Lincoln: A Legendary Marque Enters its Tenth Decade

By David Schultz

The first Lincoln motorcar was built in September 1920 in Detroit. The Lincoln Motor Company was founded by Henry Leland, a legendary tool and die manufacturer and former president of the Cadillac Motor Car Company who was known as “the master of precision.”

Leland and his son, Wilfred, originally organized the Lincoln Motor Company, located at Livernois and Warren in Detroit, to manufacture Liberty motors during World War One. When the war ended the Lelands had a modern manufacturing plant—and their sterling reputation. The decision was made to manufacture a new luxury motorcar—Lincoln, named for the first president for whom Henry Leland had voted, in 1864.

Unfortunately, the Lelands faced a tumultuous postwar economy which coincided with dissent within their stockholder group. By late 1921 the company was in severe financial difficulty and in February 1922 the company was sold at a receiver’s sale. The buyer was Henry Ford, who had already made millions with his legendary Model T.

Edsel Ford, Henry’s only son, was named president of the company. Blessed with a wonderful sense of design and unerring taste, Edsel Ford provided the direction and inspiration for the Lincoln motorcar for the rest of his life. His first goal was to invigorate the company’s products.

The Lelands had designed and built a truly outstanding chassis and motor. However, their body designs were quite conservative. Edsel Ford immediately went to work, bringing in designs from the top U. S. coachbuilders. Sales began to climb and by the mid-Twenties the Lincoln motorcar was recognized in the U. S. and abroad as one of the world’s premier automobiles.

Throughout the Twenties, Lincolns featured both factory and custom-built bodies in a variety of styles, from sporty roadsters to elegant open town cars. Lincolns carried bodies designed and built by all of the great coachbuilders, including Brunn, Derham, Dietrich, Judkins, LeBaron, Locke and Willoughby,

In its advertising and sales literature the Lincoln was described thusly: “As perfect a motorcar as it is possible to produce.”

The Leland-designed model L (as it was known) remained in production through 1930 when a refined and longer wheelbase model, the model K, was introduced (the longer wheelbase being much appreciated by coachbuilders).
For 1932 Lincoln introduced its magnificent V-12 powered model KB, which is considered by most automobile connoisseurs to be Lincoln’s apogee. It remained in production for two years. For brief time, a smaller, companion V-12 was offered until a redesigned V-12 was introduced in 1935, which remained in production until the last “big Lincoln” was built in 1940.

During the 1930’s, as Lincoln continued to build magnificent automobiles with a variety of bodies, both factory and coachbuilt, the luxury car market was slowly disappearing. Legendary automobile companies such as Pierce-Arrow, Franklin, Marmon and Stutz closed their doors. Cadillac, like Lincoln, was supported by a large parent company. Packard survived by going down market with a six and small eight.

Edsel Ford knew the luxury market was in decline and work began on a smaller, mid-price Lincoln that was introduced in 1936—the Lincoln-Zephyr.

Powered by a smaller V-12 and featuring an aerodynamic design, the Zephyr was a sales success.

In 1939 Edsel Ford collaborated with Ford’s chief designer, E. T. “Bob” Gregorie, on a design that would become forever synonymous with both men—the Lincoln Continental. Originally a one-off design for Edsel Ford, the car became a limited production offering and an icon of automotive design.

In 1951, the Museum of Modern Art displayed the Lincoln Continental as one of eight automotive works of art in a special museum display.

When production of the “big Lincolns” finally ceased in 1940 Edsel Ford was supposedly asked by a business writer why the company had stopped making the big Lincolns. Edsel Ford is said to have replied, “We didn’t stop making them; people stopped buying them.”

Lincoln continued to sell the Lincoln-Zephyr, Lincoln Continental and a car called the Custom Twelve, a modified Zephyr.          

With the outbreak of World War Two, all automobile production halted and companies converted their plants to war production. The Lincoln factory’s output included tank engine, jeep bodies and amphibious bodies.

Sadly, Easel Ford did not live to see the automobiles that were slated for postwar production. He died in May 1943 at the age of 49.

Postwar Lincoln designs showed his influence, however. While the competition was lying on the chrome, the Lincoln offerings maintained the look of clean, understated elegance that had been Easel Ford’s trademark.

The first postwar Lincolns featuring a new design—the 1949 models—were initially well-received but were upstaged by a dramatic new look introduced by Cadillac. This sent the Lincoln designers back to the drawing board and the result was a major redesign for the 1952 model year.

The result was a car that bore little resemblance to its predecessors. It was a new design and a new chassis. The earlier postwar Lincolns had adopted a V-8 motor, which made the car a favorite of race car drivers. The newer Lincolns were even better and dominated the Pan American Road Races. The term “hot rod Lincoln” was not without merit.

However, the company was still focused on building luxury automobiles. A new Continental, named the Continental Mark II, was introduced in October 1955 at the Paris Auto Show. Although it honored its namesake, it was a very different car. And like its namesake, it was an instant classic. It remained in production for two years—1956 and 1957—priced at a whopping $10,000.
During the early ’50’s the Cosmopolitan and Capri remained the two model offerings by Lincoln but in 1955 a Custom series replaced the Cosmopolitan. In 1956 the Premiere series was introduced as the American automobile industry began to design and built bigger and flashier automobiles. The Capri and Premiere weren’t quite as over-the-top as most of their competition but they were close.

Another total redesign took place for the 1958 model year, which resulted in another new look for the marque—larger, more luxurious and at a higher price. People seemed to love the new look or hate it, but it was unique.  The company also introduced another Continental, the Mark III. The new design remained in production for three years.

For 1961 the company made a dramatic “180 degree turn.” The new design for that year featured a look that became one of the most heralded and influential designs of the 1960’s. At a time when most American auto companies were laying on chrome with a trowel, Lincoln went the opposite direction—understated elegance. Edsel Ford would have liked it.

The new cars were referred to as Lincoln Continentals—no Mark designation. The new look was carried into the 1960’s, with minor annual model changes that included making the car longer. The most significant redesign occurred for the 1965 model year when the car received a major facelift.

The new design introduced in 1961 became known as “the Continental look,” and provided the marque with a continuity of design that often seemed to be lacking in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

Today, Lincolns of all eras remain sought after by collector car enthusiasts.
Lincoln had continued to be built in the original Lincoln factory until the late 1940’s, when production shifted to other Ford-Lincoln factory locations. Sadly, the original Lincoln factory was razed in the 1990’s. However, the original “LINCOLN” stone letters were rescued by the Lincoln Motorcar Foundation and are on display at the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan.