Curbside Classic: 1965 Lincoln Continental – The Last Great American Luxury Car

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(first posted 4/17/2013)     What defines a true luxury car? Not comfort and convenience, as was proved so convincingly by the Broughamization of mundane Chevys, Fords and Plymouths. A genuine luxury item is recognized as such because it has sufficient exclusivity, style, quality and prestige to set its owner apart from the masses. What’s more, it must have presence-the ability to at once command attention and instantly make others aware of the fact that this is something truly out of the ordinary. This Lincoln Continental was the last American luxury car that did just that.

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The Great Depression killed the great classic American luxury cars such as this 1932 Lincoln KB V12. The luxury brands that didn’t die were forced to adapt to greatly changed circumstances, such as sky-high top marginal tax rates (91%) that started an era of unprecedented income equality: “The Great Income Compression” had begun.

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Successful movie and TV stars of the 1950s like Ronald Reagan lived in 4,000-square-foot ranch homes, not 56,000 square foot palaces. And strong income growth among blue-collar workers made it possible for them to afford tract houses that didn’t look all that different from theirs–not to mention shiny new Chevys that looked very much like new Cadillacs. It was America’s great experiment towards a classless society. Even if reality fell a bit short of perception–especially for some–the optimistic hope of sitting with the elite at the Formica table of the American Dream was about as high as it’s ever been.

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At the dawn of the 1950s, these were the forces shaping the luxury car market. Gone were the unique and rarefied top-tier models of the past as manufacturers’ flagship models began sharing bodies and/or other major components with their lesser corporate siblings. The company that tapped into the zeitgeist most successfully was, of course, Cadillac. Together, Harley Earl’s brilliant ability to gauge evolving popular taste, and GM’s ability to deliver it at the right price, gave Cadillac a dominant share of the luxury-car market.

But was Cadillac a true luxury car? This 1950 Series 61 coupe (CC here) was priced at $2,761–just 59% more than a 1950 Chevy Bel Air hardtop coupe. The Great Luxury Car Compression was also underway. If Average Joe wanted one badly enough, he could swing it–even if it meant buying used–which might make this calling this era “The Great Luxury Car Debasement” a more accurate term.

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But the Cadillac was a huge commercial success, especially when it came to GM’s bottom line. It certainly didn’t cost the company 59% more to build a basic Cadillac versus a Chevy–especially in 1959, when all GM cars, including that Chevy, shared the same basic body. Where’s the true luxury in that?

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The 1959 Cadillac (CC here) may have set new heights with its fins, but otherwise it was a nadir. Advertising could place it in “old money” settings, but the truth is that old money wasn’t exactly likely to climb into a pink ’59 convertible. The term “kitsch” wasn’t invented recently, you know.


Despite these factors, the true-luxury car market in America was by far the world’s biggest, and top-tier European brands were now eying it hungrily. Although cars like Mercedes and the big Jaguars often cost twice as much as a Cadillac, they were nonetheless making inroads despite a comparative lack of certain amenities (and fins). What they did exude was superb quality and timeless elegance–qualities that in themselves justified the cars’ premium prices to a relatively small number of buyers in search of genuine exclusivity and willing to pay the price.

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Presumably, Detroit knew they were vulnerable at the upper end of the market. The Lincoln brand struggled throughout the Fifties, fighting a recurring if not endless battle to differentiate itself from a Mercury or Ford. This is not a luxury car.

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Thus Ford took a giant step into the rarefied niche of true luxury cars with its 1956 Continental Mark II and the creation of the exclusive Continental Division. Priced at $10,000 ($85,000 adjusted–and two-and-a-half times as much as a Cadillac), its hard to say whether the Mark II was more a halo car and PR effort made at the very time Ford was going public with its stock or a serious attempt at a commercially-viable undertaking. Since Ford ended up losing $1,000 on each of the 3,000 made, hopefully the PR value wasn’t a loss either.

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The Mark II (CC here) was relatively conservatively styled to recapture some of the timeless elegance of the original 1939 Continental, named in homage to the elegant coach-built cars of Europe. It was decidedly all-American, but in an understated way; it wouldn’t look totally out of place on the continent, except for its size. Despite the throwback spare-tire hump, it wasn’t exactly neo-classical either; a trend that would appear some years later. But the controversial decision to incorporate what now came to be known as the “continental spare” was clearly a first shot in that direction, and one that would reappear with a vengeance.

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Although the Mark II was a commercial flop, GM was not about to be left behind in the all-important war of public perception. Its 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham was priced at an even loftier $13,074 ($110,000 adjusted), although it was fundamentally less distinct from lesser Cadillacs than the Mark II was from other Lincolns.

