The “Essex” Continental is a boomerang coming back home

Sajeev Mehta

It’s not easy being a fan of ’80s and ’90s American luxury grand touring vehicles. People look at you funny at car shows, in ways they don’t at German or Japanese luxury sedan owners. Maybe it’s because the usual enthusiasm for cas from this era focuses on vehicles marketed as “Ultimate Driving Machines,” or those “Engineered like no other car in the world,.” Even those in the “Relentless Pursuit Of Perfection“! That’s fine, unless you’re like me and take issue with Camaro owners scoffing at a Nova, or Barracuda diehards downplaying the Dodge Dart.

While it’s no big-block Dart, the Essex V-6-powered Continental has a lifecycle resembling a boomerang. The 1988-1994 Essex Continental rode the tidal wave of good vibes from the sistership Ford Taurus, and it sold swimmingly at the outset. Then it fizzled; head gaskets/transmission/air suspension problems proved fatal flaws that drove these cars to the bottom of the depreciation curve. Cash for Clunkers in the 2000s was not kind to the Continental, either. For those would-be owners in the modern age who were lucky enough to stumble upon a survivor, the boomerang came back around.

A lot of tech in a plain wrapper, eh? Lincoln

These days, the little Essex Continental remains a shockingly competent machine. There are reserves of new, affordable spare parts so abundant that my fans of foreign would literally kill for them. I discussed this previously, and it still holds true: finding what I need online (Rock Auto, eBay, NOS Ford parts vendor) is the rule, not the exception.

There were a shocking number of cutting-edge parts on these cars, enabling surprisingly flat cornering with the very best of Detroit’s smooth-riding boulevardiers. Remember, Ford was riding high after the 1986 Taurus, emptying a bank vault for the Essex Continental. The 3.8-liter V-6 engine’s aluminum heads and magnesium valve covers surely incite jealousy in fans of Buick’s more conventional engine of the same displacement. Ford threw more at this mill for the upcoming Thunderbird Super Coupe, but in the end, both of its two- or four-door flagships sported an impressive adjustable suspension and steering system. That’s almost expected for a T-bird of this era, but in a Lincoln Continental it was borderline heresy revolutionary!

In 2014, on a fateful test drive, I took a fast sweeper in a dark blue 1989 Essex Continental. It hooked me, riding better than any Town Car but chowing down on corners like a Mercedes. “How on earth did that just happen?” I remarked while nestled amid the Essex’s decadent blue leather interior. (Which I paid $900 for, not just because it was one dead battery away from the junkyard and I pitied it, but also so I could clean it up and SHO it off.)

Aside from the original Lexus LS400, most luxury automakers didn’t have the nerve money to offer goodies like effortless-seeming air suspension, dual-mode Tokico shocks (yes, really), variable-effort steering with impressive breadth, ABS brakes, and even dual airbags (1989+). And all this amazing kit was standard with the Lincoln. The only weak link was that Essex engine, leading to speculation that Lincoln would also get the Taurus SHO’s Yamaha V-6.

I won’t tell you how much money I spent reconditioning the exterior of my Essex Continental with fresh paint, trim de-cluttering, and NOS lighting pods. Nor will I blab about my extensive maintenance regiment (even though parts are cheap and labor ain’t half bad when you’re already in there). But I will tell you that $250 on eBay nets you an absolutely mental amount of low-end torque after sending the factory Y-pipe and its disturbing 90-degree bends into the scrap metal pile.

All this is why I no longer pine for a Lincoln Town Car, as the Essex Continental’s stiffer body, rear strut tower brace and four-wheel independent suspension provide a better real-world ride on modern roads at modern speeds. I still love bigger German sedans from the same era, but they are lighter on luxury, have miserable audio systems and mediocre HVAC, and can only take down the Essex Continental on a long enough straightaway.

