(first posted 6/3/2014) In the area of Northern Virginia where I live, well-kept classic cars with For Sale signs appear on the street frequently, and several times a year I encounter a classic luxury car looking for a new owner. I attribute these regular encounters to the area abounding with what I call “medium-old” money–solidly upper middle class people who were successful business people, doctors, and others who many years ago had the ability to buy fine examples of now-classic cars, often at the Carlisle, Pennsylvania classic car auctions only a couple of hours drive away.
Having watched many of these people age, in some cases with a classic car or several tucked away in the garage, I can see why many such cars have been emerging for sale in recent years. I’ve often wished I had a lump of cash and a large garage space waiting to be used. Two years ago, I recorded my sighting of this 1937 Lincoln Zephyr, a stunning example of streamlined Dearborn steel wrapped around the American automobile industry’s last production passenger car V-12.
The Zephyr of 1936 was a new departure for Ford and Lincoln, their counterpart to the Chrysler Airflow, as related by Paul a year ago. It began as a radical rear-engined, unit bodied streamliner concept by John Tjaarda, which Ford toned down into a less streamlined semi-unit body with a conventional front engine/rear drive layout. Also conventional were its suspension layout, which used the transverse leaf springs favored by Ford since the Model T, and its engine design, essentially a Ford flathead V8 expanded to 12 cylinders. Ford positioned it well below the classic era Lincoln K-Series, making it comparable to Cadillac’s lower-priced LaSalle line or the Packard Clipper introduced in 1941.
The Zephyr lineup began in 1936 with a four door sedan, two door “Coupe Sedan” and a Coupe with an abbreviated roofline. It was a sales success, and the Zephyr line soon expanded into more exclusive body styles.
The Zephyr became Lincoln’s all-purpose model by adding a Town Limousine in 1937, then a Convertible Coupe and Convertible Sedan in 1938. In 1940, the Lincoln K-Series came to an end, and the Zephyr became Lincoln’s sole offering. In the same year, the Lincoln Motor Company was re-designated the Lincoln Division, and Lincoln introduced the Zephyr-based 1940 Continental that lasted until 1948 and which continues to influence Lincoln styling up to the present day. The Zephyr name lasted until the cessation of civilian automobile production in 1942 for the Second World War, and the model’s influence extended into the postwar era with the Continental.
The Zephyr’s V-12 soon developed a bad reputation. A small 267 cubic inch, 75 degree angle V12, later expanded to 292 cubic inches in 1940, it was unrelated to the V12 in the Lincoln K-Series, a much larger engine that displaced 382, 414, or 482 cubic inches in various guises. Sharing its main design features with the flathead Ford V-8, which displaced 221 or 239 cubic inches during the same era, it also shared that design’s problems with heat created by the routing of the exhaust passages, and the associated issues were much more severe in the V12. It was not uncommon to hear of these engines having to be rebuilt at 30,000 miles, and a significant percentage of Zephyr/Continental owners re-engined their cars with the later Lincoln V8 to make them reliable for the long haul.
Undoubtedly smooth and quiet, the original 267 cubic inch version produced 110 horsepower, trailing the 125 horsepower of the new 322 cubic inch flathead V8 of the 1936 Cadillac Series 60 and the 120 horsepower of the straight-eight of the 1936 Packard 120. The V12’s reputation for heat related failure was an unfortunate blemish on these handsome cars.
The 1937 four door sedan that I spotted was one of 23,159 made that year, along with 5,199 Coupes, 1,500 “Coupe Sedans” and 159 Town Limousines. A side view best shows off the car’s streamlined style. With its fastback roof, suicide doors, downward sweeping character line, and rear fender skirts, it is a sleek four door sedan, far more so than its Cadillac and Packard contemporaries with their squared-off rooflines.
The rear view is more generic, reminiscent of a Cord 810 or a supersized early split window Volkswagen Beetle.
There is nothing wrong with the clean shapes and detailing of the tail, though. There are no superfluous lines, and the bullet taillight pods and asymmetrical trunk handle add subtle accents.
The Lincoln Zephyr V-12 badge on the handle still shows plenty of art deco style, even with much of its red enamel worn off. The streamlined teardrop shape and lettering would look out of place on a modern car, but are perfect on a product of the 1930s, when designers were using streamlined teardrop shapes on everything from automobiles to pencil sharpeners.
From the driver’s seat, you also see a fine example of 1930s style. Big round ivory faced instruments, ivory colored knobs, and chrome detailing in appropriate places take you back to a different era.