The Eldorado Brougham’s styling was the result of Earl’s carefully calculated feedback from several Motorama prototypes and as such, reflected popular taste rather than the breaking of any new ground stylistically (although it did premiere GM’s X-frame, which allowed a lower roof line): The Brougham was an über-Cadillac with leaky air springs–and an even bigger sales bust than the Mark II.

Cadillac Eldorado Brougham doors

The most significant design aspect of the Eldorado Brougham was its suicide rear doors, which undoubtedly were chosen to improve entry into the rear compartment, into which the large C-pillar intruded substantially. In that regard, the Brougham was really a forerunner of today’s four-door coupes, as well as the 1961 Continental. Note the lack of a B-pillar.

Continental Mk III

Continental was also working on a four-door version, to be called the Mark III. The earliest proposal depicts it as just a lengthened Mk II given rear suicide doors and a new roof. With a 132″ wheelbase, it would have been a huge car.

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The Mark III design was developed further, but still on a lengthened Mk II frame.

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But when Ford decided to switch the 1958 Lincoln and Thunderbird to unibody construction, the Mark III program (also dubbed “Berline”) got the order to start over with a  unibody-based design. Although there is certainly some design continuity, it was heading in a much more angular and flat-planed direction. The Mark III program was killed along with the Continental Division, but it foreshadows the ’61 Continental’s basic configuration, as well as aspects of its styling.

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There was a production 1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III, but it was only the top-line version of the giant 1958 Lincolns (CC here). It was such a disappointment that Ford had no compunction about re-using the Mark III name again in 1969. That would makes this one the Mark III Mk 1.

The oft-told 1961 Continental design genesis story goes like this: Elwood Engel was working on an alternative design proposal for the new 1961 Thunderbird (CC here); however, Joe Oros’ more overtly sporty version was picked, resulting in the Bullet Bird. Ford President Robert MacNamara ran into Engel’s slab-sided proposal almost by accident. He took a shine to it (as had some other execs), and wondered if it couldn’t be adapted for the new 1961 Lincoln.

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And so it was. Although now lengthened to fit a 123″ wheelbase for the rear doors, and widened a bit, it still shared certain key unibody structural components with the Thunderbird in order to save costs. Not to take anything away from Engel’s fine design proposal, but it would hard to deny that the Mark III concept by John Reinhardt was also a contributing factor, right down to the suicide doors. Thankfully, the continental spare hump wasn’t included.

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That goes for the front end too, which was still very much showed its Mark II roots. The ’61 Continental was spared any attempt at design continuity with the past–and why? In the wake of Lincoln’s near-death experience there was no point in carrying any continuity forward. The approach was exactly opposite to Cadillac’s, which nurtured design continuity and avoided drastic changes. Now Ford had a unique opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.

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The result was nothing short of brilliant. It was a radical departure from the norm, and a true harbinger of a new decade of change. The 1961 Lincoln Continental utterly eclipsed its competition with the first new design direction of the 1960s. Just like the 1960 Corvair was highly influential on European and Japanese design, the ’61 Continental showed the way forward in American luxury car design–nor was its influence limited to the U.S.

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It was a group effort that brought it to completion, and Eugene Bordinat (Design Chief), Don DeLaRossa, Elwood Engel, Gale Halderman, John Najar, Robert Thomas and George Walker were collectively honored with an atypical (for a car) award from the Industrial Design Institute. They noted its “outstanding contribution of simplicity and design elegance”.

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And in another break from the GM-initiated annual design-change tradition, it was clearly stated that the Continental would not be playing that game. No changes for the sake of change alone. Heresy!

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The Continental was a total repudiation of everything Harley Earl and Cadillac stood for. The era of fins, chrome-slathered sides, rocket exhausts, jet engine intakes and fighter-cockpit greenhouses was over the moment eyes set on the new Continental. Has there ever been such a paradigm shift in automotive taste, and one that happened so abruptly?

It didn’t take long for the Conti’s influence to be felt; by 1962, Cadillac offered a formal four-window roof as an alternative to their traditional six-window sedan. And perhaps influenced by the Continental’s tidier dimensions, this Park Avenue model also featured a shorter trunk.

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By 1965-1966, Cadillacs had become decidedly more slab-sided.

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And after Engel’s move to Chrysler, it was no surprise to see the Conti’s key design aspects reappear on the ’64 Imperial  (save for the carryover 1957 windshield, which Chrysler was too cheap to update).  Following the Continental’s design genes as they scattered across the globe would take a whole article by itself, but since we’re quite familiar with the recent Chrysler 300, we know it certainly hasn’t ended.

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Undoubtedly, many wish it would reappear on a proper Lincoln.

