The cars we loved.
Being the whip for Presidents and the super-rich is not an easy job, the Lincoln Continental was born for the job. It was almost not to be. In the late 50’s then Ford chief Robert McNamera was considering axing the Lincoln brand. After a contest to design the Thunderbird resulted in a four door version of the roadster that was rejected, its designer Elwood Engle, would refine it to become Lincoln’s new big V8 powered rear-wheel drive flagship.
The Continental name would be used to replace the Capri and Premiere line of cars that Lincoln had sold during the 50’s. The new car would come in coupe, convertible sedan and sedan hardtop versions and would embody Engels’s ideals of what a modern luxury car should look like. Its design was very forward-looking, with none of the excessive chrome and rocket ship design cues that were typical of much of the industry at the time. The clean angularity of the Continental was so ahead of its time that its overall profile would remain basically unchanged for nearly 10 years.
The Continental would offer nearly every power feature you could imagine in a very modern interior. It was one of the first Fords to get factory installed FM stereo radios and later 8 track systems. Other features would distinguish the Continental like rear suicide doors, created because engineers kept hitting the bottom of the door with their feet. Ford went to great lengths to keep the quality high with stringent tests. A 12 mile road test was performed prior to each car arriving in showrooms. These cars were intended to be driven by the world’s elite and Lincoln made certain that quality control issues did not mar the brand’s reputation.
Even though the Continental was a big car at nearly 5,000 pounds, it was smaller than similar cars it replaced with its 123 inch wheelbase. Ford even went so far as to feature a woman parallel park in a photo shoot to show how responsive the power steering was and how easy the car could be maneuvered in tight urban settings. Nimbleness aside, it was still bigger than anything Cadillac or Imperial had. The Continental was powered by a series of V8 engines that ranged from 7 to 7.6 litres. Power started at 300 with the 61’ models and through the years would climb to 365 by 1969. The big engines did not necessarily make the Continental a hot rod, as Ford focused on torque, the kind that celebrities demanded when they needed to get away from the mobile paparazzi. Shifting was always done by a Turbodrive three-speed automatic.
The reputation for power, luxury and high quality are some of the reasons the Continental became popular with Presidents and heads of state. Unfortunately, a certain assassination in 1963 will etch the Continental in the minds of many Americans who were old enough to remember the tragic event or who saw the old film reels. The version of the car that John F. Kennedy sat in was a customized 61’ four door convertible with a 62’ front end. After the assignation, the car was refitted with titanium armor plating and bullet proof glass and a permanent hard top. It was originally dark blue, but was repainted black after the tragedy. It served the White House in an official capacity as the President’s car up until 1967, being repainted after each assignment. After Presidential duty, it remained in service until 1978 before retiring to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn Michigan.
The 61-69 Continental remains a sought after collector’s item and still defines 60’s era cool. Even today the 60’s era Continental defines modern era cool as seen in The Matrix and the Last Action Hero. Recently U.S. Presidents have long since moved on to Cadillacs. One became notoriously stuck in a motorcade when it could not clear a hump in the pavement while in England. Such incidents were probably unlikely during the 60’s when the head of state was riding in a dignified looking Lincoln. They just don’t build them like they used to.