Most old luxury sedans from this era tend to be unreliable this far on. But in the Conti’s case I don’t cry when I need a tow to a shop, as this isn’t an imported car with imported-car parts availability and expense. Instead, the flat bed’s hydraulic noises suggest I’m about to perform the equivalent of thrift store shopping spree, opening a few browser tabs to hunt for leftover NOS bits at fire sale prices. I’ll admit to you, dear reader, this is automotive retail therapy in 2023; that wasn’t the case back when the Essex Continental was a few years old.

And when it was new? Don’t read the rantings of some other brand loyal idiot journalist wearing rose-colored glasses, as Motorweek tested a pre-production Essex Continental and came to similar conclusions. They said it was putting European marques on notice, just like the Taurus only two years before. The engine absolutely “runs out of steam” before hitting up the aftermarket for the aforementioned exhaust goodies. But the slalom course shows those dual-mode Tokicos in beast mode, conjuring up references to the 7 Series BMW in terms of a ride and handling balance.

I can hear your keyboards warming up, ready to roast me in the comments for neglecting to mention how front-wheel drive platforms understeer, especially something as softly sprung as a Lincoln. But wait! Motorweek noted how well the rear wheels follow the front, thanks to ideally matched sway bars and the aforementioned rear strut brace. It’s a flat-handling SHO-stopper.

The variable-rate steering even cosplays as an E-Class Benz at speed, just as convincingly as it plays a Lincoln Town Car while parallel parking. This was a stellar first showing for 1988, but much like the 2002 Ford Thunderbird, Ford stopped the music well before the dance was over. That’s fine by me. I am content with owning a vehicle that lost far too many true believers as the boomerang traveled farther and farther away from its origin.

I am regularly stopped by Gen-Z types that are curious, excited, and blissfully unaware of the Essex Continental’s hefty historical baggage. They know it isn’t a Town Car, but they can’t figure out what Lincoln would have such a pointy beak, blackwall tires, and a hunkered-down demeanor on alloy wheels. I tell them what I’ve told you, and they dig it because this “OG” paved the way for the computerized icons that came in its hefty wake.

Sajeev Mehta

The folks at Car and Driver had this to say in their 1989 “10Best” list:

“With the Continental, Ford’s engineers have accomplished something we never quite believed we’d see in a full-size American luxury car: they have combined a pillowy ride with surprisingly capable handling.”

It’s a telling quote that sums up all my experiences with the Essex Continental. So I bought the rag and stuffed it in the Mercedes-alike storage nook (that Ford made for the 1986 Taurus). I remove it on occasion when an onlooker shows appropriate interest. (Two times and counting.) Those wise words wouldn’t mean so much in 2023, when every modern luxury icon handles great, but I’d wager that their 19+ inch wheels shod in rubber band tires would send thumps into the cabin if even a paper clip falls on the road.

All that NVH gets old quick. Better to have an Essex Continental in your arsenal. Finding one of these odd Lincolns on the road today is akin to a boomerang in a haystack. Maybe you should start looking.

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Comments

    The Essex word usage threw me… had me thinking old Hudson.

    This sounds like a car I could love, sadly none for sale within 8 hours of where I live.

    I remember these being nice driving, nice handling cars but I never could get past putting a Taurus engine in it. To me, Cadillac had them beat during this era even with the original 4.5 L V8 with only 155 horsepower. Smoother, much better low-end torque, sounded a lot better and ended up being much more durable. You see a whole lot of Eldorados and sevilles from this era, but you see basically none of these continentals. I’m a Cadillac guy but I’m still tempted based on your article. Let me know when you get ready to sell it 🙂

    Looking over some more photographs, I also remembered that the Eldorado and Seville came with real wood, as did the Fleetwood even though the DeVille did not. The yards of fake Ford wood on these was not attractive. Neither were the seats. To me, the Seville was the real competitor for this, not a DeVille. Possibly you could look at a Fleetwood as a competitor. I should also mention that even the 4.5 had this beat at debut. And it was game over as far as engines when you had the higher output 4.5 and 1990, the 4.9 was in a completely different League than even the original 4.5 and the cadillacs, and was just an embarrassment to the Lincoln at this point. And don’t forget they were still making this old beast when Cadillac had already redesigned the Deville and Seville in 94 and 92 respectively.

