Lincoln Week: An Illustrated History Of Lincoln Up To 1958

Lincoln Zephyr Continental Cabriolet 1939-40

It’s going to be a Lincoln Week at Curbside Classic, so let’s cover the brand with a brief history to set us up for 1958, when our featured cars begin, although not in chronological order.

Cadillac and Lincoln shared an almost identical early biography. Both were founded by “Master of Precision” Henry Leland. And both were eventually sold off to their current corporate owners. Caddilac was first, having been founded in 1902, and quickly establishing itself as the “Standard of the World”, which actually reflected Leland’s obsession with standardized precision parts that could be interchanged rather than some inflated PR claim. Caddy went to GM in 1909, and after WW I, Leland started Lincoln.

lincoln _model_l_1922-1

By 1922, Lincoln was in trouble and this time Ford came to the rescue. It particularly gave son Edsel Ford an opportunity to engage himself in something outside of Henry’s control-freak influence over the Model T and A.

Lincoln 1932 fq

The Lincoln Models KB and KA were highly regarded during the classic era, with superb engineering, large V12 and V8 engines, and the finest custom coachwork. Except for a visual example here, we’re going to skip over the classic era because it was a dead end, and is largely irrelevant to the continuity of the brand, post WWII. That’s not in any way a reflection on these exquisite cars, but we can’t do them justice here.

Lincoln Scarab 1934Tjaarda Prototype__01

The car we’ll start with is the Lincoln Zephyr of 1936. The Depression was killing the classic big cars, which created an opportunity for fresh thinking on a smaller and more affordable scale. The Zephyr was Lincoln’s counterpart to Chrysler’s Airflow; both of them arising out of the new obsession with streamlining everything from trains to toasters. The Zephyr had its origins in a series of radical rear-engine designs by John Tjaarda, using airplane-type stress analysis to prove the advantages of unit construction. The prototype that led to the Zephyr is above. And yes, Erwin Kommenda–who penned the VW Beetle–saw this prototype on a trip to the US at the time.

lincoln_zephyr 1936

Tjaarda did his work in conjunction with Briggs, one of the major pressed-steel body builders of the day. Eager to find a client for their efforts, they ended up at Lincoln. But the radical rear-engine construction, which was remarkably similar to the Tatra 77/87 of the same vintage, was highly ambitious. Since the Tatra was a favorite of my childhood, it’s no wonder I transferred that to the Zephyr after our move to the USA, as there were still some around on the streets of Iowa in the early sixties.

Lincoln Zephyr

Interestingly, Briggs built almost the complete Zephyr for Ford at its own plant, leaving Lincoln to install the drive train and mechanicals. It was a foreshadowing of outsourcing to come.

Lincoln Zephyr 1937 coupe

The final production Zephyr was only radical in its semi-unit construction. The streamlined styling was toned down enough to make it palatable to conservative buyers, unlike the doomed Airflow. And under the skin, the Zephyr was anything but radical, using the same transverse leaf spring suspension as the Model T, and its engine was essentially a 12 cylinder version of the Ford flathead V8, but suffered even more severely of that design’s inherent thermal deficiencies. The small V12 developed a bad rep, and many were later swapped out. But it didn’t keep the Zephyr from being a commercial success, at a critical time as the big Lincolns fell out of favor.

Lincoln Zephyr Continental

Now we get to the real beginning of the Lincoln Continental DNA. Edsel Ford commissioned a special one-off convertible for him to use during his winter vacation in Florida in the winter of ’38-’39. Edsel laid out the basic shape and design, and it was executed by Bob Gregoire. With the idea of capturing a decidedly European flavor, the “Special Lincoln-Zephyr”  became known as the Continental. And everyone who saw it wanted one.

Lincoln Continental 1940 _Convertible_Black_Full_Front

So in 1940, the Continental cabriolet was put in production. As is readily apparent, its design cues have been rehashed by Lincoln ever since, most notoriously again right now, with the baleen-mouthed new Lincolns aping the original Continental grille, in a highly exaggerated and garish way.

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The handsome (if not exactly brilliant) Continental survived for ten years, right through 1948, but not without losing its delicate face to a heavier and somewhat overpowering mug for the bulk of its ten year run. I rather prefer the more delicate original, but isn’t this 1946 Continental Mark I a perfect foreshadowing of Marks to come?

Lincoln  1949  900

Lincoln’s new post-war cars arrived for the 1949 model year, in two distinct series. Very late in the planning stage for all of Ford’s new 1949 cars, they were all moved up a notch: the originally-planned 118″ wb Ford became the Mercury, with the Ford getting a smaller new 114″ car. And the planned 121″ wb Mercury became the new low-end Lincolns (top in photo above), sharing the same basic body with the Mercury. The Cosmopolitan (lower) was the “real” Lincoln, with a 125″ wb and its own whale-like body. Power was delivered from a 152 hp 337 inch flathead V8 derived from a truck engine, and starting in 1950, backed by GM’s Hydra-Matic.

These Lincolns have certain charms, but stylistically they were a far cry from the dashing Cadillacs and Buicks over at GM. Needless to say, the fifties did not get off with a bang for Lincoln. The ’49s sold fairly well, due to the pent-up post-war demand, but by 1950, sales were down considerably.

lincoln -capri 1954-4dr-03

Things didn’t get any better with the new 1952 – 1955 models; they looked more like Mercuries (or Fords) than ever. But they did get a new OHV V8, a big 318 inch Y-block that was fairly ambitious for the times, in terms of specific output. That was soon put to good use in Mexico.

Lincoln Panamerica

The bright spot during this era was Lincoln’s remarkable success in the grueling 2000 mile Panamerica race the length of Mexico. This climaxed in 1952, when Lincoln took the top five places, and then came back in 1953 and took the top four places. This was due to a combination of factors, including diligent improvements in the Lincoln’s all-round abilities as well as the factory supplying plenty of special “truck” or “export” parts. But the Lincolns of this era really were better under the skin than to look at.

Lincoln 1956 fq

New Lincolns appeared in 1956, sporting design cues from the 1954 Mercury XM-800 show car. It was contemporary, but certainly didn’t have what it took to turn Cadillac buyers into Lincoln drivers.

Lincoln 1957

A refresh for 1957 gave it big fins, and had it looking like an oversize 1957 Chevy Bel Air coupe. Now that wasn’t going to do the job either.

Continental Mk II 56

Technically, Continentals from 1956 through 1958 weren’t actually Lincolns at all, because the Continental division was given brief autonomy in Ford’s ambitious but disastrous attempt to go mano-a-mano with GM by having five separate divisions: Ford, Mercury, Edsel, Lincoln, and Continental. Well, that sure didn’t work out so well, and not only did Edsel and Continental bite the dust, but even Lincoln almost became a victim in that implosion.

The Mark II was a very ambitious attempt to recreate the Continental mystique and compete with the most expensive European luxury brands. Priced at $10k ($80k adjusted), its then very lofty price was more than twice what a Coupe DeVille went for. Extreme quality measures and small-scale production meant that each Mark II was built at a hefty loss.

So that’s where we’ll leave off for now, as the 1958 and various later Lincolns will be covered this week by Tom Klockau’s heroic efforts during CC’s Lincoln Week. It won’t be possible to cover everything, since, but then we might well want to do it again sometime.

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Tom won’t be covering the 1961-1965 Lincoln Continentals, as we just did a major piece on them here recently. But that leaves plenty of others…