Legends and brand loyalties aside, you could make a pretty strong case that the American automotive landscape of the 1960s could be boiled down to just three cars. The first is the Ford Mustang, the original ponycar that not only brought the classic long-hood, short-deck proportions to the masses, it ignited the muscle car arms race that dominated the decade. The next car would be the Volkswagen Beetle, that affordable, ubiquitous German compact that survived both World War II and the wrath of the Big Three to become a symbol of the counterculture, and open the door for a tidal wave of import cars. And the final car would be the 1961-69 Lincoln Continental. It was the last gasp of world-class American luxury, a darling of presidents, popes, and kings, and a symbol of the space age optimism that burned so brightly at the outset, and had all but faded away by decade’s end.
Released in 1939, the year of the first New York World’s Fair, the first Continental was a streamlined, Art Deco beauty. Based on the Lincoln Zephyr, designer Bob Gregorie designed the car thinking it was a one-off for Edsel Ford, but the design proved so popular that Ford sent it into production. Unlike the baroque Cadillacs of the era, the Continental was restrained, elegant, and hailed as “the most beautiful car ever designed” by Frank Lloyd Wright. With its integrated headlights, minimal chrome, long hood hiding a 4.2 liter V12 up front, and an exposed spare tire out back, it represented an optimistic, gleaming vision of American luxury at a time when the rest of the world was getting very dark.
A chrome-laden redesign was introduced for 1942, but by February, all auto production ground to a halt as the industry shifted to military production. It returned postwar with even more chrome, but by 1948, the Zephyr had become a thing of the past, and the Continental’s run as a standalone car ended. Despite leaving the Lincoln lineup, the car had already become a legend, and it wouldn’t be long before it made a comeback.
In 1952, Ford debuted the Lincoln Continental Nineteen Fifty-X, a two-door coupe concept that would go on to influence the company’s lineup of the late ’50s. And while Ford had no intention of the car seeing production, it came along at exactly the right time. For 1953, GM introduced the Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Fiesta, and Cadillac Eldorado, three advanced luxury cars that looked like they drove right off a Motorama display. In response, Ford set to work designing a thoroughly modern luxury car that would carry on the spirit of the prewar Continental while being ultra-modern to the point where it put GM’s offerings to shame.
Continental was revived in 1955 as a separate brand, and its sole offering, a coupe dubbed the Continental II, was nothing short of a masterpiece. Like its namesake, the new car was tasteful and restrained, yet seemed to predict the future of car design. With a price tag of over $10,000, it was more than expensive than a Rolls-Royce, twice the price of a nicely-optioned Cadillac, and about the same as an average new house. And despite being owned by Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, the Shah of Iran, Frank Sinatra, and appearing in a number of films, Ford lost thousands on every car, and shelved the Continental brand after 1957.
The Continental rejoined the Lincoln lineup for ’58, and while it was certainly still luxurious, it was far from elegant. Today, the third-generation looks like a timecapsule of ’50s kitsch. With slanted quad headlights, six taillights, and hundreds of pounds of chrome, the 19 foot long car is one of the most infamous cases of automotive excess, and sandwiched between the Continental II and what came next, it’s become little more than a historical footnote.
Between the Continental brand and the sales disaster that was the third-generation car, Ford had lost over $60 million. Add to that the additional $350 million in losses from the Edsel fiasco, and you had a company that was desperate for a hit. For 1961, the Continental would survive, but with a clean sheet design. The task fell to design vice president Elwood Engel and his team, for the third time in the nameplate’s history, the Continental was about to become one of the most celebrated cars of its time.
The new car was both conservative and radical at the same time. Gone were the excesses of the last generation Continental, and in fact, the entire decade that preceded it. Tail fins were nowhere to be found. Chrome was kept to an absolute minimum, and when it was used, it was used incredibly effectively. The car hit showrooms for the 1961 model year, just in time for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Like the Lincoln, the young president embodied the idea of a fresh start, and a progressive, thoroughly modern America. By all accounts, he was enamored with the new Continental.
By the time JFK entered the White House, he and his advisors all drove them, with their iconic rear-hinged suicide doors and, for convertibles, folding tops that automatically stowed in the trunk. Under Kennedy, most of the Presidential fleet became Continentals, including a brand new limousine that was delivered in June 1961. Dubbed X100 by the Secret Service, it would be forever seared into the nation’s consciousness on November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated in it riding through Dallas.
Painted black and fitted with a bulletproof roof, X100 would continue to ferry presidents until 1977. And despite the pall cast over the car, Continentals remained the government ride of choice, as well as one of the most desirable luxury cars of the decade. In 1965, Pope Paul VI became the first sitting Pope to visit the U.S., and the Vatican requested that Ford build a Continental especially for the occasion. Its first big facelift came in ’66, along with the introduction of a two-door coupe. From a sales standpoint, it was the Continental’s high water mark, with 54,755 sold that year. From then on, Lincoln began to lose the plot, as the car got bigger, heavier and more ornate. After more than 330,000 ’61-’69s sold, an all-new Continental debuted for 1970. But with pop up headlights, acres of plastic, fake wood, naugahyde seats, and underpinnings from the lowly Ford LTD, it was clear that the magic was gone.
In 1969, the Continental coupe was spun off, and the Continental Mark III was introduced to recapture the magic of the Continental II – albeit at a lower price. Based on the Ford Thunderbird, the Mark III was hailed for its combination of sporty looks and performance, and was instrumental in kicking off the Personal Luxury Coupe segment that dominated the 1970s. But by the end of the decade, even the pretty Mark cars were beginning to show age and bloat.
The four-door Continental returned after a two year hiatus in 1982 as a Fox platform-based luxury car. But by then the magic was long gone, and you’d be mere likely to see them in retirement communities in Florida than whisking around heads of state. A more modern Ford Taurus-based Continental was introduced for 1988, but there was little hope of it competing with imports like the BMW 5 Series and the Mercedes-Benz E Class. The lines between the Continental and the Taurus continued to blur until 2002, when the iconic nameplate was cancelled after an amazing 63 year run.
In many ways, The Continental is the automotive avatar of the Greatest Generation. It was the upstart that changed the world in the ’40s, hit its stride in the ’50s, ran the show by the ’60s, and faded into a comfortable, conservative middle age in the ’70s. By the ’80s, it was the out of touch old guard, and by the end of the century, it was history. Today, we don’t associate the Continental with its post-’60s stumbles or that tragic day in Dallas, we remember its glory days, when the only thing that could interrupt the Continental’s reign as the most desirable car in America was a World War, and that shining decade when anybody who was anybody had a Continental in their driveway. For 2017, Ford is resurrecting the Continental nameplate for an all-new car designed to woo the rich and powerful in the U.S. and China. It probably won’t set the world on fire like its predecessors, but at least from here, it managed to recapture all the old class.
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