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1977 | 1978
The story of how the Lincoln became a true competitor to Cadillac really begins in 1956, when an attempt to give Lincoln its own look and distinction was undertaken. Previous Lincolns were at times difficult to distinguish from the Mercury line, and it was decided that Lincoln must develop and maintain its own look and identity to set it apart from other Ford Motor Company lines. What Lincoln came up with for 1956 was certainly distinctive, but sales fell far short of expectations. A substantial restyle for 1957 was effective at updating the look, but sales still trailed luxury leader Cadillac by a wide margin. A decision had been made years earlier, however, to compete with Cadillac in every respect: size, price, and model for model. This would require a major expense, and if it failed, there was a very real possibility that the Lincoln Division could be discontinued.
A new assembly plant located in Wixom, Michigan was built to accommodate what would be a greatly expanded Lincoln line, and was ready to go in the fall of 1957, right on schedule for the totally new 1958 Lincolns to come off the line. Ford Division had an all-new Thunderbird ready to go as well, and the decision was made for the two lines to share the plant as a way to distribute costs better and ensure top quality control for Ford's two finest automobile lines. The new Lincolns were bigger and heavier than ever before, built of unitized body construction which was extremely strong, but a real challenge due to the size of the Lincoln. Unitized construction welds the body panels and the frame together to make them one strong assembly, instead of bolting the body to the frame as in regular construction. The benefits to this design are its strength and rigidity, and the problems include increased cost to repair collision damage and isolate unwanted vibrations and noises from the passenger compartment.
A lot of time was spent getting the body construction exactly where it needed to be, and the result was an automobile of incredible strength. New styling for 1958 sought to create a look that Lincoln could go forward with in the years to come, that would readily define the Lincoln line. Cadillac had its rear tail fins, egg crate grille, and chrome bumper bombs that made identification easy; but Lincoln had changed designs so many times over the years, it had somehow lost its way and never stuck with anything long enough for it to become a "Lincoln look." Of course, there was the classic deck lid hump used on the 1956-1957 Continental Mark II, but for some reason Lincoln didn't want to include this in the styling of its other models.
When the new 1958 Lincolns hit the showrooms, they were bigger and heavier than most Cadillacs, and offered a wide choice of models for Lincoln customers to choose from. But sales were disappointing, and there was a fear within Lincoln that its new styling wasn't being accepted by luxury car buyers. So big changes were made for 1959 to tone it down a bit. Despite endorsements from the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright extolling the virtues of the Lincoln vehicle, sales were still unacceptable. More changes came for 1960, but Lincoln insiders knew that this could not continue for long.
Ford executives were not pleased with the new designs they had seen in the styling studio for the 1961 Lincoln, and the future of Lincoln was very much being discussed at this time. The Mark II project had cost the company a lot of money, as Lincoln lost money on every Mark II it built, but it did establish a reputation for quality, exclusiveness, and put Lincoln at the top of the luxury market. But this would not last for long, as Cadillac introduced its Eldorado Brougham for 1957, the very same year the Continental Mark II came to an end. The Eldorado Brougham was even more expensive and clearly demonstrated Cadillac's place at the head of the luxury market in America.
During this time, Ford's Thunderbird was selling like hot cakes, setting new sales records each year from 1958-1960. It was also due for a restyle for 1961, and the decision was made that the styling exercises being developed for the new Thunderbird would actually make a better Lincoln, so that design was given to Lincoln and a rocket-shaped styling exercise, which had been under consideration at one point for the Thunderbird, was given the go ahead by Ford management.
Since the Thunderbird was a two door coupe, the new Lincoln design had to be stretched to add two additional doors for the Lincoln. The design was beautifully clean and elegant, with no wasted lines or bits of excess chrome tacked on. Considering the excesses that was the late fifties in automotive design, this was a huge step in a different direction. And very risky, as Lincoln couldn't afford another misstep at this point. Another important decision was made at this time. Instead of taking on Cadillac model for model, Lincoln would become even more exclusive, with more standard equipment and a purposely limited assortment of models to choose from. It was decided that a four door sedan and a four door convertible would be built, with no two door offerings. Internally within Ford, they knew the Thunderbird was taking more than just a few customers away from Cadillac, and they felt that people who really wanted a two door car would purchase the Thunderbird instead.