    You would think by the time this was built the head gasket problems should have been resolved as well as some of the other problems plaguing the car. It just shows the lack of care/support car manufacturers have for consumers. I have no loyalty to any as they have none even to their diehard fans

    I am a big fan of the FWD Caddies, especially the 4.5 and 4.9s, and I would love to do a head-to-head between my Continental and a DeVille Touring Sedan. Because that’s the spec that might actually have steering and suspension on par with the Lincoln.

    One day I want to line up with any 4.5 Caddy in my 3.8 Essex with the aforementioned aftermarket Y-pipe. Because I bet they have very similar hp/torque outputs now, and my long runner intake and port EFI might actually make up for the lack of displacement. I am certain the 4.9 would still wax it. 🙂

    I’m admittedly not a big “fan of ’80s and ’90s American luxury grand touring vehicles”, although I do like Novas and some Darts, so maybe I’m somewhere in the middle with this (like a lot of other topics that others see as only black or white. What I’m getting at is that the car pictured is a pretty snazzy looking vehicle (within the boundaries of its genre), and as described by our Scribe, sounds like a more-than-decent driving automobile. While I’m not ready to go as far as snailish and wish (almost) that I could find one, I think I’ll say that if I saw it at a car show, I’d probably linger a bit longer than I normally would at most similar types. In this case, I don’t that Mr. Mehta’s rose-colored glasses have led him very far astray.

    It’s not much to look at, unless you are a fan of modern luxury sedans, but maybe if you see one and the owner will let you experience the steering system for yourself…sadly the dual mode shocks will be harder to find, as air suspension parts seem to be extinct and most every example now rides on coil springs.

    In 2000 I had a neighbor who purchased a maroon on maroon 89′ Continental. He was a landscaper by trade and was generally hard on things. As an 11-year-old car it had been beat to death. I did get the chance to drive and although it was rough, it did ride very well and I remember being shocked at how well it handled compared to my grandparent’s 91′ Sedan deVille.

    One day we got 2 feet of snow which is really uncommon for our area. On the first day when no plows had made it out to our street, (none would make it for a week actually) he was the only one dumb enough to venture out. I can still remember seeing that Continental launching hard on its haunches with its nose pointed to the sky. The front end was clearing the snow and the rear bumper was raking the snow behind it. As I walked up the road I could smell anti-freeze. My Dad looked at me and said “That Lincoln won’t be alive by the end of the day.”

    My Dad was right the Continental didn’t come home that night. I’ve always wanted to see a really nice in person but honestly I think you’ve got the last one left!

    Wow, that’s a story I’d expect from this car, but I wasn’t expecting anyone to share it here! They are just too forgettable for most folks. Which is why I saved this one, it just deserved to not wind up in a scrapyard.

    There are a couple of really clean, low mile examples out there. Most of them are lighter colors inside and out, which doesn’t do much for me. My car has PLENTY of flaws, but I still love spending time in that dark blue leather.

    For a while, when I’ve seen your Continental on here, I’ve always thought it looked clean, and now I realize why. I finally realized you don’t have the side door molding, which I think does make it cleaner.

    I’m glad you saved this one. The example I was around 20 years ago was not the car’s fault as much those who owned it before and let it get to that condition.

    Although many are quick to point out its shortcomings, many cars are flawed for many reasons. You can’t throw shade until you’ve driven a few 100k miles in those seats.

    I fell in love with a just as flawed Northstar Deville, and to repeat a quote I heard once: “Owning a car like this is a bit like living with an alcoholic. It’s constantly trying to kill itself, and I’m constantly trying to save it from itself.”

    Good eye! My tweaks (aside from the Y-pipe) are too detailed for this article, but yes, it has been de-badged, de-moulded, and the little bit of chrome on the bumpers that lines up with the moulding has been painted monochrome. I debated doing this, but the decision was pretty obvious when I realized battered the mouldings were after so many Houston summers. The moulding didn’t line up with the big chrome strips on the bumpers, and that always bothered me too.

