Continental Congress (Part one)

Supersize becomes rightsize – how the 1961 Lincoln Continental subtly altered US luxury car design.

(c) Ford Motor Company

The 1961 Lincoln Continental is almost universally regarded as one of the finest car designs ever to come from the USA. Daringly sparse of embellishment and relatively compact (by the standards of the day at least); smoothly geometrical and slab-sided, it marked a breakaway from fins, complicated shapes, panoramic windshields, gaudy colour schemes and superfluous decoration.

This accomplishment would alas prove to be only temporary, as witnessed by the majority of American cars (Lincoln included), that would follow over the next decade. Nevertheless, the 1961 Continental was such an influential designgamechanger that its competitors Cadillac and Imperial reacted swiftly to make their designs conform more to the new style standard set by Ford Motor Company’s finest.

A caveat before you read any further: I must confess that I may not be totally unbiased in my views, having owned a 1964 Lincoln Continental for years. Having said that, let’s take a look at a timeline starting in 1960 and ending in 1966 to see how matters played out.

1960  

(c) Ebay/Cadillacsforsale/TheTruthAboutCars

To fully appreciate how radical a departure the 1961 Continental was, we must first consider Lincoln’s 1960 offering. This gargantuan bodystyle was introduced for the 1958 model year, the brief being to out-Cadillac, Cadillac. Dimensionally speaking, that goal was certainly met. In engineering terms it was not without appeal as it was a unibody (monocoque to us Europeans) which surprises many people who first lay eyes upon it. In fact it was and remains the largest unibody car ever built.

Where the Lincoln fell flat was its styling which was not met with the amount of approval expected. That the car was introduced in a recession year did not help of course, but even so it was handily outsold by Cadillac but more tellingly only beat struggling Imperial by just over 1,000 cars. Even more alarming is the fact that Lincoln sold 41,123 of the 1957 models but just 17,134 cars the year after.

Things being as they were in the car industry in those days, Lincoln was stuck with this body for three model years. Efforts were made to make the styling more palatable but there is of course only so much you can do when forced to utilize the same basic bodystructure.

A comparison of the three American luxury vehicles reveals that while the Cadillac and Imperial are proudly finned, Lincoln’s are somewhat more integrated. The rest of the car is another matter though; the Imperial and especially the Cadillac offering a leaner and less heavy, busy look.

1961 

Ford Motor Company/Imperial club/GM Inside News

The first ‘suicide door‘ Continental drew praise from both press and public, and this was certainly not undeserved. Lincoln’s management must therefore have been a tad disappointed to conclude that at the end of the model year the sales of the totally new Continental were barely higher than 1960’s behemoth (25,164 and 24,820 respectively). The new Continental’s styling would prove to be a slow burner however – as years went by sales kept increasing, although to be fair they would never trouble Cadillac.

But to quote television’s Jeremy Clarkson: “Still, could be worse“: the Imperial received an extensive restyle that was meant to evoke the glorious coachbuilt cars of the 1930’s with its freestanding headlights and taillights hanging below the fintops (it was in fact probably the first retro design of the car industry) but was perceived by most as bizarre. The sales figures reflected this; deliveries dropped from an already not brilliant 17,719 to 12,258.

Fins were still definitely in with Cadillac- the car now even had four of them if you count the smaller ‘skegs’ at the bottom. The large panoramic windshield with its dogleg A-pillars was also history and replaced with a milder – but still somewhat panoramic – item. Cadillac was still definitely in with the luxury market: 138,379 cars demonstrate the dominance GM had established by this time.

1962  

Automobilemag/Chrysler Corporation/Mecum

Lincoln’s new design philosophy was one of very subtle changes, as opposed to the planned obsolescence strategy invented by GM. The 1962 Lincoln received a different grille with slightly higher placed headlights which incidentally was cheaper to produce; even in the luxury class the bean-counters have to be kept happy.

Not much change at Cadillac either apart from the usual new grille and trim pieces, but the ever so slightly lower fins are evidence that the message Lincoln sent had been received loud and clear at GM. Of course, as with Lincoln a few years before, there are limits to what you can do with a facelift.

