Getting creative during the oil crisis.
No matter what the advertising says, the 1958 Continental Mark III is actually a Lincoln
This is a tale of two designs and two Ford divisions. In 1955, new unibody proposals from Continental and Lincoln were met with completely different responses and, ultimately, with different fates. The Continental Mark III had class and style, while John Najjar’s radical Lincoln was widely derided, even within Ford.
It’s no surprise that the Mark III made it to production for 1958, but by then it was something of a phantom, sold through Lincoln dealerships but erroneously named since the Continental Division folded in November 1956. By ’58, Edsel had been enjoying Continental headquarters for more than a year, and Continental’s employees had scattered to other plants and divisions. William Clay Ford went to Ford Styling and took on a bigger role in Henry Ford’s passion project—Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. Gordon Buehrig and Elmer Rohn went on to Ford Engineering, and sales manager Doug McClure took a position at Lincoln. The last car ever built by the Continental Division was in May 1957, after it produced 444 cars for the ’57 model year.
At that point, Ford had a new Lincoln/Thunderbird plant built in Wixom, Michigan, a bit of a hike from Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn. Cheap suburban land led to the demise of many outmoded assembly plants in Detroit, which, upon closing, crushed the neighborhoods and suppliers that had sprung up around them. The city is still reeling, pocked with the remains of what was the Motor City’s greatest era.
When the Continental project was canceled, the Najjar 1958 Lincoln offerings were pretty much etched in stone, with one body style with different features. The Mercury breezeway window was used on some models, including the Lincoln convertible. With the demise of the prestigious Continental Division, their retractable hardtop program went to Ford to make nearly 50,000 Skyliners. Lincoln cannibalized the Continental Division further by taking the Continental Star and the Continental name and applying it to the ’58 Lincoln offering. Lincoln’s ad men marketed the ’58 Continental as a separate marque and reserved the breezeway window and convertible for the “Continental” Mark III. Most Lincoln fans of the era acknowledge that the model was just badge-engineered, but some resist.
The photo below was taken in the Continental Division headquarters design center after the Mark II program was cancelled. Note the rendering on the wall. That was the Continental Mark III, a fully-developed offering that was to widen the Continental showroom offerings. It was to be a unibody car, but shared none of the architecture or driveline of the new 1958 Lincoln.
William Clay Ford was crushed by the cancellation of his Division. However, although it failed in the economic sense, it did provide a halo car and a design language that went onto a Thunderbird proposal that was grafted with two rear-hinged doors and a back seat. That combination saved Lincoln in 1961. The Retractable X-1500R retractable hard-top was canceled and the technology transferred to Ford. The Continental Mark III program simply died, but its design language came through, loud and clear.
Style-wise, Lincoln flailed with the 1958 model’s design, producing wild iterations that stunned Ford executives. When the Continental was disbanded, a door opened for Lincoln to wear the faux halo by acquiring not only the Continental name and Continental star, but also the associated panache of America’s best offering. It simply segregated the already-developed breezeway window and convertible model as the continuation of the Continental Mark II by misdirecting the public into believing that the prestigious Continental Division still existed. It never bothered to distinguish the truth in any technical manuals or parts books, and there are a slew of people who adamantly believe that the Continental Division lived on—even though no one can provide an address for Continental’s “new” location after Edsel took over its headquarters in November 1956.
The majority of the photographs and much of the research for this story were gathered by Elmer Rohn, head of the HVAC development and the interior of the Continental Mark II. Rohn was hired away from the Corvette project, where he was working on seats for the 1955 model. He was a collector of all things Mark II, and kept a development diary in the form of hundreds of Progress Reports. Rohn also retained a personal log of the experience of working through the disbandment and, in a later publication, wrote about what happened to employees and how the Lincoln got the Continental moniker.
Advertising for the ’58 Continental (below) confirms the badge-engineering. By 1959, Lincoln dropped the pretense that the Continental was built by a separate, phantom Division and simply made it a high-end model in the Lincoln line. People quickly saw through the ruse and realized that the sheet metal was the same across the line. In fact, replacement panels were un-drilled to accommodate different badging and lettering.
The 1958 Continental Mark IIIs were built on the same line by the same workers in the same plant simply picking from different trim bins. Per the parts books and Data Plate Decoder, even Ford clearly shows the Continental as a model, rather than a make. The photo below unmistakably shows Lincoln as the maker.
While the internet has always been a boon to research on this subject, it is also a huge disseminator of bad information. It doesn’t help that contributor-driven data-bases have little credibility and that automotive information websites, auction houses, and evaluators have it wrong and perpetuate incorrect information. I’ll rely on technical data over advertising, any day.
The final bit of proof for the nay-sayers is the badge plaque attached to every single Mark III to ever come off the assembly line. You would think that this alone would be sufficient. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be.