Curbside Classic: 1987 Lincoln Continental – Last Of The Bustleback Breed

For those who love anachronisms, this is a dream car.  Not only does it feature a bustleback trunklid, but as a 1987 model, it is the last example of this brief and curious styling fad.  Even aside from the trunk design, the Continental was somewhat out of place when it was new… the notion of compact, rear-drive traditional luxury had passed out of fashion by the time the car reached production.  This Continental was the last of its breed; in fact it was a mix of several rare breeds – a bustleback, a RWD compact luxury car, a premium car developed with a fuel crisis/recession in mind.  There was never a car quite like this Continental, and never will be again.

The 1982-87 Continental is most remembered for That Trunk.  Few styling trends evoke as much passionate love-it-or-hate-it sentiment as the bustleback, of which Continental was one of three examples in the early-1980s American luxury market.  But while folks disagree about the virtues of Continental’s bustleback, there is one thing that most people agree upon: The Continental was a big improvement over its predecessor, the hapless Versailles.

Versailles was introduced with much fanfare as Lincoln’s 1977 entry in the compact luxury field.  Intended to battle Cadillac’s Seville, Versailles was endowed (as was Seville) with a compact size, squarish styling and a European name.  However, it was also burdened with DNA that was that 95% Granada, which turned out to be a poor selling point for Ford Motor Company’s costliest car.  Lincoln never had high expectations for the Versailles, but even its modest 20,000 sales-per-year estimate proved overly optimistic.  An average of 12,500 Versailles were produced annually between 1977 and 1980, when the little Lincoln was put out of its misery.

That left Lincoln with only full-sized cars (albeit themselves downsized from the 1970s) at a brutal period for domestic luxury car sales.  Between the energy crisis and recession, Lincoln sales took a beating – production fell by 63% between 1979 and ’81.  Many industry experts predicted the demise of full-sized cars, even in upper price segments, a gloomy outlook that appeared all too real because while both Lincoln and Cadillac sales plummeted, compact European premium brands increased their market shares handsomely.  Furthermore, the average age of Lincoln and Cadillac buyers was significantly older than that of the imports.  Lincoln needed a compact offering, judging by early-1980s industry trends.

By 1981, Lincoln’s product line looked unmistakably dated.  With only the Town Car and Mark VI to pull in customers, sales fell to the lowest point in ten years.  Short-term hopes seemed to rest squarely on the upcoming Versailles replacement: To be called a Continental, it would be the smallest Lincoln ever made, and Ford executives assured Lincoln-Mercury dealers that this wouldn’t be another hasty rebadging job.

Introduced for 1982, this new Continental was based on Ford’s unibody Fox Platform, which had spawned the Fairmont, Mustang and Thunderbird, among others.  The Fox Continental shared Thunderbird’s 108.5” wheelbase, as well as other components.  Importantly, not wanting to repeat the Versailles debacle, Lincoln created a clear visual identity for its new car.

Hence the Continental’s most memorable attribute: The bustleback, a design feature that ranks among the 1980s’ most polarizing trends.  But at least its profile wouldn’t be confused for any other product in Ford’s lineup.

The design feature itself was modeled after British luxury cars of the 1930s through early ’50s.  Continental’s adaptation of this theme wasn’t exactly unique in 1982, since the 1980 Cadillac Seville and Chrysler’s 1981 Imperial debuted with a similar design throwback.  Unsurprisingly, neither Ford nor Chrysler admitted to copying Cadillac’s plans, as if we are to believe that the rebirth of a 50-year-old design trend happened spontaneously at each of the Big Three’s studios.  Jack Telnack, Ford’s Vice President of Design, would only say that the Seville, Imperial and Continental shared “obvious classic cues, and that is the sort of thing that pops up on these [luxury] cars.”  To bolster his contention that Ford developed its bustleback independently, he noted that Continental’s trunk was inspired by Rolls-Royce, while Seville’s looked more like a Daimler.

