(First Posted 1/2/2014 – includes revisions) Automobile nameplates with lengthy histories naturally see more changes over their storied lifetime. This 2000 Lincoln Continental may seem like the furthest thing possible from the 1960s car most commonly associated with the name “Continental”. But a closer look reveals that there are more similarities than meet the eye.
Beyond its appearance and drivetrain, the Continental’s image also saw some changes over the years — and not just in its physical appearance. Once reserved for the most exclusive and expensive cars produced by the Ford Motor Company, over time the Continental nameplate was diluted across multiple model lines, demoted from top billing as Lincoln’s flagship, and shuffled around among various segments in search of finding its niche before quietly fading away… though not permanently as we’ve found since the original publishing of this article.
Visually, its shape and form changed significantly throughout the years. Yet Continentals from every year shared this in common: they were big, comfortable, and luxurious. And while cost-cutting and additional models bearing the Continental name contributed to a less prestigious, less exclusive car, for most of its life the Continental still offered levels of luxury unrivaled by most other cars.
The 1980s would see the most drastic changes in Continental history. The big Continental sedan (’78 pictured above) and coupe were downsized, and after their introductory year, were simply known as “Town Car” and “Town Coupe”, respectively. The name wasn’t dead however, as Mark VIs still carried the Continental prefix. The all-new 1982 Lincoln Continental would now be a mid-sized sedan, embodying many Continental qualities of yore in a smaller package.
In all honesty, the idea of this car hadn’t really changed from that of the Versailles it replaced. It was still essentially a gussied-up version of a more modest Ford Granada. Although more was done to differentiate and upgrade it from the Granada, the “small” Continental didn’t break new ground in any particular area for Lincoln, save for its distinctive styling (which I personally find rather homely).
1988 would see the Continental name move to yet another type of vehicle, this time a front-wheel drive luxury sedan based on the economical Taurus. Wearing understated, aerodynamic sheet metal, the ’88 Lincoln Continental was a breath of fresh air compared to Continentals of recent memory. Despite its modern new clothes, the Continental was no E34 5-Series. It still offered traditional Continental virtues like a soft ride, roomy six-passenger seating, and formal roofline with opera windows.
While a notable entry in the mid-to-large luxury car segment in 1988, Lincoln left the Continental relatively unchanged for 7 years – a lengthy period that saw the introduction of both Lexus and Infiniti, as well as the redesigned and more competitive Acura Legend and Cadillac Seville. All of these cars would totally redefine the luxury segment in the nineties.
By the time a redesigned Continental arrived in 1995, it seemed like a fish out of water. Sure its new, swoopy sheet metal and “cockpit” interior were thoroughly modern. But it nonetheless still conveyed the stodgy, “old man’s” image that was largely associated with the Lincoln brand. And despite returning to brawny V8 power, the Continental’s short wheelbase, hefty curb weight, and 63/37 weight distribution limited its performance.
1998 proved the last restyling of the Continental in this life, largely in attempt to correct the 1995-1997’s sagging sales. Although not a full redesign, it was a rather extensive visual restyle of the front and rear fascias, bringing it in line with the new Town Car. With its sharper nose and more upright trunk, the Continental pulled off the shared design language off better.
The interior also received an mild makeover, simplifying electronics and adding real bird’s eye maple trim. Many cheap looking and feeling plastics, however, remained. In the end, it was a reasonably handsome and stately car, and the proudest design in recent years to wear the Continental name. It just wasn’t what luxury car buyers wanted.
The market had largely shifted away from soft-riding, FWD luxury cars. Those looking for a comfy, big-car ride were more likely to purchase a roomier Town Car for nearly the same price. Lincoln really missed an opportunity to build a trimmer, sportier, and more youthful luxury sedan. They would finally release the LS in 2000, but it was just too little, too late by that point.
In truth, the final Continental wasn’t a bad car for what it was – a big, roomy, and comfortable V8 luxury car – much the same as it was some 40 years earlier. While one may be quick to judge it as a far cry from earlier Continentals, in reality Lincoln’s inability to change it enough was ultimately what killed it. Consumers’ tastes had shifted to cars with more intercontinental flavor.
In the time since the original publication of this article, Lincoln has revived the Continental name for its new flagship sedan. Once again based on a midsize Ford vehicle (the Fusion in this case), the new Continental aims to restore some of the prestige Lincoln has lost in recent years, while staying true to its roots offering unapologetically traditional American luxury. Realistically, however, this type of luxury is not what the majority of luxury car buyers are looking for, and it appears that most new Continentals are fulfilling the departed Town Car’s role as black car vehicles for livery services.
Photographed: Rockland, Massachusetts – December 2013