Curbside Classic: 1956 Continental Mark II – Caught In The Pincers

continental-1956-fq-c(curbside Mark II photos by robadr)

There were three primary reasons Ford spent (and lost) a whole lot of money on the Continental Mark II: 1. To recapture the glamor of its 1939-1948 Continental as well as the classic Lincoln K Models of the 1930s. 2. To show that it could build a car to the same world-class standards (and price) as a Rolls-Royce or Mercedes 300. 3. To crush Cadillac as the nation’s premier luxury car builder.

This obviously shows that in the early fifties Ford was being led by car guys, not savvy marketers, astute executives or bean counters. Henry Ford II was still young and full of chutzpah, and he and his brother Bill were out to beat GM; all of it! After the come-back success of the Ford brand in the early 50s, they were ready for more. The 1956 Continental was the first shot; the 1958 Edsel the second. Both flops. But how else to learn the car business? Bill Ford was crushed by the failure of the Continental; Henry merely chastened. But the lessons learned served Ford well, even if they were expensive. And they still apply today.

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The original Continental, the result of a fortuitous collaboration between Edsel Ford and the head of Ford’s Design Department, E. T. “Bob” Gregorie, started out as a one-off custom for Edsel, and became a production model and a phenomena by popular demand. The fact that it had very prosaic underpinnings of the Lincoln Zephyr, a mid-priced car, and something of an 10/8 scale Ford, with the customary solid axles front and rear suspended by Model T-style transverse springs, and was powered by a rather notoriously unreliable flathead V12. But none of that diminished its allure, thanks to its seductive chopped and channeled body and longer hood. In more ways than one, it was the true prototype of the popular American luxury car: style over substance.

Although the Continental was priced at an 80-95% premium over its donor Zephyr (coupe and convertible), it wasn’t really all that expensive, with the 1940 coupe’s price of $2,783  ($47,533 adjusted, but making inflation adjustments prior to the 1960s becomes increasingly misleading to to the growth in real incomes). In any case, the Continental was priced at roughly one half of the senior Lincoln Model K and comparable Cadillacs and Packards.

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The Continental soldiered along through 1948, by which time it was becoming seriously outdated. Its Wurlitzer jukebox front end didn’t do the rest of its (mostly) clean lines any favors, but it still had pull for being something decidedly out of the ordinary. Which is of course what every luxury brand aspires to.

There were various hopes and plans to build a successor to the original Continental after the war, but they mostly went to the grave with Edsel, its champion, who died in 1943. The company was in total disarray, and it was hardly a priority. Survival was.

After the Conti went into retirement, Lincoln dealers and execs were regularly asked about a successor by its fan club, which undoubtedly was a rather small and exclusive one by 1948. But that included the three young Ford brothers, Henry II, Benson and William Clay, who naturally wanted to see a worthy successor as a tribute to their late father.

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In the luxury market after the war, Cadillac was ascendant, Packard in decline, and Lincoln struggled to make inroads. Although the Lincolns were undoubtedly the best road cars of the three in early 50s, that’s not what drove the market then. It was really all about style and image, as it always has and will be, and Lincoln didn’t earn any good marks in that regard. Consider Lincoln’s top of the line 1953 Capri convertible, above.

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And then ponder Cadillac’s 1953 bombshell, its new Eldorado. It’s all too obvious that the Eldo is a full generation older in its basic body, dating all the way back to 1948, whereas the Lincoln was all-new in 1952. But who cared; the Lincoln looked like a chaste, straight-laced…Mercury; the Eldo oozed sex from all its curves like Marilyn Monroe.

But the real bombshell was what Cadillac charged for its dolled-up convertible: $7,750! That was a whopping 90% more than a Series 62 convertible (and the Lincoln Capri convertible), minus the heavy make-up. It was a bold and audacious move on Cadillac’s part, and a reflection of their confidence as America’s undisputed luxury car brand leader.

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There were always plenty of rich celebrities and tycoons—including MM herself—that were happy enough to spend the big bucks to assure that they were seen riding in something other than hoi polloi-mobiles, even if they were Cadillacs. 2,150 Eldorados were sold in 1954, although the price was now lowered considerably, as was the new 1954 body. Cadillac struck gold with the Eldorado, as much for polishing its image as in actual sales. And Ford wanted in, badly.

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In 1952, work on a new Continental began in earnest, and the Special Products Operations was set up and overseen by William Clay Ford. This eventually morphed into the Continental Division. The staff was mostly new hires, as this was to be strictly independent from the Lincoln Division. After an initial concept by John Reinhart, which was rejected out of hand by Henry, a number of outside designers were given the chance to compete, as well as in house groups. The picture above from 1952 may or may not be directly related to this process, but it does show a number of Continental concept models.