Regardless, this was a curious direction in which to take a compact luxury car in the 1980s.  Though premium imports – with prices far greater than those of Lincolns or Cadillacs – gained popularity every year, it wasn’t just a smaller size that distinguished them from their American competition.  Those imports’ driving dynamics and clean, unfussy designs pointed quite clearly towards future trends, but the 1982 Continental was an odd combination of a compact size mated to a very traditional ambiance.

Lincoln saw the prototypical Continental customer as being traditional yet avant-garde – wealthy folks who expected to be coddled by luxury, but who possessed somewhat of a daring streak.  Marketing materials from Continental’s introductory year echoed this strategy, featuring artistic displays of the car’s shape, sometimes accompanied by neon lettering and (creepy-looking) chromed mannequins – not quite the standard baroque Lincoln ad fare.

As for the car itself, Ford’s Fox platform was considerably modified for Continental duty – strengthened in both underbody and roof rails.  Early Continentals featured an improved version of the Thunderbird’s suspension, with Tokico gas-pressurized shocks, beefier lower control arms, greater wheel travel, and other enhancements.  Variable-rate power steering and 4-wheel disc brakes helped provide Continental with road manners that, while certainly not European, were improved over previous Lincolns.  Therefore, Continental exhibited slightly less sponginess and wallowing then other Lincolns, though body roll was still copious.

Being a product of the fuel crisis era, Lincoln had planned to sell Continental with a standard V-6.  However, an improving economy triggered a last-minute change, since size and thirsty engines once again became socially acceptable among the moneyed set.  Hence, a 5.0L V-8 became standard and Ford’s brand new 3.8L V-6 a no-cost option.  The vast majority of buyers chose the V-8, and the V-6 disappeared the following year, although in one last gasp of fuel-crisis frugality, a BMW-sourced diesel became a (rarely selected) option, offered only for 1984.

Early buyers complained that even the V-8 was insufficient for Continental’s 3,560-lb. curb weight, so over the following years, Lincoln tweaked the engine (adding, for example, multi-port fuel injection).  Horsepower edged up from the ’82 model’s paltry 130 to a healthier 150 by 1986.  Torque increased by a similar proportion, and more importantly peak torque (270 lb-ft) in the later cars was reached at only 2,000 rpm, making these later examples feel more like proper Lincolns.

Source of production data: Standard Catalog of Ford, 1903-1998.

Continental sales were good, but not great.  While more popular than the Versailles, it was clear from the outset that Continental would not set the world on fire.  First-year sales hit about 24,000 – and though subsequent annual totals swung both higher and lower, that was about average for this car’s six model years.

Seeing these sales in context with our featured generation’s forerunner and predecessor suggests that shoppers wanted more than a reskinned Ford, but what the mid-size luxury segment really demanded was a more modern overall identity… something that the 1988-94 front-drive model came closer to providing.  Most 1980s consumers who would be impressed by formal styling, opera lamps and plush interiors would spring for a full-sized car instead.  Indeed, Lincoln’s Town Car, the very type of luxobarge given up for dead in the early 1980s, outsold the compact Continental by nearly four times.

Some other elements undoubtedly contributed to Continental’s lackluster sales as well.  While Lincoln strove to distinguish this new car from its more pedestrian brethren, designers seemed to have forgotten about the front end styling – which bore a telltale likeness to the Granada/Cougar twins.

This was rectified for 1984 by a facelift that Lincoln billed as “sleek,” but was really a modest softening of the upright front clip, introducing a slightly sloping grille, and setting the headlights into deep chromed sockets, flanked by cornering lamps.  Though subtle, these changes resonated with buyers; sales nearly doubled from the pre-facelift ’83 model.

The bigger news in Lincoln showrooms that year was the arrival of the Mark VII coupe, sharing Continental’s wheelbase and drivetrain (though Continental never got a high-output V-8 like the Mark VII LSC).  Given this model lineup, an impartial observer would think that the geriatric Town Car would be nearing the end of its evolutionary cycle.  However, Town Car sales increased by 75% for 1984, and another 28% for ’85, soon accounting for three-quarters of Lincoln sales.  This sealed the Fox Continental’s fate, as Lincoln realized there was no longer much demand for a mid-sized traditional luxury car.

