(first posted 6/11/2015) What is the purpose of a convertible? Most would probably say that a convertible’s purpose is for the enjoyment of the beauty of outdoors – at least when outdoors is in a mood to be enjoyed. And there is certainly something to this view. But after some thought, I would propose that the real purpose of a convertible is to be beautiful. If this is true, is there a single convertible more suited to that core purpose than the original Lincoln Continental?
If convertibles were bought mainly by lovers of the outdoors, most of them would have been driven by hunters, farmers and naturalists. And if those were the primary customers, the Lincoln Continental would never have been built. But ever since roll-up windows were added to the classic roadster, convertibles have been bought by stylish people to be stylish in. It’s fine to be able to see all that is around you, but to be seen, there we have the convertible’s sine qua non.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.” The Lincoln Continental’s story involves quite a lot of both. It is a story that has been told countless times (including at AUWM here), so let us stick to the highlights. Edsel Ford was a man of consummate taste, just as much as his father Henry was not. Where Ford the elder saw beauty in mechanical terms, Ford the younger was an admirer of that which covered the mechanism.
When you are the son of one of the largest automobile manufacturers in the world, you could probably afford to drive anything that you might want. But when you are the son of the indomitable Henry Ford, well, your choices might be more limited. Well, at least Ford had purchased the Lincoln Motor Company from Henry Leland, and under Edsel Ford’s excellent eye, Lincoln produced some beautiful semi-custom cars. However, by the late 1930s, the Great Depression had been grinding on for quite some time, and the grand Model K Lincolns, like their counterparts at Packard and Cadillac, were near death.
Lincoln had introduced the smaller Zephyr series for 1936, in an attempt to give Lincoln a volume model to sell, as well as to plug the gargantuan hole in the market between the Ford DeLuxe and the Lincoln Model K. But make no mistake, the Zephyr was not a genuine luxury car. An while the Zephyr was attractive, it would never make anyone’s top ten list of beautiful cars.
In the fall of 1938, Edsel approached the head of Ford’s Design Department, E. T. “Bob” Gregorie, about building a custom car for the winter in Florida that was Edsel’s habit. Edsel had hired twenty-two year old Gregorie in 1931 to do design work for Lincoln. Gregorie had worked closely with Edsel for years, and had a good idea of the boss’ tastes.
Back in late 1932, Edsel had asked Gregorie to work up a personal sports car like some of those Ford had seen in Europe. The result (after a false start or two) was the 1934 Speedster. In the 1996 book “A Century of Automotive Style” by Michael Lamm and Dave Holls, they recount an interview with Gregorie. ” Bob Gregorie affirmed . . . that the Continental idea went back to the 1934 Ford Speedster . . . . ‘After that, Edsel and I would occasionally talk about making a special little sports car’ recalled Gregorie. They talked about basing it on the Ford chassis, but they ran into problems of interrupting the plant routine. [Ford’s production chief, Charles] Sorensen was against anything that might interfere with Ford’s production lines. Next, Edsel and Gregorie talked about making the sportster a Mercury, but that too involved the same disruptions.
“We again talked about (in Nov. ’38) some car we might build in the future. And then it occurred to me..I figured, Well, we’ve got the Zephyr, with a 12 cylinder engine, and we’ve got one whole bay empty in the Lincoln plant…where Lincoln craftsmen used to finish up the K-Model custom bodies…and we had a nucleus of very fine body people at Lincoln.
In short order, the sketches came together into a completed car. The hood was lengthened seven inches, a section was taken out of the body to lower it, and a unique rear-mounted spare tire was affixed. Edsel was quite pleased with the car and, during it’s winter in Florida, it was determined that there was a market for more of them.
By mid 1939, plans were underway for small scale production. The term “production” is used loosely, as the 1940 model that was offered for sale was built with hand-hammered body panels that likely took any profit out of these early cars for the company. Despite high demand, Lincoln managed to turn out either 350 or 351 (depending on sources) of these Cabriolets and another 54 closed coupes. Compare this to the only 700 of the much cheaper Zephyr convertible coupes sold, which were not constricted in their supply at all. Demand was such that ever-skeptical Henry Ford finally authorized body tooling in order that the cars could be more-or-less manufactured instead of totally hand crafted. Even at nearly $3,000 (at a time when a Chrysler New Yorker could be had for $1,385) about 1250 1941 models were built.
