Curbside Classic: 1988-94 Lincoln Continental — Continental Drift

(first posted 7/18/2017)       Launched to critical acclaim, the 1988 Continental was Lincoln’s first front-wheel-drive model and a technology showcase for Ford’s luxury brand. After a positive reception from critics and consumers alike, Ford neglected their new FWD luxury sedan even as ferocious winds of change from the East blew through the luxury segment.

Brendan Saur pointed out how rare the Continental has become with age, the Town Car surviving in greater numbers. Part of that is simple math, as two to three times as many Town Cars were sold each year during the Continental’s run.

Another contributing factor to the Continental’s scarcity today is the trick computer-controlled suspension, the car’s signature piece of equipment. An impressive bit of kit, the Continental’s suspension utilized strut-mounted air springs and automatic levelling. Sensors detected the car’s motion and speed and adjusted the amount of air in each spring to soften or firm up the ride. Impressive, yes, but inevitably a costly repair. The Continental never became a collectible or earned a truly loyal enthusiast following so there’s little incentive to spend a lot of money repairing one of these now 20+ year-old luxury sedans. Compounding matters, the 3.8 V6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission were also prone to failure.

At its debut, the Continental was a modern new offering from Lincoln. In addition to the novel suspension, speed-sensitive power-assisted steering and four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes were standard, as were dual airbags after 1989. The new Lincoln, like its predecessor, rode on a humble Ford platform but this time it was a stretched version of the Taurus platform. Like its rival the Cadillac DeVille but unlike old-guard luxoboats like the Town Car and Brougham, the Continental had four-wheel independent suspension—a first for Lincoln.

The Continental’s air suspension wasn’t just a silly gimmick (unlike the optional InstaClear windshield). It showed Ford was serious about modernizing their luxury brand and exploring new ways of engineering a prestige sedan. With the Continental, Lincoln proved it was possible to have a pillowy ride as well as capable handling. The Lincoln’s dynamics were also aided by direct steering with good road feel.

The styling was also very modern, even though it used a formal, six-window roofline outside and a front bench-seat inside. The car struck a sensible balance between formal styling and modern aerodynamics—brightwork was kept to a minimum and awkward (if historical) touches like the fake tire hump were banished. It was simultaneously classic American and modern international both inside and out, although for some it may have been too restrained.

The Continental impressed not only Motor Trend but also the historically import-friendly Car & Driver, who praised the car’s ride/handling balance and liked the Continental enough to put it on their 10Best list for 1989.

It wasn’t perfect, however. The ’88 Continental had been Lincoln’s first model with fewer than eight cylinders and with gas prices low and even the Japanese introducing V8s, that proved to be a miscalculation. At least on paper, the Continental’s transverse-mounted, fuel-injected 3.8 V6 seemed competitive. Torque was a stout 215 ft-lbs at 2200 rpm, while horsepower was 140 at 3800 rpm. This wasn’t too far off the Cadillac DeVille and Seville’s 4.5 V8 (155 hp and 240 ft-lbs). But the Continental was a hefty 3600 pounds, hampering performance—0-60 took 11.4 seconds. A V8 engine was rumored to be introduced during the car’s run but didn’t appear until the next generation.

The Continental also suffered from a lengthy model run, its replacement not arriving until 1995. And although the Continental received an extra 15 horsepower for 1991 and another five the following year, precious little else changed. When the Continental was first launched, the Cadillac Seville was a slow-selling box on wheels and Lexus and Infiniti didn’t exist. When the Continental was finally replaced, Acura had taken a step upmarket with a svelte new Legend, Lexus and Infiniti both had RWD V8 flagships as well as keenly-priced FWD entry-level models, and Cadillac had a silky smooth new V8 and, in the Seville at least, dynamic and contemporary styling.

Another issue was Ford’s obliviousness to how their FWD and RWD Lincolns were converging. When the Cadillac Seville and Lincoln Versailles were first launched, for example, they were considerably smaller than their stablemates but priced higher. But as their stablemates were downsized, both Cadillac and Lincoln found themselves with two parallel lines of vehicles in their showrooms that, although mechanically dissimilar, were priced, sized and positioned similarly. With the ’88, Lincoln actually upsized the Continental and bragged about this move in their advertising. Although it weighed 200 pounds less, the new car was 4.4 inches longer overall – half an inch of that in the wheelbase – with a bigger trunk. The car shrank only in width, and by just an inch.

