Continental: A Return to Form
In 1939, Edsel Ford tasked his lead designer, Eugene T. Gregorie, with creating a unique personal vehicle for his upcoming vacation. Gregorie’s design was a derivative of the Lincoln Zephyr. Gregorie finished the first Continental just in time for Edsel’s trip. When Edsel received the car in Florida, he ordered immediate production. Much of the original Continental’s body and interior was assembled by hand. Ford produced less than 500 vehicles in the first two years. The first Continental had arched fenders and a split grille highlighted by thin spokes. Naturally the price was exorbitant.
Lincoln Continental Mark II
In 1956 Lincoln gave their flagship car a major redesign. The Continental’s graceful contours became drawn out and Lincoln abandoned the sloped fenders. The design was still pristinely smooth, but the Continental became more horizontal and less vertical. In this incarnation, the elite sedan garnered celebrity attention. Ford gave three of 3,000 total Mk IIs went to Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Elizabeth Taylor, respectively (hers was custom painted to match the colour of her eyes). The Mark II was a two-door hardtop coupe, a shape that is now iconic.
Certainly, the Mark II represented the height of the Continental’s popularity – or maybe mythology would be more apt. It remained prohibitively expensive (the equivalent of more than $100,000 in today’s currency) because Ford was still building it by hand with the finest materials available. The interior used top-grain leather and soft carpeting. Fittingly, the Mark II was revealed at the fashionable Paris Auto Show; its fluid design drew a sharp contrast between other American automobiles of the decade. The cost of the Continental’s superiority, however, was great. Despite its price tag, Lincoln lost money on every Mark II sold.
In the following decades, Lincoln delivered some stunning designs, but posting perpetual losses was an untenable design strategy. Consequently, the Mark III was the first Continental not built by hand. The selling price of Continentals in the 1950s and ‘60s dropped considerably, but meticulous redesigning still cost Lincoln tens of millions of dollars. As Lincoln desperately tried to rediscover the magic of the Mark II, other automakers established their presence in the luxury market. By the end of the 1980s, Lincoln was competing against familiar domestic rivals like Cadillac, German luxury brands like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes; as well as Acura, Lexus, and Infiniti.
With extreme competition and decreasing design clarity, the Lincoln Continental shared little in common with the stellar Mark II at the end of the 20th century. Posterity won’t fondly remember the 1998 Lincoln Continental. Stuck between oversized headlights, the shrunken grille was a reflection of the vehicle’s stature in the luxury market. Lincoln subsequently discontinued the Continental for poor performance. The very last model came off the production line on July 26, 2002, more than 50 years after its iconic emergence.
In 2015, Lincoln revealed the Continental concept at the New York Auto Show. The concept boasted Jaguar-esque headlights, wheels like whorl shark teeth, and a 360-degree chrome trim around the body’s base. There was no tire imprint on the trunk lid, it wasn’t impossibly long, and it wouldn’t look at home in a taxi queue at the airport. In other words it was a modern coupe. More than that, it was visually stunning. For the first time since the King of rock and roll paraded in his 1956 Mark II, the Continental was undeniable. In the midst of a brand reinvention, it could serve as the perfect flagship vehicle. Evidently, this was Lincoln’s intention. They announced that the new Continental would arrive in 2016 as a 2017 model.
With the new Continental, Lincoln has scripted a driver narrative that begins even before you get in. As you approach, the Continental activates its headlights, projects a “welcome mat,” and unfolds the wing mirrors. A touch of the E-Latch Handle allows you to open the Continental’s ponderous door in one motion without unlatching. Once inside, drivers will find an interior defined by the inclusion of materials like Scotland’s Bridge of Weir Leather, the very same material introduced in the Continental Mark II. When draped over 30-way Perfect Position Seats, the result is a driving platform plausibly more comfortable than any of those in similarly priced cars.
Under the hood, Lincoln have opted for a baseline 2.7L GTDI engine producing 335 horsepower. Ostensibly, this would flout Lincoln’s “quiet luxury” mantra. And yet, with Active Noise Cancellation and a 19-Speaker Revel Ultima Audio System, you’ll only ever hear what you want to hear.
Undoubtedly, the Lincoln Continental is a remarkable vehicle. But to appreciate Lincoln’s achievement, it needs to placed in the context of their reinvention. The driver’s experience, one that’s broadly emotive, but predicated upon elite specifications and high-quality materials; is finally the first priority. That experience is shared across the Lincoln lineup, but is felt no more acutely than in the driver’s seat of the lithe sedan. Consequently, the Continental is the ideal flagship for Lincoln in the 21st century.