It’s the big premier. You’re on the red carpet, cameras are flashing, and the big question is who are you wearing? Versace? Gucci? Cartier? Givenchy? Valentino? — all are relevant world-renowned designer labels that consumers shell out their high-limit credit cards for, and all were at one time or another, special “Designer Series” editions of the Lincoln Continental Mark Series. But Bill Blass you say… who might that be?
Although covered here many times before, whether it be a full-length Curbside Classic article, Car of a Lifetime or CC Capsule, the Lincoln Mark VII Bill Blass Edition, the Mark Series’ most iconic and longest-running “Designer Edition”, has yet to have even been featured in Curbside Classic’s lengthy history. And for those wondering, Bill Blass does still exist, as a women’s shoe and handbag designer, though much like the Continental Mark Series, its relevance in today’s age is slim to none.
Largely forgotten today by most measures, the Lincoln Mark VII (officially still the “Continental” Mark VII for 1984-1985) was quite a pivotal car for Lincoln, the Ford Motor Company, and the entire U.S. auto industry as a whole in many ways. Marking (no pun intended) the first major change in design language for Lincoln in nearly two decades, the Mark VII was arguably one of the most successful downsizings of the era, at least from a design point.
In case your memory has slipped, this was the Lincoln Continental Mark VI, the Mark VII’s immediate predecessor. Yes, this bodystyle of the Mark Series was rolling off assembly lines just one year before production of the featured Mark VII began.
Unlike GM and Chrysler, whose downsized cars were mostly generic unemotional boxes, Ford didn’t sacrifice style in the process of going smaller with the Mark VII, giving it a look that was like no other car on the market. Even more impressive is how designers managed to incorporate traditional Mark Series styling cues — such as a prominent radiator grille, long hood and short deck, rakish (for the class) roofline, and even a Continental spare tire bulge — seamlessly into the modern, aerodynamic sheetmetal for a contemporary stately elegance.
Hidden headlamps, a Continental Mark Series styling trait since the 1969 Mark III, were noticeably absent. In their place were sleek, wraparound flush composite headlights which marked the first such application of composite units in an American production car since 1939. As it’s widely-known, this type of headlight was not permitted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for over four decades, requiring Ford’s petitioning for the ultimate change of regulation that allowed them.
Also worth noting is that Ford stuck with the rear-wheel drive layout and its tried-and-true 5.0-liter Windsor V8 for its standard power plant, in contrast to the more predictable of the times move to front wheel drive with six cylinder power or introducing a half-baked, self destructing V8 (I’m looking at you Cadillac). Its initial iteration for the Mark VII made 140 horsepower and 250 lb-ft torque with central fuel injection, up from the Mark VI. 1986 saw an increase to 150 horsepower and 270 lb-ft torque, along with the addition of sequential multi-port fuel injection.
For the select few Mark VII buyers who prioritized fuel economy at the top of their lists (plus a little government subsidization as added incentive), a 2.4-liter turbocharged inline-6 diesel was available, sourced from BMW of all manufacturers. Producing 115 horsepower and 155 lb-ft torque, the BMW M21 gave the Mark VII some 50% better average mpg, for EPA estimates of 30 mpg combined. The turbodiesel I6 also gained its own ZF-sourced 4-speed automatic, technically making it the first Lincoln with all-German powertrain.
The Mark VII used the Fox platform, marking the end to body-on-frame construction for the Mark Series, and a platform dating back to the 1978 Ford Fairmont and Mercury Zephyr. At the time of the Mark VII’s introduction, it was also serving basis for the Ford Mustang, Ford LTD, Mercury Marquis, Lincoln Continental sedan, as well as the 1983-1988 Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar, which the Mark VII shared a number of key body components with.
At 108.5 inches, the wheelbase was the shortest ever for a Mark, and at 202.8 inches overall, the Mark VII was the shortest Mark ever. Furthermore, At 46.5%, the Mark VII’s OHR (overhang ratio) was just marginally better than the Mark VI’s notoriously large 47%, though the Mark VII managed to disguise this better through its styling.
