the way it makes the car look as if it´s moving forward or will move forward (I will refer here to the way we read shapes “as if” something has or will happen to them based on our experience of forces acting on objects – see Cheryl Akner-Koler´s work on three dimensional form). There is a longer list of these attributes which are all tied to an empirical experience of material and forces. So, yes, we learn to accept some forms and what we learn is based on an empirical insight related to some extent on physical forces and materials. In the end, these are still connected to reality and not entirely arbitary. The Lincoln Continental flew in the face of these instincts.
    With electric cars a new form language is developing and Aston Martin are exploring this with their new Lagonda.

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