(first posted 1/5/2015)
This ongoing series (should I decide to continue it) will focus on my “Great 28,” a list of my favorite cars. To be on the list, I must ogle and daydream about said vehicle for a period not less than a year. Only the first three are in numerical order of my desire; the others are about equal. Some are attainable, others are not (Turbine Car, I’m looking at you).
Frank Lloyd Wright declared the original Continental to be the “most beautiful car in the world,” and I must agree. When I stand next to one, I become dangerously preoccupied, transfixed, lost in its beauty. Sometimes I giggle a little. I forget everything else. The ’40/’41 Cabriolet is as much a work of art as a Renoir or a Brueghel, and to think that it came from a quick sketch based on a Lincoln Zephyr almost makes one believe in divine inspiration.
The Continental’s genesis, a product of E.T. Gregorie and Edsel Ford’s respective genius, is well-documented. Much of their work still holds people awestruck today; their ability to produce timeless designs despite a styling “department” that was microscopic compared to GM’s is a testament to their abilities and to their working relationship. Sure, the ’42 and later Lincolns became a little fussy and ornate, but the original Continental was such a magnum opus that Gregorie’s abilities as a designer must remain unquestioned.
The Continental was created by sectioning a Zephyr, lengthening its hood, shortening its deck, and shifting its passenger compartment rearward. That means that the original ’40s were “lead sleds,” requiring much custom bodywork. Oh well, who hasn’t used a little bondo? The Zephyr was already a beautiful car, but it became epic as the Continental. This is perhaps my favorite view; I can stand in peaceful, gleeful reverie staring at that boatlike hood and cascading grille.
Bob Gregorie was a connoisseur of yachts, and the front of the Continental (and Zephyr) was intended to recreate a boat cutting through the water–yar indeed, said Ms Hepburn.
One can easily see how tall and stubby the nose of the still-beautiful Zephyr is compared to the Continental. The Continental also benefits from a slightly chopped windshield and more natural lower bodylines.
The rear of the Continental is equally dramatic compared to the Zephyr. Gregorie elevated and truncated the deck, and (due to a lack of trunk room) created a styling motif that lasted for decades, the Continental Spare. Of course, adding a “Continental Kit” to any ’50s car that didn’t already have one is considered automotive low-art to many CC fans. In my opinion, this is the only car that looks proper and natural with it, because it was designed to be a part of the car, not tackily tacked on.
The ’41 Continental exhibited few changes from the ’40. It earned its own body dies, so the lead factor was reduced, and the grille showcased elegant bright surrounds. Additionally, the door handles were now push-button “poppers” that actually sprung the door open about a foot when pressed. If anything, the ’41 is slightly cleaner than the ’40, but one may notice the ’41 Cadillac next to above Continental, and that car influenced a change for ’42.
Gregorie’s own ’38 Zephyr affected Harley Earl enough that he incorporated that car’s new horizontal grille motif into his Cadillacs. As has been already discussed here at CC, the ’38’s grille was in response to inadequate radiator cooling in earlier Zephyrs, but it impressed Earl enough that it became a lasting trend (even today–how many vertical grilles do you see on new cars?). Therefore, Gregorie was compelled to introduce the even more blocky and horizontal ’42 model, which lost much of the magic of the original. Still, it was not an unattractive vehicle.
Unlike many cars today, the original Continental only received a minimum of testing, including a prototype that Gregorie delivered to Edsel Ford to showcase around his winter home in Florida. People liked that car enough that Edsel ordered another prototype, and this is it. This is the only known ’39 Continental, a car that was never offered for sale to the public. Notice the ’39-style grille. Bob Gregorie actually kept this prototype as his personal car for a while, before unceremoniously trading it in!
That lack of testing was uncommon even then, but the Continental’s reputation for reliability (or unreliability) doesn’t seem any more unfavorable than its Zephyr counterpart, likely because the mechanical components were basically identical. Both cars are well-known mechanical throwbacks, with transverse leaf front and rear suspension and a flathead V12 that, to be charitable, is held in dubious regard. On this prototype, one may notice the less well-integrated (though maybe prettier) taillights and unshielded spare tire. The production Continental was certainly an enhancement in that department.
Edsel Ford so admired the original Continental that, to my knowledge, it was his last personal car. In fact, his grey ’41 Cabriolet is still on display at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe, MI, looking very similar to the car pictured above. Even Edsel seemed to prefer the ’41 to the ’42, which is no surprise. Edsel Ford was a man of infinite taste and elegance, and if a car was good enough for him, it has to deserve a place at the top of my Great 28.
P.S. Please find below a couple more Continental pictures, simply because I want to include more pictures of my fantastic favorite car.