(curbside Mark II photos by robadr)
(first posted 10/4/2016) There were three primary reasons Ford spent (and lost) a whole lot of money on the Continental Mark II:
1. To recapture the glamor of its 1939-1948 Continental as well as the classic Lincoln K Models of the 1930s.
2. To show that it could build a car to the same world-class standards (and price) as a Rolls-Royce or Mercedes 300.
3. To crush Cadillac as the nation’s premier luxury car builder.
This shows that in the early fifties Ford was being led by car guys, not savvy marketers, astute executives or bean counters. Henry Ford II was still young and full of chutzpah, and he and his brother Bill were out to beat GM; all of it! After the come-back success of the Ford brand in the early ’50s, they were ready for more. The 1956 Continental was the first shot; the 1958 Edsel the second. Both were flops. But how else to learn the car business? Bill Ford was crushed by the failure of the Continental; Henry was merely chastened. But the lessons learned served Ford well, even if they were expensive. And they still apply today.
The original Continental, the result of a fortuitous collaboration between Edsel Ford and the head of Ford’s Design Department, E. T. “Bob” Gregorie, started out as a one-off custom for Edsel, and became a production model and a phenomena by popular demand. The fact is that it had the very prosaic underpinnings of the Lincoln Zephyr, a mid-priced car, and was something of an 10/8 scale Ford, with the customary solid axles front and rear suspended by Model T-style transverse springs, powered by a rather notoriously unreliable flathead V12. But none of that diminished its allure, thanks to its seductive chopped and channeled body and longer hood. In more ways than one, it was the true prototype of the popular American luxury car: style over substance.
Although the Continental was priced at an 80-95% premium over its donor Zephyr (coupe and convertible), it wasn’t really all that expensive, with the 1940 coupe’s price of $2,783 ($47,533 adjusted to 2016, but making inflation adjustments prior to the 1960s becomes increasingly misleading to to the growth in real incomes). In any case, the Continental was priced at roughly one half of the senior Lincoln Model K and comparable Cadillacs and Packards.
The Continental soldiered along through 1948, by which time it was becoming seriously outdated. Its Wurlitzer jukebox front end didn’t do the rest of its (mostly) clean lines any favors, but it still had pull for being something decidedly out of the ordinary. Which is of course what every luxury brand aspires to.
There were various hopes and plans to build a successor to the original Continental after the war, but they mostly went to the grave with Edsel, its champion, who died in 1943. The company was in total disarray, and it was hardly a priority. Survival was.
After the Conti went into retirement, Lincoln dealers and execs were regularly asked about a successor by its fan club, which undoubtedly was a rather small and exclusive one by 1948. But that included the three young Ford brothers, Henry II, Benson and William Clay, who naturally wanted to see a worthy successor as a tribute to their late father.
In the luxury market after the war, Cadillac was ascendant, Packard in decline, and Lincoln struggled to make inroads. Although the Lincolns were undoubtedly the best road cars of the three in early 50s, that’s not what drove the market then. It was really all about style and image, as it always has and will be, and Lincoln didn’t earn any good marks in that regard. Consider Lincoln’s top of the line 1953 Capri convertible, above.
And then ponder Cadillac’s 1953 bombshell, its new Eldorado. It’s all too obvious that the Eldo is a full generation older in its basic body, dating all the way back to 1948, whereas the Lincoln was all-new in 1952. But who cared; the Lincoln looked like a chaste, straight-laced…Mercury; the Eldo oozed sex from all its curves like Marilyn Monroe.
But the real bombshell was what Cadillac charged for its dolled-up convertible: $7,750! That was a whopping 90% more than a Series 62 convertible (and the Lincoln Capri convertible), minus the heavy make-up. It was a bold and audacious move on Cadillac’s part, and a reflection of their confidence as America’s undisputed luxury car brand leader.
There were always plenty of rich celebrities and tycoons—including MM herself—that were happy enough to spend the big bucks to assure that they were seen riding in something other than hoi polloi-mobiles, even if they were Cadillacs. 2,150 Eldorados were sold in 1954, although the price was now lowered considerably, as was the new 1954 body. Cadillac struck gold with the Eldorado, as much for polishing its image as in actual sales. And Ford wanted in, badly.
In 1952, work on a new Continental began in earnest, and the Special Products Operations was set up and overseen by William Clay Ford. This eventually morphed into the Continental Division. The staff was mostly new hires, as this was to be strictly independent from the Lincoln Division. After an initial concept by John Reinhart, which was rejected out of hand by Henry, a number of outside designers were given the chance to compete, as well as in house groups. The picture above from 1952 may or may not be directly related to this process, but it does show a number of Continental concept models.
One of those models was the Lincoln Cavalier. It would appear that it was likely an early Continental concept, but I can’t confirm it. What is pretty clear is that Ford designer Roy Brown was inspired by its front end when he designed the ill-fated 1958 Edsel.
In 1952, Joe Oros was eager to develop a new styling theme based around large round jet exhaust-like tail lights, as had been used on a late 1940s 3/8 scale model in the Advanced Design studio by Gil Spear. Oros wanted them to become a hallmark of Ford styling, as they well did. He was assigned to develop his ideas in the Lincoln studio, and this was the result. Henry Ford II took a liking to it and thought it had real potential to become the new Continental, and thus gave it the name Continental 195X.
But brother Bill, heading up the Continental project, was not in favor of it, as some clinics with potential Conti buyers found that they preferred a more formal look. As did he. So it was soon renamed Ford X-100 and begat a long line of Ford concepts (and production cars).
The X-100, which Elwood Engel also assisted on, previewed the 1961 “Bullet Bird”, as well as aspects of other Ford, Lincoln and Mercury cars to come. An influential concept, but not on the actual Continental to come.
Presumably this is the clay model by John Reinhart that won the design competition and directly led to the definitive Mark II: understated, subdued, and anything but flashy, a style referred to as “Modern Formal”. Certain similarities to the 1955 two-seat Thunderbird are obvious.
The development team in addition to Reinhart was Gordon Buehrig, Chief Body Engineer, and Harley Copp, Chief Engineer. There was a push to make the Conti a unibody, but Copp vetoed that, as he felt there was too much risk given the lofty goals of the project and the limited time and resources.
It’s sometimes difficult to get a sense of its size from pictures, as the Mark II was deceptively large. It sat on a 126″ long wheelbase, the same as the big Lincoln sedans, but its frame was different to allow a lower body height. It pioneered the “cowbelly” design frame that bowed out around the floor pans. A somewhat watered-down approach was also used in the new 1957 Fords and Mercuries, but not until 1965 would Ford use a genuine perimeter frame that made maximum use of the resulting floor space. Overall length was 218.4″, width was 77.5″, and height was 56.3″. The really big numbers were its weight: 4,825 lbs; 5,190 lbs with air conditioning, the only significant option available, for a whopping $595.
The Mark used Lincoln’s drive train and suspension, but there were refinements and extensive quality checks. The front suspension included special temperature-sensitive shocks. The engines and other mechanical components were built to the highest standards, and there is some conflicting information as to whether the engines were actually partially disassembled after an initial run-in, and checked for tolerances, or not. The body assembly involved extensive hand work, with multiple paint coats along with hand sanding and buffing. And Ford built a special assembly facility for the Mark at Wixom, MI, which would be used for other high end Ford products for many decades to come.
In a somewhat retrograde move, the windshield was actually moved closer the the driver, to make the hood longer as well as to improve visibility. We can only imagine such a thing nowadays.
Consistent with the general design theme, the dash was rather sparse, with an instrument pod mounted off-center on the dash. HVAC controls were down low, with airplane throttle-type levers. Materials and components were all of the very finest available. Due to the low floor, seating was still reasonably high and comfortable.
The extreme attention paid to material and component quality and their assembly has become legendary. 100% of all parts sent by suppliers were inspected/tested to spec. Rejection rates were high, and some suppliers struggled to meet the expectations. Ford was determined to build the Mark to Rolls-Royce standards, regardless of the cost.
Under that long hood sat the Lincoln 368 cubic inch (6.0 L) large Y-Block V8, dressed up for the occasion. Output was rated at 285 hp. Performance? Adequate, or not, depending on your expectations. Although top speed was timed at 118 mph by Floyd Clymer, sprints were not the Mark’s thing at all; 0-60 took a luxurious 16 seconds. The 1957 version lost one of its frame reinforcements and gained 15 hp in an effort to perk things up a wee bit. Handling was safe and predictable, given the times. Brakes were not a particular strong suit. But the Mark was a comfortable, solid and quiet cruiser, which given its weight, should not be a surprise.
