(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.