The (Lincoln) Continental Divide
It was the high-water mark of postwar American luxury, that place—as Hunter S. Thompson once said of San Francisco at the same time—where the wave finally broke and rolled back. Its predecessors were unpleasantly bloated, its successors uncomfortably baroque, but the 1961–65 Lincoln Continental was simply perfect, a mid-century-modern vehicle that coincided neatly with, and became symbolic of, the thrill and tragedy of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot.
As an elegant statement of elevated status, the 1960s Continental remains unsurpassed to this day, effortlessly timeless, serene in its aesthetic supremacy, much like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater or Richard Neutra’s von Sternberg House. To see it next to its square-rigger Town Car and Mark VI descendants is to witness the reverse alchemy of gold into dross, an inexorable corruption of concept that saw Elwood Engel’s razor-sharp purity tumble into the landau-roofed abyss, never to return.
Yet the magic of the original Continental is still powerful enough that even today, after disappointing decades of application to hoary old retirement-village sleds and stretched takes on the transverse-engined Taurus, the appearance of its name on a new car is capable of piquing our interest. It doesn’t hurt that the latest Lincoln Continental appears to herald a new seriousness and ambition on the part of its builders, one that respects the standards set by the Kennedy-era cars, without attempting to ape their appearance or wallow in the currently fashionable tendency toward retro pastiche.
To find out just how far this twin-turbocharged, all-wheel-drive apple has fallen from the big-block, drum-brake tree, we put a new Continental Black Label together with a black-on-cream 1964 suicide-door survivor owned by Hagerty member Ross Goetz for a leisurely drive through downtown Cincinnati and the upscale neighborhoods to the north. The mostly German-American burghers who lived there 50 years ago bought the period Continentals en masse, creating happy hunting grounds for a new generation of Cincinnati-area Lincoln restorers and collectors. Many of them, like Goetz, are in their late 20s or early 30s.
Our chosen rendezvous is a Tudor-style hotel in the deliberately quaint planned village of Mariemont, which has everything from a bespoke tailoring shop to an official town crier. I’m waiting for Goetz and his ’64 when photographer Dave Burnett arrives in the Black Label. First impressions are all good. This is a substantially sized automobile, just about matching the old car for width, even if it sacrifices more than a foot in length. It is loosely based on the modern Ford architecture that also provides the Fusion, but this isn’t as out of character for a Continental as you might think. After all, Engel’s original 1961 design was intended for the Thunderbird, not for any Lincoln, and the 1961 Continental would end up sharing its cowl structure—and its relatively modest-for-the-era proportions—with the Thunderbird of the same year.
The new car is available in a variety of trims, from the Hertz-spec Premiere through the mainline Select and ritzy Reserve, but our tester is the top-tier Black Label, which means it can be specified in a “theme” that includes unique paint and interior materials. This one is my personal favorite: Rhapsody. The first thing any connoisseur will notice is the paint—a deep, rich blue with the appearance and texture of the enamel finishes found on Rolls-Royces prior to the advent of modern environmental concerns. It was hinted to me by a Ford insider unaffiliated with the Continental project that the paint booth used for these cars was grandfathered out of some current EPA regulations, an assertion made easy to believe by a complete and utter absence of the dreaded “orange peel” finish. No current Mercedes-Benz or Lexus has paint like this.
Opening the doors reveals a leather-trimmed interior in the same deep blue, with brushed-aluminum accents. The front seats have Alcantara inserts with a discreet Greek-key pattern in their multi-toned threads, and they offer an utterly staggering array of adjustments. Step into the back seats, letting the soft-close power latches pull the door snug behind you, and you’ll see they offer the same heating, ventilation, and recline features. The middle rear seat folds down to expose a console with the ability to control the stereo and HVAC systems, and a tucked-away button offers the right-rear passenger the ability to move the front seat all the way forward for maximum comfort. Clearly, Lincoln has the chauffeur-operated overseas markets in mind here.
