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.
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.
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.
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.
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.