CC Unicorn Hunt: 1961 Lincoln Continental Pillarless Hardtop Sedan

Take a close look at the car in the lead photo – do you see anything missing? Eagle-eyed Lincoln spotters will immediately tell you that all non-convertible 1961-69 Lincoln Continentals have a B-pillar between the front and rear side windows, and that Lincoln never made a 4-door hardtop version of this car. Perhaps, but that almost wasn’t the case (and in fact may not actually have been the case, as we shall see). I recently returned from a long safari to hunt down this mythical beast, and I am pleased to report what I found.

The 1961-69 Lincoln Continental has attained near mythical status, and deservedly so: It single-handedly both saved the Lincoln brand from extinction, and boldly set an entirely new direction of automotive design in the 1960’s. The fourth generation Continental has been covered many times here and elsewhere, and Paul’s exhaustive history of this car is one of the best I’ve read anywhere. The Reader’s Digest version:

Early 1961 Thunderbird clay model. Note Thunderbird script on fender and logo on grille, and Thunderbird style hubcaps.

After losing $60 Million on the unpopular 1958-60 Lincoln models, Ford President and “Whiz Kid” Robert McNamara was seriously considering shuttering the Lincoln brand, in addition to Edsel. Realizing that a complete transformation would be necessary for Lincoln to survive, he became smitten with a proposed design for the 1961 Thunderbird by Elwood Engle (the picture above is supposedly of the exact clay model that swayed him). While the design was rejected for the T-Bird as being too formal, McNamara thought it would form a good basis for a redesigned Lincoln.

I have long been aware that some (but certainly not most) automotive reference guides allude to three styles of 1961 Lincoln Continental: four-door convertible, four-door sedan, and four-door hardtop. The number associated with the hardtop production is almost always four, like the screenshot from one automotive pricing guide above suggests. So what is the deal with this hardtop, and how come I’ve never seen one?

At least one of the prototypes of the 1961 Continental was in fact a hardtop, like the one pictured above and in various other photos that I have sprinkled throughout this article. The hardtop differed from the pillared sedan in that it was essentially a fixed-roof convertible: It was to have the same rear doors, wiring, and glass as the convertible. It also had the same servo mechanisms in the doors that convertible did, which lowered the side glass several inches when the doors were opened, a feature that the pillared sedan did not have.

From the November 1960 issue of Popular Mechanics. While the hardtop is not mentioned in the text, the car in the photo clearly is one.

The decision to kill the hardtop apparently happened early in the production run. According to production records obtained by the Lincoln Continental Owners Club (LCOC), Lincoln produce nine hardtop (body style 57C) models in December, 1960, and one more in January, 1961. The production records from March, 1961 further reads:

March 6 units model 57C converted to 53A in accordance with L-M program timing. From this point 4 units will be carried on the production records until change-over.

This still leaves four hardtops unaccounted for, which is the generally accepted number of 1961 hardtops sedans actually produced (at least by those who acknowledge their existence in the first place). While I was unable to independently verify these numbers, I have no reason to doubt this august organization.

1961 Continental seating buck featuring hardtop roof. I believe this photo may have been used internally to evaluate the ease of ingress and egress with the rear hinged doors.

What is less clear is whether any of these hardtops were actually sold to the public. Keep in mind that ’61 Continental, which went on sale on November 17, 1960, had already been in showrooms for several month at this point. It is also unclear why Lincoln pulled the plug on the hardtop so late in the development cycle (or more accurately, so early in the production cycle). Perhaps it was feared that the cost of the added convertible door mechanicals would push the price the already expensive Continental (10% higher than a comparable Cadillac) even further into the stratosphere. Perhaps there was some sort of structural issue discovered at the last-minute. This seems unlikely, as the Continental’s unibody is widely regarded as solid and sturdy, and the convertible gets by just fine without a B-pillar or even a roof.

My guess: The four-door hardtop got nixed for the same reason that the Continental launched without a two-door coupe variant: Reduction of product variations and manufacturing complexity. Remember that when the Continental launched, the Lincoln brand was on its last gasp, and success was far from guaranteed. While in retrospect the 4th generation Continental was a smashing success, at the time it represented a huge risk. To hedge their bets, the Continental was launched with only two body styles, with large amounts of standard equipment and few options to reduce production configurations.

Scan from 1960-1964 Lincoln Master Parts Catalog

This unfortunately is where the trail gets cold. It is possible that these four hardtops were used by Ford for internal purposes (training, photography, crash testing, etc). Perhaps they were driven by Ford executives or members of the Ford family, who have been known order custom production runs from time to time. There is just enough evidence to plausibly make the case that they might have been sold to the public. For instance, there are references to the hardtop model in the 1960-1964 Lincoln-Mercury Master Parts Catalog (excerpted above), as well as in a 1961 electrical equipment installation manual (which is how we know about the hardtop’s door servos).

Image courtesy

My personal belief, however, is that none of these hardtops were actually sold to the public, and that the few random Ford service manual references just reflect the 11th-hour indecision of L-M as to whether to produce the hardtop or not. This opinion is shared by several Lincoln experts I consulted when researching this article, none of whom have ever seen a hardtop in their collective decades of buying, selling, servicing and restoring these cars.

From 1961 Lincoln Brochure. Note the lack of a pillar on the passenger side.

So while these four hardtops likely never got sold to the public, they clearly did exist. Tantalizing clues are scattered everywhere, if you look hard enough. One even made it into the 1961 brochure, where a quick and dirty airbrush job added a pillar to only one side of the car.

From the 1962 Lincoln Brochure

The final (and unlikeliest) appearance of the 1961 hardtop model was in the 1962 brochure, which clearly made use of some leftover 1961 photos (the lack of exposed screw heads on the door handles indicates the left picture is of an early 1961 model). Observe that no pillar is visible over the shoulder of the model on the shot on the left, which uses almost the exact same angle and pose (and model) as the photo on the right, which clearly shows a pillar.

Related Reading

Curbside Classic: 1965 Lincoln Continental – The Last Great American Luxury Car

Car Show Classic: 1966-67 Lincoln Continental Convertible – End Of An Era

Curbside Classsic: 1969 Lincoln Continental – Missed It By THAT Much