Which is not to say the Continental will disappoint the driver. It’s viciously fast, courtesy of the top-spec 400-hp, twin-turbo V-6 and a quick-witted all-wheel-drive system. One could argue this is too much motor for a car that is fundamentally intended to be operated in a leisurely fashion, but after a few launches up Cincinnati’s famously short freeway on-ramps, the power seems as necessary as it is addictive. Thankfully, the ride-and-handling balance is skewed firmly in favor of the former. This is a smooth car even on broken pavement, and it is delightfully quiet even at overly exuberant speeds.
The Continental is loaded from stem to stern with what marketers call “surprise and delight” features: the gloss-black inserts for each letter in the “LINCOLN” badge spanning the decklid; the machined-face, fan-spoked wheels that look like they came straight from a concept car rotating on an auto-show turntable; the carefully chosen fonts on the display; and the restrained but elegant startup animations on the LCD screens.
Yet my favorite part of the car isn’t the engine, or the seats, or the massive overhead glass panel known colloquially as the “BAMR” (or “big-ass moonroof”). Rather, it’s the Revel Ultima audio system, featuring 19 speakers and a coalition of amplifiers that, when combined, approach the dynamic range and power of a well-specified six-figure home stereo. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it is the finest factory-supplied car audio system I’ve ever audited, not excluding the staggeringly expensive Naim system available in the current Bentley lineup.
Is there room for improvement? Certainly. To begin with, the new Continental could stand to be substantially larger—a point driven home during our photo shoot when a livery-plated 2015 Lincoln MKS pulled up next to it. The now-discontinued MKS, which was based on the larger Taurus, absolutely dwarfed the Fusion-derived Continental. Adding an extra foot’s worth of length and a bit of height would give this car even more street presence and would pay dividends in trunk space, which is adequate but not quite up to the standards set by the old Town Cars.
I also regret to say that the styling and proportions continue to be an acquired taste, a problem that is brought into sharp relief when Goetz’s black-on-cream ’64 arrives. The word that comes to mind: perfection. In proportion, in shape, in detail. What a waste it would have been to sell it as a Thunderbird! When placed next to its contemporaries, this Continental must have seemed like a cross between a top-flight modern home and a spaceship.
Not everyone will agree, but it’s easy to argue that the 1964 Continental represented the best of the breed for this platform. Rear-seat passengers benefited tremendously from a three-inch stretch in the wheelbase, and the fussy-looking rear grille yielded to a simple Lincoln star. The styling changes for 1965 and afterward signified a gradual dilution of the original concept, adding extraneous exterior details and exchanging the slab-sided purity of the early cars for sculpting that resembled that of the Ford LTD.
Goetz has tried to walk the fine line between restoration and over-restoration with this project. He’s not exactly the kind of guy you’d imagine owning a 1960s Lincoln—his other hobby involves pulling 100-mph wheelies on motorcycles—but his patience and attention to detail would surely have pleased this car’s original owner. The exterior is mostly original, right down to the rock chips on the hood, as is the interior. Mechanically, however, it’s up to snuff and very representative of showroom condition.
I know from experience that triple-black Continentals of this era, like the one that appeared in the first Matrix movie, can be a little claustrophobic inside. It’s a relief to step into this car and see the bone-colored headliner and seats. There were no fewer than 37 interior combinations available on the car in 1964, offering a choice in everything from seating materials to the type of pleats on the door panels. This was lovely for the original buyers, but it has proven to be a real pain for restorers, particularly those who want the “Goldfinger spec” of Silver Blue leather with vertical door pleats.
I ask Goetz to serve as my chauffeur for the first part of our trip to Cincinnati’s Ault Park, which hosts a well-regarded concours d’elegance every year and which has become well-known as a mecca for midwestern classic-car enthusiasts. He graciously opens the rear-hinged door on the right side of the car, and I enter chin-up much as I imagine former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara would have done. For a generation that flew missions to Europe while crammed into the nose or tail of a B-17, the rear seats of a 1964 Continental must have seemed plenty spacious. Still, even with the three-inch stretch for that year, I’m not exactly sprawled out. My knees are awfully close to the back of the bench seat ahead, and hiproom is at a definite premium, despite the 78-inch-plus width.
