Unquestionably, Henry Ford was one of the greatest pioneers in automotive history. Henry was able to build highly successful cars for a low price; yet he didn’t have much of an eye for style. It was his son Edsel that saw the importance of automotive styling. Edsel, a man of impeccable taste and style, was able to turn around the well-engineered but stodgy Lincoln into a beautiful designed automobile after Ford took ownership from Henry Leland. After Henry’s Model T was still on the market well past its expiry date
, it was Edsel’s classic Model A design that help turned around the Ford Motor Company.
Edsel had a vision to make Ford a leader in automotive design and searched for the talent to execute his vision. He had noticed the highly talented E.T. “Bob” Gregorie, who at only 22 years old already had experience designing yachts and had briefly worked under Harley Earl at General Motors. Edsel hired him in 1931, and by 1935, when Edsel created a styling department, he named Gregorie its head.
Edsel and Gregorie hit it off and worked very well together. As early as 1932, the two worked on several special projects to create a sporty car. Edsel was well traveled and frequented Europe where he made an effort to note styling trends. Edsel had been influenced by some of the sporty offerings in Europe and wanted to create his own sporty car influenced by what he had seen “on the continent.” Edsel told Gregorie that he wanted the car to be “long, low and rakish.”
Their first creation was the 1932 Ford Model 18 Speedster based on a Ford Model B. The car was noted to have a longer than stock hood, a custom grille, a low rakish windshield, custom fenders and a boat tail. Edsel drove the car as personal transportation for a short time but he was never entirely satisfied with the styling. He wanted something lower and racier.
Edsel gave Gregorie carte blanche to use the Ford’s idled aircraft plant. There, Gregorie created the 1934 Ford Model 40 Special Speedster, which was a racier custom car based on a 1934 Ford chassis (Model 40). Although the speedster only stretched the stock wheelbase 1” to 113”, it appeared much longer and lower than the stock Ford. Some of the long look was because chassis modifications, but much was created by Gregorie’s styling. Edsel ended up keeping this Speedster until his death. He even had Gregorie update the front end in 1940 when the engine was replaced with a 239 Mercury Flathead V8.
Although the speedsters were creations that Edsel enjoyed, they weren’t very practical. Both he and Gregorie were partial to the concept of Ford having a limited production sporty car, and consequently another special car was created. Working at the Ford aircraft plant, a four seat roadster with cut down doors, an elongated hood and an angled 1935 Ford radiator shell was created.
Edsel had hoped to put this vehicle into limited production; however, this would disrupt the regular production lines. So, Gregorie drove the car to New York to show it to John S. Inskip, the builder of Brewster-bodied town cars. They were unable to make a deal, but Edsel persisted.
Through Ford of England he was able to make a deal with Jensen Motors Ltd. Jensen ended up producing a number of Jensen-Fords that used Ford engines and running gear, along with a Columbia 2-speed axle. The cars used a variety of coach work, some of which appeared similar to Ford’s. One variation with a 1936 Ford grille was sold in limited numbers in California.
Edsel returned from another trip from Europe in September 1938. Inspired by what he had seen in Europe, he sketched out a drawing for Gregorie of the type of car he envisioned, a car with the “Continental look.” Initially Edsel had wanted to use a Ford chassis, but Gregorie suggested using the longer wheelbase Zephyr chassis with the more powerful flathead V12. Furthermore, at this time the aircraft plant was no longer available for use. However, the Lincoln factory at West Warren and Livernois Avenues would have an unused bay soon due to the planned discontinuation of the Model K. This would be an ideal location to build this new car. There is some debate about whether Edsel intended on making another one off, or if he always had intentions of a sporty limited production car. I tend to think that it was the latter, especially based on his prior experience with the Jensen-Ford.
Using a ’39 Zephyr as a starting point, Gregorie had completed the final drawings by October 1938. A 1/10 scale clay was created for Edsel’s approval in November 1938. Compared to the Zephyr, the hood was lowered and lengthened, the cowl and drive line were moved back, and the running boards were removed. At one point during the creation of the clay, Gregorie decided to move the spare tire inside the trunk. When Edsel saw this, he insisted that Gregorie put a rear mounted spare on the car, commenting “It’s very nice, but I want something strictly continental.”
