(first posted 6/20/2013) 1968 has gone down in history as a revolutionary year; change was in the air. Lee Iaccoca must have been breathing it in deeply, because his decision to slap a faux Rolls Royce grille on the front of this car really did create a revolution, just not the one many of the would-be revolutionaries of 1968 had in mind.
The clean and graceful 1961 Continental ushered in a brief era of restrained grace and exclusivity. Although it saved Lincoln’s bacon, it really wasn’t a significant commercial success, and Cadillac outsold it by a giant margin. Why? It may have appealed to the Kennedys and the elite, but it wasn’t gaudy enough for the common man to relate to and strive for. As such, it was the last truly original American luxury car of its kind (full story here).
This was the true aspirational vehicle of the huddled masses, and ever more of them were able to afford one. And who better than Lee Iaccoca to figure out how to trump even Cadillac, especially after his spectacular success in trumping GM with his 1965 Mustang?
Even more important than the Mustang, Iaccoca also trumped GM by launching the Great Brougham Epoch with his 1965 Ford LTD. And what car did he have the balls to compare it too in the ads? A foreshadowing of things to come.
But before we give Lido too much credit for launching the whole upright classical-grille era, let’s consider one very obvious source of its inspiration. The 1966 Duesenberg revival was penned by Virgil Exner, as a direct development of his seminal 1963 drawings of the Stutz Revival that launched the whole neo-classic movement.
Henry Ford II saw the Duesenberg Model D at the Exner Studios in 1966, and was reportedly very smitten. So as much as I’d like to give credit to Lee and his designers, let’s also give credit to Virgil Exner as the true father of the Neo-Classic Era of the Great Brougham Epoch.
Of course, inspiration is one thing; deciding to actually build the Mark III with its RR-ish grille and Continental spare tire hump is another. So according to the old saying, Iaccoca gets 99% of the credit for his perspiration.
That’s the ninety second Mark III genesis story. Of course there’s more, primarily the fact that an über-Thunderbird, something to bridge between Mercury and Lincoln, and priced accordingly, had been in the works for a while. With the T-Bird moving to a new body-on-frame construct for 1967, including an extended 117.2″ wb four-door version, it certainly made more sense than ever. The separate frame allowed more flexibility in creating a coupe body on the longer frame, similar to what Pontiac did with the 1969 Grand Prix.
This facilitated the longest hood yet ever, over six feet in length. And according to the orthodox story, it was fairly late in the game that Iaccoca had his “inspiration” to stick the Roller grille and tire hump in back, which hardly enthused Styling Chief Gene Bordinat. But once Henry II got wind of it, he was all over it. And the price was jacked up to well above mere Lincolns. And most importantly, it was dubbed the Mark III, as the the 1958 incarnation of that name was deemed to be a pretender to the legacy of a true Continental Mark.
The Mark III arrived in the spring of 1968, to give battle to Cadillac’s FWD Eldorado coupe, which had arrived to great fanfare in 1967. Ironically, there’s undoubtedly some ’61 Continental influence in the Eldorado’s design; not blatant, but bladed fenders, slab sides, and a hunkered-down stance pays some tribute to the Conti’s lasting legacy. As appealing as it was on many levels, the Eldorado did not point the way forward to the new era of luxury design; only a fake upright grille could do that.
The arrival of the Mk III set up an epic battle of the luxo-coupes; guess who won? Well, technically, the Mark III couldn’t quite best the Eldorado in sales, but the fact that it even came close was a huge victory for Lincoln, Lee and Ford. And whereas the Eldorado didn’t really expand Cadillac sales overall, the Mark III gave the Lincoln brand an enormous boost, selling at some 50% of the level of the Continental sedan and coupe, despite being priced substantially higher. For the first time in decades, Lincoln had a genuine hit, and an extremely profitable one. And the Mark III led to Lincoln’s great successes in the seventies (and sometimes beyond). Just the kind of revolution Lincoln had long needed.
The Mark III’s interior was intended to create a luxury ambiance a notch above lesser Lincolns, although the decision to use plasti-wood on the doors and dash didn’t exactly go the distance. The door panels and dash did receive gen-u-ine strips of wood veneer with the 1969 models, perhaps to justify the Mark III’s price increases, but whether the dash and general interior design managed to evoke an authentic luxury car experience undoubtedly depends on what one’s previous experience was. Coming from an LTD, it probably looked like a slight upgrade. For someone used to a Benz or Jag, it looked just like an LTD. Which pretty much sums up this car in a nutshell: aspirational for LTD and Pinto drivers, but not for those already used to something finer.
And that encapsulates the genius of Lee Iaccoca and his Mark III. Forget about that title of “The Father of the Mustang”. The Mark III is by far his greatest achievement (Mark IV and its daddy shown here), and the one he never stopped trying to replicate until he was dragged out of Chrysler strapped to the sleek hood of a cab-forward LH. He never underestimated Americans’ ability to fall for a bold, vertical grille, a long hood, a formal roof-line with lots of vinyl (preferably with opry windows), fake wood slathered on the inside and outside, and spare tire humps; in some aggregation or another. America’s Super Salesman.
Once again Lee trumped GM, and the Mark III and its illustrious successors became the progenitors of how American luxury cars came to be defined in the seventies.
We don’t need to go down that well-trod path again; the Pimp-mobile Era was one of the more significant ones of the Great Brougham Epoch. And The Mark III was the gateway drug to that splendiferous time some of us had the fortune to live through in living Techni-Color. Thank you Lee, for showing us the way forward! The seventies were all about getting in touch with our true inner selves, and so many did thanks to your prophetic Mark III!
Enough with popular culture. The Mark III has become quite elusive on the streets, and the only one I’ve found was this one being towed behind a somewhat over-loaded looking old Dodge Club Cab, a CC find in its own right.
Since I don’t want to be accused of purposely using the rattiest pictures in my extensive file of pristine curbside Mark IIIs, I’m also drawing on these shots posted at the Cohort by ActuallyMike. This long shot shows it artfully parked between a Mercedes W126 and a New Beetle. Nice composition.
Both of us took shots of the sensor for the automatic headlight dimming system. High tech from the sixties looks mighty crude today.
Under the Mark’s fashion-setting exterior, there were some very legitimate technical creds for the time. The new 460 cubic inch “385” engine was as good as it got, and belted out a healthy 375 (gross) hp. Front disc brakes were standard (unlike the ’67 Eldorado). And perhaps most importantly, no less than 150 lbs of sound deadener was placed strategically. The result was the perfect isolation cocoon, which the seventies of course gave rise to. Who wants to see (or hear) all the ugly shit going down on the streets out there? Or be seen traversing them? Right on!… the Mark.