Knocking On Opportunity’s Door

A design masterpiece in retrospect.

All images: The author’s collection

The silence was deafening, broken only by the faint hum of the ventilation system in Ford Motor Company Vice President Robert S. McNamara’s office. “Bob, you can’t really do that, can you?” uttered general manager Ben D. Mills after a few uncomfortable seconds. “You bet I can do it” was McNamara’s terse response.

McNamara had just announced that based on Lincoln’s dismal financial projections (and it had never made a profit since its inception) he had decided to recommend that the brand be terminated. It was only after a long and heated discussion that Mills, chief engineer Harold McDonald and executive engineer Harold Johnsson managed to persuade McNamara to change his mind, which was a rare occurrence.

The arguments brought forward were that the Ford family were unlikely to agree because the short lived Continental division, established in 1955 to market the ultra-expensive Continental Mark 2, had already been terminated recently. Furthermore, all the signs were pointing to the highly publicised new Edsel turning out to be a gigantic and costly failure, its survival chances also appearing uncertain. Another point made was that it would not exactly be appreciated by employees, dealers and customers if Lincoln were to be so abruptly killed off. McNamara agreed on one more model cycle for Lincoln, with the specific condition that it had to be smaller and available in two body styles only.

The Vice President had already spotted a full size clay model of the car that in his opinion could be made into a Lincoln that fit this brief: in designer Elwood Engel’s studio stood a future Ford Thunderbird proposal with a distinctly formal air about its appearance. It had recently been rejected at a comparison viewing in favour of a more dynamic design; McNamara told his engineers that if Engel’s design could be made into a four door without increasing its size too much he would agree to making it the next Lincoln.

It turned out that it could, but not without a few problems along the way. A car with four doors on a wheelbase that was short enough to be accepted by McNamara presented problems for the rear seat passengers: unless they were really short they could not get out of the car without inelegant and uncomfortable gymnastics which was no good for a luxury car.

Harold Johnsson had worked on a stillborn four door version of the Continental Mark 2, named Berline, which had rear-hinged back doors that opened in coach fashion. He proposed the same arrangement on the new Lincoln. It was tried and proved an effective solution to the problem and at the same time added to the uniqueness of the new Continental as a welcome side effect.

Contrary to the Berline however, it was decided to not eliminate the B-pillars as that would drive up the cost of the car too much. The existing technology of and experience with the Ford Skyliner retractable hardtop would serve as the basis for the top mechanism of the four-door convertible. An interesting feature of the Lincoln’s top mechanism is that the rear windows drop and raise again automatically when one opens and closes a rear door, ensuring easier opening and a more draft-proof seal between window and convertible top.

In order to retain the six-person capacity expected of a large luxury car such as a Lincoln but on a relatively short 123 inch wheelbase (the 1958-60 model had a span of no less than 131 inches) a double-cardan universal joint driveline, allowing the transmission and propeller shaft to be angled downward, was developed to keep the transmission hump as low as possible.

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Two main brochures were issued for the all new Continental: a rare and very large version with nothing on the cover but recurring Continental stars and a more commonly seen one with a plain white cover and embossed gold lettering. Both have entirely different photography inside; the smaller white catalogue shown here opens with the apt tagline “Classic beauty in a smart new size.” This catalogue exists in two slightly different sizes but both are within a few inches of each other – neither is that expensive.

While Robert McNamara and Elwood Engel were the main protagonists behind the seminal 1961 Lincoln, others like designers John Najjar, Colin Neale, John Orfe and Bob Thomas also provided important contributions to the new car, as did engineer Harold McDonald. Given the ruling longer-lower-wider mantra of the day in the US car industry, the fact that especially a luxury car like the Lincoln Continental was smaller and shorter (by almost seventeen inches), than its predecessor although it weighed about as much and was powered by the same engine was a daring move, as was the decision to make only minor changes to the car’s styling over the years.

Lincoln was also determined to put the quality problems their products had suffered in the past behind them once and for all. A rigorous quality control system was put in place where for example every single engine was run on a testbed for three hours, disassembled and then tested again before it was mounted into the car. After that every Continental was subjected to a road-test before it was released for sale.

A typical quality assurance measure was that the electric motors for the windows where submerged in liquid latex after assembly to prevent any moisture from entering; this writer can attest to its effectiveness as the one time owner of a 1964 Continental. Three of my windows did not work when first inspecting the car but that was caused by the wiring to and from the window motors breaking because of the opening and closing of the doors over the course of its life and the deterioration of the cables. The electric motors themselves still worked fine. Because of this strict quality programme the 1961 Lincoln Continental was the first car in the USA to offer a two year or 24,000 Mile warranty.

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A masterpiece in pure elegance” for once was not just copywriter hyperbole; the large prestige catalogue puts more emphasis on the visuals and less on accompanying textual praise. This large version is very rarely seen and commands a correspondingly higher price.

The styling of the car was applauded almost without exception. A beautiful, clean, uncluttered and in a sense timeless shape that was the embodiment of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous saying, “Perfection is not achieved when there is nothing left to add, but rather when there is nothing more to be taken away“. Its basic styling theme would serve Lincoln well for many years. Park a 1961 and 1969 Continental next to one another and the family resemblance is obvious; even a Lincoln Town Car from the eighties still displays visible links to the original item. A 1961 Cadillac however looks nothing like the 1969 version, let alone one from the 1980s.

For a while in the sixties the Lincoln became the darling of the affluent Camelot set as exemplified by President John F. Kennedy and his elegant first lady, a fact that Lincoln eagerly exploited as demonstrated by the locations, people and settings in many of their brochures and advertisements. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever and after a long period of more or less steady decline starting in the seventies with precious few highlights along the way the Continental nameplate has been discontinued. One wonders how long before Lincoln will follow?