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One of those models was the Lincoln Cavalier. It would appear that it was likely an early Continental concept, but I can’t confirm it. What is pretty clear is that Ford designer Roy Brown was inspired by its front end when he designed the ill-fated 1958 Edsel.

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In 1952, Joe Oros was eager to develop a new styling theme based around large round jet exhaust-like tail lights, as had been used on a late 1940s 3/8 scale model in the Advanced Design studio by Gil Spear. Oros wanted them to become a hallmark of Ford styling, as they well did. he was assigned to develop his ideas in the Lincoln studio, and this was the result. Henry Ford II took a liking to it and thought it had real potential to become the new Continental, and thus gave it the name Continental 195X.

But brother Bill, heading up the Continental project, was not in favor of it, as some clinics with potential Conti buyers found that they preferred a more formal look. As did he. So it was soon renamed Ford X-100 and begat a long line of Ford concepts (and production cars).

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The X-100, which Elwood Engel also assisted on, previewed the 1961 “Bullet Bird”, as well as aspects of other Ford, Lincoln and Mercury cars to come. An influential concept, but not on the actual Continental to come.

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Presumably this is the clay model by John Reinhart that won the design competition and directly led to the definitive Mark II: understated, subdued, and anything but flashy, a style referred to as “Modern Formal”. Certain similarities to the 1955 two-seat Thunderbird are obvious.

The development team in addition to Reinhart was Gordon Buehrig, Chief Body Engineer, and Harley Copp, Chief Engineer. There was a push to make the Conti a unibody, but Copp vetoed that, as he felt there was too much risk given the lofty goals of the project and the limited time and resources.

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It’s sometimes difficult to get a sense of its size from pictures, as the Mark II was deceptively large. It sat on a 126″ long wheelbase, the same as the big Lincoln sedans, but its frame was different to allow a lower body height. It pioneered the “cowbelly” design frame that bowed out around the floor pans. A somewhat watered-down approach was also used in the new 1957 Fords and Mercuries, but not until 1965 would Ford use a proper and similar perimeter frame that made maximum use of the resulting floor space. Overall length was 218.4″, width was 77.5″, and height was 56.3″. The really big numbers were its weight: 4,825 lbs; 5,190 lbs with air conditioning, the only significant option available, for a whopping $595.

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The Mark used Lincoln’s drive train and suspension, but there were refinements and extensive quality checks. the front suspension included special temperature-sensitive shocks. The engines and other mechanical components were built to the highest standards, and there is some conflicting information as to whether the engines were actually partially disassembled after an initial run-in, and checked for tolerances; or not. The body assembly involved extensive hand work, with multiple coats along with hand sanding and buffing.  And Ford built a special assembly facility for the Mark at Wixom, MI, which would be used for other high end Ford products for many decades to come.

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In a somewhat retrograde move, the windshield was actually moved closer the the driver, to make the hood longer as well as to improve visibility. We can only imagine such a thing nowadays.

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Consistant with the general design theme, the dash was rather sparse, with an instrument pod mounted off-center on the dash. HVAC controls were down low, with airplane throttle-type levers. Materials and components were all of the very finest available. Due to the low floor, seating was still reasonably high and comfortable.

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The extreme attention paid to material and component quality and their assembly has become legendary. 100% of all parts sent by suppliers were inspected/tested to spec. Rejection rates were high, and some suppliers struggled to meet the expectations. Ford was determined to build the Mark to Rolls-Royce standards, regardless of the cost.

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Under that long hood sat the Lincoln 368 cubic inch (6.0 L) large Y-Block V8, dressed up for the occasion. Output was rated at 285 hp. Performance? Adequate, or not, depending on your expectations. Although top speed was timed at 118 mph by tester Floyd Clymer, sprints were not the Mark’s thing at all; 0-60 took a luxurious 16 seconds. The 1957 version lost one of its frame reinforcements and gained 15 hp in an effort to perk things up a wee bit. Handling was safe and predictable, given the times. Brakes were not a particular strong suit. But the Mark was a comfortable, solid and quiet cruiser, which given its weight, should not be a surprise.

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William Ford could rightly be proud of his new baby, but it turned out to be quite a bit more expensive to build than its original projected price of some $8,000. The asking price in the end was just shy of $10,000 ($9,695), something yet unheard of in the post war era. Adjusted for inflation, that comes to $88k in 2015 dollars, but that doesn’t tell the full story of its price.

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Unlike the 1920s, when the top marginal tax rate was 24%, and then only on income over $100k ($1.4 M adjusted), in 1952-1953, the top rate was 92%. During the mid fifties, even popular movie/tv stars like Ronald Reagan lived in 4,000 square foot ranch houses, not vast palaces. And it wasn’t just the taxes; well-paid professions were just a lot less well paid back then. It was the era of “The Great Income Compression”. That largely explains why the market for really expensive cars was really rather limited.

