The 1960s were a golden age for American luxury sedans. Lower and wider, yet still relatively restrained, these cars exercised considerable restraint when compared to their finned predecessors and Brougham-styled successors. One of the era's most enduring icons has been the fourth-generation Lincoln Continental, a vehicle that would make a searing mark on automotive history by way of its timeless styling, the significant changes it would being to the brand, and a tragic brush with history in Dealey Plaza.
The 1961–69 Lincoln Continental was among the last four-door convertibles to be sold in the United States, one of the final cars to feature suicide doors (until they were revived by Rolls-Royce in the 2000s), and a vehicle whose unmistakable proportions would influence premium styling cues for decades.
The fourth-generation Lincoln Continental was the only vehicle manufactured by the brand during the 1960s, and it can be split into three distinct versions: 1961–63 models, with their relatively soft-edged contours, 1964–65 models, which featured mild styling updates and a longer wheelbase, and 1966–69 cars, which introduced a pair of fresh drivetrains and an all-new body.
Four-door sedans were available ever year of this Continental's reign, with a four-door convertible offered from day one until the end of 1967, and a two-door coupe making an appearance in 1966.
In total, 334,345 Continentals were built during this period. With 25,000 examples sold in 1961, it remains the rarest model year for the car, but except for a spike to 56,000 units in 1966 that coincided with the redesign, the car typically hovered between 30,000 and 45,000 sales per year. In terms of body styles, the sedan was the most common, followed by the coupe (which only enjoyed four years of production), and then the convertible.
"21,347 convertibles were built in total over the seven-year stretch," says Cashman. "Of those, perhaps 10 to 15 percent remain on the road today."
The best way to find out what exactly you're looking at when evaluating a potential Continental for purchase is to decode the car's vehicle identification number. Lincoln stamped the VIN on the right side of the engine bay, on the inner fender apron, and also included it on the “warranty plate,” which was riveted between the left front door hinges.
The VIN (or “serial number” as it is listed on the VIN plate) consists of 11 alphanumeric characters.
The first digit (1-9) represents the year of manufacture, while the second (Y) indicates that the car was assembled in Wixon, Michigan. The next two numbers break down the body style, with 82 for four-door sedans, 86 for convertibles, and 89 for two-door hardtops. This is followed by the engine code: N for 430-cubic-inch V-8 cars, K for low-compression versions of the same that were exported to other markets, G for the 462-cubic-inch option, and A for the end-of-run 460-cubic-inch motor. The next six characters are the serial number of the vehicle itself.
The VIN plate also features a second row of characters that breaks down the options and features of a given vehicle, some of which repeats the above information. These bear the following labels: BODY, COLOR, TRIM, DATE, TRANS, and AXLE.
Body codes, surprisingly, are different from those listed in the VIN itself. Sedans show 53A, convertibles 74A, and 65A for the two-door. Color codes were numerous and shifted from year to year, but were typically a single letter, with later cars adding single numeric digits for certain hues. Trim codes were double-numbers, number-letter, or double-letter, and denoted a startling array of color choices. Date ran A through M for January to December (with the letter I missing), while N through Z (missing O) were reserved for cars that were produced past the first 12 months of a model year.
The transmission for these cars is always a three-speed automatic (Twin-Range from 1961–65, C6 from 1966–67, represented by the number 4, then a swap the U code Select-Shift transmissions for 1968–69), while single-character (alpha or numeric) axle codes shifted seemingly year by year. Still, most early cars offered a 2.89:1 axle (with limited-slip optional), while later cars would shift to a 2.80:1. Available ratios (also with limited-slip capability) included 3.00:1 and 3.11:1.
Big V-8 power
From 1961 to 1965, the Lincoln Continental came with a 430-cubic-inch V-8 that produced 300 horsepower and 465 lb-ft of torque, as measured by the gross standards of the era. A version of this engine had been available in the previous-generation of the Continental, and it was a member of the MEL (Mercury/Edsel/Lincoln) family of V-8s that also included the venerable and ubiquitous 390.
In 1963, power would jump to 320 horses, thanks to swapping a two-barrel for a four-barrel carburetor, new pistons, and a slight bump in compression from 10.0:1 to 10.1:1. A larger 462-cubic-inch engine, also MEL-derived, was introduced in 1965, and it boosted output to 340 horses and 485 lb-ft of torque. This would remain the Continental's primary power source until very late in 1968, when a 460-cubic-inch motor would take over (365 horsepower and 485 lb-ft of torque).
