(first posted 6/22/2013) From the introduction of the 1969 Continental Mark III through the last 1979 Mark V, Lincoln absolutely owned the personal luxury market. Then came the 1980 Continental Mark VI. It was at that point that things went horribly wrong, and stayed that way for the next four years.
From the time Lee Iacocca decreed that a Thunderbird with a six-foot-long hood would serve as Lincoln’s flagship (Mark III CC here), the Continental Mark series went from strength to strength throughout the 1970s. Ford’s market-savvy president knew that a successful prestige car must be about more than engines, transmissions and brakes. A true luxury car should be beautiful, smooth and quiet. It should have an air of exclusivity, yet be instantly identifiable. That the Continental Mark series accomplished all that and more is undisputed .
We could say that the 1970s and the Marks were made for each other. The 70s was not a decade of innovation, but one in which style ruled over substance, at least where cars were concerned. Lincoln’s management and designers understood their mission and accomplished it with deadly efficiency: by 1978, the Imperial was gone and the Cadillac Eldorado was an also-ran. Who could have imagined this turn of events in, say, 1960?
As they say, all good things must come to an end, and Lincoln’s certainly did. By 1979, car makers no longer could sell whatever they felt customers would buy. The new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules, which took effect in 1979, ripped several pages out of Dearborn’s luxury-car playbook. Taking a baby step, Lincoln axed the old faithful 460 V8 for 1979, making the 400 the sole engine to be found behind their Rolls Royce-style grilles. Still, everyone knew that the replacements for the ’79 Continental and Mark V would have to pull much higher grades on the fuel economy exam.
For 1980, the Lincoln lineup (other than the Versailles, which sold in pitiful numbers) was entirely new–but now there was one big difference. Whereas the Mark had always been based upon the smaller Thunderbird platform, that would not be the plan for the 1980s. Instead, both the 1980 Continental and the Mark (now called Mark VI) would be based on the new Panther platform. The two door Mark VI, however, would make use of the 114-inch wheelbase of the Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis and not the 117-inch wheelbase of the Continental.
Gail Halderman, under the ever-watchful eye of Gene Bordinat, headed the team that designed the Mark VI. Bordinat had been involved with Lincoln since the 1950s, and had preached the continuation of styling themes as Lincoln’s holy grail; accordingly, the Mark VI developed as sort of a 5/8 scale Mark V. In any case, we should certainly give the team an A for effort: They managed to take 800 pounds out of the car, dramatically increasing its fuel economy, all while leaving passenger room essentially untouched–not that the Marks had all that much room to begin with.
From a nuts-and-bolts perspective, the results were quite good. Power came from the fuel-injected 5.0-liter (302) V8 and was transmitted through the new Automatic Overdrive (AOD) transmission, itself quite advanced for 1980. (A 5.8-liter (351) V8 was offered for 1980 only and then discontinued.) The car featured electronic instrumentation, keyless entry and a host of other small luxury touches that were or would soon be required for a car in this class.
There was only one thing the car lacked. Call it presence, call it style, call it what you will, but the car had lost the intangible sense of class and luxury and exclusivity that were the very hallmark of its predecessors. Sure, it had little touches–the owner’s initials on the door and the availability of genuine wire wheels–but did they do anything except make the car more of a Continental Mark caricature than it already was?
First, the lines of the Mark V simply did not translate to the new smaller dimensions. While the Mark V certainly had its weaknesses, it was nonetheless a very good-looking car, and the Mark VI completely lacked its style and proportion. It was all at once too short, too tall and too angular, and it just seemed to lack the kind of elusive, hard-to-describe quality that makes a car beautiful. My first thought: What if the Mark had used the longer wheelbase of the Continental? I guess my answer is that it probably would have been as ugly as everything else that came from Lincoln that year. The car simply did not look like a Lincoln Mark. It looked like a bad Chrysler copy of a Lincoln Mark. Sadly, the 1980 Cordoba (a blatant ripoff of the Mark V) was a much better-looking car.
Let’s expand on that point. The 1980 Cordoba hit showrooms at the same time as the Mark VI. The $7,200 Cordoba was well proportioned, sported a hardtop-style roofline, and was a reasonably elegant and attractive car. It may not look like the 1980 Cordoba was actually built on a shorter wheelbase than the Mark VI (112.7 vs. the Mark’s 114), but it was–perhaps good styling can hide a thing like that. True, the Cordoba did not sell all that well, but it came from a company that many people at the time were writing off for dead. It is interesting to ponder how things might have been different if the Mark VI and the ‘Doba could have swapped grilles and trunk lids. The Cordoba’s styling combined with the Mark’s level of interior appointments, its quiet ride and Lincoln’s luxury cred could have made the personal luxury coupe market a whole different place in the early 80s. Does that Mark VI really look like it cost twice as much as a Cordoba? I don’t think so either.
As it was, the 1981 Imperial (CC here) gave the Mark VI a run for its money–that’s sad, considering that for a decade Lincoln virtually held the deed to that market. Sure, the ’81 Imperial only sold about 7,200 cars, but how much more popular was the two-door Mark? Lincoln only sold 64,000 two-door Marks during the Mark VI’s entire four-year run. That’s fewer sales than the Mark V in its single worst year. In contrast, the 1980 Cadillac Eldorado sold over 67,000 units.
The program also resulted in one very curious car–the Mark VI four-door. Why? An excellent question. Perhaps because a four-door Mark had been so overwhelmingly popular in 1958-60? Well, then, perhaps not. If the four-door looks better proportioned, it’s because it shared the Continental’s 117-inch wheelbase. Why Lincoln needed two separate sedans in the same shrunken size is another good question. Could anyone actually tell the difference between a Mark and a Town Car from the front? Lee Iacocca had definitely left the building.
One thing, however, remained constant: Bill Blass was still trying to conjure his old magic. His navy blue-and-white Mark V had remained a classic, and he reprised the color combo for his 1980 effort. Actually, the 1980 model still offered buyers the full array of designer editions befitting such a (formerly) exclusive car, although soon Givenchy and Pucci would bail and Cartier would move up to the Town Car.
Blass, however, kept tossing concepts at the Mark: Fawn-and-navy (1981), red-and-white (1982) and finally, as seen on our subject car, Light French Vanilla and Midnight Black (with either available as the primary color–black, as in the brochure; or vanilla, as on the subject car). I say that Blass earned his fees, if for no other reason, than by eliminating the opera window in the cars that came out under his label.
When I found this one, it was the first I had seen in years. It seems funny, but cruise internet sites that feature collector cars and you’ll see early ’80s Town Cars and bustle-butt Continentals with reasonable frequency. Mark VIs, however, have all but disappeared. I suppose that’s not surprising; they never got any respect when new, and certainly have received none since. Many times when I start writing a CC piece on a car I have always found distasteful, I manage to gain a bit of respect for it before I finish. Not here. I have looked at a bazillion pictures of these cars, and it doesn’t matter the color, angle or setting – the miserable thing is just an awkward, ungainly, and badly proportioned car.
I remember the 1988 Vice Presidential debate, in which Sen. Dan Quayle mentioned that he was the same age Jack Kennedy had been when Kennedy was president. His opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, famously replied something to the effect of, “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. You, Senator, are no Jack Kennedy.” Most people immediately saw the truth in Bentsen’s remark. I can make a similar observation about this car because I knew Lincoln Marks. For more than half of the 1970s, there had been a Lincoln Mark in my Father’s driveway. This car was no Mark. Still isn’t.