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What was the Mark II’s competition, at its rarefied price level? It turned out not to be the Eldorado, as its price was cut drastically for 1954, down to around $6500. More likely the Mercedes 300S, which stickered for $12,898. It sat on a pre-war chassis, had half the displacement, and none of the Mark’s extensive power-assists. But it did have an abundance of genuine exclusivity, refinement and prestige. Which is of course what mattered the most, to the small clientele at the very top of the pyramid.

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Or perhaps a Facel Vega, with a Chrysler hemi under the hood, which ran some $7500 at the time.

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The new Ferrari 250 GT series was available in 1956 with a wide range of different bodies from various designers/coachbuilders, like this coupe by Boano, and starting at around $12,000.

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One could go on and on, as really any European luxury/exotic was readily available, given that there were no safety or emission regulations to importation. And most brands had official importers, like Hoffman Motors. In Hoffman’s new showroom designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, just about every European luxury and sports brand was on lavish display.

The 1950s import boom didn’t just extend to economy cars; all matter of exotics were coming to the states, as it was the biggest market for them, despite the high tax brackets. Which the really rich knew how to reduce their sting anyway. Just like the 1950s laid the seeds of the imports’ near domination of the lower price classes, so it was with the true luxury cars. American cars just weren’t exotic enough, or sporty enough, or built well enough, or technologically advanced enough, or…

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Befitting its lofty aspirations to be taken serious as a world-class luxury car, the Mark II was premiered at the 1956 Paris Auto Show. There was a lot of buzz about it, thanks to an effective PR campaign, and dealers were taking waiting lists. Sales started off with a bang, with some buyers paying premiums to get their cars sooner. But after the first some 1261 cars were delivered in the fourth quarter of 1956, things quickly started to slack off, and soon the Mark’s average transaction price was closer to $8500. Which did not make the early buyers any happier.

Only some half of Lincoln-Mercury dealer opted in on selling the Continental, since promotional materials were expensive and they were required to keep 10% of their inventory in Mark IIs. But their gross profit per car started at $2300, although undoubtedly that was cut into by the subsequent discounting.

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It became clear pretty obvious as 1957 unfolded and sales continued to weaken that the Mark II was in trouble. Was it just too expensive, or too subdued in its design, or was it the lack of other models? The latter point was clearly a point of contention within Ford. A considerable amount of development money was spent on a retractable roof version, but ultimately deemed to expensive to put into production at what would undoubtedly have been at very small numbers. If the coupe was already too expensive, then what of this?

The investment was eventually recouped as it was used in the 1957 Ford Skyliner as well as adapted to convertible use in Thunderbords and the 1961-up Continental convertible.

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The same pricing problem would have bedeviled a conventional convertible. One was built by Derham, shown extensively, and then given to Bill Ford’s wife. Another (above) was built later by Hess and Eisenhardt, converted from a coupe. It was estimated that a convertible would cost some $18,000. No sale.

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A four door hardtop was considered to be the most obvious brand extension for Continental. It started out as a stretch of the coupe, which would of course have minimized tooling costs.

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But that was soon considered to be unfeasible from a quickly-evolving design standpoint, and John Reinhart worked at developing a new four door, dubbed “Berline”. This is an early version.

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At some point the Berline (or Mark III) program was shifted to unibody, undoubtedly to share development costs with the upcoming unibody 1958 Lincoln. But at this point, this was not just a Lincoln dressed up as a Continental, but still a distinct and genuine Continental. And one previewing aspects of the 1961 Continental.

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But it was all for naught. The 1957 Mark II got off to a very weak start, and the writing was on the wall, literally. The Continental Division was shut down in early 1957 already, even before the Mark II went out of production. Why didn’t Ford hang in there, as GM did with its Corvette, that lost money for a number of its early years?

Continental was losing well over $1,000 per Mark II, and the division was gushing red ink. What forced a quick shut down was that Ford Motor Company went public (over Henry’s dead body) in January of 1956. It simply wasn’t going to be tenable to have Continental be a source of major red ink for any extended period of time. Would things have turned out differently if Ford had stayed privately-held? Probably not; trying to establish a new über-luxury brand in the US in the 1950s was just not in the cards. Or really anytime since the 1920s.

Ironically, Continental’s building was turned over to Ford’s next great hope in battling GM; Edsel. That didn’t last much longer either.

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The Continental name was continued for 1958, but just as a top-tier version of the new and ill-fated 1958 Lincoln. It was called Mark III, but was held in such low regard that Ford had no compunction in re-using that name for the real Mark III in 1968.

