I suspect that all of us have a car from early in our lives that a parent or relative almost bought but did not. Those cars have a way of becoming a sort of idolized object that often eludes our grasp as we got older. The 1969 Lincoln Continental sedan was mine.
I have written before that my father was a Lincoln Man. From the dawn of the 1970s he drove one whenever he could afford it. And he wanted one in those times when he could not. His tastes were no doubt formed from his 1940s youth spent along Philadelphia’s Main Line among the country club set who lived there. The original Lincoln Continental had been the “it” car for the stylish and well-off. Unfortunately for my father, the best his own parents would do was his socially conscious mother’s ’41 DeSoto convertible. The Plymouth sedan that his father, a thrifty New Englander, drove was not even in the ballpark.
Dad’s first Lincoln finally came in late 1969 when he became the proud owner (well lessee, actually) of a 1970 Lincoln Continental Mark III. For those who were not around at the time the Mark III was the “It” car of the late ’60s – at least among those who had not yet succumbed to the allure of the Mercedes. The Mark III set a style that Lincoln (and the entire industry) would follow until the 1980s and beyond and anyone fortunate enough to be able to afford the price of entry had himself a genuine symbol of the American Dream.
As for me, I had grown up admiring the Lincoln Continental of the 1960s. From a distance, of course. The clean styling and the suicide doors made Lincoln stand out as something unique and special. And wouldn’t you know it, just as my father finally lept that great chasm from an ordinary Ford into the World of Lincoln, he did so a year too late for a classic suicide door Continental. Taking its place was a new full-sized luxury Continental sedan for 1970. I did not like it as well as the older ones but I found it more appealing than the Mark III. In the interests of full disclosure, perhaps this was because at the age of ten I was doomed to life as a backseat passenger on nearly every trip and the big Connie would have been far more accommodating to those of us who did not get to spend much time in the money seats.
I recall one evening when I asked why he had not gone for the larger car. His response did not make me feel better. “If they had still made the ones with the suicide doors I probably would have chose that instead. But they discontinued that one last year.” What!?!?! I did not actually say this. I probably managed something like “Oh.” I was, however, steamed. Had I been a smart-mouthed teenager at the time I might have looked him in the eye and asked “so why did you waste 1969 on a stupid Ford LTD when you could have gotten the right Lincoln then? ”
Adult-me knows full well that by starting a new business venture in 1969 he needed a socially acceptable car but one that would not break the bank. New business ventures are expensive and there is always the possibility that things will not go as planned, so huge committments to really expensive cars can be a bad idea. I, however, knew nothing of these mundane practicicalities in 1970. I just knew that I had wanted to be the eldest son of a family with a suicide door Lincoln for as long as I could remember and my father’s stupid practicality had robbed me of that crucial experience.
I got older and got over this childhood disappointment. Mostly. I have certainly never ventured into this price class as an adult so I have no room to criticize. However, on the increasingly rare occasion when I see one of these cars I still experience these little feelings of regret and disappointment.
It is unusual to find a car that has not had at least one go-around here at CC by now, but it looks like this one qualifies. Paul Niedermeyer addressed the 1965 version as the last great American luxury car and the coupe and convertible versions of this 1966-69 generation have been covered as well. But Lincoln’s bread and butter was never about folding fabric roofs or Coupe deVilles without the Body-By-Fisher. Beginning with Lincoln’s all-time most successful reset of 1961 Lincoln was all about the sedan. The conservative, elegant, expensive, understated and subtly luxurious sedan. Which became iconic by the rear-hinged rear doors that were its calling card.
The 1966 Continental was the second act in that generation of Lincolns. Or perhaps it would be better described as a heavy update of the 1964-65 car. Although the Connie retained the overall layout and unit body structure, the car received completely new styling on a body which was longer and just a touch taller and wider than its predecessor, although it remained on the same 126 inch wheelbase. Amott B. “Buzz” Grisinger was Chief Stylist of the Lincoln-Mercury studios during those years and had a monumental task.
For perhaps the first time in its history, Lincoln had settled upon a successful design that was finally finding some traction in the market and it was imperative that the new model continue these winning trends. It is difficult to argue that Grisinger’s 1966 redesign was anything other than a smashing stylistic success.
All of the cues that had made the earlier Continentals stand out were still there, but subtly updated. The power bulge in the hood of the 1965, perhaps its most controversial feature, was modified and blended much more harmoniously into the new car’s more fluid shape. The curved side glass returned after the retrograde flat glass of 1964-65 and the suicide doors were retained in the most visible example of the line’s continuity.
