Hail to the Chief! 3 historic Lincolns to honor on Presidents Day
When February rolls around each year, the automotive display in the lobby of Hagerty’s home office in Traverse City, Michigan, tends to focus on Valentine’s Day. Love and kisses and hearts and romance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, even if the object of our affection is a classic car. This time around, however, President’s Day gets its due—mostly because of Honest Abe and his connection to the Lincoln Motor Company.
How could our 16th president be associated with an automobile company that came into being five decades after he died? Henry M. Leland, who was 74 when he founded the Lincoln Motor Company in 1917, had cast a vote for the Illinois Republican in the 1864 Presidential election and decided Lincoln was a name that could be trusted. The rest, as they say, is history.
For the record, President’s Day is celebrated on the third Monday of February, which this year is the 17th, and it really has nothing to do with Abraham Lincoln. It was established in 1885 in recognition of our first president, George Washington, whose birthday was celebrated every February 22. The presidential holiday didn’t become known as Presidents Day until 1971, when it was moved to the third Monday of the month to create a three-day weekend.
By the way, four U.S. Presidents were born in February—Washington, William Henry Harrison, Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. Although February gets all the glory, four other months have also produced four presidents (January, March, April, and July). August and November have each birthed five, and October has produced six—John Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Jimmy Carter (who celebrated his 95th birthday last October 1). Only one month has failed to produce multiple presidents, September, which is represented only by William H. Taft.
Had enough presidential trivia for one day? Fair enough. Let’s talk cars—particularly Lincolns. They’ve been around for nearly a century now, and we have three of them on display at Hagerty this month: a 1928 Model L, a 1940 Zephyr, and a 1961 Continental. Regardless of presidential preference or party affiliation, we can all agree on this: they’re beautiful automobiles.
1928 Lincoln Model L
When Henry Leland left Cadillac after a run-in with GM boss William C. Durant and founded Lincoln, it wasn’t to build luxury automobiles. That came later. It was to manufacture Liberty V-12 aircraft engines during World War I. When the war ended, Leland began producing motorcars to stay in business and retain his employees.
The first Lincoln motorcar—the L Series—was finished in September 1920, but the tumultuous postwar economy sent the company into a downward spiral that it just couldn’t recover from. In February 1922, with Lincoln in receivership, the automaker was acquired by Henry Ford at the urging of his son, Edsel, who took the reins of the new Ford division.
Edsel immediately put his focus into increasing the cars’ quality and durability. Lincoln engines were given aluminum pistons and improved cylinder head cooling, which increased durability and improved ride and performance. In 1923, the wheelbase was enlarged from 130 inches to 136 inches, and some of the finest coachbuilders of the time were invited to make their mark.
By 1928, the L Series’ L-head V-8 engine had been enlarged from 357.8 to 384.8 cubic inches. The cast-iron unit had a 3.5-by-5-inch bore and stroke; the compression ratio was 4.81:1; and the engine—drinking gasoline through a 1.5-inch Stromberg updraft carburetor—produced 90 horsepower at 2800 rpm.
The interior of the 1928 Lincoln L Series formal four-door is equally impressive, with wool fabric upholstery, classic gauges, and a clock.
Despite bodies that were constructed primarily of aluminum, L Series sedans weighed just under 5000 pounds. Their price tag was equally hefty—$4800 (nearly $72,000 today), which was more than three times the average American’s annual salary in 1928.
1940 Lincoln-Zephyr Continental cabriolet
Envisioned by Edsel Ford and his lead designer, E.T. “Bob” Gregorie, the Zephyr rolled out in 1936 and provided Lincoln with a mid-market luxury car to compete with Chrysler and Desoto streamlined Air Flows. It featured unibody construction, an attractive teardrop shape, fender skirts, and headlights that were mounted flush into the front fenders, giving it a smooth, aerodynamic look.
The 1940 iteration was essentially an all-new car, not just an updated ’39. The second-generation model continued its basic front styling, but its low grille grew larger, and the rear design was fuller than the dramatic taper of earlier Zephyr bodies, which allowed for a wider rear seat and more luggage room.
Nestled under the hood was a 292-cu-in L-head V-12, which generated 120 horsepower, an increase of 10 horses over the previous year. The car’s three-speed manual transmission was operated via a lever mounted on the steering column, and the gauges—moved from a center-mounted cluster to directly in front of the driver—were easier to see. The interior received a mahogany metal finish with a two-spoke steering wheel and a large glove box that faced the front-seat passenger. A radio was optional. Mechanically, the Continental received leaf spring suspensions and four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes.
The use of the Zephyr name ceased after the 1942 model year.
1961 Lincoln Continental convertible
The 1961 Lincoln Continental was based on a stretched version of a proposed 1961 Ford Thunderbird two-door hardtop that had been rejected as too classy and not sporty enough for the typical T-bird buyer. Good for Lincoln, since the new Continentals proved to be distinctive and profitable.
Lincoln decided to build all its fourth-generation Continentals with four doors, and until 1968 that’s the only way you could get one. In an effort to limit the size of the ’61 cars and keep the wheelbase at 123 inches, Lincoln used rear-hinged rear doors that became widely known as suicide doors. Those Continentals were still beefy, weighing about 5000 pounds. Convertibles were actually heavier than hardtops due to the need to brace the body.
Engines were characteristically massive, starting with 1961’s 430-cubic-inch V-8, which produced 320 horsepower and 465 lb-ft of torque, mated to an automatic three-speed transmission.
A total of 25,000 Continentals were sold in 1961, fewest in the model’s run. Only 2857 convertibles were built in ’61—and only 21,347 drop-tops in seven years—and by some estimates fewer than 20 percent still remain on the road. Good luck finding one with a motorized roof that operates flawlessly; refreshing the complex mechanicals is inevitable—and expensive.
A new 1961 Continental convertible had an MSRP $6715 ($57,416 today) and only 2857 were built. Today, a ’61 droptop in #1 (Concours) condition is valued at $105,000; one in #2 (Excellent) condition has an average value of $62,000.
No description of a 1961 Lincoln Continental is complete without mentioning the car’s sad connection to President John F. Kennedy. JFK was riding in a stretched and customized version of the car when he was struck by an assassin’s bullets (or is it assassins’ bullets?) and died on November 22, 1963 in Dallas. The Kennedy limousine, which was later modified with the addition of a permanent top, is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
So here we are again, talking about presidential history. Clearly there’s more to February than Valentine’s Day. Hail to the Lincolns!