February 4th, 2022 marked the 100th anniversary of the purchase of The Lincoln Motor Company by Ford Motor Company. The real result of that purchase is that for more than 100 years Lincoln products have reflected the design sense of a true automotive industry visionary, Edsel Ford. The DNA of the brand and its vehicles from the earliest days have been based on Edsel Ford’s sense of grace, beauty, art, spirit and design. We will get to the vehicles that show Edsel’s and Lincoln’s contributions to automotive history in a bit, but let’s set up the story first.
Henry Leland founded Lincoln in 1917, after he left GM and the Cadillac Division, in a patriotic move to build airplane engines during World War I. Leland named the company after Abraham Lincoln, who he claimed was the first President he ever voted for. The firm built Liberty V12 engines during the war under a $10 million governmental bond. After the war, relying on his previous experience, Leland shifted the production to automobiles, with the company finally producing the Model L in 1920. Unfortunately for Leland, Lincoln was plagued with production and design issues. Customers who placed orders for the Model L waited up to a year to receive their cars, and while Leland’s reputation for fine engineering was well deserved, the Model L styling was drab and lacked appeal to car buyers in the post war environment. Given these factors, The Lincoln Motor Company suffered financially and by 1922 had entered into receivership with nearly $8 million still owed to major creditors.
At the request of Edsel and his wife Eleanor, and his own wife Clara, Henry Ford was convinced to place an offer for Lincoln. The ultimate sale price was set at $8 million which was used to pay off the principal creditors of The Lincoln Motor Company. The sale date was set as February 4th. Edsel Ford was named President of the company shortly thereafter.
In one of his first moves, Edsel Ford showed his true character in authorizing additional money after the purchase saying, “in addition we voluntarily paid all of the general creditors. This additional amount, aggregating more than $4 million, was paid purely out of generosity and without any obligation whatsoever to do so. In addition to this, a gift of $363,000 in cash was made to Mr. Henry M Leland on his seventy-ninth birthday, which was the equivalent of his investment in the old company.” That was quite a birthday gift, adjusted for inflation it would be comparable to over $6 million today.
Edsel Ford’s impact on the vehicles that Lincoln began to produce was nearly as profound as his business decisions. The oft used quote from Edsel that “Father made the most popular car in the world. I want to make the best car in the world” became the operating vision of The Lincoln Motor Company and was quickly noticeable in the vehicles and the company advertising.
Contrary to the concerns of Henry Leland at the time of the sale, Edsel not only embraced the engineering quality of the cars, he worked to improve them. He also understood that “a Lincoln not only has to function perfectly, it also has to look perfect.” With that goal in mind, (as is covered so eloquently in the 1996 Concours program) Edsel began to utilize the services of the greatest coachbuilders of the day. Names that ring down in automotive history like Brunn, Judkins, Fleetwood, Holbrook and LeBaron began to build the custom bodies coveted by Lincoln customers, raising the prestige of the brand. Edsel also changed the way Lincoln operated by ordering some of the body styles in batches of 50 and 100 units, which offered luxury at a relatively affordable price. The sales at Lincoln reflected the sweeping changes that Edsel Ford was making as 5,512 Lincolns were sold in the year after the purchase, effectively doubling what the Lelands had been able to sell the previous 17 months.
The Model K was introduced in 1931 to replace the Model L, which debuted under Leland’s ownership of Lincoln. For 1932 the Model K was split into the Model KA and KB series. The KB was the longer wheelbase at 145″ and sported a 447 cu. in. V-12 engine. The KB series badge sported a blue background, while the KA had a red background. There were nearly two dozen standard and customized body styles available. On May 30, 1932 Edsel Ford drove a Lincoln KB Murphy bodied roadster as the pace car at the Indianapolis 500. The Model KA and KB were only used through 1934 MY. In 1935 they reverted back to Model K and were designated by wheelbase. Some of the custom body designers were Derham Body Co., Willoughby, Brunn, Dietrich, Murphy, LeBaron and Judkins. Eventually, the Model K was discontinued after the 1939 Model Year as prices and tastes changed. The final few Model K’s were sold at 1940 MY.
In 1932, Edsel met Bob Gregorie, who had been designing yachts until the depression drove him to find work in the Detroit auto industry. Edsel, Gregorie, and John Crawford, Edsel’s executive assistant and shopmaster, formed a three-person design team for the Ford Motor Company and Lincoln. Two of the first projects they turned their attention to were the 1936 and 1938 Zephyr, both considered design classics for different reasons. The Briggs Body Company had been a featured coachbuilder for both Ford Motor Company and the Model L luxury Lincolns, but with the beginning of the depression and declining sales of ultra-luxury automobiles, they began to look for an alternate vehicle. Briggs designer John Tjaarda had done some preliminary studies of streamlined prototypes which were shown to Edsel Ford who immediately saw the potential in the vehicle.