William Ford could rightly be proud of his new baby, but it turned out to be quite a bit more expensive to build than its original projected price of some $8,000. The asking price in the end was just shy of $10,000 ($9,695), something yet unheard of in the post war era. Adjusted for inflation, that comes to $88k in 2015 dollars, but that doesn’t tell the full story of its price.
Unlike the 1920s, when the top marginal tax rate was 24%, and then only on income over $100k ($1.4 M adjusted), in 1952-1953, the top rate was 92%. During the mid fifties, even popular movie/tv stars like Ronald Reagan lived in 4,000 square foot ranch houses, not vast palaces. And it wasn’t just the taxes; well-paid professions were just a lot less well paid back then. It was the era of “The Great Income Compression”. That largely explains why the market for really expensive cars was really rather limited.
What was the Mark II’s competition, at its rarefied price level? It turned out not to be the Eldorado, as its price was cut drastically for 1954, down to around $6500. More likely the Mercedes 300S, which stickered for $12,898. It sat on a pre-war chassis, had half the displacement, and none of the Mark’s extensive power-assists. But it did have an abundance of genuine exclusivity, refinement and prestige. Which is of course what mattered the most, to the small clientele at the very top of the pyramid.
Or perhaps a Facel Vega, with a Chrysler hemi under the hood, which ran some $7500 at the time.
The new Ferrari 250 GT series was available in 1956 with a wide range of different bodies from various designers/coachbuilders, like this coupe by Boano, starting at around $12,000.
One could go on and on, as really any European luxury/exotic was readily available, given that there were no safety or emission regulations to importation. And most brands had official importers, like Hoffman Motors. In Hoffman’s new showroom designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, just about every European luxury and sports brand was on lavish display.
The 1950s import boom didn’t just extend to economy cars; all matter of exotics were coming to the states, as it was the biggest market for them, despite the high tax brackets. The really rich knew how to reduce their sting anyway. Just like the 1950s laid the seeds of the imports’ near domination of the lower price classes, so it was with the true luxury cars. American cars just weren’t exotic enough, or sporty enough, or built well enough, or technologically advanced enough, or…
Befitting its lofty aspirations to be taken serious as a world-class luxury car, the Mark II was premiered at the 1956 Paris Auto Show. There was a lot of buzz about it, thanks to an effective PR campaign, and dealers were taking waiting lists. Sales started off with a bang, with some buyers paying premiums to get their cars sooner. But after the first some 1261 cars were delivered in the fourth quarter of 1956, things quickly started to slack off, and soon the Mark’s average transaction price was closer to $8500. Which did not make the early buyers any happier.
Only some half of Lincoln-Mercury dealer opted in on selling the Continental, since promotional materials were expensive and they were required to keep 10% of their inventory in Mark IIs. But their gross profit per car started at $2300, although undoubtedly that was cut into by the subsequent discounting.
It became clear pretty obvious as 1957 unfolded and sales continued to weaken that the Mark II was in trouble. Was it just too expensive, or too subdued in its design, or was it the lack of other models? The latter point was clearly a point of contention within Ford. A considerable amount of development money was spent on a retractable roof version, but ultimately deemed too expensive to put into production at what would undoubtedly have been at very small numbers. If the coupe was already too expensive, then what of this?
The investment in the folding mechanism was eventually recouped as it was used in the 1957 Ford Skyliner as well as adapted to convertible use in Thunderbords and the 1961-up Continental convertible.
The same pricing problem would have bedeviled a conventional convertible. One was built by Derham, shown extensively, and then given to Bill Ford’s wife. Another (above) was built later by Hess and Eisenhardt, converted from a coupe. It was estimated that a convertible would cost some $18,000. No sale.
A four door hardtop was considered to be the most obvious brand extension for Continental. It started out as a stretch of the coupe, which would of course have minimized tooling costs.
But that was soon considered to be unfeasible from a quickly-evolving design standpoint, and John Reinhart worked at developing a new four door, dubbed “Berline”. This is an early version.
At some point the Berline (or Mark III) program was shifted to unibody construction, undoubtedly to share development costs with the upcoming unibody 1958 Lincoln. At this point, this was not just a Lincoln dressed up as a Continental, but still a distinct and genuine Continental. And one previewing aspects of the 1961 Continental.
But it was all for naught. The 1957 Mark II got off to a very weak start, and the writing was on the wall, literally. The Continental Division was shut down in early 1957 already, even before the Mark II went out of production. Why didn’t Ford hang in there, as GM did with its Corvette, that lost money for a number of its early years?
Continental was losing well over $1,000 per Mark II, and the division was gushing red ink. What forced a quick shut down was that Ford Motor Company went public (over Henry’s dead body) in January of 1956. It simply wasn’t going to be tenable to have Continental be a source of major red ink for any extended period of time. Would things have turned out differently if Ford had stayed privately-held? Probably not; trying to establish a new über-luxury brand in the US in the 1950s was just not in the cards. Or really anytime since the 1920s.
Ironically, Continental’s building was turned over to Ford’s next great hope in battling GM; Edsel. That didn’t last much longer either.
The Continental name was continued for 1958, but just as a top-tier version of the new and ill-fated 1958 Lincoln. It was called Mark III, but was held in such low regard that Ford had no compunction in re-using that name for the real Mark III in 1968.
This time Ford got it right: a flashy coupe with neo-classical design features but built on a platform shared with more prosaic Fords, and none of the over-the-top attention to quality, materials and assembly, in order to keep the price very much in everyman’s reach. Or in other words, like the original Continental’s formula. Its price was $6,585, almost half of the Mark II’s, in adjusted dollars. It was the formula for mass-market success, and the Mark III really ushered in the whole era of neo-classical, faux-luxury kitsch-mobiles to come. Every American deserves to have a Continental Mark in their driveway!
And soon enough it seemed like that was the really case, even if it was just a ’77 Thunderbird for half the price. Jeez; I can’t tell them apart; can you?
Meanwhile back at GM, Ford’s bold assault on the top of the American luxury market could not be left unanswered. The response, the 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, was both similar yet different. The Fords were mainly listening to themselves and a few Continental die-hard owners to guide them to the “Modern Formal” design of the Mark II. Not Harley Earl; he listened carefully what regular folks were saying and reacting to at GM’s Futurama traveling circus. And the result was the Eldorado Brougham, a somewhat cynical distillation of what real Americans wanted in a luxury car, not those clubby, stuffy Fords.
Fins, wrap around windows, four-door hardtop with suicide rear doors, air suspension, X Frame, and a list half a page long of every other do-hickey GM’s futurists/imagineers could think of and build right down to a perfume atomizer. And its price? An eye-watering $13,074. Take that, poor little Mark II! And don’t ever try messing with Big Mama GM again!
Never mind that only a mere 704 Eldorado Broughams were sold in its two year run, and that GM’s losses per car were much higher. But then it could well afford them, given that they were buried in the huge profits Cadillac was spinning off. And GM wasn’t trying to establish a whole new division. The Eldo was a classic halo-mobile, and was probably more effective at its mission of getting folks into a Cadillac dealer than the Mark. Why? because the other cars on the Cadillac showroom floor didn’t look that different than the Eldorado, especially after one looked at the stickers. Meanwhile, 1956 Lincolns had effectively zero resemblance to the Mark.
The Fords had some painful lessons to learn, but they learned them fairly quickly. Most of all, they were smart enough (some of the time) to let others run the show, guys who really understood the American car buyer. The truth is, none of the Fords ever really had a feel for that. Henry senior built a car that was irresistible because of its price and technical features at the time. But once that formula didn’t work anymore, GM and Chrysler stole its thunder, because they did know what Americans really wanted.
My Mark II story has run out of gas, but I need to share these wonderful shots that robadr took in British Columbia and posted at the Cohort. I’ve long given up trying to find a genuine curbside Mark II, but thanks to the Cohort, my curbsiding proxies, this one will more than do.
I remember seeing my first Mark II as a kid in Iowa City in the early 60s, parked at a UI football game, undoubtedly owned by a rich alumni. I was quite taken by it, because I really didn’t know of it and how it fit into the scheme of things automotive at the time. It was a mystery wanting to be unraveled.
