Car Show Classic: 1972 Lincoln Continental – Making The Case For Peak 1970s Lincoln

The title may be a little provocative – after all, “peak anything” is almost always more opinion than fact.  Sometimes, however, a case can be made that is hard to beat.  So let us proceed with the evidence that this car was Lincoln’s insufficiently appreciated peak of the 1970s.

Popular opinion (measured in sales) would say that Lincoln went ever-upward for the rest of the decade, with the final 1977- 79 models becoming the most popular, and not by a little.  The big Continental’s production numbers tell a tale of an almost unbroken surge in popularity through the decade of I’m OK, You’re OK.

1970     31,695

1971     35,551

1972     45,969

1973     58,636

1974     36,669

1975     54,698

1976     68,646

1977     111,034

1978     97,018

1979     113,604

But we connoisseurs seldom agree with the popular consensus.  Alright, I was a broke teenager who went from a series of bicycles to a ten year old Ford during that decade so I was not the kind of connoisseur who actually bought cars like this.  But my father was, so let’s say I was a backseat connoisseur who paid close attention to the brand before I was seduced by the vivacious but unstable Miss Mopar.

Starting in the 1960’s Lincoln seemed to settle down into a rhythm that lasted for quite awhile: one new car every decade, albeit with regular upgrades refreshes and improvements.  When we last covered the big Lincolns, it was in the context of a 1969 model – the last of the storied models of the 1960’s, when Lincoln finally offered a legitimate American luxury car.  The 1970’s would see a Lincoln that was even bigger.  It is not at all controversial to state that Lincoln’s peak in terms of size came in the ’70s.  OK, excluding Navigators and Blackwoods.

I was ten years old in the fall of 1969 when the first really new Lincoln I could remember hit the showrooms.  Frankly, it was a letdown.  First, the suicide doors were gone.  Which was no small thing in that those unique rear doors made the statement that a Lincoln was not like other cars.  Gone too was the sense of finesse and good taste that had been a hallmark of the brand for the prior decade.  The styling seemed both a little crude yet a bit generic – some Lincoln themes were there but they were not executed with Lincoln’s typical restraint.  The ’70 model seemed less of  a car, somehow – and this to a ten year old kid who knew nothing of the way it was designed and built.

The 1971 model was not really an improvement.  Can it be possible that the ’71 Continental failed aesthetically because it was trying to be a Cadillac?  That bold grille and the beltline that attempted (and failed) to turn a very rectangular car into a sleek and fluid one – all of these things seemed to me then (and still do) that Lincoln was losing the understanding about what had made the car grow in popularity from the disaster of 1958-60.  Lincoln was, at its best, the anti-Cadillac.  It was a car that was elegant, conservative and a testament to quiet good taste.  But it would seem that the 1970-71 lacked the kind of styling magic that had been part of Lincoln’s recent history.  Or perhaps the car had been a ham-handed tribute to the 1966 version.  All this would change for 1972.

It is amazing how a handful of little things can take an undistinguished design and make it work.  Let’s start at the front.  Where the ’71 grille was blunt and lacked any kind of finesse, the ’72 version was busier yet more refined.  The decorative bars over the headlight doors that seemed like afterthoughts on the ’71 now looked like they belonged there.  At least they did to me.  Even now I find them an intriguing way to avoid the lonely looking grille that would come to prominence through the Mark IV, in a way that suggested but avoided a full-width grille.

The 1972 front end appeared to be Lincoln’s stylists returning to the theme they had begun in 1969 but had abandoned so suddenly.  Why this look was not chosen for 1970 is a mystery to me.  The car looked like a Lincoln again.

And let us not forget that stand-up Lincoln star that proudly stood atop the leading edge of the bow for the first time since 1966.  True, the shortened and dulled points and the spring-loaded mounting were concessions to the safety gods, but this little detail showed that Lincoln was once again looking to its guiding star.

There was also a return to the chrome trim that began on the leading edge of the front fender blades and ran uninterrupted the entire length of the car, all the way down the rear fender blade to the back bumper.  Just like the classic Continentals of the 1960’s.

The biggest change was in those rear doors.  When it comes to automobile styling, I have always had a bit of a beltline fixation.  General Motors’ 1965 line of B and C body cars brought back the Harley Earl Hips that had characterized GM styling in the 1950’s but in a way that flowed organically as only Bill Mitchell’s 1960’s designs could manage.  The entire rest of the industry followed that big hip trend in ways that were rarely as successful – and the 1970-71 Continental was among the worst offenders.  It may not have been as actively ungainly as the 1970 AMC Ambassador sedan, but those hips certainly did no favors for this slab-sided sled.