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The 1961 Continental was unique in other ways. It was available only as a four-door sedan and four-door convertible, in one level of trim. The sedan was priced about 10% higher than a Cadillac DeVille, and was very well equipped for the times. What’s more, each car was subjected to rigorous quality testing, something very atypical for a production car at this price level. Even the lighter was given a workout. Imagine that today.

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The new Continental encompassed all the qualities of a true luxury car: Exclusivity, style, quality, prestige and presence, at a mere 10% premium of a DeVille. What a bargain, given the Mark II’s towering price. And what exactly did the Mark II and Fleetwood Brougham have that the Continental didn’t, other than the spare tire hump and leaky air springs? Lincoln staked out a new niche just above Cadillac, and it was embraced heartily by those looking for that.

Lincoln Kennedy

There were a number of reasons this generation is commonly called the “Kennedy Continental”, including the obvious fact that he was riding in one at the time of his assassination. But the ’61 Continental arrived at the same time Kennedy was elected. Fifty new Continentals were sent to the Inaugural parade, further cementing the ties. And a new presidential limo soon followed.

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Jackie Kennedy brought a new era of tasteful refinement to not only the White House, but the entire nation, and it was hard to picture her riding in anything else. This generation of Continental truly lived up to its name. Maybe too much so. The French adored Jackie, and the Continental too. Was the Continental a bit too to rarefied and “continental” for the Silent Majority? If so, it certainly cemented the Conti’s image as being one definitive step above the Cadillac in exclusivity and prestige.

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I arrived in the U.S. at almost exactly the time of the ’61 Continental’s debut. As with all of us, the cars of our childhood tend to leave the deepest impressions. Ironically, when it comes to the Conti most of them came from LIFE magazine and TV; I struggle to conjure up a memory of seeing one in Iowa City during those years.

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Undoubtedly there must have been some sightings, but I knew of none anywhere in my part of town, even though I did see several Cadillacs. That certainly added to the perception of exclusivity, and perhaps warped it. But any Continental sighting in Iowa back then, likely at a University of Iowa football game (where I prowled the parking lot)  was a memorable moment indeed.

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A chance to feast on its many superb details, like the symmetrical door handles.

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To peer down the pointed peak of its belt line, like a gun sight.

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And feast on its cast-metal taillight housing.

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Take note of what seemed like the world’s longest wipers, which were operated by a hydraulic motor fed from the power steering pump: whoosh, whoosh.

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Mustn’t forget to check out the huge tires. The early ones had 9.00 x 14s, a size almost unheard of on production cars. This 1965 originally came with 9.15 x 15s, also a highly uncommon size back then. Ford certainly didn’t wimp out on tires here. But then, they were carrying a bit of weight; all these Conti’s typically topped the 5,000 lb barrier; the convertible was solidly over 5,500 lbs.

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Under the hood, the biggest engine in the land, the 430 cubic inch MEL V8, murmured quietly to itself in the engine room, until the “full-speed ahead” order was received from the helm. The rather unusual two-barrel 1961 version (full story here) later went the way of a four-barrel, with a 320 hp rating at an easy 4600 rpm. With 465 lb-ft. of torque, the redline was probably rarely seen.


Except maybe when LBJ took some members of the press on a tour of his ranch in his Continental convertible and topped ninety mph. Those are the kind of tidbits from the news back then that I remember.

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It’s no secret that the ’61 likely was Lincoln’s last chance to survive as a brand; Ford lost massive sums on the fiascoes of the 1958-1960 models and the Edsel. While its sales results did not fully match its acclaimed aesthetic reception, and given that 1961 was a recession year, the Continental did increase its market share compared with the competition. And it permanently moved into the number two slot above the Imperial. It was an encouraging if not overwhelming start, and certainly more than enough to give Lincoln a reprieve. Nothing like a near-death experience to really sharpen the focus and creativity; it’s a lesson Ford would re-learn more than once.

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One of the key design features of the 1961 Continental is its use of curved side-window glass, and the pronounced tumblehome of its roof. This reflects its origins as a coupe; in fact, a bit too much so, as egress to and from the rear seat was less than ideal, and certain interior dimensions were not overly generous.

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This shot makes that quite clear, and certainly reinforces the benefits of the rear suicide doors.


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Thus, in 1964, the Continental received its first significant changes, adding additional space in the rear passenger area by extending the wheelbase to the rear by three inches, along with a wider roof structure to reduce tumblehome and increase shoulder room. The Continental was now a true luxury sedan instead of a four-door coupe (1965 shown above). But there was a price to pay.

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Gone were the delicately-curved side window panes, replaced with flat ones. It’s a bit retrograde. There has been speculation that there were water intrusion issues, or that it was just a cost-saving measure, but the wide “gutters” that run between the tips of the peaked belt line molding and the actual greenhouse are still very much there, and rather impressive.

