It’s been 80 years since the Lincoln Continental first appeared in Lincoln’s showrooms to much acclaim. Since then, the name has been slapped on a variety of vehicles, some more noteworthy than others. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a quick tour of Lincoln’s longest-lived, and most fondly remembered, nameplate.
When most people go on vacation, they pack luggage. When Edsel Ford went on vacation, he took this custom-bodied car Lincoln Zephyr, powered by a flathead V-12. Styled by E.T. Gregorie, head of Ford’s styling department, its design was considered European, or Continental. Delivered to Edsel at the family compound in Hobe Sound, Florida, more than 200 of his friends placed orders for it with signed blank checks—before it was ever slated for production. That soon changed. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright considered it “the most beautiful car in the world” and bought two. Offered as a coupe or convertible, it would remain in production through 1948 but was not replaced thereafter.
When Ford revived the Continental as the 1956-57 Continental Mark II coupe, it was given its own division above Lincoln. Unveiled at the Paris Motor Show, the Mark II’s clean, uncluttered looks contrasted the chrome-laden cars of the 1950s. Manufactured to a very high standard and powered by a 285-horsepower 368 cubic-inch V-8, it took twice as long to build as a Lincoln. There was one option: air-conditioning. Priced at $9695, or $91,785 today, fewer than 3000 were built. Owners included Frank Sinatra, Cecil B. DeMille, Barry Goldwater, Elvis Presley, and the Shah of Iran.
Once more badged as a Lincoln, the Continental and Mark names became separate lines as bean counters stepped in to make the Continental more profitable. Offered as a Continental sedan or Continental Mark III coupe and convertible, its frighteningly over-caffeinated appearance featured massive sculpted side panels, radically angled headlights and an idiosyncratic reverse-slant rear window. Not surprisingly, this stylistic burp is now largely glossed over in corporate histories, and if any celebrities owned one, they never admitted it.
Originally designed as a Ford Thunderbird, the 1961 Continental’s clean slab sides, knife-edged styling, sparing use of chrome and center-opening doors changed the language of American car design, particularly Cadillac’s. Smaller than the car it replaced, it was offered as a sedan and convertible sedan—the first since 1951 Frazer Manhattan. A carryover 430-cubic-inch V-8 producing 300 horsepower was standard. A coupe would be added for 1966, although the convertible sedan would be produced through 1967, the last of its kind sold in the U.S.
Ignoring that the 1958-60 Continental Mark III, IV and V happened, Lincoln introduced the Continental Mark III coupe in an effort to recapture the exclusivity of the Mark II. Sharing its underpinnings with the Ford Thunderbird, and powered by a 365-horsepower 460 cubic-inch V-8, it outsold the Cadillac Eldorado. Its faux rear tire hump, vinyl roof, ersatz Rolls-Royce grille and hidden headlamps synthesized a baroque classicism that would soon overtake Detroit stylists. It continued as the Mark IV and Mark V before being redesigned for 1980.
Given the Mark III’s sales, it’s no surprise that the redesigned 1970 Continental sedan followed in its stylistic footsteps with hidden headlamps and a vinyl roof. No longer boasting center-opening doors, it retained some of the styling trademarks of its 1961-69 predecessor, although its platform was now shared with the Mercury Marquis and Ford LTD. Its 365-horsepower 460 cubic-inch V-8 carried over. Both sedan and coupe were offered, as was a Town Car option, a trim package first offered in 1969. A 1975 redesign brought more girth, followed the following year by Lincoln’s first designer editions, including Bill Blass, Emilio Pucci, Givenchy and Cartier.
For 1980, a downsized Lincoln Continental sedan and Continental Mark VI arrived on the Panther platform shared with the Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis. Shedding 800 pounds and 14 inches in length, it was powered by either a 132-horsepower 302-cu-in V-8 or a 140-hp 351-cu-in V-8, both routed through a four-speed automatic transmission, and featured Lincoln’s first electronic instrument cluster. The Town Car name replaced the Continental for 1981, although the Continental Mark VI sedan—distinguished by front fender vents and an opera window—would continue through 1983.
When downsized again for 1982, the Continental sedan was based on a stretched version of the midsize Fox platform wearing styling that recalled custom-bodied cars of the 1930s, much like its competitor, the Cadillac Seville. Power came from a 112-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6–the model’s first six-cylinder–or the 134-horsepower “5.0-liter” V-8 (output numbers vary through the years). Two years later, the car would be significantly upgraded with electronic air suspension, gas-pressurized shock absorbers, four-wheel disc brakes, real wood veneer trim and a BMW-sourced 2.4-liter turbo-diesel option.
For 1984, the Continental Mark VII arrived on the Continental’s platform and shared its powertrain, but was otherwise heavily derived from the new aerodynamic Ford Thunderbird. Still wearing a classic Lincoln grille and rear spare tire hump, the far more sporting Mark VII was aimed at a younger customer, and included a Versace designer edition. The Mark VII would wear the Continental name through 1986.
If any Continental was a radical departure from tradition, it’s this one: The first front-wheel drive Continental powered by a 140-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6 and four-speed automatic. With modern aerodynamic bodywork that abandoned the styling clichés of the past with the exception of the classic Lincoln grille. Based on a stretched Ford Taurus platform, sales exceeded production capacity.
1995-2002 Lincoln Continental
Attempting to recapture the eloquence of the original Continental, the 1995 model retained front-wheel drive, and was equipped with a dual-overhead-cam 4.6-liter V-8 producing 260 horsepower— a 100-hp jump from the previous model. Keyless entry, a voice-activated cellular phone, and electronically adjustable drive modes made this Lincoln ahead of its time. By 2000, Lincoln was outselling Cadillac. However, Cadillac soon rebounded and by 2002 Continental production ended.
The Continental returned for 2017, riding atop a modified Ford Fusion platform with as much as 400 horsepower available. Front-wheel drive is standard, with all-wheel drive optional. Thankfully, the new Continental is a traditional American luxury car: comfortable, quiet, powerful and loaded with comfort and convenience features.
To celebrate the Continental’s 80th anniversary, Lincoln is producing 80 Continental 80th Anniversary Coach Door Editions for 2019. The car is stretched and fitted with center-opening doors and a front-to-rear center console. The interior is finished in top-of-the-line Black Label trim and priced from $110,000. Nevertheless, it sold out in 48 hours.