Anyone who has watched Goldfinger knows this rear bench isn’t really comfortable for three adults, but few vehicles can manage this trick anyway. The flat side windows, another change for ’64, offer fuss-free ventilation even at freeway speeds, and they combine with the light headliner to make the interior feel wide and airy.
The most striking aspect of the Continental from the inside? The absolute sovereign power exercised by its designers. There’s no concession to crash safety or Big Gulp-style consumer convenience in here. All you get is the stainless-steel, Prairie School aesthetic conveyed by the exterior design. The A-pillar is wispy, insubstantial; the B-pillar is barely a suggestion.
The new car has this one beat six ways to Sunday for quality of accommodation, of course. The spare, flat bench in the ’64, complete with a short thigh bolster and a backrest that falls away in a manner completely unlike any possible human shape, reminds me of Frank Lloyd Wright’s insistence on providing tasteful but massively uncomfortable furniture for his houses. It doesn’t matter. If you wanted nothing but a big back seat and a focus on comfort above all else, you could have chosen something from the Cadillac dealer next door. The Continental owner, presumably, was sophisticated enough to know the phrase il faut souffrir pour être belle (“one must suffer to be beautiful”) and live with the consequences.
When it’s my turn to take the wheel, Goetz offers me one gentle admonition: “This car has enough power to get you into the kind of trouble the brakes can’t handle.” I flick the pencil-thin shifter into drive and resolve to find out for myself. As I expected, the gauges are virtually unreadable by modern standards, set deeply beneath their hoods with everything but the speedometer silver-faced like a vintage Rolex Air-King. Still, I can see the horizontal needle move with modest authority courtesy of the 430-cubic-inch V-8.
This is the kind of car that requires continuous attention on the freeway thanks to the high-profile tires, the complete inattention to aerodynamic stability, and a dead zone of perhaps five inches in the steering that does nothing at all to affect the angle of the front wheels. At 50 or 60 mph, it is far from tiring.
Only when an SUV cuts across our bow do I wish for the disc brakes of the ’65—or better yet, the high-capacity, ABS-equipped binders of the 2017 model. The resulting panic-stop situation isn’t pleasant. Still, Goetz doesn’t look worried from his perch in the rear seat, so we finish the drive to Ault Park in a companionable silence made more so by the good-natured rumble of the distant, narrow-gauge exhaust.
When it’s time to put the old and new cars together for photography, Goetz is obviously fascinated by the current Continental. Like me, he admires the paint. His father, who owns a late-model Lexus, is on the scene as well, and he is amazed by the depth and breadth of the Black Label equipment package. I ask them both, “Is this a real Continental? Is it an authentic successor?”
“I think so,” Goetz replies, and his father nods. “It looks good, and it’s obviously a blast to drive.” They agree that the new car gains rather than loses by not imitating the original. “There’s similarity in some of the details, some of the ideas,” Goetz notes. “That’s all you need.”
I have to agree.
No, the 2017 Continental Black Label doesn’t have the aesthetic purity or moonshot design of its predecessor. What it does offer is a modern, capable package that neither offers nor requires any excuse for its features set, over-the-road abilities, or attention to detail.
There’s one more thing. In the aforementioned conversation with my insider pal at Ford, he said something that will stick with me for a while. “I’m so proud that we are building something like this,” he told me. “In my whole career here, we’ve never gone for broke like this. Everything about this car represents our very best.” It was that same all-or-nothing spirit that made the 1961 Continental and its immediate successors the peerless aristocrats of the American road. It’s an attitude, an approach, that has been missing from Lincoln’s products for decades. I, for one, am glad to see it back.