Speaking of the Zephyr convertible, one look at the two cars together shows the styling magic that Gregorie worked on the Zephyr. The Zephyr is not an ugly car, by any means. But the lengthened hood and the lowered hood and beltline demonstrate how a good design can become a great one. Design features like the complete lack of running boards and a hood brought down to nearly the level of the fenders were years ahead of their time. It is also hard to miss that rear-mounted external spare, that was an oddly retro touch for 1939, yet somehow it seems perfect. There are very few cars on which it is impossible to find a single line, curve or angle that could be improved. This car is one of them.
From the beginning, the Continental was the car to have among both the famous and the cultured. Mickey Rooney got the first one, and Babe Ruth got another of the 1940 models. Rita Hayworth would have to wait until 1941. But it was not just the Hollywood crowd that appreciated the Connie. Notable designers and tastemakers like Raymond Loewy and Frank Lloyd Wright were early customers too.
Almost to prove how much beauty matters in selling a convertible, these very expensive cars were snapped up in spite of their well-known mechanical weaknesses, not the least of which was the fragile 292 cubic inch V-12. That this was likely the worst automobile engine sold in America in 1940 is not often disputed. Not to be confused with the magnificent V-12s in the big Model K Lincolns, the Zephyr version was, in essence, one-and-a-half Ford flathead V8s. Although the small V-12 was smooth and quiet, it would suffer from cooling and oiling issues for its entire run. Had the Continental been a mere car, the weak powerplant might have mattered. But as the latest must-have fashion accessory purchased by those who could easily afford the engine’s 30,000 mile overhauls, well, who cared?
I don’t think that we are really overstating things to give this car credit for Lincoln coming out of World War II alive. But come back it did, with the Continental leading the way – albeit in a butched-up style that seemed so current in 1946. In fact, successive generations of Lincoln designers and stylists would come back to this car again and again over the ensuing decades, even up to the present day. Only after seventy five years is the design beginning to lose currency to the similarly iconic Continental of the early 1960s. But even then, this car can still be seen in the proportions and minimal trim of that Elwood Engle masterpiece.
I have completely forgotten the errand I was running that day three months ago when I saw this car out of the corner of my eye as it sat in a nearly-empty church parking lot. I must admit that I have become a little jaundiced in my recent curbside car spotting, passing by things that I might have stopped to photograph three years ago. But for an early Continental? Stop the car! It was only after I was up close and noticed the Lincoln Zephyr badging that I realized that this was one of the rare 1940 versions. The other tells are the grille with no edging to contain the vertical ribs and the conventional twist-type door handles instead of the ’41’s unique pushbuttons.
It was also only up close that I could tell that this car is not black, but an extremely deep green. I was surprised to see the color called “Beetle Green” in the brochure. I suppose that names like Forest Heather Starmist would not come until later. When a car looks like this one does, call the color whatever you want, because it just doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t think that a dark green car with red leather could be so appealing, but here we are.
I spied this car not a minute too soon. It was in the process of being loaded into a trailer, on the way to a new owner. The car had come out of the estate of the longtime prior owner, and the transaction was being handled by a dealer. The owner of Significantcars.com was preoccupied with trying to get this old girl onto the truck, so I did not have much chance to talk to him. He does have some fascinating cars on his website so who knows, there might have to be a Curbside Expedition to check out some of his other offerings.
I suppose I have been practicing for this find my entire life. When I went into middle school, I met a new best friend, Dan. Dan’s father Howard had a black 1947 Lincoln sedan that was a beautiful original car, right down to it’s V-12. I knew nothing about old Lincolns before then, but I quickly became obsessed with them. Before I loved Studebakers, and before I loved Chryslers, I loved old Lincolns. And I still do.
Franz Kafka said: “Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” This might explain why cars like the 1940 Continental appealed so much to people then, and continues to do so today. It is fine to gaze upon beauty, but it is even better to become a part of it. For most of us, a beautiful and graceful convertible is the best way to do just that.