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I’m a purist, and as such I once regarded the changes for  ’64 and ’65 as sacrilegious, but I’ve since changed my mind. The length of the roof of the ’61-’63 feels like it’s just a bit too short relative to the long hood and trunk; the additional length in the rear door and roof  make for a well-balanced design. And the flat-paned glass works well-enough with all the other flat planes and edges. Still, if I had the choice, I’d take a ’61-’63.

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Ideally, there would have been a two-door coupe, like this one imagined by casey/artandclour with the shorter wheelbase and narrower roof, as well as a longer sedan from the get-go, but that wasn’t in the budget. Too bad.

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I do prefer the earlier front end designs, even the slightly modified version of the ’64 (above). It was already iconic.

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The 1965 front end was the first substantial deviation, a deliberate effort to give the starkly simple original design greater depth and complexity: a foreshadowing of things to come.

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Sorry, brougham lovers; no loose-pillow, crushed-velour Barcoloungers here. The Continental’s interior was available in a choice of leather or cloth of restrained patterns and design. The influences of sleek international modernism had not yet been overpowered by over-the-top “luxury for the masses”.

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That would come soon enough. As would Mercedes, whose sleek and modern leather interiors and high-quality materials created a general ambiance not all too different than a Lincoln’s. Live and learn: That’s really the gist of this whole post.

Plymouth Valiant Brougham 1974

The Great Brougham Epoch made the trappings of luxury available to the masses. By the time cars like the Plymouth Valiant Brougham appeared in 1974, it had long become obvious that any connotations of genuine luxury, prestige and exclusivity were now history, color-keyed wheel cover centers and all.

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Of course, it was none other than Ford that ushered in the Brougham Epoch, starting with the 1965 LTD (CC here). Here were all the perceived trappings of a genuine luxury car, at a Ford price. And where did that leave the real luxury cars? Ironically, Cadillac, Lincoln and Imperial began to cheapen their products in the late Sixties, which was of course exactly the opposite of what needed to happen.

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Instead, Lincoln started chasing Cadillac. The 1966 refresh added length, new curved hips and larger wheel openings. A 10% price reduction didn’t fully reflect the drop in exclusivity and some de-contenting, but it succeeded in pushing sales upwards. And also in looking a lot more like the 1966 Ford LTD.

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Instead of taking the Continental upmarket against Mercedes with a modernized trimmer unibody, independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, fuel injection and more modern technology, Lincoln, by 1970, (CC here) had become nothing more than a tarted-up LTD. Presence? Exclusivity? Prestige?

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Stephanie called me excitedly when she spotted this black ’65 Continental; she had recognized it instantly. I can assure you she would never have noticed the blue 1970 blob above, let alone known what it was. Tell a non-car person standing across the street that the ’70 is a Mercury or a Ford LTD and undoubtedly they’d believe you. Try that with any Mercedes or BMW. Or with any Gucci shoes, Louis Vuitton bag, Hermes scarf or so many other luxury goods. If it isn’t distinctive, it might as well be…a Mercury.

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With the 1961-1965 Continental, Ford created an icon, one as instantly recognizable as any Mercedes or Rolls Royce–and without even copying them! It was an all-American original and timelessly classic design. And then they proceeded to throw it all away, watering it down for 1966 before completely melting away in 1970.

Lincoln Conti Mark III

Presumably, Ford must have seen that problem coming, so they did do something highly original about it: slap a faux Rolls Royce grille on the front of a glorified Thunderbird, and resurrect the Continental spare hump in the back. Bingo: the 1969 Mark III, with genuine copy-and-paste luxury creds on both ends. And the Great Brougham Epoch now had a new standard-bearer. Not a bad-looking car, but certainly not a very original one.

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Many love these Marks; to each their own. They have their charms, undoubtedly; a rolling, wallowing testament to an era of unbridled excess. And they certainly sold well, making Ford tons of money. But they were also a dead end, because the real luxury car market had already moved on to other things. Like the car behind it.

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And no, not this. But this is what the Marks spawned. And it’s not exactly something Jackie would have been caught dead riding in.

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For what it’s worth, she bought herself a BMW Bavaria, a clean, simple and elegant design if there ever was one. Now this post isn’t about the cars of Jackie O., but her choice makes a convenient (and predictive) end point to our story about the “Kennedy” Lincoln Continental, the last great American luxury car.

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 Vintage brochure images from

Related reading:

CC Unicorn Hunt: The Missing 1961 Lincoln Continental Pillarless Hardtop Sedan  T. Halter

CC 1956 Continental Mark II: Caught in the Pincers    PN 

CC 1958 Continental Mark III    T. Klockau

CC 1959 Cadillac: False Prophet of a New Era   PN