This Zephyr was no show car, with faded and rusty brightwork in the windows frames and other places. With what appeared to be a straight body, good quality repaint, most exterior chrome trim replated, and a clean interior, it appeared to be a light restoration of a basically sound car, with some labor-intensive details left undone. Its imperfection made it more appealing by making it a Zephyr that might sell for the price of a driver rather than a show car, making it more within reach as a potential purchase. With its 1930s streamline style and the cachet of a V-12, it would be a magnificent cruiser, even though it may not have any functional advantages over a contemporary Cadillac or Packard. I do not know what happened to this car, but I hope that went to a good new home, and I continue wish that I had the funds and garage space to make it mine.
One of the loveliest production shapes to come out of the 30’s. And that’s saying a lot.
I didn’t know of the V12’s checkered reputation, though.
Oh boy…my absolute favorite car of all time is the ’40/’41 Continental Cabriolet, but another favorite is the ’38-’41 Zephyr 3-window coupe. They both bring serious money, but the sedan still looks great and you can find them in nice driver shape for under 15 grand or so.
I fell in love with the Zephyr when I was a young kid, seeing one at the county fair in Iowa City. The fact that it had a V12 added to the attraction, although then I didn’t know what a relatively small, weak and unreliable mill that was.
The Zephyr’s success out of the box is fascinating, in light of the Airflow’s failure. It’s quite clear that Americans just weren’t ready for a blunt front end, and the Zephyr’s prow was the key difference. Too bad; as much as Iike the Zephyr, the Airflow was the better car in almost every respect.
Don’t you think it’s time for an Airflow CC, Paul?
Long overdue. As soon as I find one on the street; I’m sure that’ll happen one of these days. 🙂
Ford styling in the 30’s was superior to most any of it’s contemporaries with a few exceptions. The engineering worked well for the Ford but did not scale up to the Lincoln
BringATrailer just featured a highly “patina’d” Zephyr sedan.
I’m surely in the minority, but I think these sedans are much more graceful than the long-tail coupes.
Simply amazing. Awesome find of a very beautiful car.
The Northern Virginia area, as you said, is great for spotting these sorts of cars and more contemporary, rare iron. Higher than average incomes and educations tends to skew the mix.
Until I moved out of the area, on sunny, pleasant weekdays, I would often be next to a post-war Packard sedan on the G.W. Parkway. The driver, as is appropriate, would be commuting to work adorned with a fedora.
What a great find. It certainly looks to be in very nice “driver” condition.
CC effect? The only prewar car I’ve ever found curbside also happens to be a Zephyr.
Damn, a Zephyr convertible, no less. Do you have any idea how rare those are? I believe that there were under 1000 of these made.
I actually didn’t know that. The owner was very nice, unpretentiously using it to run errands. He said the car has been painted but never restored.
What a lovely car. There is a certain grace in Ford and Lincoln styling of the 1930s that was hard to find in many competitors.
Another weakness in the V12 was a byproduct of the hydraulic valve lifters. They made the engine virtually silent at idle, but made for a challenge to keep oil pressure up to acceptable levels. I have read that for the rare owner who would keep the revs up on these, they could get decent service out of the engine. But nobody drove Lincolns that way then (or now, for that matter).
Where I grew up JP we had the first concrete streets in NZ but outside town it was 2 lane or 1 lane gravel well into the 70s other than the main highway theres no way you could wind a Lincoln up on those roads not with Henry’s transverse springs and aging shocks/brakes, these 30s cars could not be driven fast at all.
I’ve read that the late Bill Harrah liked these cars. He drove his at high speeds over the rural roads of the Southwest. Running at those speeds was actually better for the engine. He supposedly had no problem getting over 100,000 miles out of his Zephyrs.
Beautiful looking cars but mechanically flawed, there was one in my home town back when I was a kid though it had been subject to a low mileage engine recondition too it was done by the garage my Dad worked at, Most early V8 Fords barely made 30k on original engine parts, the theory I heard was the blocks werent aged enough and simply wore out who knows they didnt last well, Lincoln kept the Ford suspension tradition going noone else used that design and Ford was still building cars like that in 1959.
The first Ford flathead V-8’s had a factory rejection rate of over 30%. This was the most sophisticated casting then available, when separate cylinders were still common, or at least two piece blocks.
The nickel content in the early blocks was also low. That said, I have been told a major reason for the problems of the Ford flathead V-8 was the people didn’t rev them up enough to make good oil pressure.
In the UK many pre war Ford V8s ended their lives as stock cars or were gutted for the engine which was put in something else then thrashed to death in the early days of stock car racing.
The widely-used Bren Carrier was powered by the 3.9L Flathead. I wonder how reliable it was in this application?
Over the years I’ve seen a lot of ex-V12 Lincolns, both Continentals and Zephyrs, that have been repowered with – well, you name it – one with a Lincoln flathead V8, several with Olds and Caddy V8’s, and at least one recent SBC conversion.