Befitting of the Mark VII’s class and price point, in addition to making it the style leader of the Ford Motor Company, Lincoln also made it the technology leader, highlighted by a long list of standard features such as a sophisticated 4-wheel electronic air suspension featuring computer-controlled transverse and longitudinal load leveling. In its sophomore season, the Mark VII gained a standard four-channel antilock brake system in 1985, becoming the first American car to do so.
Other impressive-for-the-early-1980s tech features included electronic automatic climate control, power front seats with ergonomic door-mounted controls and power adjustable side bolsters on the available sports seats, electric front seat heaters, overhead console housing reading and warning lights, push-button keyless entry system, automatic high-beam control, and soft-close trunk.
The big news, and in retrospect, the most memorable aspect of the Mark VII was the LSC model (Lincoln Sports Coupe), the Mark’s most driver-focused “European touring car” flavor. Decidedly more luxury muscle car than true Mercedes-Benz SEC/BMW 6 Series/Jaguar XJS competitor, the Mark VII LSC was nonetheless the first and most serious effort from an American luxury brand to build a performance-focused model that appealed to the import luxury buyer.
The LSC quickly proved an unexpected success, accounting for a large enough percentage of total Mark VII sales that it led Lincoln to drop the slower-selling Versace Edition, BMW turbodiesel, and the base model after a few years, leaving just the time-honored Bill Blass Edition to fill the role of all other non-LSC Mark VIIs for those seeking more traditional Mark Series luxury — in essence, assuming the role of the base model Mark VII, only with greater amount of standard equipment.
Initially, the Bill Blass differed from its LSC sibling by eschewing any performance upgrades, sticking with its less powerful V8, softer suspension, and smaller wheels. Yet as the years progressed, mechanical differences became less and less to the point that the Bill Blass was essentially an LSC in luxury drag, sharing its high-output V8, handling suspension with thicker front and rear stabilizer bars, 16-inch aluminum wheels, and even tighter steering ratio by 1990.
Rather interestingly, in a possible attempt to distance itself from the LSC and regain a touch of Broughamness, the 1988 Bill Blass Edition received new, flatter seats that emulated the button-tufted loose pillow look of past Marks. A sharp contrast to the LSC’s standard articulating sports seats and even its optional non-sports seats, these loose pillow seats would remain in the Bill Blass until the end of the Mark VII’s run in 1992. Thankfully there was never any factory landau or carriage roof options, though dealer-installed ones naturally made appearances.
Produced for nearly a decade, by the end of its run the Mark VII clearly getting long in the tooth. Nonetheless, even by the early-1990s, the Mark VII was still a stunning and stylish design, its aero yet conservative looks still appropriate for the class. Then of course, there was that 5.0-liter V8, its output rated at an impressive 225 horsepower and 300 lb-ft torque from 1988-onward.
As a whole, the Mark VII’s impact is something that cannot be overlooked. Unlike so many other American cars of the era, particularly of the luxury kind, the Mark VII successfully incorporated qualities that appealed to both domestic and import buyers. While unlikely that it converted many seasoned buyers of brands such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Jaguar to Lincoln, the Mark VII probably gained a good amount of sales from those who had never bought a Mark Series before and those who were first-time luxury car buyers.
Ultimately, the Mark VII is a car that Ford and Lincoln should be applauded for. While it had its weaknesses, the Mark VII held its own in the personal luxury coupe segment against competitors from Europe, the U.S., and Japan alike, selling some 190,536 examples in the process. Possessing a combination of qualities from both European and American luxury cars, Lincoln didn’t try to make the Mark VII into an all-out faux European sports coupe or a neoclassical Broughamtastic American luxury car like its predecessor, both of which would have been laughable.
In doing so, Lincoln reinvented the Mark by offering something truly alternative to the two class norms, in practice ultimately turning the Mark into somewhat of a personal luxury hot rod, restoring a level of honor and relevance to one of its most storied nameplates. While the stealthy LSC became the most popular and most memorable Mark VII, those looking for a little more chrome, wood trim, and broader seats could rest easy knowing Bill Blass was at their service.
Photographed in Norwell, Massachusetts – June 2018