Few automotive rivalries have been as enduring as that of Lincoln vs. Cadillac. The two preeminent American luxury makes have battled each other for decades, usually with roughly equivalent models. However, in the late 1970s, the two brands’ offerings diverged substantially. Cadillac pursued a strategy of “less is more,” with its compact Euro-inspired Seville and its downsized deVille. Lincoln, conversely, might as well have said “Sometimes, more is more” by resolutely marketing its gargantuan Continental right through 1979. By then it was obvious that smaller luxury cars were necessary, but despite its obsolescence, the Continental sold well until the end of its production run, in a testament to many luxury buyers’ appreciation for size and comfort.
When this car was produced, it was the last of its kind. Cadillac had downsized two years earlier, Chrysler had abandoned the full-size luxury market altogether in 1978, and consumers knew that the 1980 Lincolns would be dramatically smaller. Everyone who bought a 1979 Continental did so out of an appreciation for the way things were. Its outmoded design was 100% of its appeal, and that sentiment landed 1979 Continental sedans in 76,000 driveways… not bad for a car in its 10th year of production.
The 1970s are remembered as the zenith of luxury car size, and appropriately enough, Lincoln began the decade with a new Continental. In advertising prose, the 1970 model was billed as featuring an “impressive new size.”
Throughout the 1970s, Lincolns came as Continentals (2-dr. & 4-dr.) and the Mark series cars (2-dr. only). These were distinct models, but the cars’ styling and marketing carried similar themes. Lincoln subscribed to a belief in slow evolution, with press materials often stressing heritage and consistency. It was the 1972 Mark IV (above) that introduced the upright grille, body-colored headlight covers and protruding turn signals that formed Lincoln’s most distinctive styling feature of the 1970s. These features were adopted by Continentals gradually over the following years, and by 1977, the Continental reached the design we see in our featured ’79 model.
Few design changes occurred between 1977 and 1979 – this was the era of the Last Big Continental. Lack of change, though, was itself significant, largely because of what was transpiring at rival Cadillac. GM reacted relatively quickly to the 1973 fuel crisis, which served to indicate that American luxury cars should get smaller. Lincoln hardly reacted at all.
Cadillac’s volume-leading deVille received a dramatic, and risky, downsizing in 1977. Meanwhile, Cadillac’s flagship had become the Seville, its smallest, most agile car. Not so with Lincoln. In 1977, Lincoln’s press release for its mildly restyled Continental described the car as “full-sized in every sense of the term.” It’s hard to envision two more divergent sales strategies.
In the mid-1970s, Cadillac responded to the obvious – that luxury cars had gotten too big and soft. Lincoln, however, didn’t change a bit. Our 1979 featured car, in fact, is remarkably similar to its predecessors from 6 years earlier.
Nothing better illustrates this match-up than period advertising, which reveals each company’s marketing approach. Cadillac ads stress various themes of being “right for today” – oblique references to the car’s downsizing and improved efficiency. Lincoln, meanwhile, repeated themes on traditionalism and the proper definition of full-size.
Oddly, both companies succeeded, as sales boomed for Cadillac and Lincoln in the late 1970s. This was partially the result of a growing overall luxury car market, but it also reflected the public’s appreciation for both brands’ approaches. Simply put, there were enough buyers for both traditional, and more contemporary, luxury cars.
Lincoln had historically trailed Cadillac in the luxury car sales race, but in the 1977-79 period, the gap decreased significantly. During this period, Lincoln sales averaged 51% of Cadillac’s – up markedly from 38% in the first seven years of the decade. Both overall sales, and Lincoln’s competitiveness with Cadillac dipped again in the early 1980s, making the period when the last big Continentals were produced a bright spot from Lincoln’s perspective.
The 1977-79 Continentals changed very little year-over-year, so our featured car is representative of its breed. And over this 3-year period, as the Continental battled the downsized deVille, sales were outstanding. While Lincoln produced on average 35,000 Continental sedans between 1970 and 1976, that number shot up to about 68,000 annual units for both 1977 and 1978 — and 76,000 for 1979. All this for a car that was designed about 10 years beforehand, and which was obviously a relic of the past. Lincoln couldn’t make these cars fast enough.
In fact, that became a problem. The Continental’s popularity (along with the equally high-volume Mark V coupe) threatened to run Ford afoul of EPA fuel economy standards. Ford tried to temper demand by raising the 1979 Continental’s price by 10%, but Lincoln customers displayed a remarkable willingness to pay more for a car that represented their values.
The Continental followed a traditional approach to luxury, which, of course, stressed size. In addition to size, the formula for making a 1970s American luxury car included quietness, power accessories, gadgets, opulent interiors, and prestigious colors and combinations.