At a local show, I saw a nice retro-mod ’40s Conti with a 460 and C6. Seems a bit much for that chassis!
I actually like the lines of the sedan. 4 doors don’t ruin the looks of 30s cars the way they do in most everything newer. This is a car Id LOVE to give the old rat rod treatment to. Of course, it would have to be a rusted one too far gone to restore perfect.
A most excellent find and great addition to CC Robert. Although I prefer the sexy three window coupe, the sedan is equally beautiful.
If you haven’t seen it, I highly, HIGHLY recommend going over to ateupwithmotor.com and checking out Aaron’s writeup of the Zephyr and Continental. A very fine article!
Great article. You must be using the same Standard Catalog of American Cars book that I have for your stats. I will add a few tidbits. The car cost $1265.00 that year and was referred to as the Model 730 internally and the only options were Radio, Heater, leather seats and a luggage rack. The 1937 Zephyr was the only Zephyr that had a 5 bar grill so figuring out what year it was made was easy.
One of the best looking and sleekest cars from the 1930’s. The fact that it sold 29,293 units in 1937 during the height of the Great Depression speaks volumes of its looks.
In all fairness, 1937 was actually a decent year for car sales. A sharp recession hit late in the year, and sales for 1938 were way down for everyone.
Cars from the Art Deco period were so elegant and graceful.My main interest in American cars is from 1955 – 70 but I’m going to check out more pre war cars at the next show.A most beautiful car I’m glad the hot rod crew haven’t got their mitts on this one!
One factor that contributed to the relatively short H-Series Zephyr V12 engine life was the way buyers of upper price segment cars drove. Most were used to long-stroke/low-RPM torquey engines that would tolerate being left in high gear down to a walking pace. Think in terms of straight eights with high stroke-to-bore ratios that could be lugged without bucking, pulling away smoothly without downshifting……like the automatic transmissions yet to come. The Zephyr engine was the opposite design of these with its small bores and short stroke.
I don’t have the comparative torque specifications at hand at this writing, but the Zephyr V12 developed about a third less maximum torque compared to its main price competitors such as LaSalle, Packard 120, Buick Century and Chrysler Eights. The internal design flaws such as exhaust routing between cylinder bores adding excessive heat, poor crankcase ventilation, became magnifications of the design problems inherent in the Ford Flathead V8 that was it’s basis more or less guaranteed a less-than-satisfactory engine.
As Zephyrs and Continentals hit the used car market, it was common to find the V12 replaced with Mercury Flathead V8 engines, later Cadillac and Olds OHV V8s’ were the choice. A few are still found running the successor Lincoln 337 ci Flathead V8 which was about the right size powerplant for a car of its size and price in the first place.
Good points. In my adolescent years in the early 70s, my best friend’s father owned a really nice original 47 Lincoln sedan. He had owned many of those V12 Lincolns as a young guy back in the early 50s because they could be bought dirt cheap, and he got pretty good with keeping them running. I have read that in the immediate post WWII period of pent-up demand for new cars, the Lincoln dealers were the only place that you could pretty much go in and buy a car with no wait. By 1946-48, that engine had been out there for a decade and its weaknesses were well known.
Thank you for the description of the faults of the Zephyr V12 and its likely replacement engines. I should have asked what the car currently had under the hood.
I wonder whether one of the surviving V12s can be made reasonably durable today with the right driving habits, an upgraded radiator, and being used for pleasure driving rather than slogging through traffic. I think (but will have to check) that Hemmings Classic Car had a profile several years ago of a Zephyr with a surviving original V12 engine, which beat the odds.
Brough Superior more famous for their motorcycles also built cars.Most were powered by a Hudson straight 8 but there was a final car built with a Lincoln V12
“More famous for their motorcycles” is quite an understatement!
Not having known about Brough Superior’s cars until just now, I looked it up and found this UK website about them. They do look impressive, in the class of a Rolls or Bentley with their size, style, and engine configuration/displacement.
Almost the CC effect with the V12 engined car in a winter countryside setting,I’ve just been watching 70s horror film the Legacy with a Rolls Royce of similar vintage in a near identical landscape.Brough Superior were known as the Rolls Royce of motorcycles
The Rolls Royce of motorcycles, fastest production motorcycle in the world, Lawrence of Arabia’s bike … there is no more illustrious two wheeler.
I found a Brough Superior for sale in New York while I was in college and therefore had no money to spend, even declining to buy a decade old Honda CB400F as not really within my school budget. I believe that they are the first motorcycle to crack the quarter-million-dollar mark in auctions, which is a sign of how coveted they are, but unfortunately means that no one will ever ride them again. I should have bought one and put it in storage back when an ordinary person could afford them!