Peering in through its side window, I knew this was something special, and that it was from before my time in the US, as it obviously wasn’t a current Continental and looked a bit dated. The quality of the materials and the somber styling said “expensive” and “exclusive”, but I didn’t have a clear picture of just how much so that was the case.
The lack of tail fins and the generally muted design was a bit of a puzzle to me, as it just didn’t fit into what else was going on the mid 50s. I guess I wasn’t the only one. And I wasn’t too sure about how much I really liked it or not. It left me impressed and confused.
Which is still mostly my response to seeing this one again. It’s imposing, dramatic and earns respect for going against the grain. But it’s also odd; that steep little windshield looks like a toy car’s. The roof is a bit off. The spare tire wheel hump is not my thing. I respect the effort, but it’s a bit wasted on me. Not that I can’t properly appreciate its uniqueness and rather commanding presence. It’s got it in spades.
Some 3,000 Mark II’s were built, and about half of them are still around and accounted for. It’s a car that undoubtedly made quite an impact on a generation at the time. It certainly did on the Ford brothers.
America has never made a successful high-end luxury car since the 1930s. And it probably never will again. Why? The European long tradition of high-end sports and luxury cars was one that did not want to be so readily stamped out as in America after the war. There was no room for high-end small-scale producers here, and the large ones had to chase each other into ever greater volumes in order to support the rapid-paced styling changes, big V8s and all of the new comfort and convenience features that everyone wanted.
America had democratized the automobile with the Model T, and it had done the same with luxury cars. The Continental Mark II was an attempt to sidestep that unstoppable movement downmarket propelled by Cadillac. It was just as destined to fail as was the Model T once Chevrolet took the low end of the market upscale. And the two ends of the market have been converging ever since, leaving increasingly little room for anyone caught outside of those pincers. As Ford found out the hard way, more than once.
CC 1940 Lincoln Continental Convertible: Beauty For Beauty’s Sake JPC
CC 1965 Lincoln Continental: The Last Great American Luxury Car PN
Nice solid article!
I saw exactly one of those Mark IIs in real life, around 1966. None since then.
FWIW, adjusting the original 2783 by median income: 1940 income was 950. Current median income is about 53k. 2783 * (53k/950) = 155k. Or for simpler math, the Mark I cost 3 years of income at a time when the typical family sedan cost about 11 months.
Thanks for this. Have been always fascinated by those – and you are right, they are neither here not there, it is almost as if they were produced for another dimension. here is one in McD’s car park in Vösendorf near Vienna of all places, even more alien looking in those prosaic surroundings than in BC – I wonder what impression it could have made on the younger millenials usually frequenting the place.
… and from the rear. I’m fairly certain this is a later import to Austria, I would be very surprised to find out even one was sold here back in the day – the kind of person having the money would most likely have gone for a MB 300S or a BMW 503.
Great piece Paul. One of FoMoCo’s finest ever shapes, but you’ve nailed it with describing it as subdued. Just as conspicuous consumption was taking hold, the understated lines on the Continental Mark II spoke very little of the expense involved in its procurement. The argument can probably be made that the Conty’s Italian hierarchical corollaries were actually the flashier 400 Superamerica Ferraris and 5000GT Maseratis, but the analogues you’ve chosen based on price (and market) make sense. So nice to see one curbside. Superb find robadr.
I’ve really fallen in love with this shape. Certainly a premium offering, but closer to the pragmatism of the Mercedes 300 than to the wanton (though externally muted) extravagance of the Continental.
You never cease to amaze Paul! The Mark II really impressed me as a 12 year old kid at the NY Auto Show. I can see how it was probably alien to you when you first saw it.
Was at the Santa Fe Concours Sunday before last and the BMW 503 was “Best in Show”! All my friends agreed before the awards. What a classic! I was always a 507 fan.
There were also two 1957 Eldorado Biarritz convertibles. I relived my childhood with the cars of the 50’s and 60’s. My friend entered his ’63 VW Beetle and took 3rd in class!
Sweet VW. Quite the antithesis to the Mark II!
One of Ford’s finest designs, but as noted, it had absolutely no relation to any other Ford product. And Ford could have incorporated its styling themes into any number of models but chose not to — the 1958 T-Bird being perhaps the most obvious example. GM, on the other hand, used ’57 Eldo Brougham styling elements in facelifting the mainstream Cadillacs for ’58. Then they repeated the process again, using the 1959-60 Eldo Broughams to preview 1961-62 DeVilles.
I think its stretching things to say it had no visual relation to any other Ford product. The similarity with the 55 T-Bird is the strongest. If you look below at the proposals CA Guy posted, the resultant Conty II shape is closer to ‘lower caste’ Ford product than any of those others. Glad you love it as well, though.
What a sighting, Robadr!
And an excellent article, Paul!
One small quibble: it’s not a fake tire bump. The spare tire is stored directly underneath the bump in the trunk. The LeMay Museum in Tacoma has a Mark II, but it’s tucked away in a corner behind a pillar where it’s actually pretty easy to miss. I think it’s the only one I’ve ever seen, but I remember the bit about the spare from an article that I read as a kid in a magazine called Car Classics.
Hmmm, authentic, but a bit of a pain in the butt at the country club when loading golf clubs.
Probably a touch too authentic.
Ideally they would have affixed the spare wheel to the inside of the hump and it would have raised with the trunklid. But all that weight probably would have shortened the life of the lid springs, plus what a pain to remove in the event you need to use the spare. (An event that is, of course, less frequent than loading bags into the trunk…)
The only advantage I can see to this is that you wouldn’t have to unload your luggage to get at the spare, although putting the filthy flat on top of your undoubtedly expensive bags doesn’t seem like a great alternative.
Well, lets just say that they went to a lot of trouble to prove me wrong. 🙂
Seriously, nobody would ever put a spare in that position except to make that point. In a way, it’s an even more egregious mistake than if it had just been a true fake.
Great find and thank you for the history, these are beautiful cars. The styling is very deceptive, it’s difficult to gauge the scale of the car. After looking at images for years, I was surprised just how long and how low they really after seeing Harvey Firestone’s old car in the Henry Ford Museum. It must have made quite an impression at the time
I’ve been given a copy of the hardcovered brochure issued for 1956. While it’s a beautiful piece it’s unusual in not making the car appear better than real life. Somewhere I have an original owner’s manual (yes, there are reprints out there despite the low production numbers) and the tone it takes is very patrician. At one point it notes the paint care instructions to be given “to your polish man.”
Definitely one of my top 10 picks. In midnight blue to sample. With a single tone interior in cream. Not fussed about the A/C for 56, the intakes for the rear mounted unit spoil the line.
Almost forgot, to see one actually moving is pretty special. Some very limited screen time for the MkII saves the musical “High Society” from being a total waste of the 5 or 6 hours it runs for. Feels like more, now I think about it.
No, I don’t like musicals, movies or live theatre.
In searching YouTube I’m reminded Bing Crosby starred in the film. In reality Bing drove a Mercedes Benz 300S cabriolet, now part of the Fox Collection. The MkII was indeed cast accurately
High, high, oh high soci…
Try ‘The Philadelphia Story’. Same story as High Society, but with Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, no songs, a wonderful script and deft direction by George Cukor. Time flies when the screwball is on target.
Well, in addition to the gorgeous Mark II that gets some screen time in High Society, there’s the matter of that little diamond that Miss Kelly wears and polishes in this scene…the real deal, thanks to a certain Prince to whom she’d recently become engaged in real life.
If it’s any consolation, I feel about the same way about High Society despite liking Sinatra, Crosby, and Louis Armstrong a lot and not being categorically opposed to musicals. I don’t love The Philadelphia Story either, but at least that doesn’t feel like the wit was drained out of it.
“And soon enough seemed like that was the really case, even if it was just a ’77 Thunderbird for half the price. I can’t tell them apart; can you?”
Seriously? They are a little similar looking until you see tham in person. The 77 T-Bird was Junk compared to the Mark III. The 77 T-Bird was a joke that Ford played on the American People much like the Mustang II or the Mercedes Inspired Granada. Of course most late 70’s american Cars were jokes due to the Federal Government Regulations.
Methinks Paul is comparing it with the concurrent Mark V.
