A design masterpiece in retrospect.
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.
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.
“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?