The 1984–87 Continental Was a Missed Performance Opportunity


Put yourself in the shoes of a product planner at Ford during the 1980s. It must have been a great gig by the time 1985 came around, when this particular Lincoln Continental was in production. After all, your company’s stock price has tripled since the beginning of the decade. People wanted to buy these fresh-faced Fords over their competition, and your role at the company can take some credit for it.

Every year since 1981 had been a smashing success, and it was only a matter of time before everyone knew it. The 1981 Ford Escort “World Car” was a gamble that paid off with over 400,000 units sold in 1985 alone. The 1982 Continental was a brilliant blend of cost-engineered downsizing and flagship Fox Body engineering, with sales five times higher than the outgoing Versailles. (An admittedly low bar, but still a noteworthy accomplishment.)

The 1983 Thunderbird was a bellwether for the revolution of aerodynamic design and European-ish road manners, while the 1983 Ranger sold over a quarter million units in its freshman year. This was definitely a good time to work in Dearborn.

The hits kept coming. In 1984, something on par with the Ranger’s success happened for the Lincoln brand. The Continental Mark VII didn’t necessarily set the world on fire, but it provided a new baseline for how a personal luxury coupe should look and perform. To compare the Mark VII to a 4.1-liter Cadillac Eldorado is disingenuous. It’s an insult to mention one and the same breath as a K-car based Chrysler LeBaron. It was closer to a Mercedes SEC (C126) than anything from America.


Continuing that Ford truck analogy for Lincoln in the 1980s, if the composite-headlight Mark VII was a fresh-faced Ranger, then the wildly popular Town Car was akin to the iconic F-150.

That puts the 1984-87 Continental and its retro Rococo styling in a difficult spot, as its 1984 redesign wasn’t terribly different than the now-dated, neoclassic 1982 model. It threaded a difficult needle, getting lost in all the hype and fame given to other Fords of the era.

Project Valentino
1984 Continental parts car, ready for the crusher.Sajeev Mehta

This is where I mention Project Valentino, as it has parts from a yellow-ish beige 1984 Continental donor car. The 1984-87 body style never did it for me, but it certainly possessed items that I needed for a restomod. The later Fox Contis are odd mix of give and take from my jaded viewpoint, likely best explained in a list of attributes. So here are the items Lincoln added to the redesigned 1984 Continental:

  • Four corner, computer controlled air suspension
  • Rear anti-roll bar
  • EEC-IV engine computer
  • Power front vent windows
  • Power trunk pull-down
  • A front end almost as ramp-like as the rear
  • Bumpers that look suspiciously similar to the Mark VII
  • Multi-function overhead console
  • New door trim with (optional) real wood veneers
  • Power recliners and (optional) seat heaters
  • Rear seat heat ducts
  • Push button electronic climate control

To aid the transition, here’s what they “took” from the 1983 model:

  • Aluminum hood
  • Engine temperature gauge
  • External, backlit thermometer
  • Spring-loaded chrome fender trim (to give the bumpers a wraparound look, but emerge unscathed in a frontal or rearward impact)
  • Aircraft style, adjustable reading lights for rear passengers
  • Bespoke cast iron front wishbone suspension

Those front wishbones were then donated to the European-influenced, turbocharged 1984 Mustang SVO. Knowing that fact brings some irony to the following Motorweek Retro Review: While it’s about the 1985 Continental, the video starts with the Mustang Vignale show car based on said SVO.

Was this brilliant work of foreshadowing actually an editing choice on the part of Motorweek’s Social Media team? Do they love 1982-83 Continental engineering as much as yours truly, or is this all just coincidence?

All joking aside, Motorweek host John Davis pushes hard on advancements “that few foreign cars can offer.” That might be a stretch to some, but he proved the point by discussing the innovative air suspension and spent an inordinate amount of time on the unique ABS brakes for 1985. The latter included everything from detailed explanations to brilliant B-roll footage of ABS in action.(Some literature suggests anti-lock brakes were a mid-year upgrade to 1985 Continentals and Mark VIIs, and only if they were not equipped with the BMW-Steyr turbodiesel engine. I suspect this Motorweek video was filmed closer to 1986, when the Corvette also received ABS as standard equipment.)

Continental Givenchy InteriorLincoln

But the 1985 Conti’s hardware was never tuned for blatant high performance, so explaining all the interior gadgets that owners can show off to friends with flagship BMW and Mercedes products (with more austere interiors) was a smart play. Motorweek also noted the clumsy AOD transmission performance, and called the styling “neo-nauseous.”

Considering this is the era of the ballyhooed Ford Taurus, such a phrase is a journalistic sick burn worthy of a TikTok throw down. And Motorweek likely got away with it by Ford’s judgmental eyes, as the deck lid emblem on this particular 1985 Continental Givenchy designer series suggests it came from a Lincoln-Mercury dealership. (Continentals in Ford’s press fleet wouldn’t have an emblem on the driver’s side of the trunk.)