I would agree. The T-bird and the Lincoln were kissing cousins for most of their existence, often sharing the same platform and swapping styling cues.
Methinks Paul is being facetious.
They had gone in opposite size directions for ’77; the T-bird got downsized to the LTD II (Torino) platform whereas the V was the longest car of the series. But the styling cues were liberally recycled, and while the Mark V is much more imposing, the T-bird comes off like a 7/8 scale version of it except for the roof treatment.
There’s a MkII hiding around the side of a home/garage about ten miles away, on the road to my favorite local scrapyard. Did a double take first time I saw it…and almost drove off the road.
Very interesting and informative write-up!
I’m particularly intrigued by the concept of what defines “luxury” and how brands can maintain their cachet while still seeking volume. It’s a dangerous game–go too far down, and you lose exclusivity. Aim too high and you are too niche. Even today, the ranks of the uber-wealthy are slim, and there are more than enough specialty makers to satisfy that very limited demand. The cash cow for the luxury business is the “mere” rich, and picking their wallets while making them feel special with extremely well done volume products (which the Mark II decidedly was not). The brand that I believe does this best today is Land Rover. Whether the flagship Range Rover or the “entry-level” Discovery Sport, each of their products feels special and premium. They are still exclusive (though ubiquitous in certain top zip codes, which simply heightens the allure) but the volume and profits are there for JLR. This is what Cadillac was able to do in its heyday, and it was a fantastic business strategy. However, once you go too far down the slippery slope with corner-cutting and volume pricing across too much of your range, it’s seemingly impossible to climb back up. Cadillac has discovered this the hard way.
Excellent article. About every thought I had on this car made it into the article.
I’ve seen one of these, the same car in the same museum three times since 1976. When I was 12, like Paul, I didn’t know what it was, but knew it had to be special. It was still a cool sight in the spring of 2015.
Like Paul said, some of the proportions are off, but in some ways it was among the most modern 1956 cars. Like a prototype of the basic large American two-door hardtop for roughly the 1957 (beginning with Chrysler) through 1978 (Chrysler again – New Yorker Brougham). But, the 1957 Fords and Chryslers made the basic lines of a car sharper, and the Mark III was instantly out of date. The 1957-1961 period was not kind to cars that wanted or needed a 3 – 5 year design cycle. But, if you skip over all the weird stuff that went on in the late 1950’s, the 1956 Mark III transitions fairly logically to the 1968 Mark III, and even through the 1979 Lincoln Mark V.
For wealthy car snobs, the ability to trace this to Ford was not helpful, and for conventional American luxury buyers, the price may have been like buying the Emperor’s new clothes. That pesky GM, Oldsmobile at that, had, by 1956 a surprisingly well integrated in-dash air conditioning system – a design that was used heavily by GM through 1968. I’ve studied the Mark III a few times, and have never figured out how to spot an AC car, and I have some doubts about installation rates. GM likely sold some multiples of AC equipped 1956 Oldsmobiles vs. total Mark III sales. To average Americans, Old’s money bought you a better car.
How to spot an AC car? Look for the air intakes at the rear fender kick-up point. The featured car here doesn’t have them, but this one does:
Thank you! I’ve never seen that before.
Now, I’m further convinced that AC installation rates were very low.
The Olds I referenced offered AC for $400.00, and I’ve seen it in several actual cars, as well as the Olds brochure. GM was the leader in accessory installations, the Continental seems to follow Ford / Mercury / Lincoln installations – very low in these years.
For the price, AC should have been standard in the Mark II, like Cadillac did with the Brougham.
Neat job of incorporating that vent. That had to be an expensive touch considering the number of AC cars built. Another argument for just making AC standard.
A better car for Olds money………
Olds had modern AC almost nailed in ’55. The system was close, not enough interior vents. The third center vent was added for ’56, and the system was the backbone of GM AC through 1968.
Here is the ’55 for $550.00. (The improved system in ’56 came with a tidy 27% price decrease).
AMC (Nash) had it nailed before that and a better system to boot.
“Air conditioning, as we know it today, is based on the design produced by Nash in 1954. The Nash Ambassador was the first auto to have a front end, fully integrated heated and ventilated ac system. This system was also the first to use full dash controls, and electric clutch and an easily serviceable unit.Nash’s system not only revolutionized air conditioning, but also beat all other systems in price, costing only $345 at that time. The layout pioneered by Nash became the standard to which all other a/c was measured, and continues to influence both the OEM and Aftermarket world.”
Also it wasn’t until the mid 1960’s that the other auto makers had heating and ventilating systems that could even match a ’39 Nash Weather Eye system. Sure they had more bling and useless features but to basically heat and ventilate a car, Weather Eye couldn’t be beat. I used to drive my Ramblers in comfort and fog free windows while all my friends driving VWs, Fords, Pontiacs, Chevrolets, Dodges & Plymouths were always wiping their windshields and back windows from the inside as their cars windows fogged up and the cars were either too hot, too cold, too humid or too drafty.
Only on the 56s. For 57 the evaporator moved up front, I believe.
A perusal of Google Image Search seemed to show ’57 models both with and without vent, but that’s really all I have to go on, not being intimately familiar with these cars.
That’s not correct. The a/c stayed in the front. They removed the intakes as a running change when they found out they didn’t work well because they picked up too much road heat and heat off the exhaust and radiator. The intakes were replaced with insulated tubes in the rocker panel that led to the vent air with intakes in front of the radiator.
I have a 1957 continental mark 2 I enjoyed your article. I was five years old when my grand father walked me to elementary school past the local Lincoln mercury dealer and he had the car in his show room floor. Forty one years later i acquired mine It is mostly original. I fell in love with this car when i was five years old i am sixty eight years old now. My experience with this car is this very expensive to maintain, I would never attempt to restore one. Buy the best one you can afford.Parts are difficult to find,but if you want class style prestige this is the car. Do not buy it for investment, i think you will be sorely disappointed, But if you want class and style this maybe the most American impressive car of the 1950s
I have seen only one of these, at the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas, and the pictures don’t do it justice; these are massive cars, I was shocked as I had only seen pictures of them.
Definitely. I saw a Continental in a museum this summer and had the same reaction. While read this (excellent) article, I was reminded of the Continental’s deceptively large size by the picture of William Ford standing next to one. Without the context of a person next to it, it seems like a much smaller car.
A. This is a great piece. I learned a lot.
B. I’m amazed that this car was found street parked.
I saw a picture and spec. of the Mark 11 in a car magazine I bought in 1956, and found it intriguing – always read-up on anything I subsequently found on Lincoln or Continental. A couple of years ago I came face-to-face with one in a car “museum” in Wisconsin and it did not disappoint. Even had a price sticker on it, which was more reasonable than I would have expected – obviously quite a few have survived.
As for the primary reasons for building it – surely two out of three ain’t bad ?
Wow, a dull, weathered Mark II at the curb. Just wow. Someone needs to get his polish man to work. 🙂
An excellent review of this fascinating car. I remember seeing one or two of these at Auburn back in the 70s, and like some others here, was struck by how BIG this car is in person. Its size does not get conveyed in the pictures.
I recall reading somewhere that Bill Ford carried a lot of resentment against his brother Henry over the shutting down of the Continental Division. But I agree with you that a car like this was limited in appeal. It was not stylish enough for the style conscious, or advanced enough in its engineering and performance for those impressed by that sort of thing. The Old Money crowd was not big enough to keep Packard in business either.
The other problem was that Continental Division was a Division in the sense that so many other Ford Divisions were – kind of but not quite. It did not use its own engine or transmission, and was sold at dealers that also sold Lincolns. This car should probably have been a Lincoln from the start in order to have somewhere to point the glow from its halo.
With a car like this, you can at least take comfort in knowing that it probably WILL be cleaned up. I don’t know how the prices run these days, but I’m assuming they’re high enough to be worth a decent restoration (especially if the car is basically solid structurally and mechanically).
As for Packard, I think the old money set had pretty much abandoned them by the ’50s. Packard had spent too long trying unsuccessfully to joust with Buick.
I’ve seen Mark IIs go well into nearly 100 grand territory on various auto sites. The cheapest one I’ve seen is one that looked similar to this in exterior and even that was about 10 grand. Most of these are rare and desirable enough that they’ve been kept in pretty much showroom condition for the majority of their lives.
