Navigating more unearthed secrets of the Lincoln Mark VII Comtech

1985 Continental Mark VII Comtech Ford

Our last foray into the 1985 Lincoln Mark VII Comtech was over two years ago, but one comment from a reader suggested he knew why this car—arguably the very first one to ever have a touchscreen—never hit the showroom floor. His point got me seeking more truths about this car, both from the commentator and from the Ford Heritage Vault, a wealth of information that came online after our previous Comtech article was published.

Before we get to the truth behind the demise of the Mark VII Comtech, let’s see how its hallmark technology evolved into a final product that almost came to production in another Ford vehicle, thanks to rarely seen photos and press releases provided by the Ford Heritage Vault. In the process, we might learn how engineering from the tail end of the Malaise Era established changes in automobiles, advances that we seemingly take for granted these days.

1983 Continental Concept 100

The engineering innovations of the Comtech likely started with the 1983 Continental Concept 100. From the first and second photos, it’s clear that the Continental Concept was also a “teaser” for a new production car, the 1984 Continental Mark VII. The 1980s were certainly a unique time in history, as a luxury concept coupe came with radical technology not likely to be found in a production vehicle. (Ah, to go back to those days when concept cars were rolling dreams, not veiled threats of a modern reality we already know and begrudgingly tolerate.)

But the debut of any 1980s concept car ended with a cliffhanger: How much of its unique technology could make production? With Continental Concept 100, there’s a custom dashboard loosely based on that of the production Mark VII, and a host of bits robbed from a future Ford parts bin. We mentioned some of those cutting-edge bits previously, and now we see that the Lear-Siegler sport seats from the 1983 Thunderbird Turbo Coupe also made the cut. But the new photos unearthed from Ford show the technological goodies with clarity: voice control, NAVSAT navigation, and a diverse selection of media formats for in-car entertainment. Starting from the top, there are all seven frequencies of weather band radio, a TV tuner, a micro-cassette player (presumably not with the cheap tapes used for dictation), and a custom face for both Ford’s AM/FM digital stereo guts, and its corporate seven-band graphic equalizer.

This once-cutting edge technology was nestled in a frame wrapped in leather, par for the course in a concept car looking for maximum impact at an auto show. The ’83 Continental Concept 100 clearly made a positive impression, as more production-worthy implementations were pressed into existence at the same time.

1982 Thunderbird/Cougar Proposal?


Pictured above is the interior of a 1980–82 Ford Thunderbird, the technological flagship in Ford’s fleet before the 1984 Continental Mark VII. The downsized square bird was clearly looking at its Blue Ovaled creator to get into the navigation game, possibly noting how Japan Inc. was helping the likes of Honda, Nissan, and Toyota to innovate via in-car navigation systems. The navigation interface is very similar to the navigation system in the Continental Concept 100.

The T-Bird’s had potential, because the complicated blend of audio/video/HVAC integration appears to be simplified for production. HVAC is removed from this particular equation, as the automatic HVAC is still controlled by the Ford’s well-known, fully analog, sliding-lever control panel. But it was only two years until the 1984 Continental Mark VII sported a fully digitized climate control system, which was fully integrated into a touchscreen in the 1985 Mark VII Comtech. Nowadays touch screens are what we come to loathe expect in modern times, but it’s clear this march of progress began in the Malaise Era: This time period never ceases to disappoint, and the changes proposed for the 1980–82 Thunderbird and Cougar are proof.

Electric details of the 1980 Cougar XR-7, the Thunderbird’s twin from Mercury. Mercury

In a press release dated April 1981, Ford CEO Philip Caldwell noted the increased amount of electric content in luxury vehicles, starting with about 50 semiconductors in 1970 (most were inside the radio) to “the equivalent of 250,000 transistors in the 1981 Continental Mark VI, contained in 17 different electronic modules using about 850 semiconductor devices.” And that Mark VI really had nothing on the Mark VII Comtech.

Too bad this ill-fated Thunderbird/Cougar navigation dashboard was lost to history, as its production could have spurred the greenlighting of the Mark VII Comtech. This complicated ‘Bird could have happily lived with the optional computerized gauges, trip computer, digital audio system, and keyless entry button pad that did make production and were heavily promoted in print advertisements.

New information about the Mark VII Comtech

Here we see the interior in action, thanks to this vintage B-roll from the fine folks at the Ford Heritage Vault. There’s the yoke behind the factory Lincoln steering wheel, letting the driver control many features without taking their hands off the wheel. I especially like the volume controls, which appear a good decade before they made production elsewhere. While the touchscreen interface is the “killer app” for this car, the user in this video never pushes a virtual button to adjust temperature or fan speed.

That’s a shame, but the Mark VII Comtech also lacked the navigation system teased in the aforementioned Thunderbird dashboard and the Continental Concept 100. Time has shown that the technology behind the screen needed at least another decade of improvement, even if this video proves the Comtech’s radical user interface was refined and seemingly ready for production.

Meet Richard Schierloh

Richard Schierloh

This is where Richard Schierloh, the aforementioned commentator from our last Comtech article, comes into play. His 40-year career in automotive industrial design ensured his work on the Mark VII Comtech’s interior was polished and ready for the assembly line. Richard has a BFA from the University of Dayton and an MFA from Wayne State University, and he proudly asserts he has no formal training in automotive design. (Something that’s seemingly mandatory these days, thanks to academic institutions that are now firmly set in place.)

Richard, now 91 years old, tells Hagerty that he “had a wonderful career; I lived my dream. I worked on almost every type of vehicle that Ford produced but I had more years with Lincoln than with any other car line.  I was lucky because I got to design the sort of cars that end up in museums.”