    The “perks” to the Northstar DeVille over an Essex Conti is that the trans is stronger, and the coil springs won’t leak. But if it isn’t a Touring/Concours model, well, I’d take the Lincoln and deal with its obnoxious flaws.

    The analogy with alcoholism has merit, and likely applies to any flagship luxury vehicle out of its warranty period.

    I remember reading a new car article about the 1988 Lincoln Continental that it was such an excellent luxury car value that Ford was already sorry they didn’t charge more money for it, an oversight they are sure to correct for the 1989 model. Compare that with Tesla changing their prices twelve times a year today.

    They sold out in 1988, and they might have done the same in 1989. Demand for a luxurious Taurus was clearly there, probably in the midwest/south more than the coasts. The 1989 was definitely more money (forgot how much more) because of the standard dual airbags.

    Teslas are a different animal, because there are no dealers to set a final price and/or eat the price variances every few months.

    Those Continentals were junk the wiring harness for the ECU was not heat shielded and was located directly between the firewall and the exhaust manifold, most often the harness melted shorting out the computer and every sensor

    Well that’s a new one to me! I just checked my ’89 and all the wiring between the firewall and the exhaust/valve cover is loomed and insulated with ribbed plastic sleeves?

    Complete garbage cars. My mother bought one used and the airbag suspension blew out and the engine had the headgasket problem it was unfamous for. They were not even good $500 Marketplace clunkers. If you’re going to have one you best swap out the airbag suspension for the retrofit strut and coil springs. Better do yourself a favor and buy a better car to begin with.

    All points are true and relevant. The only thing I will add is that none of these still have airbags, because new and rebuilt springs haven’t existed for years (if not decades).

    I JUST tossed all my NOS airbag stuff along with a 4 corner set of new springs about a month ago because I haven’t owned one of these for quite a few years now. And I believe the air springs are STILL available aftermarket, but quite pricey. So now that I finally made space in my garage you’re telling me they have value still?

    James I am so unbelievably frustrated right now.

    I woulda bought all your airbag stuff and thrown it at my car. Well, not literally.

    Air springs are no longer available for the 88-94 Conti, and if they were, they’d probably have the same awful dampers you get with many new/reman bags for the Mark VIII.

    I wouldn’t say this stuff has value, because only I want them. I bet I am the only person that both owns one of these and will spend the money to reinstate the air suspension. (Especially the original 88-89 air bags, which have a unique part number and probably stiffer shocks)

    I have a soft spot for these for sure – part of Ford’s golden era (in my opinion) in the late ’80s/early ’90s. There are about 10-12 cars from those years that I’d love to have in my mythical 20 car garage and this is one of them. Maybe someday…I still have a personalized letter and brochure from Lincoln from either ’88 or ’89 about these cars that I found in my stuff a few years ago. They didn’t know they were sending the stuff to a poor college student with a post office box in the Student Union…..

    I was a salesman at a Ford/Lincoln Mercury dealer from 1988 until the summer of 1989. I drove and sold a number of these and was always impressed with how nice they rode and drove. The dealership had a number of both these and Town Cars in stock as there were a lot of wealthy wheat farmers in the area and these were very appealing to them. The ones that really impressed me were the ones optioned with the JBL sound system. A very good sounding system for a factory setup from that era.
    When they were getting ready for the 1990 models they had us clearing out all of the 1989 literature and books and tossing them in the dumpster. I came across a big dealer booklet that had samples of all the interior materials and color combos for all Lincoln cars from 1989. Somehow it managed to follow me home and I still have it to this day. I know that it isn’t from a highly desirable era for Lincoln but it’s still a very cool book to have. I would imagine there aren’t that many of them around anymore so glad that I saved it from the dumpster.