"You won't lay rubber in the Continental, but the MEL engines will cruise all day long," explains Cashman. "There are a few quirks to keep in mind. All of the 430 and 462 engines have a crankshaft-mounted power steering pump, at the front of the engine behind the harmonic balancer. You have to use a Type F ATF fluid, because any other power steering fluid is going to result in leaks."
"A lot of these cars at this point have also been outfitted with an incorrect fuel pump, and experience vapor lock as a result," he continues. "The original three-port design is crucial, because the pump itself is located in the hottest part of the engine bay, and as a result needs the fuel return to keep it cool."
Parts availability is stronger for 460-equipped cars due to the 385-series engine being shared with a wider range of FoMoCo products (especially from an aftermarket perspective).
Keeping track of the changes
Lincoln made a series of running changes to the Continental through its entire lifespan, which can make sourcing trim and other body components somewhat of a challenge. Some vehicle systems—particularly heating and climate control—also underwent major updates behind the scenes that don't allow for mixing-and-matching from one version of the car to another.
The first two model years are fairly identical in terms of appearance and features, with a few small updates made to the front and rear fascias. For 1963, some of the alterations seemed almost arbitrary: the antenna for the radio swapped from one front fender (left) to the other (right), while the also car benefited from a taller deck lid (in order to improve trunk space and alter the appearance of the car's hindquarters), graced by a Lincoln logo. A different grille insert was also installed, the dashboard and instrument panel were redesigned to improve leg room, and the rear seat was pushed forward to do the same. 1963 also marked the introduction of power front vent windows.
More purposeful was the 1964 redesign, which saw three extra inches of wheelbase added in order to improve the comfort available to back seat riders. The move to a longer car would reduce structural rigidity for convertibles, causing somewhat more noticeable cowl shake. Changes in the profile of the roofline and greenhouse are also notable. By 1965, the front fenders gained inset marker lights, the grille was flattened where it had previously offered an electric-razor curve, and taillights were ribbed rather than smooth.
1966 marked a major move forward for the Continental. Slab sides remained, but the body was entirely new and four inches longer (despite sharing the same wheelbase), and would last until the end of the production run. Again, the casual addition and removal of trim pieces would continue with this version of the car—'66 models feature Lincoln logos on the outside where '67 vehicles do not. By 1969, the front grille would gain plaid-like slats, and the rear of the car would also be restyled.
"The main thing with the unitized body of the Continental is to avoid rust," says Cashman. "A western car is almost always the best way to go, because projects can quickly become money pits."
Although in general the cars are solid, John does have a few favorite model years.
"The 1963 cars and the '66 models are generally the best of the run," he says. "The 61–62 cars had a heater and A/C system that carried over from the 1950s, which meant dual heater cores, dual fans, and even a third fan for the A/C system if so equipped. By 1963, they had simplified things considerably. That year is notable for having the most reliable window motors, which is important considering the electrical systems on these cars are incredibly complex. It's also worth mentioning that in 1965, the Continental featured disc brakes up front, and it's become popular to retrofit those to older models."
Big top blues
There's a huge elephant in the room when discussing these, well, elephantine automobiles, and that's the retractable roof that came with the four-door convertible models.
"The drop-top Continentals are the most complex car to ever leave Detroit," laments Cashman. "The mechanism for the roof uses 10 relays, five reversing motors, and about 15 limit switches depending on the year. The rear windows also drop and raise automatically while the top is in motion, if everything is working correctly."
That's not even touching on the hydraulic system that the top uses to lift and tuck. Cashman says that it's not unusual to spend $5000 or $6000 going through a convertible's electrical systems to make them function properly.
"If the convertible top works, that car is automatically worth $5000 more than one with a broken top," he chuckles. "Add another $3000 for a car with working rear windows."
Don't be intimidated, but do your homework
Outside of convertible complexity, one of the primary woes of fourth-generation Lincoln Continental ownership is the depleting stock of both period-correct parts and people with an in-depth understanding of these cars.
"This car can't be built from a parts catalog, unfortunately," says Cashman. "It's not like a Mustang or a Camaro. There are also maybe a half-dozen people in the country at this point who've been working on Continentals their entire lives, and I'm the only one who's still traveling."
Still, if you can follow John's advice to never buy sight-unseen, always have an expert inspection performed prior to purchase, and purchase the best condition car you can afford, you're likely to put yourself in the best position to enjoy this stunning classic. It's the kind of car that still feels at home in modern traffic—particularly after adding the front disc brake upgrade to help slow its 6000 pounds of steel—and its far less common than Cadillacs of the same era due to more modest sales numbers.
"One last thing," says Cashman. "Avoid the restomods with these cars. They were well-engineered from the factory, and few have fared well with larger rims and other dubious upgrades."