As one commentor already said it was hard to judge the size of this car. It looks small on first glance, but when you get near it, you see how big it really is. This car was absolutely radical for its time. In an era of garish two and even three tone paint schemes, acres of chrome and garish tailfins, the MK ll`s conservative style set it apart from anything on the American road at the time .A design years ahead of its time, every line on this car is perfect. If I wasn`t a car guy and somebody told me it was a `65 or even `70, I`d believe it.
I’ve seen a few of these through the years, and they were outdated from the git-go. A 1957 T-Bird on steroids, and just as out of proportion as those over-muscled, top-heavy gorillas at the local gym!
I’ll take a T-Bird instead, but would still prefer a tri-five Chevy.
Great write up on a car that has always intrigued me. Ford did seem to be going for a more European look as opposed to the more flashy American design of Cadillac. As was the case with the ’61 Continental. Pretty amazing the primitive AC for this car weighed 375 lbs!
Very interesting to see all the different designs that were considered, I do like the version Ford went with in the end. Really was good looking as a convertible, sad but understandable why it wasn’t produced. The small upright windshield does seem to be the weak point of it’s design.
I always like the Conti’s more subdued look in the ’60’s versions opposed to the more “look at me” theme of the Cadillac of the period. The birds had a lot of nerve targeting this CC beauty, even with it’s dull paint (primer?)
That picture of a Facel Vega gives me an idea…
Truly one of the most beautiful automobiles ever created.
Imagine being able to afford something like this is 1956.
Another profile of the convertible model…
One of my favorite features: the levers for the HVAC system.
Nice touch! Unique.
Many people may not realize it, but the A/C vents were in the interior headliner, not on the dashboard.
You have explained why I could never identify an AC equipped version. Thank you.
I think another way is those small exterior vents at the belt line behind the quarter windows but I may be wrong on that. You can clearly see one on the green car above.
That car sleeps with my other cars.
As usual I learned a lot from your article Paul, thank you. Growing up in the 70s there was a neglected Mark II parked up the street from us but Dad, a hard core car guy, didn’t know much about it. So I went to the library to read up on the car. I knew it was a Lincoln (sorry Continental) and that it was the predecessor of my beloved Mark III but that was about it.
Since then I’ve watched a few historical films on YouTube but your post completes the picture better than anything so far. They really did go overboard — it was shipped in a giant paper bag so it wouldn’t get dusty in the enclosed trailer on the train.
I always thought these cars were too damn big (some lessons are never learned). And if we are being honest, the front, while attractive and done in good taste, was too plain and horizontal in its orientation at least to my eyes.
I did love the long hood, upright windshield and fake spare tire. But those came off so much better on the Mark III which had a tidier size (lol) and that awesome grille. Stiff windshields like that are fantastic not just for making a long hood but for relaxing visibility out front. GM used the same trick on the ’77 Cadillacs and rest of that line; the windshield is so close you can touch it with your fingers on the steering wheel. The Porsche 356, 911, Mercedes Pagoda all used a relatively upright windshield and that was part of the charm on those designs.
Great point about Ford going public in ’56 and that having an effect on big investments for uber luxury products. Mercedes struggled with the high-end too, there was the Maybach. And BMW had a hard time selling that gorgeous Z8 roadster. Sometimes it’s better just to buy Jag, Bentley, Rolls-Royce…
BTW Paul the ’77 T-bird looks nothing like the Mark III!!!
I never liked the close, upright windshield in the downsized GM B/C bodies which I thought made them feel much smaller from the front seat, not what I’d want if I were considering a full-sized car in the late ’70s or early ’80s. The redesigned ’90s “whale” version with the much more raked windshield feels so much larger inside than the boxier older models. For what it’s worth, I thought the upright GM windshields didn’t look good from the outside either, especially since there was none of the smooth integration with the side windows seen in the pre-downsized ’71-’76 models.
Oh wow I hate overly-raked, faraway windshields like on a ’90s Caprice. My first experience with one was in the Ford Aerostar which caused a sense of tunnel vision and made me dizzy. The worst was the ’94 Camaro. I also hated the resulting “deep dash” look which I’ve come to associate with people-mover category vehicles, not drivers’ cars. There is so much plastic to screw up and it always looks dusty.
A close to you, upright windshield makes for more natural viewing, like wearing a pair of glasses. Those are close to your eyes, aren’t they? As for styling, one of the sexiest angles of a downsized Caddy is the front because the windshield looks short and stubby like some custom job. An upright faraway windshield like on a 300C can make it difficult to see traffic signals at an intersection.
I was really impressed with the changes on the ’77 GMs. I could tell from having an import in the family that they brought their A-game with the super short dash and thinner, better closing doors. We haven’t scratched the surface about how great these cars were. Well we have but you catch my drift.
I guess it depends on the car – the small, relatively flat, upright windshield on the ’62-’64 Studebaker GT Hawk looks perfect to my eyes, and incredibly classy along with the long sculpted hood and long front door to front wheel length – just a perfectly proportioned car despite it just being a mild facelift of a 1953 design. I somehow don’t get that with the ’77-’90 GM full-sizers (I used to drive a ’77 Bonneville), nor with the Continental Mark II. I did however drive an early GM “dustbuster” minivan which had an insanely deep dashboard to reach the far-away windshield. They tried to disguise it in later models with a stepped dash top panel.
Seriously???!!! How embarrassing.
Haha was good to see you were kidding. Hard to tell with you sometimes Paul 🙂
I had reason to drive on Vancouver’s west 16th street weekly for some months, and I remember when this appeared…My thought at the time was that the owner was testing the water for interest. [It may well have been listed for sale somewhere] And then it was gone from curbside but I spotted it in transit minutes later on a slide-deck on it’s way to ? Further thoughts: luxo- check; historically important- check. But, it is an ugly out-of-scale creation that was sensibly terminated.
A fascinating read on an exceptional car — thank you Paul, you made my day!
Oh and that Benz and that Facel! Had to put the jeans in the wash after I saw those…
Learned a lot by reading this. I never knew how far they went down the Rolls-Royce route. Pretty extreme. They certainly did not pick a smart way of going about it though. “Daddy would’ve wanted it that way” must have blinded the Ford boys’ acumen (which, if you factor in the Edsel and the Turnpike Cruiser, was a tad out of whack in the mid-’50s…)
Re: the Derham car, it seems this esteemed but sometimes over-the-top coachbuilder made a couple of specials on Mark IIs. One was a padded roof + continental kit job (absolutely dreadful), another was a padded roof and rear restyle that is certainly less pretty than the original car, but interesting.
I much prefer that rear to the stock Continental tire bump. The angle of the back of the C-pillar is very elegant too. But some sort of rear side window would have helped.
Those wacky Ford lions. I would not have expected them to turn up on a “Continental Division” car, unless this was the first ever application.
Wow, never saw the lions in this design before! I never made it past the big star and the knight’s head.
Great eye, JPC, as much as I have encountered these Mark II’s through the years, I never noticed that little touch. I, too, was always fixated on the knight’s head and shield as the 50’s Lincoln emblem. BTW, in the article I mention in my post today much further below, there is a fascinating sidebar titled “The Continental Star: Mark of Distinction,” detailing how the ubiquitous star emblem came to be, apparently as a last minute creation by designer Bob Thomas for some presentation to the Ford Executive Committee. It is remarkable how that star, through a few iterations, has become one of the most widely recognized symbols in the annals of the automobile.
I first learned about the Mark II from a “Micro Machine” of all things–those late 80’s early 90’s tiny toy cars. At some point they did a set that included a ’59 Plymouth sedan, a ’57 Seville, and a ’57 Mark II. And even in that tiny size (these guys were less than half the size of a matchbox car) I instantly fell in love with the shape. I’ve been a huge fan ever since then; there is a simple elegance about the lines that is hugely appealing to me. (And, being a fan of Lincolns in general, I’m okay with the “hump” especially since it’s functional).
Amazing to find one parked curbside, and with oxidized paint to boot–one would think that all the survivors would be high-dollar restorations by this point. Very cool. And a very astute analysis, showing that sometimes a great car can also be a great failure in the market.
This is one of the few CCs I’ve seen locally in recent years, this one in a parking lot. It’s an interesting car but I too suspect it was just too subdued inside and out for its intended clientele. The front end looks particularly generic to me, or at least it doesn’t shout “Continental” in any way whereas most luxury cars are immediately recognizable from the front.
