Forgotten Future: Alternate Designs for the Continental Mark II

Paul has already extensively covered the full story of the Continental Mark II, and we all know the broad strokes: In the early 1950s, Lincoln was looking for a follow-up for its 1939-1948 flagship Continental model (and looking to leapfrog Cadillac at the same time). FoMoCo eventually created an entirely new division (Continental) to sell its bespoke $10,000 ($96K in 2020) model. Despite selling for as much as a small house, Ford still managed to lose money on each car and shut down the Continental division in 1956 after selling just 3,005 examples.

1939 Lincoln Continental Prototype

But back to the beginning. By the early 1950s, the original Lincoln Continental had a small but dedicated cadre of owners and fans. The Continental was probably one of the first automotive viral marketing success stories, with patient zero being a hand-built custom model that Edsel Ford showed off to his friends in Florida in 1939. Demand for the vehicle then largely spread by word of mouth among the well-heeled set. The Continental was already considered a classic by the early 1950s (cars didn’t last very long back then), with the Lincoln Continental Owners Club being formed in 1953. Naturally, this would be a key group that Ford would be looking to purchase a new second-generation Continental.

So how do you follow up on an icon? The Continental, while widely (and deservedly) praised for its styling, still had numerous design flaws. For starters, the convertible had no rear quarter windows, giving it a top-heavy appearance and severely impeding outward visibility (not helped by the tiny rear window), at least with the top raised. 

1946 Lincoln Continental

1946 Lincoln Continental

The 1942 refresh didn’t help matters, replacing the earlier model’s flowing waterfall grille with a bulkier, heavier front-end (which got even bulkier and heavier in 1946). While that may have been in keeping with the styling trends of the day, it lacked the grace and elegance of the original.

From any side other than the front, the styling of the original Continental was somewhat spare, especially in comparison to what would come in subsequent decades. The doors are broad and flat, bereft of any trim, stripes, or creases, and with just a tiny push-button release to break up the emptiness. With their square door cutlines and exposed hinges, the side view is almost homely, and certainly not in keeping with design trends of the 1950s.

So the design brief for the Mark II was already conflicted: They needed to retain just enough of the styling cues of the first Continental in order to appeal to fans of the original, even though many were unfashionable by the early 1950s. Simultaneously they needed to appeal to the sensibilities of contemporary luxury car buyers (Cadillac and Rolls Royce were the bogeys) with a thoroughly modern design. William Clay Ford (Edsel Ford’s son, in charge of the Mark II program and only 28 at the time) called what he was looking for “Modern Formal.”

In 1952, WCF convened a small team to start designing the Mark II, where they grappled with the issues outlined above. They worked out of Ford’s Special Project Operations (SPO) center, which was really just an old gymnasium (period films show the basketball hoops still hanging on the walls).

The early results were uninspiring. When Henry Ford II saw it, he was supposed to have commented “I would give you a nickel for that ****!” Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I was unable to find any pictures of the early design that raise the Deuce’s hackles. Perhaps WCF ordered all images destroyed.

Continental Mark II Design Competition

Continental Mark II design competition judging

William Clay Ford was crushed by this dressing down from his elder brother, but he soon bounced back. To get fresh ideas, WCF hatched the idea of a design competition between the Ford studio and four outside designers. The hardpoints of the car were already set from the now-abandoned earlier designs, so all the designs had to conform to a specific width, height, wheelbase, and length. All the renderings had to be provided in the same color (Prussian Blue, supposedly Bill’s favorite) and rendered from the same perspectives, so as to eliminate any potential bias. They also had to be the same size, matted identically, and unsigned (only numbered).  Judging took place on May 5, 1953.

The five contest entrants were a veritable who’s who of automotive designers in the 1950s, as we shall see when we get into the individual submissions. Each external entrant was compensated $10,000 for their work, whether theirs was the chosen winner or not. Obviously, Ford’s own SPO team was eager to take another crack after their earlier humiliation. 

On the following pages is what I believe to be the most complete collection of images of the entrants ever presented online, so let’s dive in and see what the Continental Mark II could have been like, presented in the order in which they were originally numbered for the competition. Before I dig into the thirteen concepts (each entrant was allowed to submit more than one proposal), I want you to transport your mental self back to 1953, and imagine that you were judging the entrants. Which would you have chosen to be the face of the Mark II?

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