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This time Ford got it right: a flashy coupe with neo-classical design features but built on a platform shared with more prosaic Fords, and none of the over-the-top attention to quality, materials and assembly, in order to keep the price very much in everyman’s reach. Or in other words, quite a lot like the original Continental’s formula. Its price was $6,585, almost half of the Mark II’s, in adjusted dollars. It was the formula for mass-market success, and the Mark III really ushered in the whole era of neo-classical, faux-luxury kitsch-mobiles to come. Every American deserves to have a Continental Mark in their driveway!

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And soon enough seemed like that was the really case, even if it was just a ’77 Thunderbird for half the price. I can’t tell them apart; can you?

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Meanwhile back at GM, Ford’s bold assault on the top of the American luxury market could not be left unanswered. The response, the 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, was both similar yet different. The Fords were mainly listening to themselves and a few Continental die-hard owners to guide them to the “Modern Formal” design of the Mark II. Not Harley Earl; he listened carefully what regular folks were saying and reacting to at GM’s Futurama traveling circus. And the result was the Eldorado Brougham, a somewhat cynical distillation of what real Americans wanted in a luxury car, not those clubby, stuffy Fords.

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Fins, wrap around windows, four-door hardtop with suicide rear doors, air suspension, X Frame, and a list half a page long of every other do-hicky GM’s futurists/imagineers could think of and build right down to a perfume atomizer. And its price? An eye-watering $13,074. Take that, poor little Mark II! And don’t ever try messing with Big Mama GM again!

Never mind that only a mere 704 Eldorado Broughams were sold in its two year run, and that GM’s losses per car were much higher. But then it could well afford them, given that they were buried in the huge profits Cadillac was spinning off. And GM wasn’t trying to establish a whole new division. The Eldo was a classic halo-mobile, and was probably more effective at its mission of getting folks into a Cadillac dealer than the Mark. Why? because the other cars on the Cadillac showroom floor didn’t look that different than the Eldorado, especially after one looked at the stickers. Meanwhile, 1956 Lincolns had effectively zero resemblance to the Mark.

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The Fords had some painful lessons to learn, but they learned them fairly quickly. Most of all, they were smart enough (some of the time) to let others run the show, guys who really understood the American car buyer. The truth is, none of the Fords ever really had a feel for that. Henry senior built a car that was irresistible because of its price and technical features at the time. But once that formula didn’t work anymore, GM and Chrysler stole its thunder, because they did know what Americans really wanted.

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My Mark II story has run out of gas, but I need to share these wonderful shots that robadr took in British Columbia and posted at the Cohort. I’ve long given up trying to find a genuine curbside Mark II, but thanks to the Cohort, my curbsiding proxies, this one will more than do.

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I remember seeing my first Mark II as a kid in Iowa City in the early 60s, parked at a UI football game, undoubtedly owned by a rich alumni. I was quite taken by it, because I really didn’t know of it, and how it fit into the scheme of things automotive at the time. It was a mystery wanting to be unraveled.

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Peering in through its side window, I knew this was something special, and that it was from before my time in the US, as it obviously wasn’t a current Continental and looked a bit dated. The quality of the materials and the somber styling said “expensive” and “exclusive”, but I didn’t have a clear picture of just how much so that was the case.

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The lack of tail fins and the generally muted design was a bit of a puzzle to me, as it just didn’t fit into what else was going on the mid 50s. I guess I wasn’t the only one. And I wasn’t too sure about how much I really liked it or not. It left me impressed and confused.

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Which is still mostly my response to seeing this one again. It’s imposing, dramatic and earns respect for going against the grain. But it’s also odd; that steep little windshield looks like a toy car’s. The roof is a bit off. The spare tire wheel hump is not my thing. I respect the effort, but it’s a bit wasted on me. Not that I can’t properly appreciate its uniqueness and rather commanding presence. It’s got it in spades.

Some 3,000 Mark II’s were built, and about half of them are still around and accounted for. It’s a car that undoubtedly made quite an impact on a generation at the time. It certainly did on the Ford brothers.

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America has never made a successful high-end luxury car since the 1930s. And it probably never will again. Why? The European long tradition of high-end sports and luxury cars was one that did not want to be so readily stamped out as in America after the war. There was no room for high-end small-scale producers here, and the large ones had to chase each other into ever greater volumes in order to support the rapid-paced styling changes, big V8s and all of the new comfort and convenience features that everyone wanted.

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America had democratized the automobile with the Model T, and it had done the same with luxury cars. The Continental Mark II was an attempt to sidestep that unstoppable movement downmarket propelled by Cadillac. It was just as destined to fail as was the Model T, once Chevrolet took the low end of the market upscale. And the two ends of the market have been converging ever since, leaving increasingly little room for anyone caught outside of those pincers. As Ford found out the hard way, more than once.

 

Related:

CC 1940 Lincoln Continental Convertible: Beauty For Beauty’s Sake   JPC

CC 1965 Lincoln Continental: The Last Great American Luxury Car   PN