To the credit of the Imperial’s stylists, they produced a reduction of the fins in a much more decisive fashion. The resulting clipped fins were covered at their top by mouldings in a similar fashion as those on the top of the Lincoln’s bodysides. Unfortunately that is where the good news ends because the strange headlight arrangement remained.

As the cars produced for the model year were counted, the order was still Cadillac-Lincoln-Imperial. The last remained a distant third, but sales had improved over the previous year which indicates that shaving off the fins had been the right decision.

1963  

Bringatrailer/Hemmings/Cadillacking

Again not much change at Lincoln, although some not readily visible work was done to answer criticism about limited rear legroom and luggage space. The luggage compartment lid was made slightly squarer and taller, while a few inches of rear legroom was added.

The totally restyled Cadillac however now clearly showed evidence of Continental influence. Having initiated the fin epoch, Cadillac was loathe to abandon them completely but they were definitely less prominent, especially when viewed in profile. The body was also visibly more slab-sided. The lower ‘skegs’ were deleted too, as was the panoramic windshield. To literally top it off, the roofline was flattened as well.

Imperial removed the “microphone” taillights top the fins and replaced them with more conventional (and to most eyes cheaper looking), filled in taillight strips. That however was pretty much the extent of their restyling work (apart from the de rigeur changed grille); continuing poor sales meant that Chrysler was less inclined to spend money, as a new model would be introduced the following year.

1963 rounded out with the top three unchanged; Lincoln continuing its slow but inexorable rise in sales at a respectful distance to Cadillac, with a fading Imperial far behind.

Part two follows…

4 thoughts on “Continental Congress (Part one)”

  1. I love this car. My favourite is the ’62 model year. The front is nicely cleaned up compared to the previous ’61 and it still has the slightly lower trunk lid and simpler real grill panel before they changed it in ’63.

  2. Great piece, Bruno. The Lincoln is, of course, a classic of American automotive design, and extraordinarily brave rebuttal of the prevailing style. However, the increasingly bizarre attempts to raise the profile (and sales) of the underdog Imperial makes for an interesting tale in itself, and drew me to Wikipedia to find out more. Who knew that the Austin Allegro wasn’t the first car to feature a “Quartic” steering wheel:

    Looking forward to part two.

  3. The ’61 Conti’s design is alleged to have stemmed from a rejected Elwood Engel proposal for the 1961 Thunderbird, (rejected on the basis that it was too elegant for a T-Bird) but was itself believed to have been inspired by a skunkworks proposal for Lincoln created by two junior designers. In fact the story behind the car appears to be both convoluted and somewhat political. (Aren’t they all, you ask rhetorically?)

    Incidentally, Engel was also involved with the design for the 1958 Lincoln.

  4. Pretty darn good review of these cars, Bruno. Having arrived in North America in 1959 from Blighty as a 12 year old car nut, I got to see these beasts firsthand. They were not priced like a Rolls Royce, so even minorly wealthy folk could easily buy one. And the sales numbers you quote, one must remember, were in a 6 million per annum market, not 17 as now. The population has well more than doubled since those far-off days, so these cars were not that exclusive.

    Daniel, in one of my earlier comments to this august publication some years ago, I mention my first illegal drives on a backroad in a 1960 Plymouth. It was unit body as well for the first time/model year, while the 1960 Imperial languished with an ancient body on frame. The Plymouth had the flattened steering wheel, finger tip power-steering, and that unibody built like a tank – they soon learned how to cheapen that up! Best of all, the steering wheel’s right and left hand ends were of clear plastic infused with golden metallic flecks for that space age look, and fins big enough to startle a Cadillac. Yee-haw! That was a V8 with some hoof, but you could get one with the brand new slant-six which struggled to move the aircraft carrier from rest, yet made excellent taxicabs.

    Not sure I agree that the later Imperial with the separate headlights looked bad. I like it and so did many others. But you had to be there to know what the public thought, and Chrysler wasn’t cool from 1960 to 1965 with sales in a downturn and strange looking cars. Chrysler was always going through one of its periodic bad patches, but made in my view superb Chryslerbrand itself 1963 and 1964 models which were panned as too small, but they certainly were tight and all of a piece, and then returned in 1965 with a “there is no limit to size” somewhat bendy cruise ship. Predictably, sales went up. The Americans lived large and loved it in those days!

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