This 1984 Continental Valentino is a PPG Safety Car, and looks quite nice on BBS wheels with a (presumably) Mark VII LSC suspension.PPG Pace Cars

Watching this Motorweek Retro Review reminded me how the air-sprung 1984-87 Continentals had the potential to be so much more. It was a wasted opportunity for Lincoln, as 1985 could have been the year to add a legit “touring suspension” to the Continental. It could have blown away other efforts to add performance to the American luxury sedan, thanks to the magic of being based on Ford’s Fox Platform.

Witness the 1984 Continental Valentino in the photo above. It was a safety car when the radical Mark VII PPG Pace Car was made for the paint-company-sponsored IndyCar race series. Someone had the bright idea to make a souped up Continental with color-matched BBS wheels for the sake of safety. If only someone at Ford did this for the sake of mass production!

1985 Lincoln Mark VII 5.0 High Output 5.0HO V8 engine

Indeed, there were a firmer set of air springs, shocks, sway bars, and wider alloy wheels for better handling just lying around in the Mark VII LSC parts bin. Not to mention a faster steering ratio for the superior road feel available on the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. And don’t forget the high output 5.0 engine with tubular exhaust headers, dual exhausts, and dual intake snorkels already in production for the Mustang GT and Mark VII LSC. That provided a respectable 165 horsepower: Ten more ponies than a 380SE Benz and only eight less than the spritely BMW 733i. The motor’s extra punch could be multiplied by Ford’s selection of quicker axle ratios for that Fox body rear axle, not to mention a readily available “Trac-Lok” limited slip differential for aggressive corner carving.

Imagine you are that product planner from the beginning of the story, and the calculus it took to not make a high performance Continental the year after its lukewarm redesign. Sure, there’d be some validation testing and corporate hoops to overcome, but all the parts were just lying there at your disposal.

1984-87 Lincoln Continental front end

I coulda built a contenda I tells ya!

I couda scared Mercedes and BMW owners if Ford had the nerve to let me!

Considering the gravity of the risks taken elsewhere at Ford in the late Malaise Era, making a Hot Rod Continental feels like another no-brainer. It’s a shame that missed opportunities are just that, and that we can’t always get what we want. But now you know another reason why Project Valentino came to fruition, as wrongs must be addressed: Better late than never!



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    I still to this day wouldn’t kick a MK VII out of my drive way if a nice LSC one day ended up there.

    Me three. I used a set of the latter Mark VII BBS’s on my ’86 Mustang GT years ago (with a 5 lug conversion so they’d fit) and it really looked sharp.

    I always thought it would be fun to build a sleeper Conti by dipping into the Fox parts bin. It is sad that Ford didn’t give it a shot it would have been so cheap to do a LSS version to go with the LSC.

    Had an LSC for a bit, one owner 56,xxx miler in the apparently obligatory pewter color, in the late ’80s-early ’90s at university. Great car for two, reliable as an anvil. Dunno why I let it go, youthful indiscretion, I guess. 10/10, would buy again if a nice one came along. Perhaps with a Voodoo engine and GT350 suspension, and a stick added, it would be the Lincoln that might have been. Or the Coyote 5.0 and automatic from a new GT Mustang. Couldn’t be that hard to do…

    Loved that era LSC. My boss had the next gen 90’s LSC and the swoopy styling took the edge off–but it did have that nice 32V engine. I can’t say I have any like towards the subject Continental. The next gen Taurus based Conti was my Dad’s last new car.

    Why no performance? You need to go back to the times. Every American mfg was looking for MPG. It was not till fuel injection arrived that started to bring more power back.

    The other issue was the American Luxury cars were just becoming consolidated corporate platforms. Like I have said before too much Chevy not enough Cadillac. Not enough Lincoln and too much Ford.

    Ford at least retained the RWD. But crippled the cars with air suspensions and tech that just was not ready. Same at Cadillac with the 8~6~4.

    Fords real miss was the LTD fox body. While they did offer it in a 5.0 it was never taken to the levels they should have taken it.

    Sajeev no offense but the hunchback was not conducive to performance. It was more a formal design. Same with the Seville.

    The 80’s was a tough time for luxury. The American companies tried to go low cost and it bit them.

    None taken. Do you remember the bustleback Seville with the “touring suspension” and all the bits that came with it?

    That’s all I was asking from Lincoln. It’s not rocket science, they already had all the parts lying around AND Cadillac gave them precedent to do it.

    My fathers friend has one of those Cadillacs. It was far from a performance car. To be honest the Lincoln was just missing the badge and may have handled just as well with the RWD.

    I always loved the 1st Gen Sevilles that people have taken and modified with Trans Am parts.

    I recall one all blacked out. Lowered and the addition of the WS6 bits to make it handle. Even the steering box. Larger tires and a Pontiac engine under the hood.

    I still think the LTD left much on the table. A co worker had one and he installed a stick and a built 5.0. It was a Mustang GT and then some with 4 doors. He applied many of the Mustang tricks like Trick Flow heads and many Ford performance parts.

    This was the car over looked much due to the Taurus.