That one little change to the rear door which took a massive, shapeless blob of a transition from the lower greenhouse to the higher rear fender tops transformed it into a neat, tidy kickup that echoed the classic 1961-65 Continental’s treatment of that area.  The rear door handle’s unusual forward placement may have been a touch awkward, but it was no less so than the 70-71’s rear handle that was higher than the front one.

Mrs. JPC used to enjoy a television show called What Not To Wear.  In it, some folks with an eye for design threw out much of an average woman’s unflattering wardrobe and replaced it with pieces that accentuated her best features.  This is what Lincoln’s stylists did with the ’72 Continental.  Out went the ill-fitting outfit that made this big-boned car look overweight and clumsy and in its place was something that gave this plus-sized girl a look of stylish elegance.

On the inside these Lincolns maintained reasonably high standards through the 1977 model year.  These interiors were not made with the quality of materials from the decade previous, but nobody else did that either.  This Continental’s interior was the place that undoubtedly sealed many a deal for those doing some comparison shopping among the US luxury brands.

Everyone in the industry was paying for new safety and emission features with money taken from their interiors but Lincoln seemed to at least hide it better, even retaining the full instrumentation that had all but disappeared from elsewhere in the industry.  I wonder how many luxury car buyers actually looked at an oil pressure gauge in 1972.  Not that the excellent 460 V8 gave a person much reason to.

For those of us more into the mechanical traits of a car, there is a case to be made that the 1970 model was the peak of this era in that it was the last to receive the old 4 bbl premium gas 460 (7.5 L).  But as the horsepower curve began to drop the styling curve began to ascend.  The really significant emissions trade-offs would not hit until 1973 so the ’72 may be the sweet spot between good looks and good performance.  This would also be the first full year in which Michelin steel belted radial tires became standard equipment.  These cars may not have been canyon carvers but the perimeter frame Lincolns with full coil suspensions were the smoothest and quietest cars being built in America at the time, at least according to a well publicized test in which 60 out of 100 Cadillac owners found the Lincoln superior in these criteria.

I saw this car when attending a local Cars & Coffee event with Jim Grey (and which he wrote about here).  Jim will testify that I went into something between a trance and a swoon the moment I saw this big blue beauty.  For those who wonder if luxury cars were really painted in colors like this, I am here to testify.  This shade called Blue Moondust Metallic was a 1971-72 color exclusive to Lincoln and Thunderbird.  Yes children, you could get some really great colors on luxury sedans in the early 1970’s.

I have written before of the 1972 Continental Mark IV that my father picked up in the late fall of 1971.  It was an impressive car at the time.  But a Continental like this was what I really wished that he had chosen.  The Mark IV was probably more a reflection of how Dad saw himself where this big sedan was the way I saw my father.  I distinctly remember the disappointment being so much more palpable than when he chose his 1970 Mark III.  There the disappointment was not that he (or I, actually) had missed out on the ’70 Connie, but that he was too late for the discontinued ’69.  Here the car I would have preferred was right there in the showroom.  To make matters worse it even cost less.

I would have chosen a white vinyl roof and white leather to accent that Blue Moondust paint (like this one featured here a few years ago) and would also have gone with the extra-cost luxury wheelcovers (as shown in the brochure shot below) to replace those final gaudy reminders of the disappointing 1970-71 cars.  But it was my father writing the check and not his thirteen year old son.  I hesitate to think what my own thirteen year old children would have chosen for me to drive.  Today I am in love with the look of this car’s solid color and the AWOL vinyl roof.

Buyers found the car attractive as well with 45,969 Continentals built that year (35,561 of which were sedans), the best showing since 1967.  However, even more buyers agreed with my father and shelled out for a Mark IV (48,591).  But what did they know – they were the same people who bought the later  and much less attractive 1975-79 versions in ever-greater numbers.

For my final argument, I submit that the 1972-74 Continental has the best shape and trimming of any big Lincoln from the 1970’s.  And further, by considering the every-tightening emission controls of 1973-74, I now rest my case that the 1972 Continental is the peak of 1970’s Lincolndom.  And, for that matter, the peak of Lincolndom for ever after.  At least to this former thirteen year old.


Further reading:

1969 Lincoln Continental – Missed It By That Much (J P Cavanaugh)

1970 Lincoln Continental Coupe – Hot Rod Lincoln (Paul Niedermeyer)

1972 Lincoln Lincoln Continental Coupe (Tom Klockau)