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

19 thoughts on “Knocking On Opportunity’s Door”

  1. Thanks for sharing, brrrruno. I really appreciate it as this Continental is one of my all time favourites. With Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s in mind the 1962 model year is the one I’d chose: the front is more minimal in appearance than the 1961 version and it has the original low rear lid. However, I prefer the 1964 dashboard.

  2. Great post, Bruno!

    The 1961 Continental is one of my favourite car designs of the 60s. It’s petite, clean, and simple, like a little jewel box. Of course this is relative to its competitors from Cadillac and Imperial as the Continental is still a large car. What I like most about this car is how perfectly it captures the zeitgeist of mid-century design and fashion, from the sleek and airy Richard Neutra California houses to the trim shift dresses popularized by Jackie Kennedy during her time as First Lady. Come to think of it, the 1961 Continental sort of “looks” like Jackie Kennedy!

    1. I really get the Jackie Kennedy analogy, Cesar. I recall that her taste in fashion was for simple but exceptionally elegant and well tailored attire, which describes the 1961 to 1965 Continental perfectly.

  3. Good morning Bruno and thanks for bringing us one of the great American cars of all time. Although the nose and tail were tweaked annually, as was the US automakers’ custom, those wonderful sheer flanks survived unmolested for five years before someone had the dumb idea to add an entirely superfluous bodyside crease in 1966. Here are a couple of before and after photos:

    It’s akin to painting a grin on the Mona Lisa. 😲

    1. Why is the rear track so narrow ? It must compromise the rear seat cushion. Such a terrible “face-lift” though.

    2. That 1966 restyling hints at the approaching 1970s and the “Broughamization” of the American luxury sedan.

    3. Done a little research and the 1961 Continental has the same rear track as the 1961 Deville, 61 inches. The 1961 Imperial had a wider track at 62.2 inches.

  4. There’s something very ‘satisfying’ about the Continental’s design. It’s another one of those cars which looks simple, but there’s plenty to look at.

    I love this advert, and it’s ‘gracious’ mood music. I also like the reassurance that although it’s a shorter car, it’s still nice and heavy (for good ride quality, they say).

    Re the rear track looking narrow – I think that’s just a result of perspective in the photos.

  5. 2 year 24k miles warranty? Big deal!

    After model year 1956, when all of their products suffered horrendous quality problems, Chrysler introduced the first 5 year 6ok miles warranty for MY 1957. I may have misremembered the years, but not that my father bought a new ’56 Plymouth which wore out completely and was well on the way to being a heap of rust within a year. Fortunately for us it was destroyed in a collision — no injuries — before the insurance company figured out that ’56 Plymouths were worthless.

    1. Hello Fred,
      Chrysler Corporation may have been the first to offer a 5 year warranty, but they only started to offer this starting with the 1963 model year- not in 1957. Offering this 5 year warranty was certainly connected to the quality problems the corporation suffered in the late fifties. See this excerpt:

  6. Lovely car. I always liked these. Funnily enough I saw one last month.

    I did not know the reason for the doors being as they were. Very interesting story there. Thanks for that.

    Lincoln have revisited the idea of innovative doors at least once since. They commissioned a company (Jatech) to build prototypes with a unique set-up for evaluation. The idea was to avoid the need for the overly long conventional doors thought necessary for convenient access to the rear seats (which would have made entry and exit of the car quite restrictive when it was parallel parked beside other cars). The solution they came up with is beguiling. It has to bee seen in operation to be appreciated. Here are links.

    Chevrolet ended up using an analogous system for their tailgates, but never for doors. BMW on the other hand…

    Lincoln (what an exceptionally poor choice of name, Leland ought to have named it after himself rather than a tyrant) have been sinking into a hole for some while. There have been some suggestions of a design revival from time to time though. Does anyone remember the Sentinel concept car of the late ’90s? A shame nothing came of it.

  7. Eoin

    Thank you for this link.

    Now THAT is a concept which ought to have gone straight into production. Interesting fact- it was powered by none other than Jaguar’s V-12 engine!

    The details of the front closures are intriguing. The window glass is outside the frames and also slightly taller than them. It is difficult to see what is going on where the top of the leading edge of the front door glass meets the a-pillar, especially at its apex, and how the frame shape is merged to the cant rail and roof shape. I’ve not been able to find good pictures of this area. If you have anything, please post!

    Weather sealing would have been interesting. Ford filed some patents addressing door glass sealing for openable flush glass windows around the late ’90s.

  8. Great article. I absolutely adore this design. I used to watch the tragic Zapruder film of ’63 over and over just to see the motorcade. I once read that when all four doors are open on convertible models you can see chassis bending ever so slightly under the weight. I never quite believed it. I would expect this to be a serious beefy separate chassis?

    1. Hello ckracer76,
      Glad you liked the article; it would have been impossible however for anyone to see the chassis of a suicide-door Continental bending in any conditions as the car didn’t have one; it is of monocoque / unibody construction.
      A friend of mine had a 1964 convertible but it was never a problem to open all four doors. Compared to my 1964 sedan we did notice some structural measures when comparing our cars and also heavy counterweights in both of the convertible’s front wings to compensate for the lack of a metal roof.

  9. There was actually a slight sales drop for Lincoln from ’60 to ’61. The increased profitability came from high profits-per-unit and simplification due to the two-model lineup. The sedan’s base price was partway between Cadillac’s most popular Sedan de Ville and top-of-the-line Fleetwood 60 Special, the convertible was in the league with the Fleetwood ragtop. There was nothing to compete with Caddy’s entry-level Series 62. The design was widely admired but purchased by a fortunate relative few. Exclusive, not unpopular.

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