When critics carp that the Lincoln brand needs to "recapture its lost glory," the suicide-door Continental is what they have in mind. Modern yet elegant, its simple, unsculpted "blade-side" sheetmetal and overall symmetry instantly made its competitors, still clinging to fins and other styling excesses of the 1950s, look stale and irrelevant. The Continental was also the antithesis of its immediate predecessor, the frightful-looking 1958-60 Continentals (Marks III, IV, and V). The new Lincoln was perfectly in tune with Kennedy-era optimism and renewal; the beginnings of the sexual revolution; and the pillbox hats, slimmed-down suits, and other cultural signposts of the early 1960s now celebrated by the TV show Mad Men.
The Continental originally was penned as a two-door Thunderbird concept, but when future Ford president Robert S. McNamara saw it in a design studio, he decided that it would better serve as a car to resurrect Lincoln, which was then, as now, a struggling brand. A design team supervised by Elwood Engel, who later served as Chrysler's design chief, churned out the four-door Continental in only two weeks, and it soon went into production as both a sedan and a convertible. Reviewers grasped for superlatives. Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated wrote that the 1961 Continental was "one of the plushest wolftraps on the road. It's as quiet as the love life of a bass, and it rides as smooth as spilt fudge on a canted stove. [Its] looks will equal any car's in the nation and, in the opinion of some of my arty friends, will trim all others six ways from the post and twice on Sunday." Indeed. The editors of Car Life, less prone to hyperbole, declared simply and accurately that the Continental was "the best-looking American car built today."
The Continental was also one of the best-built American cars of its time, the recipient of a rigorous quality-assurance program that began with the 1956 Mark II coupe. The Continental, like the Mark III sedan, had unibody construction but was said to be 67 percent stiffer, thanks partly to the rear-hinged back doors, which allowed for stronger B-pillars. Each of its 300-hp, 430-cubic-inch V-8 engines was dyno-tested for three hours, disassembled for visual inspection, and rebuilt, and the three-speed automatic transmission was tested for thirty minutes before installation. Completed vehicles were subjected to a twelve-mile road test, and no break-in period or 1000-mile service was required; cars were not expected back in the dealership service bay until the first oil change at 6000 miles. To reinforce the company's level of confidence in the new Continental's mechanical fortitude, Lincoln added a two-year/24,000-mile warranty, which was virtually unheard of in the early 1960s.
The Continental became not just a high-water mark in Lincoln's styling history -- equaled only by the stunning Mark III coupe of 1968 -- it for the first time put Lincoln on equal footing with Cadillac. Brian Ventura, owner of the velvet turquoise metallic over turquoise convertible that we drove, also owns the matching sedan pictured here. If two turquoise 1962 Continentals seems excessive, consider that Ventura, an oboist for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, has a 525-pipe organ in the family room of his suburban colonial.
Ventura's Continental twins are sitting in his driveway, and the convertible's top is down. The cars look relatively large, but in fact the Continental was petite in its time. Compared with the 1960 Lincoln, its wheelbase was eight inches shorter; its overall length, at 17.7 feet, was down some fifteen inches; and it was about three inches shorter in height. (By 1964, the Continental had a three-inch-longer wheelbase and a larger trunk. By 1969 -- the final year for what's considered the fourth-generation Continental -- it was a foot longer than in '61, the droptop had left the lineup and a coupe had appeared, and the overall form had become slightly less beautiful.) Nevertheless, as you slide over the amply padded bench seat and take in the walnut trim, the twin-hooded dashboard, and the wonderfully slim steering wheel, nothing about this car reads "small." The flat hood stretches for yards in front of you, and even the horizontal brake pedal and the slanted, vertical gas pedal, both ringed in chrome, seem oversize to modern eyes.
Lower the seat electrically, fasten the lap belt, and turn the key. A muted V-8 thrum filters into the cabin, but the point of the Continental was not to hear the engine -- it was to make its driver and passengers feel pampered and fabulous. This the Lincoln does exceptionally well. As we drive along boulevards, through a park, and onto the freeway, the Continental displays the cushy ride comfort that reviewers raved about half a century ago. The automatic transmission is as smooth as one could expect, the Conti cruises at 70 to 75 mph with nonchalance, and the drum brakes -- fortified by Ventura with dual master cylinders -- are surprisingly effective. The steering has plenty of play but ultimately is precise, and the gas pedal is stiff but moves linearly.
The Continental made Lincoln relevant and cast a halo of desirability over the brand that lasted for years. The new MKZ shows great promise, but it's not a flagship. What we need from Lincoln is a large, rear-wheel-drive sedan with the panache, poise, and impact of the 1961 Continental. We need a Lincoln that our children will want to collect in 2061.
Engine 7.0L (430 cu in) OHV V-8, 300-320 hp, 465 lb-ft
Transmission 3-speed automatic
Front Suspension Control arms, coil springs
Rear Suspension Live axle, leaf springs
Weight 5100-5400 lb (est.)
Years Produced 1961-1963
Number Produced 87,454, of which only 9207 were convertibles
Original Price $6067 (1961 sedan); $6713 (1961 convertible)
Value Today $12,000-$20,000 (sedans); $25,000-$45,000 (convertibles)
The Continental's timeless beauty speaks of an era of boundless American optimism and of a time when Lincoln and Cadillac were building cars that were as good as anything in the world. For the cost of a new Lincoln, you can park one of these symbols of quality, good taste, and engineering excellence in your driveway. Sedan or convertible? Ask the man who owns both, classical musician and Lincoln aficionado Brian Ventura: "The convertible, especially in this color, is saying, 'take me to the beach, now!' The sedan is saying, 'take me to the symphony!'" We say, don a skinny tie and drive either one.