In a hat tip to the earlier Continental Mark II and the stillborn Mark III prototype of the 1950s a side ridge was added just below the beltline which served to break up the slab sides. The rear wheel openings were enlarged as well.
There is an argument to be made that the Continental lost a little bit of exclusivity with the 1966 revisions. A $500 price reduction (from $6,292 to $5,750 for the sedan) for a new model would provide some support for this idea. However, despite some minor cost cutting this remained very much a Lincoln Continental, right down to the hydraulic reverse sweep windshield wipers. In another nod to Cadillac’s strategy of multiple models and trim levels, a higher trim version (called the Town Car interior option) would be optional at extra cost. There is an even better argument that the annual styling updates took a toll on the 1968 and 69 models whose details were a bit more cluttered than the much cleaner 1966-67 cars.
Lincoln maintained that that each 1966 model took four days to build, with each engine and transmission run on a test stand and individually examined before being placed into the car. Each car finished off the assembly process with a twelve mile road test in which 189 individual items were checked before the car would be transported to a dealer, a practice that continued on the ’69s.
This 1969 model also received one last stretch in length which made it exactly one foot longer than the original 1961 version. This extra length was likely due to the newly vee-shaped prow on the car which incorporated a taller diecast grille. A grille which would provide a hint of the look Lincolns would sport through most of the 1970s. This car also marked the last use of Lincoln’s unit construction and its leaf spring rear suspension. 1969 was also the first full year for the 460 cid (7.5 L) version of Ford’s Lima 385 series engine family. The 460 had been introduced midway through 1968 model production to replace the 462, the final version of the 1950s-vintage MEL engine design to see production. Despite losing two cubic inches to the older design, the new engine brought another twenty-five horsepower to the party, jumping from 340 to 365, although torque ratings remained unchanged.
Lincoln Continental Production By Model Year 1961-1969
But all good things must come to an end. When the 1966-69 version of this car was in the planning stages Lincoln’s plan of elegant, expensive cars with subtle year-to-year changes was a winning one with sales increasing each year. Unfortunately the trajectory of the Continental’s second act was more or less the opposite. The above chart shows a bell curve in which Continental production peaked in 1966 but lost ground each year thereafter, essentially coming to rest below 1965 levels. The next generation would continue this trend with 1970 production dropping to 1962-63 levels before climbing to a bit over 35,000 units in ’71. For context, Cadillac (excluding Eldorados) produced over 223,000 cars in 1969. It would be 1972 before the Continental would see any significant improvement in demand, an improvement which would finally be more permanent. These figures, however do not tell the entire story.
In the spring of 1968 Lincoln would begin producing the Continental Mark III. Some have called the Mark III a glorified Thunderbird, given that they shared the Bird’s body-on-perimeter frame construction and much of the running gear. It was, however, much more expensively trimmed and carefully built, at least to a greater extent than the Mark IV and V that would follow. At a substantially higher price than the Continental sedan, the Mark III was where the action would prove to be for Lincoln, which built nearly 31,000 of them during an extended 1969 model year. And according to George Dammann’s Fifty Years of Lincoln-Mercury (Crestline, 1971) , the Mark III was on backorder during that entire time. By 1972 the Mark IV (the most expensive car built in America) would be Lincoln’s leader in both image and production volume with 48,591 Mark IVs to 45,969 Continentals.
My father and I had no way of knowing that the Continental sedan that was in showrooms at the beginning of the 1970 model year was a completely different kind of car from the departed 1969 version. Hindsight has told us that the follow-up model was a very thoroughly luxurified Mercury. A very nicely done Mercury with a longer wheelbase, its own body and an appropriately luxurious done interior. However just as had been the case in earlier eras, one crawl under the car and it would have been difficult to distinguish the two. In Lincoln Continentals as in national affairs, Camelot was well and truly over by the end of 1969.
My father’s Mark III would turn out to be something of a lemon (making its yellow color perversely appropriate). After several mechanical problems it would be towed into the dealership of his good friend and an order was placed for a new 1972 Mark IV. A 1970 Continental sedan would probably have been a better car – the law of averages would suggest that almost any Lincoln would have been. But I continue to believe with all my heart that a 1969 Continental (following its twelve mile road test) would have been a car that would have made my father both happy and proud. And it would have done the same for me.
Photographed April 19, 2014 in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana
Special thanks to Jim Grey for his assistance with one particularly difficult photograph