Lincoln is lost. Originally designed to be sold under one of Ford’s less pricey, less luxurious marques, Lincoln’s new cars have abandoned their heritage, their purpose, and their distinction. The iconic luxury brand has been diminished, having gone from contending with Cadillac to merely playing in the same league as Buick.
Nope, this is not 2011 we’re talking about. This was 1948, and despite the similarities to today’s Lincoln, the instability was even greater. Edsel Ford had died in 1943, leaving the brand without leadership, and Henry Ford relinquished his presidency shortly thereafter, clouding the entire company in uncertainty. Wartime distractions combined with a new executive team meant that Lincoln made do with reheated 1942 leftovers until it could finally debut a new line in 1948. That the ’49 models moved the marque decidedly downmarket was the result of frenetic management; late in the development cycle, new Ford president Henry Ford II deemed the designs too bulky, so the Fords became Mercurys and the Mercurys became Lincolns. However, in postwar America-with fewer outwardly wealthy individuals but an exploding upper-middle class-the cars sold reasonably well.
Still, Ford executives wouldn’t settle for losing sales-and credibility-to General Motors. The Lincoln’s L-head V-8 was dogged by a reputation for poor reliability, and the “bathtub” look was universally panned. Enter the Lincoln Capri, the brand’s full reset that launched for 1952, available as a sedan, a pillarless hardtop coupe, and a convertible. Earle MacPherson, the father of today’s strut-type suspension, was tapped to improve the Lincoln’s control-arm front suspension. With ball joints at the end of each control arm, the Capri combined the kingpin and spindle into a single piece, reducing steering effort, improving the tracking of the front wheels, and quelling brake dive. A new overhead-valve V-8 made a reasonable 160 hp and, more important, was far more refined than the unbalanced flathead.
For 1953, output jumped to 205 hp thanks in part to a higher compression ratio, a four-barrel carburetor, and larger intake valves, allowing Lincoln to claim the title as the first manufacturer to offer more than 200 hp in a volume-production sedan. The brawny engine and stout chassis led Lincoln to enter several 1953 coupes in the stock class of the 1952 Carrera Panamericana. With an uncommon level of factory support, the team delivered, sweeping the class with the top four places. To achieve his 91.2-mph average over 1938 miles in Mexico, winning driver Chuck Stevenson used the Ferrari team’s road markings, which indicated the types of curves or straightaways that lay on the other side of blind crests. Four Capris would repeat the performance in 1953, and Lincoln grabbed first and second in the 1954 race.
The Capri’s driving demeanor was a home run for Lincoln. One period review extolled it as “the nearest sensation to flying” and the “Pullman of the highway.” But styling was still far from distinct. Ponton bodies and froglike headlights had saturated the industry, and a Lincoln could easily be mistaken for a Mercury or a Ford. Customers wistfully recalled the classic lines of the 1948 Continental.
Larry Harris, the owner of the 1954 Capri you see on these pages, has the solution to the Lincoln’s anonymity. His two-door hardtop is allegedly one of just 560 that were built with a special Continental kit that recaptures some of the icon’s aura with an 11.5-inch extension to the rear fenders and a spare tire mounted between the trunk and the rear bumper. Harris’s car also sports an unusual green roof over its premier yellow body. A factory option in 1952, the yellow-and-green scheme was executed here by the dealer, who painted over the original black roof to meet the demand that remained in 1954. This Capri is made even more rare by the factory-installed automatic luber that squeezes grease into the chassis lubrication points with the push of a dash-mounted button.
The 318-cubic-inch V-8 is torquey and surprisingly smooth as we start and stop over and over for our photographer. Although power is sensible by today’s standards, the engine is laid back and largely spiritless. The Hydra-Matic transmission (supplied by GM) is eager to operate in the highest possible gear, clunkily but steadfastly shifting its way to fourth; once there, you’re unlikely to see a downshift without flooring the gas pedal. With modern, more aggressive gearing, though, the fifty-seven-year-old V-8 could easily serve in an early 2000s truck.
Equipped with power windows, power brakes, and a power front bench seat, this Capri was the pinnacle of Lincoln’s ’54 fixed-roof lineup. The couchlike, three-person bench lazily yet effortlessly slides up, down, forward, or back. The rear windows rotate, rather than slide, down into the body. The most luxurious option, though, is the power steering that drops parking efforts from about forty pounds to five and cuts lock-to-lock from five to three-and-three-quarter turns. The Capri tracks straight and changes direction predictably, although steering feel and resistance, delivered through a wide, wire-thin steering wheel, are masked by the power assist. In all, it rides and handles with a composure that belies its age, size, and appearance, but it’s difficult to imagine driving 90 mph on Mexico’s back roads.
As proficient as the Capri was, Lincoln continued to hemorrhage sales-mostly to Cadillac-in the second half of the 1950s. The Continental name returned in 1956 with dramatic styling and an oppressively high price, while the Capri became the entry-level Lincoln. The Continental hadn’t yet returned to full form, but it did point Lincoln in the right direction with a renewed emphasis on luxury and style. Building on the performance and capability of the Capri, Lincoln was on its way to a dramatic revival with the 1961 Continental. We’ll see if history can repeat itself.
5.2L OHV V-8,
5.6L OHV V-8,
225 hp, 342 lb-ft
3- or 4-speed automatic
Control arms, coil springs
Live axle, leaf springs
About 95,000 (7000 convertibles and roughly 44,000 copies of both the two-door hardtop and the four-door sedan)
$3869 (1954 coupe)
$5000-$15,000 for sedans, $10,000-$35,000 for coupes, and $20,000-$50,000 for convertibles
The Capri has a place in both racing and production history, moving Lincoln forward in terms of performance, drivability, and comfort. It’s not a beauty queen, but the styling is indicative of the era, and its status as an underappreciated driver among the many ’50s classics means that prices remain reasonable.