After the final clay was approved by Edsel, a fullsize body draft was completed and a prototype was scheduled to be ready for February 1939. This prototype was made from a standard ’39 Zephyr convertible, with the use of Ford, Mercury and Lincoln production parts. To lengthen the hood, special panels were fabricated which added 12” of length over a stock Zephyr. This resulted in the windshield being pushed back, and the deck lid being shortened and squared off. The doors were cut horizontally and 4” were removed, and the hood was lowered. A standard Zephyr dash board was used although the seats and steering column had to be repositioned. Many of the body panels were hammered by hand over wooden forms in the Lincoln Body shop. The end result was essentially a factory made custom, and this caused significant use of lead filler.
The first prototype, serial number H-74750, was painted Eagle gray, Edsel’s favourite colour, and it had a gray leather interior. It was completed while Edsel was on vacation in Florida. He had left instruction to ship the car to the Ford Estate at Hobe Sound, Florida, after it was completed. On March 1, 1939 the car was shipped to Florida. When it arrived, it garnered quite the attention from the upper crust in the area. Legend has it that Edsel was able to secure 200 orders. Whether that actually happened or not, one thing is certain, the car drew lots of attention. And whether or not Edsel had been thinking about limited production prior to the trip, this interest gathered certainly reassured Edsel that the car was production worthy.
While in Florida, Edsel advised Gregorie about the interest in the car had generated. However, he also reported that the car rode like a tank, leaked like a sieve and had excessive cowl shake. This first prototype had so much lead filler in it, water leaked through some of the seams, and this lead filler was said to have caused it to weigh over 5000lbs. The heavy weight certainly resulted in sedate performance from the stock 110-hp 267cid Zephyr V12. Nevertheless, with all the interest, Edsel ordered a second prototype to be built. This car was to be used by engineering, and eventually lead to a production car.
The second prototype was completed in June of 1939. This car was black with a tan interior, and was serialized as H-82410. There were a number of changes incorporated into this car over the original prototype. The hood and fenders were only lengthened by 8”, which mean the cowl was moved forward. The resultant extra space went to increasing the rear seat space. The trunk height was increased slightly to improve luggage space. This car used a Zephyr dashboard, door handles, hubcaps and teardrop taillights. However, unlike the first prototype, this car had a column shifted transmission (the first used a floor shifter).
During the summer of 1939, the second prototype was driven by engineering staff for testing and to refine the car for production. In September of 1939, Edsel gave Gregorie the car for his personal use. Cowl shake remained a problem. Gregorie had driven it on a trip to New York, and the cowl shake was so bad he used two 2 x 4’s to make an “X brace” under the dash to quell the vibrations. When he returned a steel x-brace was installed. Gergorie drove this car until 1941 when he sold it for a mere $800 to a used car dealer.
The original prototype, H-74750, was ordered to be destroyed in October of 1939. According to the Ford documentation it was determined to be “of no further use.” The second car, H-82410, in the years since it was sold by Gregorie went through a several owners, had many modifications made and was damaged in a collision. It still exists today and has been restored to its original specification.
There has long been speculation that Edsel actually ordered two prototypes built, one for each of his sons, Henry II and Benson. However, it has since been shown that these were simply rumours and that the only two prototypes produced were H-74750 and H-82410. Nevertheless, there were two documented pre-production models completed in October of 1939. These were H-85825 and J-86025, also rumored to have gone to the sons. In actuality, these cars were displayed at both the New York and Los Angeles car shows. They had only minor differences compared to production models, unlike the two prototypes.
There were no further Lincoln Continentals made until December 1939. On the 13th of December 1939, the first production car rolled off the assembly line, with serial number H-91688. This car went to the actor Jackie Cooper in Long Beach California.
It is often said that Mickey Rooney was given the first production Continental, but this is another legend that has grown over the years. Mickey Rooney did indeed get a Continental as a gift from Henry Ford, however, it was the Continental with serial H-98800. This car wasn’t completed until February 29, 1940 and was shipped to Long Beach California on March 7, 1940, considerably later than the first production Continentals. Other celebrities that drove 1940-41 Continentals included Randolph Scott, Frank Lloyd Wright, Babe Ruth, Kate Spreckles and Rita Hayworth.