The 1936 Zephyr was based on that aerodynamic shape (that Tjaarda had shown at the 1934 World’s Fair) but was converted to a front engine vehicle with a special version of the Ford flathead V-8, which had been converted to a V-12. While the 1936 Zephyr was not the first aerodynamic automobile produced, it was the first to achieve broad public acceptance. The aerodynamic design of the car was captured in its teardrop shaped logo and headlights that evoked the spirit of the “west wind.”
With the 1938 Zephyr, Bob Gregorie and Edsel Ford achieved one of the most successful makeovers of an existing automobile line. The original Zephyr sold well, but Gregorie and Edsel felt that it could still be improved. Gregorie changed the position of the radiator, necessitating a new lower front grille, which he designed with a horizontal pattern that was soon copied by the automobile industry. One pundit stated that while the Zephyr had been considered a successful streamlined car, beginning with the 1938 model it was beautiful as well.
n October of 1939, the Lincoln Zephyr Continental was introduced, and in many ways achieved Edsel’s vision of the perfect luxury automobile. The Continental was an immediate design icon and was displayed by the Museum of Modern Art in 1951 as one of eight cars epitomizing design excellence. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright considered it “the most beautiful car in the world” and bought two.
The inspiration for the Continental began with a trip by Edsel and Eleanor Ford to Europe in 1938. Edsel was impressed by the design and elegance of European automobiles. When he returned from the trip, he challenged Gregorie to work with him to create a new and stylish Lincoln.
The team began with the existing Lincoln Zephyr chassis. Gregorie designed a special convertible coupe, or cabriolet, by October 1938 with a 10th scale clay model produced shortly thereafter. The car became a passion point for Edsel Ford as he stopped by the design studio daily to monitor progress and offer suggestions. Gregorie later said of Edsel Ford “He had the vision. I did the work of translating his vision into workable designs.” In one instance, Gregorie wanted to hide the spare tire in the trunk, but Edsel insisted on keeping it mounted to the rear of the car to reinforce the image of a low speedy automobile. Special panels were added to lengthen the hood by 12 inches, while four inches were removed from the body to lower the car. The low, sleek Continental design was born.
By the beginning of 1939, as work on the prototype Lincoln-Zephyr Continental neared completion, Edsel liked it enough to order two more for his sons, Henry II and Benson. These vehicles were only eight inches longer and three inches lower than the original Zephyr, which became closer to the future Continental standard. With that order placed, Edsel headed to his winter home in Hobe Sound, Florida with instructions that the prototype be delivered to him there. According to legend, the car turned heads among his friends in Florida and Edsel returned to Dearborn with orders for 200 more! Sensing the demand, Edsel, Crawford, and Gregorie worked on a plan to produce the cars at a greater rate.
On October 2, an assembly line was set up to begin manufacture of the Lincoln-Zephyr Continental. By the end of 1939, 25 had been produced and were designated 1940 models. In all, 404 Continentals were produced the first model year, 350 cabriolets and 54 coupes. Each car was essentially hand built using Lincoln Zephyr branded trim pieces, with the upholstery a combination of leather and whipcord. The cars featured a Model H V-12 engine and prices began at $2,640 for either the cabriolet or the coupe.
With the 1941 Model year, Zephyr was dropped from the name plate and the car was known simply as the Lincoln Continental. Upgrades and modifications remained constant, as the goal was always to produce the finest automobile possible. Demand remained high and there were always standing orders for all of the cars produced. With the beginning of WWII and the conversion to wartime production, the manufacture of the Continental was discontinued in 1942.
After the war, the Continental was built from 1946 to 1948, but changing tastes and production techniques made it difficult to maintain sufficient manufacturing quantities. There was no longer room in the market for a small production, highly personalized luxury automobile. In order for The Lincoln Motor Company to continue the Continental line, a total redesign would have been required, and Edsel Ford passed away in 1943, leaving a void in vision and design for a new model.
This first generation, later designated Mark I, of the Lincoln Continental offered driving excellence and design elegance for a generation of auto enthusiasts. Ultimately, 5,324 Continentals were produced, 3,047 coupes and 2,277 cabriolets, all manufactured individually and hand constructed. The vision of Edsel Ford and the design expertise of Bob Gregorie led to one of Detroit’s classic cars.
Source Ford Motor Company