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Form, Function, the New 2017 Lincoln Continental, and Frank Lloyd Wright

The Wright Stuff: Exploring Continentals new and old from the perspective of America’s most celebrated architect

Sitting alongside the leaf-strewn footsteps of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Palmer House, the 1940 Lincoln Continental soaks in this moment of belonging. More than 75 years have rolled past since Wright proclaimed Edsel Ford’s pet project “the most beautiful car ever designed.” Yet, in the shadow of one of Wright’s homes, the car still pulls his world-famous ideals of style and form clearly into the present.

A 2017 Lincoln Continental, parked next to one of the architect’s trademark carports, looks somewhat uncomfortable in this otherwise harmonious continuum. Where the 1940 Continental is brassy and exuberant, today’s David Woodhouse-designed car is subtle and reserved. Gone is the split-wing grille Lincoln tried to resurrect on more recent sedans, replaced by a squared-off, Bentley-like nose. The ruby-red sedan’s short overhangs and otherwise orderly appearance stand in stark contrast against the original Continental’s sweeping, confident lines. Palmer House’s sprawling geometric layout, boldly integrated into the knoll-dotted landscape of suburban Ann Arbor, Michigan, certainly seems a more fitting home for the old car than the new.

2017 Lincoln Continental front three quarter in motion 01

But those who have ever visited a Frank Lloyd Wright building, be it a large-scale structure like the Guggenheim Museum in New York or a more intimate home such as Fallingwater outside of Pittsburgh, know that the experience of a Wright design is what makes it special. Lincoln points to an experience of “quiet luxury” as a guiding philosophy behind the development of the 2017 Continental, one that echoes Wright’s own views on automotive design as well as architectural design. “The car is architecture,” said Wright. “I am interested in buildings, in the quiet beauty of environment.” Perhaps by spending a few nights in Palmer House with both Continentals on hand, we’ll be able to make out the invisible strings that tie the car and architecture together.

“Complete mobilization of our American people is one natural asset of the machine, fast approaching.”

Wright, who bought both a 1940 Continental cabriolet as well as a ’41 coupe in his signature Cherokee Red paint, was one of the original Continental’s most high-profile owners. (He idiosyncratically redesigned his cabrio’s rear section after a dramatic crash.) Big names like Rita Hayworth, Babe Ruth, Jackie Cooper, and fellow designer Raymond Loewy were also among the early adopters. (Now there’s just Matthew McConaughey.) These magnates of the early 1940s were all drawn to the Continental’s undeniable presence and style.

Based on a modified Lincoln-Zephyr body with a design penned by E.T. “Bob” Gregorie, the prototype for the first Continental was built originally as a one-off, European-style cabriolet for the aging Edsel Ford’s personal use. Edsel’s friends, however, quickly started clamoring for one of their own after seeing it strut around his Florida vacation home in 1939.

1940 Lincoln Zephyr Continental Cabriolet front three quarter
Art Deco design and a hand-built interior still dazzle after all these years. Every moment behind the wheel of the 1940 Lincoln-Zephyr is like a night at the opera.

The 1940 Lincoln-Zephyr Continental was 3 inches lower than the Lincoln-Zephyr, with a hood that was 7 inches longer and featured unique cues ranging from the hood ornament to the instrument panel, dials, and gauges. Mechanically, it relied on the Zephyr’s 4.8-liter flathead V-12, which made 120 horsepower and 220 lb-ft of torque directed to the rear wheels using a column-shifted three-speed manual transmission. Lincoln built just 25 units in 1939, with 400 following the next year. By 1941 the car would simply become known as the Lincoln Continental and continue as its own model line. Lincoln had struggled to keep pace with its competition at the time, and the niche Continental became a critical halo for the brand, one with hand-built elegance and luxurious character that defined the nameplate for decades to come.

While best known for his love of the Continental, Wright’s appreciation for and fascination with the automobile was broad reaching and career defining. He was born in 1867, and by the early 1900s his architectural career was blossoming in parallel with the auto industry’s growth. Many of his clients were weal-thy progressives with the means to buy a car, and his designs can now be seen as artifacts of the automobile’s arrival and integration into American society.

2017 Lincoln Continental front end

Chicago’s famous Robie House of 1909 features one of the earliest documented uses of an attached garage, and Wright’s own Oak Park home incorporated a gas pump into the garage. Later designs for car dealerships, gas stations, and even the parking structure-style ramp of the Guggenheim show how deeply the automobile influenced Wright’s view of the American architectural landscape. For much of his later life he bet so heavily on the automobile’s proliferation that in the 1930s he devised ambitious plans for the so-called Broadacre City, an urban concept centered on people owning cars.

“Complete mobilization of our American people is one natural asset of the machine, fast approaching,” said Wright in 1943. “As a consequence of the motor car … the horizon of the individual has immeasurably widened. … If he has the means to go, he goes. And he has his means: the car.”

Wright had been exercising those means himself as early as 1909, menacing his Oak Park neighborhood with regular top-speed runs in his first car, a yellow Stoddard-Dayton roadster that could hit 60 mph. His love affair with the automobile was so deep-seated that his own son suspected that its promise of freedom inspired Wright to leave his family for Germany in 1909 to have a real-life affair with another woman. While he would eventually return to the States, his obsession with the car was far from over, amassing a collection that included a Cadillac, a Packard, two Dodges, a Ford, a Phaeton, a Cord, and a Knox Roadster.

The carport (a term Wright coined) would remain a frequent player in his designs over the years, as it does in Palmer House, finished in 1952. Palmer House is one of his so-called Usonian homes, which is what he dubbed his approach to the affordable and utilitarian design ethos of American homes in the years after World War II, when houses were being quickly and cheaply built for returning soldiers. Wright wanted to show that good design could be simple and practical while maintaining a personal, human, and organic aesthetic.