I only know John Reinhart’s work for this car and the restyled ’51 Packards, which also IMO were too subdued for a luxury car. The exterior styling was reasonably modern but undistinguished. The interiors, particularly the dashboard, were downright plain looking until Dick Teague’s awesome ’55-’56 facelift which almost made them look all-new, and far more snazzy inside and out. What are some other cars Reinhart designed? Was subdued just his style? Can’t find much about him online.
I suspect it was perfectly aligned with the tastes of the intended clientele, the issue is that the niche was just too damned tiny to ever be profitable.
The buyers chose the MkII because it was, without question, a fine car. Almost the default choice for the owner-driver. Stealth wealth is where the money’s really at. Bragging, if entered into, would have been reserved for resource holdings, second and subsequent houses, yachts, racehorses, mergers and acquisitions. Cars are incidental accessories at this level.
The MkII would have been a pragmatic choice in terms of quality, longevity, and to a lesser extent, exclusivity. Past a point additional glitter and tinsel denotes something less than the best, Cadillac illustrates this thinking in the 59-60 Eldorado Brougham, again the niche was too small to pursue for the halo effect it generated. So small, in fact, they contracted it out until the end of production.
It makes me wonder, if the division lasted did FoMoCo plan a “no annual model year changes” policy both as a point of distinction and a way to save on low-volume tooling?
I’m glad Robadr was able to capture that Mark II, I’d seen it many times on West 16th but never had a chance to snap it. A true curbside classic, never parked inside, always in front of the house in its cloak of grey primer.
The house was sold recently and shortly after the car disappeared. I don’t know if its owner was renting the house, or if he sold it. If it was a sale I hope some of the money goes back into restoring this beauty.
I was out on my bike, which made it easy to stop. I hadn’t seen it before – but then as an East Van resident I only get a few visas a year to visit the far west side 🙂
Wow, these are rare and it’s interesting to come across one that hasn’t been restored or meticulously cared for by its owner. And very nice article Paul.
Paul’s certainly outlined all the reasons why they were less than successful, but one I’ve always held was the use of the cowbelly frame – it made the cars bow outward from top to bottom and just took what could have been a very smooth design “heavy looking”.
I don’t know if that can really be blamed on the frame. That was generally the look at Ford back then; they were very into big “shoulders” with a small greenhouse sitting on a wider lower body. Their unibodies, like the ’61 Conti and TBird did that too.
You share that opinion with few. It’s likely one of the most balanced designs, ever. The ladder chassis had everything to do with design, but not for the reasons stated. It was the first Ford without an X-bracing the center of the frame. This allowed for footwells, which allowed for lowered seating, belt and roofline. It looks different than anything else out of Ford, but not for the reasons you think.
Motor Trend, November 1955:
Part III (wow – Scottish leather!)
Part IV (apologize for quality of some of the scans – mag is old and discolored)
Great find! Top right looks like a variation of the Tremulis T-bird
I think that leather was called “Bridge of Weir” leather.
It took a long time for me to warm up to Mark II, just as it did for a lot of 50s cars in general. But, I do like it, maybe not as much as it’s later, cheaper, more OTT successors (Blasphemous, I know), but if nothing else, I do prefer it over the Eldorado Brougham from the same time period.
I guess the problem with going into high end luxury, is that you have so many established players that it’s hard to really make a name for yourself. Forget Rolls Royce and Bentley for a second, you also have Ferrari, Lamborghini, and a ton of independent hyper car manufacturers. Granted a car like the Mark II isn’t a valid comparison against a 458, but if you pay big bucks for a car, it needs to make a statement and brand certainly plays a huge factor in it. It’s not worth bragging to your friends about your new purchase if the car you have is only well known to hardcore enthusiasts, that’s the problem Maybach had, why spend Rolls Royce money when you can just get a Rolls Royce? Why spend nearly the same money on a car that looks like just a slightly longer, more melted S-Class when the vast majority of the people you’re going to be flaunting the car to won’t know what it is?
I will say, this car truly is pretty massive. I saw one this year at a car show in San Diego in powdered blue, and I was awestruck at how huge this car really was. The later Marks certainly have it beat in terms of length, but the photos and brochures don’t convey the sheer mass this car has.
Was that powder blue MK II exhibited by a guy named Gary Karr? He was a friend of mine back in San Diego, his mother, who lived in Scottsdale at the time, had a powder blue ’56, he frequently had it in San Diego (he was big into Lincolns, had a ’64 sedan and a ’67 convertible, as I recall), and I suspect that she may have passed away by now. It was a gorgeous car, fully restored, or a lot original, anyway, and I remember he had it equipped with disc brakes. We went clubbing in Scottsdale one time in the early 90’s in it, a fabulous car, drew a lot of attention. And yes, it is massive, as a lot of commenters have noted, it is much larger in person than in photos, surprisingly so. And heavy, the doors must weigh a jillion pounds, even the door edges are chrome plated.
Great piece. Oh would the Lincoln of today have drawn more from this Continental rather than Jaguar for the grille and Dodge for the taillights for the latest iteration.
About 3-4 years ago I saw a well-kept Mark II parked curbside near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. Just sitting there, for no apparent reason, surrounded by mere transportation devices. This was the first one I’d seen outside of a museum, and I had never really appreciated these cars until then. They do have a certain amount of flash with their hips and unfortunate tire hump, but especially in comparison to the Cadillacs (or almost any other make) from that era, they exude a hushed dignity.
This is a well written and enjoyable article on a car that went against the grain of its times, Paul. Thanks for posting it.
Paul, I’m from a “Ford family” and have read everything I could about these over the years (a rare sighting even in childhood 1960s), but it’s always fascinating to get the retelling/analysis through your eyes and voice.
Henry Ford Museum has a few more design photos not seen above (as far as I can tell), including a mid-1953 clay showing one direction they were considering:
I don’t remember any ads, but I suppose they never appeared in middle-class stuff (Time/LIFE) or probably even Motor Trend, etc.:
And a nifty sales brochure here: https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/artifact/368705#slide=gs-235530
Color & trim selection book: https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/artifact/363278
Great article Paul. I was waiting and hoping you might get round to writing about it, and now I can see why you took your time. It is an odd looking beast, all 5000 pounds of it, with a strange mix of design clarity and awkwardness. The essence of what Ford wanted to convey with it does come through, although the overall impression is a little sad somehow (the paint job doesn’t help).
The fit and finish in items like the taillight detail and the interior were surprising to me for a car from the mid 50’s – the $10 000 price tag explains it. I came across it on a bike ride on a bizarrely warm evening in mid-April, and it seemed at first more like a Twilight Zone apparition than a real car. I wondered initially if it might not be some sort of replica, but the interior looked like the real thing.
Well there was one car which bizarrely must have been inspired by the Conti – the Jensen P66, coming much later. At that stage anything looking like the Conti would have been seen to be dated, not just conservative. Thankfully Jensen went for the Carrozzeria Touring-designed Interceptor.
I think Zackman hit the nail on the head: One of the various significant factors in the downfall of the Mark II was probably the Thunderbird. The two-seat Thunderbird is on a similar aesthetic page, but it manages to look sporty — a useful way to broaden a car’s appeal — whereas the Mark is more stately or even funereal. (The Mark II is dignified, no doubt, but no pulses will be raised except maybe your accountant’s.) The T-Bird also had a much clearer stylistic relationship to other mid-fifties Fords; in that respect, it was like the ’67 Eldorado, which looked perfectly at home among other contemporary Cadillacs while still being clearly special.
Obviously, the Mark II had better materials and greater attention to detail, but if you showed both cars to the average person on the street and asked them to choose (being clear that they could only have one), I think nine out of ten would take the T-Bird. And of the ones who chose the Mark, at least some of them would be thinking about flipping it, buying a nice Thunderbird, and pocketing the difference.
Always thought this was an odd looking car with an incoherent design language. Of its era, it was heartily trounced by the T-Bird although the shapes seem to work well on the 4-door study.
A fascinating review, Paul, on a par with your 1965 Continental article. Nicely done! I have always loved Lincolns, and this Mark II captured my imagination even back then as 9-year old, and continues to the present day. It was the epitome of quiet elegance and dignity, even if it did appeal to such a minuscule market segment. Have you ever run across an article that appeared in the June 1986 issue of Collectible Automobile, written by a Tim Howley? I still have an 11 x 17 copy of it, titled “1956-57 Continental Mark II: Ford’s Fallen Star,” it is an in-depth analysis of the history of this remarkable automobile, replete with fabulous photos, specifications, and a couple of detailed sidebars about a retractable top model and the prototype convertible. Well worth reading if you can find a copy of it, perhaps online.