    Cool car. A coworker bought new one in 1989, and it was silver. I was always impressed with these FWD Lincolns. It is interesting that some people feel the need to throw in negative comments – I guess they don’t have anything better to do. Sure, the domestics had quality struggles in the 1980s-1990s, but these were not exactly Fiats or Triumphs. People complaining about the reliability of these Lincolns have never owned a Triumph Spitfire as a daily driver.

    It’s not a big deal because these cars deserve to be slammed for their lack of reliability. The engines were harder to anticipate, as other cars of the era with iron blocks and aluminum heads (cough, Toyota Supra) had the same problem with those head gaskets. But the Supra was a bit more specialty than a Taurus/Conti.

    Then there’s the air suspension: it’s a wear item and 6-12 years of good operation doesn’t guarantee every owner of the vehicle will be as enamored as the first person that test drove it. Coil springs can wear out, but they rarely fail, and that’s what everyone expects.

    The transmission is another story: Ford’s FWD gearboxes are junk and only the aftermarket can make them acceptable.

    Given that I spent $5k+ on a rebuild for the 7M-GTE in my daughter’s 89 Supra because of woefully engineered head bolts, I wholeheartedly agree that all cars have some shortcoming or other. And that’s not the Mk3’s only shortcoming.

    Oh, and it still leaks oil from.. somewhere, even with ARP studs, upgraded head gasket, new rear main seal, and remachined head and block.

    Oh wow, thanks for sharing. At least new head gaskets and decked heads are a lot cheaper on a Ford 3.8! I had a leaky timing cover after 10+ years on new head gaskets, that’s all the engine needed after fixing the fatal flaw. Tight as a drum now.

    Sajeev:

    I loved your article on the Essex Continental. Ford made a great product in the late ’80’s through early 21st Century. My wife and I owned seven Taurus/Sables and put over 700K miles on them with very little trouble. I’ve owned my 1992 Taurus LX for eleven years and love the car. It has the 3.8 engine that gets so much bad press. Replacing head gaskets doesn’t look like such a hard job compared to working on newer cars. I owned a 1987 911 Carrera that had three upper engine rebuilds in 105K miles. Porsche was known for head bolts that broke. Yet few people complain about upper engine rebuilds on air cooled Porsche engines.

    It is important to service these Ford products. I put synthetic ATF in the AXOD transmission and change the fluid about every 25,000 miles and I’ve never had a problem.

    I also own an ’87 BMW and an ’88 Mercedes. So I know about German cars from the period. I still love my Taurus. It’s a great running car that is well designed, easy to repair and very dependable.

    Enjoy your LIncoln, Sajeev. It sounds like a very cool car to me.

    Thank you for reading Stephen! I have always wanted a 86-88 Mercury Sable and owning the car only makes me want one more than ever. I have a feeling that more people would have the same good vibes you experienced, had the fluid changes been mandated with something like a timing belt service like the imports did back then.

    I’d wager that the Taurus/Sable/Conti’s need for less servicing is what really killed it. My car is proof that regular coolant service and fresh ATF keeps it running well. Maybe I should knock on wood after saying that, especially with the transmission as mine acts up every thousand miles or so. 🙂

    I had a colleague who owned one of these, purchased used. She absolutely loved it but it went through several expensive repairs of its air suspension in the short time she had it.

    I totally get that…and I know it’s ironic that I gush about parts availability for this car, but air springs are long gone (both new and rebuilt).

    I’d pay a lot to get the smooth air ride with those dual mode shocks back. That said, the decrease in dynamic performance isnt the end of the world considering replacement coil spring conversions will last for the life of the car.

    There is some speculation that ford basically copied the Buick V6, but that may just be gm fanboy propaganda. It is not a function of if but when you will be replacing the head gaskets. The water jacket is too close to the cylinder bore for a good seal. Dissimilar metals and all that with the aluminum head and cast iron block. I liked my ’90 executive series. It wasn’t fast but got respectable fuel economy and handled and stopped decent and floated down the highway. The transmission never gave me any trouble with regular fluid changes. Great car in the snow, but the air suspension would get confused with a lot of heavy wet snow on the car and kill the battery.