There were approximately 25 Continentals built before the end of 1939. While these early cars did have a few minor differences from later production models, these were simply running changes. The early cars built in late 1939 and early 1940, did not have a spare tire cover, bottom moldings, rear splash guard and gravel guards. That said, Continentals produced during this time are designated 1940 model year cars and used 1940 model year Zephyr parts.
The production Continentals had a number of differences from the two prototypes. The grille from the 1940 Zephyr was used along with new sealed beam headlights. Production cars ended up with a 7” longer hood and a 3” overall reduction in hood height compared to a Zephyr. The revised 1940 instrument panel was used but modified to have two pods instead one that the Zephyr used. Also new, the Lincoln flathead V12 was enlarged with a 1/8” bore increase resulting in 292 cid displacement and an increase to 120hp, 10 more than the previous engine. There was an optional Columbia two-speed axle which reduced the final drive by 28%. That said, due to the rush to production, the 1940 models were still mostly hand fabricated from Zephyr parts.
Not long after the Continental cabriolet made its debut, work began on a Continental coupe. This car was created by starting with a convertible body, then adding a steel roof which was welded in place. While it had a B-pillar with window frames around the glass, it was similar in concept to the hardtops that GM would introduce at the end of the decade. It had a roof line closer to a convertible than the typical coupe of the era and looks decidedly more modern than other coupes of its time. The first production coupe rolled off the line on April 3, 1940. As a result of the limited production and the late introduction of the coupe, only 350 cabriolets and 54 coupes were made for the 1940 model year.
1941 models were introduced in September 1940 and saw minor changes and refinements from the 1940 model year. This included new bumpers, grille, and headlight bezels, while the parking lights moved to the top of the front fenders. Though all 1940 Continentals were simply labeled Lincoln Zephyr without any “Continental “nameplates, the 1941s used “Lincoln Continental” emblems. The hood released moved inside, whereas 1940s models used the hood ornament for its release.
There were some mechanical changes as well. The convertible tops went from vacuum operation to electric. The door latches switched to a push button, while the wheels also increased in width from 4 1/2” to 5”. The transverse leaf spring suspension was revised for a smoother ride, using a 2” longer front spring and a 2 ½” longer rear spring. In addition to the Columbia two speed axle, an electric Borg-Warner overdrive became optional, which offered 30% reduction in engine speed.
By 1941, the production line was up and running properly, and no longer were the cars being essentially hand built. Dies for machine pressing parts had been produced, resulting in much less custom work and lead filler being used in the 1941 models. Production increased to 400 cabriolets and 850 coupes. The Continental was heavily revised in 1942, and continued until 1948. While these were nice looking cars, in my eyes something was lost from the originals, and they just didn’t have the elegance of the early cars.
I came across this dilapidated 1941 Continental Coupe behind a tow company’s yard. I can say I was quite surprised to come across such a rare car, seemingly hidden in plain sight. The poor old car would require a complete restoration to save, nonetheless, despite the exposure to the elements it still looks very elegant. There is something about finding an old junkyard find like this that just resonates with me. Maybe it’s all the years of untold stories that lay within. I can only imagine the proud first owner was when it was new and the many other people this car has touched over its years.
This particular example looked to be stock and unmodified. Under the hood remained a stock V12 flathead. The Continental’s had an unmodified Zephyr engine, save for a different air cleaner for additional hood clearance. This V12 looks like it hasn’t been touched in years, other than a new solenoid on the firewall.
The interior was weathered past recognition and certainly the deterioration was aided by the exposure of the elements from the passenger door left ajar.
The trunk floor was completely gone, and the car’s undercarriage was very rusted. It appears as if this car had been sitting at this location for years.
Despite the fact that Continental was in such poor condition, I have to say this has to be one of my best finds out on the street. I have never had much interest in pre-war cars, but to me this car will always represent Edsel Ford. It was everything he was, stylish, elegant and forever remembered as one of the greats of its time.