Opulence abounded in the Continental. Even in base trim, passengers were treated to a luxurious ride, with features such as automatic climate control, a Cartier digital clock, cornering lights, deep-pile carpeting, plush upholstery, interior woodgrain applique, and an abundance of courtesy lights and other comfort-related gizmos.
This particular Lincoln is a Town Car, which brought a higher level of trim than the base Continental. Standard Town Car exterior features included a vinyl roof, B-pillar coach lamps, and power vent windows.
The C-pillar opera windows, often considered a distinguishing feature of Town Cars, could actually be deleted – but the windows were so popular that it’s rare to see a Town Car without them.
Climbing aboard, one finds the true benefit of the Town Car package. “Comfort lounge” power seats came standard, as did upgraded door panels, arm rests, and other trim pieces.
Our featured car came with leather upholstery (left). A similar Town Car with velour seating is shown at right. Either way, passengers were swaddled in luxury.
This particular car also came with color-keyed bodyside moldings and optional turbine-style aluminum wheels.
It was often said that cars like the Continental were living rooms on wheels. While that’s somewhat of an exaggeration, it’s no coincidence that this 1979 TDK cassette ad used a Continental as its car of choice.
The 6-foot-long hood concealed a large but underpowered V-8. While earlier Continentals received a 460-cu. in. engine with a 4-bbl. carburetor, pressure to meet CAFE regulations necessitated offering only a 400-cu. in. 2-bbl. V-8 for 1979. This change, along with weight-saving measures like using thinner glass, brought the Continental’s fuel economy up from 13 to 15 mpg. The overall diet shaved 207 lbs.
At 159-hp, the 400 V-8 couldn’t exactly propel the 4,800-lb. Lincoln with much haste. But in the 1970s, luxury and performance were not necessarily synonymous. Lincoln buyers were not people in a hurry; after all, this was a car for people who had already achieved their success in life – the world could wait for them as they inched along in their 19’ 5” Continental.
At the other end of the car, a 24.2-gallon fuel tank provided a reasonable cruising range, and that long deck covered a 21.2-cu. ft. trunk.
Continental sedan list prices started at $11,200, though options could pile up quickly. The Town Car package added $1,527 to that price, and the other assorted options seen on this particular car would have yielded a sticker price of about $14,500 – equivalent to $48,000 in 2016 dollars, or about the price of a new MKT.
The party could not go on forever, though, and 1979 was the big Continental’s last year. Whether intentionally or not, Lincoln timed the car’s exit perfectly. With several strong years in a row, the Continental did not go through a period of stagnating sales that could have harmed the brand. In fact, 1979 was the Continental sedan’s best year.
On the other hand, everyone – including Ford – knew that it had to go. The world had changed, and the last of the dinosaurs had stared down extinction long enough. The old formula of luxury needed to be updated, if only just a bit.
Any qualms Lincoln may have had about downsizing their flagship car vanished in the wake of the 1979 energy crisis. Suddenly, with gas station lines and worries about oil supply, no one wanted a nearly 5,000-lb. relic of the early 1970s. By the end of the year, dealers were deeply discounting the remaining ‘79s – the era had ended.
The downsized 1980 Continentals shed 800 lbs. and 14” of length, but design-wise they carried on many of Lincoln’s themes. From some angles, the similarity is striking, such as from the front, where all of the Continental’s trademark styling cues were transferred to the new car. The family resemblance was not unintentional.
Furthermore, many design elements from these 1970s Continentals remained characteristics of full-size Lincolns for years to come. This comparison of our 1979 model with a 1989 Town Car illustrates how the grille and turn signals remained Lincoln hallmarks a decade after our featured car was built.
Late-’70s Continentals are often remembered as the last of their kind. Unnecessarily big, excessive, inefficient, outrageously conspicuous displays of consumption… and very popular. But last of their kind? That’s debatable. History tends to repeat itself – notice the similarities between the above statements and Lincoln’s Navigator SUV. Critics have called large SUVs by the same disparaging names as the luxury yachts were called in the 1970s. Automotive mastodons didn’t disappear, they were simply reborn after a period of dormancy.
What stands out the most about the ’79 Continental was Lincoln’s loyalty to full-size luxury after the winds of change turned into a gale. Was it a conservative, or daring approach – to fly in the face of prevailing market trends? Probably both. Ford’s initial reluctance to downsize its luxury cars gave it a late start, but once one that passed, the company made the best of it. The Continental benefited from being last – it never would have sold in such high numbers had it had competition. So for a few years, More was indeed More.
Photographed in Falls Church, Virginia in April 2016.