    Benchmarking other manufacturer’s designs has been an industry standard for decades before the Essex was created, so there’s little doubt in my mind that Ford took a lot of Buick’s design into consideration. I’ve heard the same thing about Chrysler’s 3rd Generation HEMI being influenced by Chevrolet’s LS1, and that would not surprise me either.

    Great article. I’ve long had a prediliction for the long wheel based cars. I understand that through the malaise era they became bloated and lethargic, but a car like this, well set up, probably with a better motor, would be a great choice. My question though is when luxury became synonymous with hard riding pseudo race cars? It is almost to the point where the standard for luxury is the ET for the Nurburgring, rather than a cosseting ride. Good luck with it

    At some point a majority of people who spend big money on actual luxury gravitated to trucks and SUVs. There are a lot of potential reasons why, but its probably better left to leave it at that while complaining that every vehicle is now too tall and huge wheels (with little rubber sidewalls) must be added to keep them looking in proportion.

    Thanks for reading, and cars like these are proof that the Malaise Era died off pretty quickly in the 1980s. Well, I guess I am actually talking about the 1986 Taurus, but whatever. 🙂

    I’ve had several of these and my last was a blue ’94 like yours. Sold it several years ago for $3500. but for many years there was always a Lincoln or two in our driveway. You are right, they had a plethora of issues but most of the ones I had were air suspension repairs that I got from our local Ford dealer (I used to de recon for them) for just a couple hundred bucks because they wouldn’t/couldn’t fix the air suspension reasonably. I had a bodyshop at the time and ran them through my own shop to repair them and either kept them or resold them for a decent profit. Had a whole shelf dedicated to air ride stuff upstairs. These Lincolns had a phenomenal ride and were quite comfortable highway cruisers. Some of the ones I had got the coil conversion, but I also kept a stock of spring bags, valves, controllers, and compressors on hand. These had really bad/leaky valves in them and the bags would crack and seep air where they folded over after time. But they were a great riding car. I always wanted to convert the supercharged T-bird setup to one but never got a donor that didn’t go back out again. However, I did have a white ’90 Continental with blown head gaskets and a SHO Taurus that had been rolled at the same time…

    I remember a long time ago one of the Lincoln forums posted a Essex Continental with a SHO front subframe swap. It was in the junkyard, but it was nice to have proof that the swap can happen if you don’t give up. 🙂

    Lovely survivor sedan there, fine article & comments Sajeev. My dad (d. ’00) leased a ’92, his first fancy ride…and had no problems with it; by that year, Ford was giving them away per lease deals. In 2018, driving from Hollywood to Pasadena CA, I acquired one precisely like he had: Titanium silver / light grey leather Exec Series, purchased from (literally) The Little Old Lady From Pasadena (original owner, 39k on the odometer, fine condition). With some elbow grease to polish it, and $2g behind me to get it running (a/c, emissions, battery, window regulators, tie rods, alternator, tune up…the usual), it’s been a lovely “Sunday Driver” type since. No leaks yet (although head gasket replacement warnings from fellow readers now have me worried), and mine dons the FACTORY air suspension (yes, factory original!) remains, all solid while driving (although it sags after parked for a few days). eBay has virtually no NOS spare parts in my experience, but with patience they can be found. These remarkable-for-its-day luxury sedans were never beloved collectibles by any measure…meanwhile, my Conti, now with a hair under 60k, drives like a late 90s Lexus ES300 (but more plush, and just as reliable). Every time I fill her up, people ask “what kind of car is that?” And I’m happy to tell them, for my 31 y/o sedan that embodied “what a luxury car should be” for the period. She’s a keeper for now as it has been for years now, and I think of dad every time I drive her.

    What a fantastic story! Thank you for sharing and for helping keep these cars alive. You may or may not have head gasket issues, as many people back in the day said they held together if it never overheated (i.e. always had coolant services).

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