Continental Mark II, 1956-57
If there's a car that truly deserves the word 'classic', it's the 1956 and 1957 Continental Mark II.
Its inspiration, of course, was the original V12 Lincoln Continental of the 1940s, built first as a one-off for Edsel Ford's personal use and then put into production after enough of Edsel's friends and acquaintances asked if they could buy one. The original Continental had been possibly the most notable car of the '40s, and Ford, producers of many competent cars but few exciting ones, felt that they needed a bit of that old glamor back.
The new Continental was intended to be the not the largest nor the most powerful automobile, but rather the most luxurious and elegant American car available. Aside from its '40s Continental inspiration, it was designed to recapture the spirit of the great classics of the prewar period, with prices to match.
What emerged was something quite unlike other American cars of the period. While other makes experimented with flamboyant styling, chrome everywhere, and all the glitz and glamor they could manage, the Continental Mark II was almost European in its simplicity of line and its understated grace. There was something of the style of the early Ford Thunderbird at the front, with a tasteful eggcrate grille and a long, curving hood with straight fenders to the headlights. A straight fender line went back to behind the doors, at which point the line kicked up a little before curving back down to the tail lights. In fact, it could be said that the Continental looked like the Thunderbird writ larger and more elegant. Little chrome was used compared to other vehicles of the time, and there were no two-tone paint jobs available.
Emulating the original Continental, the Mark II had a spare tire hump in the trunk lid. For authenticity, the spare tire was actually mounted beneath this, unlike later Lincolns in which this was just a styling feature.
Technically, the Continental was never a Lincoln. A new division, eventually called the Continental Division, was formed to make it, and officially the car should be called only a Continental Mark II, but everyone ignored that. The car was sold through the Lincoln dealership and maintained through them. It bore the four-pointed star prominently on hood and (very large) on the trunk 'spare tire' that soon became the Lincoln emblem. The drivetrain was pure Lincoln, and the car's forebears and descendents were Lincolns. Therefore, everyone calls them Lincolns, and everyone but purists and pedants is happy.
That Lincoln drivetrain featured the new standard Lincoln 368 cubic inch (6.0 litre) V8, effectively a factory blueprinted engine due to the selection of the best, most perfect to specifications parts from off the regular Lincoln production line, allied to a three-speed Lincoln automatic transmission. Both were subject to extensive testing before use.
Most of the car was effectively handbuilt to an exacting standard, including multiple coats of paint hand-sanded down and double-lacquered and polished to perfection.
At the car's selling price of $10,000, Ford said they lost over a thousand dollars per car, and $10,000 was equivalent to the cost of a new Rolls-Royce of the time, or more than two top-of-the-line Cadillacs. Compensated for inflation, this figure would be around $70,000 today; compensated against earnings, probably even greater. It was this high price that doomed the car. Only the very rich could afford one, and scarcely over 3000 cars were built; about 1300 were sold in the last quarter of 1955 after the car's October debut at the Paris Motor Show, another 1300 or so during 1956, and about 450 during 1957. At first, Ford was willing to lose money on each car because of the reflected glory on the rest of their range, but after the company became a public corporation, its tolerance for these losses fell. The recession of the late 1950s would have killed off the car anyway, hindsight tells us.
Famous owners included Elvis Presley, as well as Frank Sinatra, the Shah of Iran, and a cross-section of the richest men in America.
Today, approximately half of the cars still exist, about 1500 or so, in varying states of repair. There's an active owner's club, the Continental Mark II Association, and most parts required to keep them going are available, helped by the car's using standard Lincoln mechanical components. Prices range between around $8000 for a running example in poor repair to around $70,000 in concours condition - thus, a car in perfect condition costs now, adjusted for inflation, about the same as the new one did in 1955.
From the vantage point of today we can say the Continental Mark II was successful at being what it was intended to be; an American Rolls-Royce or Bentley, and a recreation of the grand cars of the thirties. Unfortunately, the harsher economics of post-war life meant that there was no profit in building such a thing, and even as powerful a company as Ford couldn't stand to lose money for long.