To follow up, the most commonly-available, reasonably-priced 1936-’48 Lincoln V12 model years are the many 1946-’48 Continental coupes that were restored and maintained by LCOC members over the decades. Cabriolet are also plentiful but much more expensive. Most have had their V12 engines modified to correct the worst problems that afflicted them when new. They still require being driven in the proper gear and rpm range for optimum performance. One can easily find a nice example and enjoy it as a long-distance driver, keeping its mechanical deficits in mind.
As is noted above, H-Series Lincoln V12’s, other than the Continentals, were dirt cheap as used cars. Most were driven into the ground and junked. In regions where rust was a particularly bad problem, those early unibodies suffered greatly.
What saved so many Continentals for today was they were being picked up early as “car buff” cars. The Lincoln Continental Owners Club formed in 1953, so many Continentals never really suffered the fate of their brethren pre-war Zephyrs and postwar Lincoln Twelves. In fact, at one time, Zephyrs were mostly considered to be parts cars used to restore Continentals, which was a shame. The results are now Zephyrs survive in smaller numbers than the Continentals. Especially desirable ’38-’41 Zephyr convertibles are in demand as much as the equally prized ’40-’41 Continentals.
Thanks for the nice write-up of a rarely seen ’37 Lincoln Zephyr.
My father bought a 1937 Lincoln Zephyr 2 door sedan, February 9, 1940, where he work
at the Lincoln dealership in Philadelphia. We still have it and it was driven up into to 1960; used as a snow blow for clearing our driveway of 2 foot of snow, had new exhaust system completed in 1982. Working on restoration now. My father was a mechanic on the V12’s. Our engine was strong. Cruised Arizona at 90 miles per hour in 1952 for several hours, my mother was driving it, and didn’t realize she was going that fast. Steady as a rock. I helped rebuild the over-drive on our 46 Lincoln, engine, back seat heathers ( under the seat), power windows. and we re-built the whole break system. Sold that car for $100.00 2 years later.
yesterday at Brighton Marina
I see a beautiful maroon coloured 37 LZ around Napier occasionally its a restored example, I just havent found it parked to get photos yet, lots of people bring art deco styled cars here to photograph then in front of the Rothmans building a beautiful art deco structure in Ahurriri its worth cruising past there when going into town just to see if anything interesting is being shot there.
Beautiful car indeed. I hate the idea that vintage cars HAVE to be restored. I love nice drivers.So many are so over done that that they can’t be enjoyed. This one is nice.
By the way, George Hurst got his start in the industry by doing V8 swaps into tired Lincoln V12’s, and fabricating the kits to do them.
I never understood Ford. Their flathead V-8 was never as reliable or long lasting as a Chevrolet Six, and the enlarged version on the Zephyr was even worse. This was even more evident when comparing it the the Cadillac V-8 of 1936, which was so robust that it was used, with Hydramatic, no less, to power M-3 tanks.
Yet they kept making it. Cadillac, Oldsmobile and Chrysler all had modern OHV V-8 engines by 1950, with five main bearings and looking not a lot different than a Chevrolet LS of today.
The Chrysler flathead 6s in all of their varied displacements, were more reliable than any of them, or just about any other engines of the ’30s and ’40s.
The answer to your question is quite simple – Henry Ford I. The original flathead V-8 was his baby, and it was going to go into production as he envisioned it. The engine was also his last major achievement. Unfortunately, he maintained an iron grip on the company’s leadership in the 1930s even as his health deteriorated (most likely due to a series of small strokes).
Ford engineering stagnated in the mid-1930s. Edsel Ford had to fight his father just to have Ford adopt hydraulic brakes in 1939. Ford was the last American company, aside from Willys, to do so. Ford didn’t switch to independent front suspension until the 1949 models debuted. Henry Ford I wouldn’t hear of it while he was in charge.
When World War II intervened, the company, like the rest of the industry, focused on defense work.
After the war, Henry Ford II essentially built a new engineering department from scratch. He hired Harold Youngren, formerly of Oldsmobile, as the company’s new chief engineer. Youngren thoroughly reworked the flathead V-8 for the 1949 Ford. The result was a much-improved engine, and one that was robust.
Lincoln abandoned the V-12 when the 1949 models debuted. In 1952, Lincoln introduced an all-new, modern OHV V-8. Which was quite an achievement, considering what a mess the company was in 1945-46.
And nice ad, with today’s red/teardrop trunk handle:
The styling on this car is just superb. But it’s a shame that it’s let down by that V-12 engine, I’ve heard before about its many problems.