Frank Lloyd Wright Palmer House 01
Like most Wright houses, Palmer House isn’t without quirks. Chairs that tip forward and oddly shaped beds are, after all, part of the experience.

That sense of warmth and welcoming so essential to Wright’s homes starts with the driveway. Palmer House itself is hidden from view until you pull up the snaking path toward its carport. Park on the terra-cotta-colored concrete slab and follow it to a series of gentle steps, leading you past a pair of brick walls that guide you to the front door. Upon entering you notice the concrete floor continues seamlessly through the glass entryway, smoothing the transition between interior and exterior space. The sensation is again reflected in floor-to-ceiling living room windows along the back wall, which during the day serve up a living wallpaper of sunlight, birds, and forest.

Look around and you’ll find the house doesn’t contain a single right angle, giving it a very natural sort of harmony compared to the harsh regularity of most interiors. The house’s basic motif is the equilateral triangle, appearing everywhere from the floor to the built-in furniture to the origami crane-shaped interior windows that invite natural light throughout the house. Oil-finished cypress is used on the walls and ceiling. As unique and complex as it all feels initially, you warm quickly to its clever delineations of space and intended use. The kitchen is almost entirely separated from the central living space and its gigantic fireplace with a wall; a narrow hallway lined with books takes you to the bedrooms and study, intentionally offset from the more open, social part of the house.

Each room is designed with practicality in mind as well as thoughtful consideration for the people that lived there, providing a special and unmistakably personal touch. “Human use and comfort should not be taxed to pay dividends on any designer’s idiosyncracy,” said Wright. Original owners Mary and Billy Palmer agreed, and the sensation was not lost on their granddaughter: “There was so much to be discovered everywhere. Every single room held a little surprise. … Nothing about it was normal, nothing was conventional … the different angles and the different furniture.”

“The sensibilities change over time, but the Continental is rooted in a real American-ness, a certain exuberance.”

When you step outside and approach the 2017 Lincoln Continental, the car’s similarly human-centric virtues start to take shape. A sequence of LEDs flows from the lower fascia to the headlights, while the taillights glow like neon through a tube. An illuminated welcome mat appears by the front doors, projecting the Lincoln logo as the interior softly lights up. Gimmicky? Absolutely. Effective? You bet. At the end of a long day, there is something satisfying and endearing about the Continental inviting you to relax and take a drive.

Helping smooth the transition from exterior to interior are the Continental’s new electronic-latch door handles, neatly integrated into the beltline. A light press is all it takes for the doors to quietly pop open, and a power-cinch system takes care of closing with a friendly electronic thrum. Once inside, flip on the massage function included with Lincoln’s optional 30-way “Perfect Position” seats; for long road trips you’ll love the individual thigh adjustments, which stave off nasty leg cramps. The standard leather and open-pore wood trim are handsome, enjoyed best in the cavernous back seat. A full-length panoramic sunroof helps dissolve the separation between cabin and sky.

In the mind of Lincoln design chief David Woodhouse, the Continental through the ages has always been a reflection of the zeitgeist of its time. “The sensibilities change over time, but the Continental is rooted in a real American-ness, a certain exuberance,” he notes. He points to the brightwork—a brassy tone for the 1940 car’s interior compared to generous chrome on the new Continental—as an expression of how an American flagship should set itself apart from German luxury.

Whether it’s the old car or the new, the Continental’s personality is bolstered by a sense of length and substance. “We actually had photos of Wright’s Fallingwater hanging all around the design studio,” Woodhouse continues. “Both in architecture and automobiles, there’s something in the American psyche about the horizon, about life in widescreen.”

On the road, the Continental is exactly the kind of cruiser Wright would have relished on his frequent journeys between Taliesin East in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. Like the 1940 car, it’s comfortable and composed at speed and is unconcerned with brute performance, despite its top-spec, 400-horsepower, twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6. Only the overly boosted electric steering distances you from the calm fluidity of the Continental driving experience. But with a warm personal approach distinct from its rivals, the new Continental should meet the needs and tastes of its intended clientele, many of whom are in China as well as in the United States.

2017 Lincoln Continental front three quarter in motion 02
More so than any Lincoln available, the Continental wrests free from the clutches of Ford badge engineering.

Would Wright, who died in 1959 at the age of 91, love the 2017 Lincoln Continental? On the surface probably not, owing to his famous vanity and flamboyant tastes. The modern sedan would most likely be too plain and unoriginal for him. After all, his affection for the 1940 Continental had quite a bit to do with what being seen in one represented. If he drove the new car, though, we bet he’d be impressed.

Either way, Wright’s legacy as bannerman for and an avid enthusiast of the automobile live on. His predictions that the automobile would become more integrated and connected with everyday life came true, likely beyond his wildest imagination. As for Lincoln and its new Continental flagship? These next few years will tell us whether the world thinks of Lincoln as any old house or a place to call home.

1940 Lincoln-Zephyr Continental Cabriolet Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price When New: $2,840
Engine: 4.8L SV 24-valve V-12/120 hp @ 3,500 rpm, 220 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Layout: 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
EPA: N/A
L x W x H: 209.8 x 73.4 x 62.0 in
Wheelbase: 125.0 in
Weight: 3,615 lb
0-60 MPH: N/A
Top Speed: N/A

2017 Lincoln Continental Reserve Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $56,840/$75,320 (base/as tested)
Engine: 3.0L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/400 hp @ 5,750 rpm, 400 lb-ft @ 2,750 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Layout:  4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA: 16/24 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 201.4 x 82.3 x 58.5 in
Wheelbase: 117.9 in
Weight: 4,547 lb
0-60 MPH: 5.4 sec
Top Speed: N/A

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