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By Design: 2017 Lincoln Continental

Great name but not a great car this time, alas

Lincoln Continental—what a wonderful name, right from the beginning, when it was Edsel Ford’s own custom 1939 Lincoln Zephyr convertible. The one-off design was such a success that it went into hand-built production almost as soon as Edsel’s Florida friends saw it at his vacation home, and a couple of dozen other ’39s and about 400 1940 models were built. By 1941, tooling was ready, and the Continentals (a coupe was added as well) became Lincoln’s flagships. To me, that ’41 car is a pinnacle of American car styling. Restyled for ’42 with squared-up “suitcase” fenders, then picked up again from 1946 to 1948, the Continental became far less graceful and interesting than the original.

In 1953 there were rumors of a fabulous new Continental, and during that year some Ford people visited the Art Center School, where I was beginning my design education. Gordon Buehrig, one of my heroes, was on that visiting team, so I expected something fabulous. They painted glowing word pictures of what was to come, but when a big side-view rendering of the car was unveiled, I was bitterly disappointed. It was not a particularly pretty shape, the fake spare tire cover was hokey, and when produced (without the Lincoln name), it wasn’t well received, lasting only a couple of years. (It was the most expensive car in the world then, more costly than a Rolls-Royce.) Consolation was learning Buehrig had nothing to do with the styling; he was employed by Ford only as a body engineer.

The Continental name has appeared again and again throughout Lincoln’s lifetime—only the 1961 and ’62 four-door cars were truly worthy of the great original styling—and it is now on the all-new luxury sedan Lincoln revealed at January’s 2016 Detroit show. The new Continental is anything but a winner in styling terms. It’s dismal and totally without originality. The grille looks like a pastiche of an old Infiniti outline with woven-wire stone guard texture. Front-wheel drive is not the right architecture for a luxury car, and the Continental’s overall proportions are stumpy.

I understand former Ford CEO Alan Mulally wanted to drop Lincoln when Mercury mercifully disappeared, but present Ford front man Mark Fields insisted on keeping it. I think Mulally was right. Ford stylists say privately that Fields ordered the Continental be as much like a Bentley as possible, but it looks more like a half-done Asian interpretation of near-luxury than anything worthy of admiration. Aside from the name, of course.

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1. The top and bottom grilles together are a lot like the Lexus’ signature spindle, with a painted bar across the pinch point.

2. The nose puffs up, presumably for pedestrian safety concerns.

3. This arbitrary little rib pops out of the hood and disappears back into it before the opening gap. It’s weak.

4. The wipers are tucked away nicely, keeping the front aerodynamically clean.

5. The fender profile line is quite nice in side view, but it starts so far back on the corner that the car’s overall profile is perceived as being unusually short and stumpy.

6. A curious detail is this notch at the top of the A-pillar, marking a break between the apparently slim A-pillar and obviously thicker cant rail. Not nice.

7. The protruding, blade-like door handles are odd.

8. Rising out of the plain, flat surface of the rear door, this pleasant curve defines a not-quite-separate rear fender profile, which again visually shortens the car.

9. These circus wagon wheels were not designed by Op Art movement leader Victor Vasarely, but they might as well have been. They jangle your optic nerves.

10. A lot of horizontal lines on the flat sides, starting and stopping wherever.

11. Ten headlamps? Well, they do fill up the diagonal slot in the 45-degree beveled corners.

12. And if that’s not enough, there are more below in bigger holes in the lower corners.

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13. The full-width taillight strip is a tried-and-true Lincoln effect, carried out well here but looking rather retro.

14. This soft bump is, thankfully, placed for aerodynamic efficiency and does not in any way try to recall a “Continental kit.”

15. The roof profile is squared up to assure rear seat headroom but has the effect of making the whole top a bit stodgy.

16. The dramatic rear door cut is nice but necessitates a big quarter window.

17. The vertical fence on the hood derives from the A-pillar base but emphasizes the shortness of the front sheetmetal.

18. This view drives home the short, blunt, stolid character of the front clip.

19. No imitation diffuser for Lincoln, just a rolled-under pan below a transverse slot with red reflectors at its ends.

20. The rear face of the body is fairly plain and blunt, with a large, featureless, Camry-like bumper strike face.

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21. The seat controls owe a lot to Mercedes, but then those are the very best of their kind, so why not?

22. An excellent steering wheel for this car; big, solid-looking, and very American.

23. Putting the gear-selection indicator out in the clear is a fine idea, although an arm going for another control might block your view of it.

24. Overall, this interior is very American, very much in Lincoln’s tradition, and thus very satisfactory.

25. The repeating pattern of Lincoln’s logo in the seats is a bit much; at least the upholstery is leather, however artificial it looks with the added decoration.

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