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It usually takes about thirty years for a car to become a collector's item but the old Lincoln Continental was sought after from the moment the model was discontinued in 1948. Most classics are renowned for ageless elegance, unique construction, and superior performance. The Continental had only one of these to offer -the most elegant body style to appear on an American car. Its crisp sculptured lines, a dramatically pointed grill, sharply curved fenders, and boldly squared rear, created an appearance reminiscent of the finest in European cars. This graceful and handsome automobile was prosaic mechanically. There were no innovations, only a standard chassis and a modestly powered engine. When Edsel Ford had the car designed he was interested in style. It was all he got.
If Henry M. Leland had been around in 1939 when the Lincoln Continental was first made, the car would undoubtedly have exhibited engineering qualities to match its superb styling. Leland was one of the most important figures in automotive history. He was associated with the first Oldsmobile and is renowned as the designer and founder of the Cadillac.
In 1921 he produced another luxury car which he named after one of our greatest presidents. It was a solid, well-engineered piece of craftsmanship - big and powerful. Pioneer that he was, Leland equipped his early Lincoln with the first multiple-barrel carburetor to be used. But the car was a failure financially. It was much too expensive, and the company went into receivership almost immediately.
When a public auction of the Lincoln Motor Company was announced, Henry Ford decided to purchase it. He wanted to produce a prestige car and what could be better than one with the great reputation of Leland behind it? So he approached the aging engineer and told him that he would take over the entire Lincoln organization and retain Leland as chief executive. Then Ford planned the acquisition of Lincoln in his methodical manner. Other purchasers were carefully discouraged from even appearing, and when the auctioneer opened the proceedings in January, 1922, only one bid was offered - Henry Ford's. The Lincoln Motor Company was sold to him for only eight million dollars.
The scene that followed the sale again showed careful planning. According to Keith Sward, in his excellently documented book The Legend of Henry Ford, a brass band appeared from nowhere, playing "Hail to the Chief," and a huge portrait of Henry Ford unrolled slowly over the face of the Lincoln building. A well-timed news story pointed out the historical significance of the connection between Henry Ford and Henry M. Leland as two giants of the industry.
The honeymoon did not last long. In six months Leland was out and the Lincoln became completely a Ford product.
The Lincoln Division of the Ford Motor Company made good cars in the 1930's. The bodies were elegant and some models housed a fine V-12 engine. One of the most successful cars was the Zephyr, produced in 1936. One of the first streamlined classics, it reflected the growing interest of Edsel Ford in body styling. It was he who developed the entire styling department of the Ford Motor Company, and under his direction the classic Continental evolved.
In the postwar period, the Lincoln-Mercury Division continued the Continental, but in 1949 replaced it with a large luxurious Lincoln that in the eyes of many was only a bigger Mercury. However, in 1955 a new car was produced in an attempt to cut into Cadillac sales. The name Continental was revived, an astronomical price tag added, snob appeal was sought for by announcing that only a limited number of cars would be produced, and a European flavor was added by naming the cars with Mark numbers. By 1960 the company had reached the Continental Mark V, the longest, lowest, widest, and heaviest of any American machine. It is difficult to picture a Continental on a tight winding road. The car is really at home on U.S. super-highways.
For the design of this new Continental one must give full credit to the Ford styling experts. They managed to avoid many of the cliches that bound the industry in the 1950's. The tailfins are modest, very little chrome is used, and the grill and bumpers are uncluttered. The entire car, in spite of its immense size, has a clean, trim look. One wonders, however, how many Continental owners have had to enlarge their garages to accommodate the monster.
It is difficult to assess the probable future of the Lincoln Continental. High costs could well end its career, unless Ford decides to support it as General Motors did the Cadillac in the thirties. In 1960 the car was available to the very few and some experts believed it would be regarded as a classic in the future. Others felt that it was only an expression of the American predilection for bigness and luxury above all other considerations. Perhaps that is true. For years we have built cars on a "bigger, better, shinier" concept. And as a matter of fact, that is just what Henry M. Leland set out to accomplish.