It is so interesting to me how several of these Mark II’s have crossed my path through the years. I had, way back then as a child, a promo model of one, although it disappeared years ago. My grandmother’s next door neighbor in Palm Springs, a retired Hollywood set decorator, drove a black one in the early 60’s, he had owned it from new. I was so fascinated with it sitting in his open carport, never missed a chance to ogle it. My USC roommate’s father, a prominent architect from Toronto, bought and had one restored in about 1969 and kept it in their Bel Air home. An acquaintance of mine who owns a large collector auto business in the Sacramento area was restoring one in the early 90’s, I remember it being in pretty sad shape to begin with. And as I noted above in a response to Robadr, a friend from San Diego when I lived there frequently had his mother’s powder blue Mark II in town, and I experienced it “up close and personal,” so to speak. These were fascinating cars, truly the “finest in the fine car field” in their day. It seems that they don’t garner a lot of collector interest now, although they should, but a remarkable number of them seem to have survived.
BTW, a minor correction for you, you the ’53 Capri convertible you mention above is actually a ’54, my aunt and uncle had a ’54 sedan, I remember that side trim so well. Anyway, thanks again for an exceptional read!
I forgot to mention a fun story when I lived in San Diego in the 80’s and 90’s and worked for a large homebuilder. I did a lot of our preliminary home design with a well known San Diego architect, he was our go-to architect for all of our projects. He often told the story of how he had intended and was studying to become an automotive designer, but then the ’56 Mark II came out, and he decided that he could never come close to creating such a perfect unique elegant car design, so he threw in the towel and became an architect instead. And as it turned out, a very successful one, too.
Add me to the chorus: great article Paul, very thorough and informative. And reading it took me over my 30 minutes lunch break allowance! But it was very much worth it.
Ford claims to have lost $1000 per car, which adds up to about 3 million. They also expected sales to run at about 2000 annually, but the last year (1957) was less than 500 after a first year (1956) of about 2500. I don’t think this was bad. What was bad was Lincoln after 1957.
My guess is that Continental cost Ford about $27 million for the two years, but revenues were $8,000 per car or $24 million.
My guess is that Cadillac hoped to sell as many (2000 annually) Eldorado Broughams, but sales were just under 1000 in 4 years of production. Cadillacs losses were much greater, although probably less than what Lincoln lost in the late 50’s. Cadillac’s original plan for the Eldorado sedan was a price (cost) in the 8 to 9 thousand range.
The cost to bring the Mark II to the first production car was $21,000,000, saddling each car produced with $7,500 in development costs, so they lost much more than that. The only recoverable cost was the custom-made plant where nothing was made, just assembled.
They lost $1,000 on each car produced, but that was on top of the development costs.
Great article and pictures of a rare and beautiful car. I’ve seen a Mark II in the metal once. Years ago I was riding my bike through Rosedale (a rich Toronto neighborhood) and I saw one in a driveway with faded paint and a flat tire or two. A sad sight anywhere, but especially in a part of town where you might have seen a few of these when they first arrived. It looked pretty solid otherwise – I hope it was given the restoration it deserved.
The Continental Mark II was, without question, the best-looking auto to come out of the 1950s and suffered mostly from being about five years ahead of the styling trends. The 1961 Continental emulated a lot of the clean styling, but it took that extra five years of garish fins and horrible proportions and vomit-inducing nonsense bulges and awful dizzying excess of everything, none of it with any taste or class, before the consuming public would accept something a little less cluttered and a little more considered in its design.
Even today, the quality of the workmanship and materials is absolutely readily apparent in one of these beauties (the regular, non-Detroit Lions-colored examples). Absolutely magnificent!
Back in my Ford days, they would regularly rotate the display cars in the lobby of World Headquarters. Some were new products, some were cool old cars. One of the “cool old car” displays they did was of Henry II’s, Benson’s, and William Clay Sr.’s customized Mark IIs. Only Benson’s sported its original engine, and William Clay Sr. had his reworked around 1970 to have a 460 installed. William Clay Sr.s had also been redone in Detroit Lions colors (he was the owner of the team)-silver and Honolulu Blue, inside and out.
I would imagine that quite a few would favor the 1953 Studebaker Starliner ‘Loewy coupe’ as a more attractive fifties’ car than the Mark II.
The Mark II is not a particularly bad looking car, but the windshield really is too bolt upright and more of a rake (or ‘tumblehome’ as it’s known in automotive design) would have helped exponentially. As mentioned, even the original Thunderbird was better.
OTOH, I really like the elegant simplicity of the instrument panel and interior, in general. It’s also worth noting the part about the high rejection rate of parts not up to specifications. I wonder if this is the first instance of this level of attention to volume suppliers which would be a major factor in the Japanese becoming an automotive quality juggernaut decades later.
Tumblehome refers to the angle of the side windows. It comes from warship design, where ships tapered in to a smaller deck in order to make hostile boarding more difficult.
A great article. These cars never did much for me, just too plain looking to be ultra luxury vehicles. The 1953-54 Eldos and ’53-54 Packard Caribbeans were much prettier and more glamorous. It’s best feature was the “spare tire” on the trunklid, an iconic Lincoln design element.
Maybe it has been mentioned somewhere.
Tell me it’s not so.
But I must ask, is that or is that not a vacuum wiper motor I see on the firewall ?
Reminds me of my old AMC Hornet.
Yes, they are vacuum wipers. They work really well as the 300hp engine has a vacuum pump that keeps vacuum at a steady 20hg.
The power antenna was electric, too. They chose vacuum over electric for noise abatement. They are both quite quiet.
Just one incorrect bit of information. The Hess & Eisenhardt Mark II convertibles were delivered to Ford Marketing in Chicago just before Christmas, 1955 and the Derham car was delivered in October of 1956.
This what the first one made looks like. That’s a ’55 Porsche Continental Cabrio beside it.
Follow this link to more Mark II info:
I was biking to work this morning when a gleaming black example (coupe) of one of these turned west from East Mississippi River Blvd to cross the Ford Bridge on it’s way to Minneapolis from St. Paul. It looked like a well cut suite on a very trim man. Neither fish nor fowl, it somehow seems orthogonal to everything that was happening in the market at the time. It was an answer to a question that was not being asked.
Like those Dagmars on that black 54!
Tumblehome refers to the angle of the side windows. It comes from warship design, where ships tapered in to a smaller deck in order to make hostile boarding more difficult.
Re: price inflation.
You note the original Continental had a price of just $47,000 price adjusted, which indeed seems low for one of the premier cars of the day.
But another factor needs to be taken into account: incomes, like prices, have risen. Far fewer people in 1940 could afford a (price adjusted) $47,000 car than today. More people are making more money (price adjusted) than back then. The fruits of economic growth!
So don’t be surprised that the expensive car of the day seems cheap even in price adjusted dollars – few people in those less prosperous times could afford one, even though today that seems like the price of a modestly nice car.
I’ve made this point numerous times in other posts, and I focused on the much higher marginal tax brackets in the 50s, and how income stratification was much lower then. So yes, this was a very expensive car, and there were a lot fewer mega-rich folks back then.
I saw one o these earlier this year being hauled on a flatbed southbound on Telegraph Road. The finish seemingly was all patina, no actual paint. It was headed in the right direction (towards Bloomfield Township/Bloomfield Hills), so I hope it was going to a shop able to do a proper restoration, and is owned by someone who can afford the restoration. I like to imagine the car driving on Telegraph or Woodward on summer weekends in some future time.
Two of the Ford family Mark IIs are now in the huge collection of that part supplier in Florida that frequently appears in My Classic Car on youtube. Kind of sad that they didn’t want to keep them.
A 1956 Continental Mk.II is one of the ‘inhabitants’ of Youtube channel ‘coldwarmotors’. It’s mid-restoration now, having been acquired as a patched-up, but underneath rusty and crash-bent sad thing. Do you want to see how inticrately-bent sheet metal parts and panels are made from flat sheet steel? That is your channel. Search for ‘continental’ on the channel to find content. It’s one of the channel owner’s friend’s car, so it’s not a primary focus, but gets occasional features.