His tenure at Ford started in June 1955, and his favorite design is the 1969–71 Continental Mark III, where he worked under the direct supervision of Lee Iacocca. While he was promoted to a managerial role at Ford, Richard states that he “much preferred the hands-on experience” of being a designer. And that is something he clearly did with the 1985 Mark VII Comtech. In his own words:

I was assigned to the Industrial Design Studio during the time that I worked on the Mark VII Comtech. I was not in the Lincoln Studio, and so I was the only stylist involved and I worked directly with Lincoln management. There were two areas of the Mark VII interior which would be exclusive to the Comtech, the steering wheel controls and the computer interface. I designed the control pod which was mounted behind the steering wheel.

Richard Schierloh

The computer interface is the big story. Nothing like this had ever been done, so we had to invent every aspect. An example of this was the type font. The cathode ray tube did not have enough pixels to use a conventional type face, so I created a new font with simple shapes which could be used. I worked closely with a vender who supplied graphics for Ford.

In the early 1980s, computers were still mysterious things to most people and we had to be able to explain to management just what this system could do. I did not have access to an actual Comtech system, so my solution was to have the typesetter vender copy my screen designs on black film. These films were displayed in the Industrial Design showroom. The films were back-lit and the room was dark. Management could view the various pages of a situation.

The Mark VII Comtech did not have a true touchscreen, which is so common today. Instead there was a frame around the screen with infra-red beams shooting across. If you put your finger on the screen in an area where two beams intersected, this sent a command to the computer. For this reason, I had to design all screens so that a command was located exactly at the intersection of beams. Working with the engineers, we devised the series of screens which we thought would be useful. It was therefore important that we had a logical sequence to every series.

A favorite screen of mine was one that said, “GET OUT OF THE CAR AND RUN LIKE HELL.” I could not sell the team on that one.”

Lawyers killed the Mark VII Comtech


After many months of serious effort, the program was canceled because the Ford legal staff feared the liabilities if someone had an accident while driving and touching the screen. (Today the driver assumes full responsibility. — SM)

However, there was some good news. Money had been allocated for a test drive, and in a corporation like Ford you always spend money when it is available. A test drive was arranged, all the people involved would take four cars (three T-birds and a Continental) out West. We went to Las Vegas. Why not? Ford was picking up the tab.

One morning we went to Death Valley, and all four cars were left to idle with the heater at the maximum and all lights turned on. Windows were left up, too. The cars sat there in 120-degree heat for about six hours. At the end we put down the windows, turned on the AC, and checked the computers. Everything functioned perfectly: Comtech passed the heat test!

After we left Vegas, we drove to Mason, Ohio, the home of Voice of America. They had one of the biggest radio transmitters in the world. We parked the cars right under the antenna and functioned the computers. Everything worked perfect. Then we returned to Dearborn, and that was the end of my Mark VII Comtech experience.

But there is an interesting epilogue. Several days later, as I filled the tank of my Continental, I noticed that the tail-lamp lenses had melted. And here’s the Hagerty connection: Recently I was telling the tail-lamp story to someone and decided to google “Comtech.” I saw your article, and I felt that I should reach out!

Continental Mark VII design proposal by Jeff Teague Ford | Jeff Teague

I had a great time interviewing Richard, and he gave this Lincoln Mark VII enthusiast some great historical perspective on the car itself:

I can understand your fascination with the Mark VII. I have always felt that it was one of the greatest of the Mark series. At that time Ford styling was moving into the “aero” look, and the traditional Mark Series format was not aero. I felt that that the Mark VII was a successful compromise but I fear the public did not take to it. A lot of the reason was that tastes were changing and the definition of luxury car took on new meaning. The era of the big car would soon be over.

Richard is right: The Mark VII’s personal luxury genre was a slowly dying format that is unlikely to return. At least not until regulations that favor light trucks disappear, among other things. But there was a time when personal luxury flagships were a bellwether of product innovations. Or at least could be, as this quote from Nick Zeniuk in a Ford press release suggests:

Market research tells us luxury-car buyers are especially interested in electronic features, and the Mark VII Comtech goes a big step beyond anything we’ve ever offered. If the test program goes as we expect it to, some of Comtech’s experimental features could be incorporated into production cars in the near future.




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Read next Up next: Found in Scrapyard: The egg that hatched Mercedes’ second-gen MBUX infotainment system


    The 80’s cars were trying to cram in more tech but really had not figured out how to get it under control. The mouse was a new thing back then and the touch screen was just starting.

    So because of this we has zillions of buttons. They failed and much of this tech is no longer working today.

    We may have issues with some of todays tech but we are still much better off.

    Great article. I think this had alot to do with the Star Wars effect from Reagan.

    I even remember the 1982-86 camaro berlinettas with all of its gadgets, radio pod, etc.

    Very cool article on the Comtech system. I loved those old Ford stereos with the separate 7 band equalizer. It was such a more useful tool than the bass / treble controls.

    The corporate lawyers at Ford are a powerful bunch. Far more so than they should be. Evidence our 2014 Escape which refuses to allow any touchscreen input when the vehicle is in motion. Good to prevent drivers from inattention, but frustrating when there’s a perfectly capable co-pilot in the passenger seat–something the car knows fully well, as the seat has a sensor to detect occupants to determine whether or not to deploy the airbag in a crash. (Not only does it detect an occupant, but it can determine whether the occupant is heavy enough to warrant full airbag deployment or lighter, necessitating a less-powerful airbag deployment.)

    You are correct… Buick actually built 100 85′ Rivieras with their “Graphic Control Center”, and it included a true touch screen. In 86′ it was standard on their all-new downsized Riv…
    I was the Electrical Staff Engineer responsible for the Buick team that engineered the system.
    The system also included a body computer to control the GCC functions. (also an industry first).

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