Meanwhile, the Continental continued on a path to nowhere.  But at least it was an interesting path to nowhere, as it (and the Mark VII) received received an air suspension for 1984, becoming the first modern cars to offer this feature.  The electronically-controlled suspension included neoprene air springs that kept the car level via computer-controlled spring rates.  It was quite a novel suspension setup, though Ford’s initial claim that air suspensions would eventually become commonplace and would reduce suspension repair costs was wildly off base.

Other notable improvements included multi-port fuel injection and standard anti-lock brakes for 1986.  Continental even offered an optional mobile phone in 1985, though the option was discontinued the following year.  Otherwise, Continentals remained virtually identical from 1984 through 1987.

Our featured car hails from the Fox Continental’s last year of 1987, by which point production had dipped to 17,597.  This car was the last of its breed – the bustleback breed that is, since the Seville and Imperial expired years before.  As a base model (rather than the Givenchy Designer Series), this particular car would have been at the lower end of the Continental range, but since all Continentals came with an impressive standard equipment list, there was no such thing as a stripped-down model.

Standard equipment included full power accessories, automatic climate control, power seats, six-speaker stereo, 12 courtesy lights and other indulgences considered posh at the time.  As had become Lincoln’s tradition, each year’s lineup included a designer series (Givenchy or Valentino), and individual Continentals could be ordered with options such as leather interior, power moonroof, two-tone paint, and a bevy of other niceties.

As seen here, Continental’s interior was different from other domestic luxury cars.  No bench seat was offered, Lincoln opting instead for “twin comfort lounge seats.”  The area between the seats contained what Lincoln referred to as “consolettes” – housing power seat controls, individual armrests, and some storage.  From this angle we can see the blacked-out electronic instrument panel, though the most interesting design feature might be the prominent center stack, housing a trip computer with 12 (!) buttons, the stereo, climate controls and warning light cluster.  Framed in walnut applique, this gave the appearance of a high-end home stereo stack.  Front passengers were treated to comfort and ample room.

In back, space was tight for a Lincoln – certainly this was no Town Car, as shown by this picture of a similar car.  From 1984 onward, however, rear passengers were treated to their own HVAC vents, which compensated somewhat for the close quarters.  Front or rear, this car was quiet.  Lincoln boasted that the Continental contained 108 lbs. of sound-deadening material, and that weight didn’t count the thick, 38-oz. carpet.

When introduced for 1982, Continental carried a base price of $21,302 – a hefty price for a recessionary year.  However, both Lincoln and Cadillac positioned their mid-size offerings at the top of their respective model ranges.  As such, Continental cost about 30% more than an equivalently-equipped full-size Lincoln, yet it still undercut its chief rival Cadillac Seville by about 10%.  Incidentally, Versailles had been positioned at a similar proportion higher than the full-size Lincoln and a similar proportion less than the Seville.

By 1987, Continental prices ranged from $25,484 upwards to the low $30,000s.  This represented a good value for a luxury car, but the market for vehicles such as this was rapidly shrinking.

Ford got the message, and the next generation Continental, introduced for 1988, was much worldlier in orientation – on a modified FWD Taurus platform.  Soaking up more positive reviews and favorable consumer sentiment than the Fox Continental ever received, sales more than doubled.

The 1982-87 Continental isn’t quite the most memorable Lincoln.  Made for just six years with sluggish sales, this car was eclipsed in popularity by the Town Car, in passion by the Mark VII, and its most memorable characteristic of a bustleback trunk quickly faded out of fashion.  More importantly, the overall concept of a traditional, yet compact, RWD luxury car, never rose to prominence again.  All of which combines to make this not only a rare breed, but the last of its breed at that.


Photographed in June 2018 in Wall, South Dakota.


Related Reading:

1986 Lincoln Continental: The Rose Quartz-Colored Linchpin Of My Formative Years   Tom Klockau