The 90% top marginal tax bracket had its’ effect on the auto market – there really wasn’t an ultra-luxury one above the standard Cadillac-Lincoln-Imperial owner-driven sedans, coupes and convertibles.
The original Eldorados were profitable in small numbers, being a modified standard Caddy (less and less “modified”, more just a trim level as the decade went on), the Series 75 limo was a vocational model used as a corporate VIP perk and by the funeral trade, and the likes of Rolls-Royce was foriegn and could get away with decade-long production runs, selling the persistence of its’ distinctive but dated look much as VW did at the other end of the market.
Into that, Ford likely indeed overestimated the Mark’s niche, possibly intended for its’ styling to be as stabilized as the Rolls or at least as the Continental ended up being in the ’60s to save money on annual tooling changes, and Cadillac probably expected (but GM could afford) to lose money on the Fleetwood Brougham but built it anyway to one-up Ford.
This was a great re-read this morning—I still hope to see one of this in person sometime, somewhere.
I’ve got the SAE writeup from 1956–the whole development tale. Plenty of it’s already mentioned above by Paul or in comments, but I’ll just append it all, page by page.
page 12—last one:
The Mark II was certainly a contrast to the angular, canted headlamp, design language that followed in the later large models. The over all design of the long hood, short deck, personal car did set a precedent that was popular for the next thirty years.
I had read about the Mark Mark II thirty years ago, and had been impressed by the extent that Lincoln went to ensuring world class quality. While there has always been rich people, there are certainly more of them now, and the growth of the current high priced car market reflects this.
It’s just my guess, but maybe back in the ’50’s most wealthy people had to earn their money over a long period of time, and they just couldn’t see spending such an excessive amount over a standard Lincoln or Cadillac. I mean, there was a reason that these people were wealthy, and even if you inherited money, you had to invest carefully and cultivate your finances to hold onto what you had, or to increase it.
My vote goes to the Facel Vega as the most desirable car pictured in the post. I think that the ’63 Riviera came the closest to that ideal, unfortunately, Detroit lost the thread after a couple of years.
A belated technical point about the Continental Mark II is that its frame design was really not similar to the perimeter frame Ford adopted in 1965. The Mark II frame was still self-supporting, using the Y-member to provide bending and torsional stiffness rather than a traditional X-member.
A perimeter frame is not the same as a ladder frame or K-member frame, because it’s not really self-supporting. In a perimeter frame car, the body structure provides most of the rigidity, as in a unit body. The frame acts essentially as a full-length subframe; it’s designed to flex and bend so the body won’t. Structurally, it’s the exact opposite of a self-supporting ladder frame, where you place a relatively flexible body (like a pickup truck) on a rigid frame. With a perimeter frame, the body is rigid and the frame is flexible.
Interesting info here. I wasn’t aware of the detailed differences between the perimeter and ladder frames. Thx.
I’m quite aware of that, and thought that I made it pretty clear that it was not a perimeter frame. I did say “similar” in terms of the cowbelly and perimeter frames offering more leg room, and perhaps that’s poor wording, which I will change.
The point you were making about subsequent frame designs following the lead of the Mark II “cowbelly” frame in using K-members or Y-members rather than an X-member to get the crossmembers out of the way of the footwell areas of the floorpan was quite correct — if you look at a 1957–1964 Ford frame, the outer frame rails have a distinct cowbelly shape, and only the convertible frame has an X-member. (GM cruciform frames achieved the same effect in the opposite way: only having the cruciform member and keeping it as narrow as possible through the passenger compartment.) I don’t mean to argue that point.
Where I’m quibbling with the text is just in the implication that the perimeter frame was a product of that trend, which for the most part it wasn’t. Also, it’s still a common misconception (which I know you don’t share, but some other readers likely do) that a perimeter frame is just a frame with side rails along the outsides of the passenger compartment, when it’s really embodying a different philosophy. The Mark II frame and the frame designs it inspired or foreshadowed asked, “How can we still achieve the bending and torsional stiffness we need while keeping the chassis members out of the footwells as much as possible?” while the perimeter frame said, “We want the frame to be flexible in these modes — how can we tune it so that the frame will bend and twist in the areas we want it to and to the degree we want for best ride quality and minimal NVH?”
I’ve been meaning to write a post about the perimeter frame for a long time, as it’s one of the least understood car technologies of its time. The great majority think of a perimeter frame as just a ladder frame that splays out.
I haven’t read anything about the development of the perimeter frame. Olds and Pontiac started using it in 1961, and clearly it’s something of an evolution from the X Frame, as both required the body to provide a more significant amount of rigidity to the combined structure.
This article from the 10/63 Car Life is useful: http://wildaboutcarsonline.com/members/AardvarkPublisherAttachments/9990392125557/1963-11_CL_New_Looks_in_Frame_Design_for_1964_1-4.pdf
Extremely useful; thanks!
I will use that for a post. I just haven’t had the time to do any real research on it.
The only element that id doesn’t address is the total combined torsional stiffness. It suggests that perimeter frame cars have less combined torsional stiffness that say the X-Frame cars did, as a trade-off for lower cost and a quieter and smoother ride.
Given how critical overall torsional stiffness is to improved handling, it seems counter-intuitive that GM ( and eventually Ford) was able to make the significant improvements in handling in the later 60s and especially in the 70s with perimeter frames, if overall stiffness was lower. Or am I missing something?
I think there are several factors: First, in a perimeter frame car, most of the torsional rigidity comes from the body shell; the frame doesn’t do a lot in that sense, by design. This isn’t terribly different from a unit-body car with subframes or isolated front and rear cross-members; those aren’t providing torsional or bending stiffness either. Second, part of the point of a perimeter frame is that its flexibility isn’t uniform, but rather concentrated in certain areas — principally the side rails, which aren’t carrying the suspension or powertrain. In essence, the side rails provide an additional avenue for the front and rear cross-members that ARE carrying the suspension to dissipate NVH energy, rather than putting it all into the body mounts.
Assuming you have a torsionally rigid body structure, the challenge, with either a perimeter frame or unit construction, is to strike a balance in the stiffness of the body mounts. If they’re too soft and floppy, you’ll get lots of annoying deflection between the body and frame(s), but if they’re too stiff, NVH will be high. One area where I assume GM (in particular) was able to make a lot of inroads in the ’70s was in more precisely modeling the loads involved, to allow the body mounts and bushings to be stiff where they needed to be stiff and soft where they needed to be soft, to control NVH while keeping body and suspension from feeling like they’re communicating by semaphore.
As mentioned, another illustrative reference is this October 1991 JDM brochure for the S140 Crown (excuse the cumbersome viewer format, which is from the Toyota official site). If you flip through to pages 25 and 29, it illustrates the subframes and the perimeter frame:
It’s perhaps the clearest illustration I’ve ever seen of the conceptual relationship between a perimeter frame and separate subframes. (The full frame differs from Detroit practice in that there is a third transverse cross-member in the middle, although the captions still explicitly describe it as a perimeter frame, and it’s clearly not intended to be self-supporting.)
The perimeter frame appears to have been prompted at least in part by experience (both at Fisher Body and the divisions) with the development of the Corvair and the Y-body senior compacts, which provided a lot of practical experience with the pros and cons of unit bodies. None of the divisions was very happy with true monocoque construction from an NVH standpoint and it presented some assembly procedure challenges, so they were obviously looking for a best-of-both-worlds alternative.
The most coherent discussions I’ve seen were all from vintage Car Life reviews, since their editors understood the concept well enough to remark on it. Beyond that, I would guess that the most robust sources of information would probably be SAE papers published by GM engineers around the time the perimeter frame first appeared.
For me, the most revealing example was the Toyota S140 (Crown/Aristo) platform of the early ’90s, some versions of which had front and rear subframes and some had a full-length perimeter frame. Just that fact (and as I recall, the brochures have some useful illustrations) was a real lightbulb-over-the-head moment in terms of the function of the perimeter frame as a big subframe rather than a rigid platform.
Earlier, I spent a half-hour searching GM patents from 1957 to 1961 to see if I could find anything related to perimeter frames, but came up empty. Pontiac engineers claimed they started working on the perimeter frame in 1957 due to skepticism about the X-frame, although I have my doubts about that.