    It is only today that many of the RWD Cadillacs are seeing what could and should have been years ago. Be it the new stock V series or a used one with a few modifications making 700 HP on a suspension that can deal with it. Now they have it right they want to go and make a EV out of it.

    Even the 4 cylinder Cadillac ATS my friend has is tuned to a big number of power.

    Chrysler gave up and neither Ford and GM really could never collectively get together as a company behind a solid plan for their cars.

    There are several LTD LXs out there modified as you suggest – with Mustang GT bits added at all the right spots. They’re really neat cars.

    Yes I would love to know if there are any of those cars are available for sale I really want one.

    I drove one of these, l had a friend who worked at a Lincoln Mercury Volvo dealer and he drove one home one night and let us drive it, I wasn’t impressed , handling etc and the backseat was pretty tight

    I’m still kicking myself for not trading my ’81 VW Jetta Diesel for the ’85 Mark VII I test drove just before my move to a new job at the railroad. My VW was purchased for mileage. My commute in 1983-84 was 1,000 miles on weekends and at 51 mpg, the Jetta was great. But with the promotion, a desk job, and a new location, most of my fellow workers bought trucks. I wanted to make a statement to all of those jerks who said I would be blue collar the rest of my life. I figured the Mark VII was just the car. Besides, it had the BMW turbo diesel. Well, it was purchased out from under me. Here it is 40 years later and I’m still kicking myself.

    My parents traded their trouble-prone ‘82 Coupe deVille (with credit option 4.1 v6) for a dealer demonstrator (loaded) ‘86 Continental in Rose Mist (?), a beatiful mauve color. To my 16 year old posterior, it was night versus day. The acceleration was strong and continued to triple (digital) digits, the ABS was shocking in its ability to scrub speed at the ‘too late’ moment, the air supension quite novel, and the JBL sound system would play Master of Puppets with amazing clarity and volume. Alas, the suspension and ABS systems were troublesome; the former under warranty twice, the latter sent my dad to Ford’s arbitration. He’d complained several times about a soft pedal and the car creeping forward when stopped on a hill, but the solution, a complete new system for $2600, wasn’t prescribed until it was past warranty. It was a great car with great potential, hobbled by systems that weren’t as beneficial as they were problematic. A sport version (LSS?) would have been so cool. It’s a shame that Lincoln never dived into that future; instead they took the cheaper route and foisted the ugly, thinly disguised, wrong wheel drive Taurusnental on the motoring public. My parents went back to Cadillac for two more cars after their one dalliance with Lincoln.

    The Mark VII LSC sure has aged well. That’s a testament to its design as well as being at the forefront of new design language that would permeate the auto industry.

    @Sajeev, is it possible that Ford played around with some performance bits for the Conti but decided it either didn’t translate well in driving dynamics or there wasn’t a customer base for it? I feel like there was always someone at the Big 3 playing around with things like this, and it seems like Ford would have had the budget for it, if they thought they could make it work.

    It’s very possible, judging by the “Safety Car” with BBS wheels I posted. I think even Car and Driver mentioned some high performance test mules in a road test of the 1982 Conti. Odds are those Hot Rod Contis were just mules for the Mark VII LSC and Mustang SVO, and odds are they decided the balance sheet wouldn’t support such a machine. Even the similarly spec’d 1984-85 LTD LX was an idea with great intentions that likely didn’t make financial sense.

    Hey Sajeev, that 84 5.0 HO EFI with 165hp you mention as a hopeful possibility did not actually have tubular headers or dual exhaust. The tubular headers didn’t arrive until 85, and that was only on the Holley equipped 5.0. The dual exhaust didn’t appear until 86. The 85’s had a quasi dual exhaust which pushed that EFI version to 180hp (talking Mustangs here). I believe Ford was also using a lo-po (LO?) 5.0 around that time that made around 120-130hp in its non-performance cars.

    Thank you for this, but according to the 1985 Lincoln sales brochure, the 5.0 HO in the LSC did indeed have tubular headers. This was not a Mustang 5.0 HO manual/carb only situation.

    I coulda sworn I saw 1985 LSCs with headers, too. That coulda been a mid-year upgrade, but it likely happened early in 1985 considering the sales brochure was printed with the words “tubular headers”. The 5.0 LO with 140 hp and ugly exhaust manifolds you mentioned was for 1984 LSCs only.

    I apologize for the murkiness, as I wanted to focus on the 1985 Continental (it was in the Motorweek video) and its potential with the 1985 LSC engine, but not overlook the entire 84-87 design.

    Honestly this story reminded me why Henry Ford Senior would routinely sack entire accounting departments during his lifetime because with a tiny bit more freewheeling design ability unconstrained greatness was inevitable.It is sad no one will take the risk of building a new age Continental or Town Car, (NOT SUV!!) as maybe a factory Project Valentino would make it as a unique and desirable standout.

    All done with Fords been pro Mopar for quite awhile now but I think I’m leaning toward GM since there’s 2 Chevys in the garage waiting for me to do something with them

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