Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The car that almost killed Lincoln

Here is the fourth runner up in my list of the Five Worst American Autos of All Time.

1958-60 Continental Mark III, IV and V

One of the great ironies of history is that words and names come into context and comment in the most amazing ways.  Take Abraham Lincoln.  He was killed while seated at Ford's Theater.  Then in the 1920s, Ford Motors Company bought the rights to Henry Leland's fledgling luxury brand Lincoln.  Leland was the man who started Cadillac, and it was his idea to standardize parts across the board, making Cadillac the "Standard of the World."  And Henry Ford was the guy who took that concept and dragged it into a system of mass production that built a car for the "everyman".  These type of connections abound in our universe.

So my fourth place runner-up, the Continental's of 1958, 1959 and 1960 were among the cars that almost allowed Ford's Robert McNamara to kill off Lincoln 95 years after the original Lincoln met his end in Ford's Theater.

The 1958-60 Continental's were really awful cars; born from cost savings, they were huge in an era of large cars, as nimble as Humpty Dumpty, and filled with mechanical nightmares.  And they sported one of the ugliest puss's to ever lumber out of Detroit.

The back story on this car is that in 1955 Ford Motors spun off the "Continental" model from Lincoln on the eve of the reintroduction of the newest iteration of the vaunted automobile. The 1956-57 Continental Mark II was a masterpiece of automotive design and regarded as an American icon of style.   However, they didn't sell many (the price hovered near $10,000) and Robert McNamara, was running Ford for Henry Ford II,  felt that Ford was wasting capital on it's Edsel, Mercury and Lincoln brands.  McNamara (who would go onto run the US into the Vietnam War)  wanted to cut costs.   So he scrapped the Continental division, and fired its staff, merging the marque back into Lincoln.. With no staff, there was no way to design a unique vehicle.

So for 1958, it was decided that the new Continental Mark III, available as a 2-dr, 4-dr and 2-dr convertible, was essentially going to be a Lincoln with its own roof-line, grille and taillights, and with better grade interiors. Lincoln would, on it's side of the equation would sell its Base model, the mid-priced Capri and high end Premiere models beneath Continental's Mark III, which continued on as FoMoCo's ultra luxury brand.  To make it appear as if it was still its own brand, the cars were badged as "Continental, by Lincoln"

But there was one little problem with this bait and switch. 

Prior to 1958, Lincoln's were body on frame cars, like every other car built, save Nash, which used a unit body construction method like they used in building aircraft.  Ford sales were lagging and they needed an engineering marvel to point to so management made the decision to build the new Lincoln as a unibody vehicle at its Wixom, MI, plant.  As Lincoln would go, so would go Continental. In theory, a unibody vehicle is lighter than a body on frame orientation because the unit is welded into one.  The other advantage is fewer squeaks and rattles.  While unibody technology made for a stronger car, it worked best with small, light weight vehicles, like Nash's Rambler. Translating it into a car the size of a Lincoln required additional supports, blocking and reinforcements, and that meant that the Lincoln and its Continental kin were bulked up to the point a 1959 Cadillac look down right slender.

The result was an expensive, huge and totally forgettable car, with deplorable mileage that was so low that you almost blow a whole tank pulling away from the pump. The cars were filled with miles of electrical wiring to operate its complex system of windows, vents, lights, etc.

Of course she's delighted!  Not only is he going to drive it, but he'll have to enlarge the garage so they have some place to put it!

How big is BIG? The Lincoln shell was a behemoth in both length and gross weight; assembled it packed a whopping 5,700lbs. that bobbed and weaved over a wheelbase that was eleven feet in length with a total body length of 20 feet. For comparison purposes, were talking about a car closer in size to a Ford Excursion SUV.  In fact the Lincoln and Continental models came in at hundred of pounds heavier than concurrent Cadillacs.   So on the Continental, this extra bulk translated into nine feet of over hang split between the trunk and the hood and in between was a monstrously large passenger compartment. Try parking that at the mall for a quick errand.

And still stinging from the marketing research that gave them the Edsel, Ford ignored findings that suggested that women would shun such a huge vehicle because of the size, which they did.  The damn thing was simply to large.

They are, in my opinion quite "fetch" from a kitsch stand point, but they almost killed off the Lincoln brand.
Seeing these ugly things tank in the market gave McNamara enough ammo to go to Henry Ford and sink Lincoln for good. Luckily, the Edsel problem was keeping Ford Corporate busy in the marketing bomb of the century, so Lincoln won a reprieve, but with conditions. To save Lincoln for model year 1961 (and beyond) the Continental was scuttled as it own marque, and the model name applied to the only Lincoln model, named Continental, introduced in 1961. (A four door convertible was also offered that year.) That car, like the 1956-57 coupe before it, was a design masterpiece - a milestone of elegance. And it sold like hotcakes compared to the Mark III, Mark IV and Mark V.

From a Corporate perspective, how awful were the '58 Mark III, '59 IV and '60 V? When Lincoln reintroduced the Continental Mark concept of an elite coupe with a spear tire bulge in 1968, Ford named the car the "Continental Mark III" in an attempt to forget those three years of awful, ugly cars.

Supporting factors:

  • Sloppy Handling
  • Like a drunkard when it comes to gasoline
  • Handles like the Titanic, but lacks a ships band
  • Ugly canted highlights and concave front fenders
  • Bridge Busting Weight and too big for most garages
Mitigating Factors 

  • Not as garish as a 1958 Cadillac Sixty Special
  • So ugly it has kitsch appeal
  • Better built than a Henry J
  • More attractive than Henry J. Kaiser, and that ain't saying much.

Next up, the third runner up...


  1. this might be my #1, i'll let you know.

  2. I think you and just about evryone else will understand my choice for the Grand Prize. Stay tuned.

  3. I hope no one has ever described ME in your "Supporting factors" terms.

  4. To me it looks like she's clinging to her man in an effort to keep from collapsing in laughter.

    I would, however, take the convertible for a spin around the block. Once.

    Hey Stu, when was it that Rolls Royce (or maybe Bentley) had those diagonally set headlights?

  5. I think it was a Bentley. I'd have to go through collection of car ephemera - I literally have tons of car ephemera and reference material.

  6. MJ: I hope no one has ever described ME in your "Supporting factors" terms.

    Only if you are a 1958 Continental in disguise.

  7. Actually, the passenger compartment wasn't very roomy, considering what a monstrosity the car was. I took one for a test drive about three years ago and was surprised there wasn't more legroom, especially in the back seat. Additionally, the driver's seat was too high and seemed overstuffed. It was pretty surprising, thought, to see the pick-up the car had given its size. I felt like I'd had a major arm workout after all that steering-wheel spinning!