Cadillac took steps to distance its ’92 Seville from the DeVille, but the Continental and the redesigned 1990 Town Car didn’t look a whole lot different to showroom browsers. Sure, the Continental was front-wheel-drive and had some more technology but they were priced the same, although the FWD Lincoln had initially been priced $3k higher. The Town Car probably looked more appealing to many shoppers with its greater width, longer wheelbase, and V8 engine, not to mention its similarly aerodynamic and yet more formal styling.

Although sales had been steadily rising with this generation – and indeed, the FWD Continental typically sold twice as well as its predecessor – the arrival of first new Town Car since 1980 coincided with a drop in sales for the Continental. That suggests the typical Continental buyer and Town Car buyer weren’t that much different, although the Continental would have been more popular in snowy climes. Sales did spike in 1994 with little explanation, however.

The Continental would surely have benefited from more power and a proper mid-cycle enhancement. But Ford should have also contemplated the trajectory of the Continental. The market was embracing sport sedans. The Cadillac Seville’s flagship STS trim was accounting for half of total Seville volume. The Continental was one of the more sluggish luxury sedans and didn’t even offer a buckets-and-console setup until 1993, something that was expected from any import fighter. A Continental LSC might have helped the Continental’s image and help differentiate it in consumers’ eyes from the Town Car. Instead, the Continental and Town Car continued to converge. The 1995 redesign slowed this trend, but Lincoln leaned heavily on gadgetry to shape the Continental’s identity and when sales flagged, the Continental was heavily facelifted and made to look more like the Town Car.

While we contemplate alternate realities, let’s also consider how a Lincoln sedan based on the MN-12 platform might have done. Presaging the LS, a RWD Continental would have probably been more successful than the Mark VIII and might have helped establish Lincoln as a closer rival to the soaring BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

To Australian eyes, the Continental bears a slight resemblance to the NA-series Ford Fairlane and plusher DA-series Ford LTD. Like the Continental, these were powered by a six-cylinder (3.9 liters instead of 3.8) although they used rear-wheel-drive. The Aussie twins were arguably a little less refined than the Lincoln and lacked some of its high-tech features. However, Ford Australia managed to get 186 hp and 249 ft-lbs of torque out of an almost identically-sized engine. Even back at home, cheaper sedans like the Buick Electra and Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight were managing 165 hp from their 3.8 V6 engines. By the time the Lincoln caught up, the GM full-sizers had introduced a supercharged V6 engine that provided the kind of effortless power many luxury car buyers expected.

Interestingly, the Continental nameplate has been resurrected after 15 years. Once again, it’s a premium mid/full-size sedan based on a mid-size Ford platform with some additional features, a nicer interior, and different styling. To Ford’s credit, the Continental has a much better range of powertrains and all-wheel-drive and twin-turbo V6 engines are optional. But we will have to wait and see if Ford falls back into old habits and lets the car become irrelevant. The introduction of the Continental to the luxury-loving Chinese market may help avoid that.

Ford had harnessed an existing platform – a shrewd, profit-friendly move – and used advanced technology and new styling to differentiate the Continental from the cheaper Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. They were rewarded immediately with increased sales and yet, despite this, they let the Continental wither on the vine at the worst possible time.

To enthusiasts, the ’88 Continental lives in the shadow of the classically American Town Car and the desirable Mark VII. To buyers at the time, the Continental may have seemed poor value next to the Town Car. To buyers today, if they can find one, the Continental is a sketchy used proposition. The idea of the Continental at the time was sound but, sadly, Ford sabotaged the car.

I spotted both the clean, white and rusty, gold Continentals in Rivertown, Detroit within a block of each other in June 2017.

Gold Continental photographed in Washington Heights, NY in 2014, Town Car photographed in downtown Detroit in June 2017 and LTD photographed in Bracken Ridge, Australia in December 2014.

Related Reading/Viewing:

MotorWeek’s comparison of the Lincoln Continental and Town Car and Cadillac DeVille Touring Sedan and Brougham

Curbside Classic: 1995-2002 Lincoln Continental – In Pursuit of the Pursuer

CC Capsule: 1982 Lincoln Continental – Bustling-Back To Prominence