The Lincoln for 1961 would be more compact than its predecessor, and would offer center-opening rear doors, a design Cadillac had used on its 1957-1958 Eldorado Brougham, which was discontinued for 1961, after selling in very small numbers, especially for 1959 and 1960. The four door sedan would feature slim center pillars between the front and rear doors, and the convertible would utilize an automatically-retracting rear door window to avoid clearance issues when the front and rear doors were closed simultaneously. The convertible would also feature a fully automatic retractable power top that lowered into the luggage compartment. There was no boot to install, and with the top down there was no indication that the car had a top at all! The result was absolutely stunning! The 1961 Lincolns were all designated Continentals, which had traditionally been the top model for Lincoln.
When the 1961 Lincoln Continentals debuted, the public was smitten with them! They were compact, distinctive, exhibited clean styling, and showed a very high level of quality control. And all of a sudden, everything else in its class looked outdated. Cadillac stylists literally scurried back to their design studios to modify the 1962 and 1963 Cadillacs, which were already well into the design stage at this point. Imperial's designers were doing the same thing. Finally, Lincoln was the style leader in the luxury market, and Lincoln's executives knew they had finally hit the mark with a design they could claim as Lincoln's, and one they could move forward with that would establish an identity for Lincoln, something it had long needed.
The 1961 Lincoln won awards for its styling, and the design was carefully updated as the years passed. Lincoln advertised that there were no less expensive versions of the Lincoln, a direct slap in the face to both Cadillac and Imperial, which each offered several different series with varying price ranges at the time. Even the least expensive models offered by Cadillac and Imperial were still at the top of the market, but the overall feeling this approach left was subtle but obvious: cheap models bring down the whole line. (Ouch!)
If there was one complaint about the new Lincoln Continentals, it was that they were too small. Since the car overall was more compact than its competitors, interior room was tighter. For 1963, Lincoln provided more interior space, mostly in the back seat. The first substantial restyle for 1964 provided even more rear leg and foot room, and modified the "greenhouse" (upper roof structure) to widen it to provide more head room. This meant the curved side glass was eliminated, which saved money as it was more expensive than straight glass. The upper rear corner above the rear door glass was squared off to provide a more contemporary look, but the overall appearance of the car retained much of 1961's original styling.
Lincoln jumped on the fact that its styling was classic, and that it didn't undergo major styling changes every few years just for the sake of change. It advised that this styling continuity improved the resale value of all Lincolns, and asked people to look at the people driving a Lincoln Continental the next time they saw one. Lincoln ads at the time emphasized the Continental life, and depicted happy Lincoln owners enjoying the finer things in life. The impression taken away by the observer was that having a Lincoln Continental created this lifestyle, and it was one that they, too, wanted.
While Lincoln's sales had improved greatly, they still trailed Cadillac's by a wide margin. The first major restyle of the classic 1961 styling came in 1966, but was beautifully executed and only proved to be an evolution of the original styling. Up to this point, Lincoln had provided a higher level of standard equipment than Cadillac, and its base price was higher as well. Lincoln decided to remove some items from the list of standard equipment and lower the base price for 1966, to keep it more in line with Cadillac. Moved to the options list was the AM radio with rear speaker and power antenna, power vent windows, and power door locks, along with a few other items. Most Lincoln owners would equip their new cars with these things anyway, but it allowed Lincoln to appear more competitive.
Another big change for 1966 was the introduction of the Continental Coupé, which sold much better than predicted.The beautiful 4-door Lincoln Continental Convertible would not return for 1968, as convertible sales were beginning to trail off and impending government safety regulations would make them less profitable to build in future years. Two 1968 Lincoln Continental Convertible prototypes were built for testing, but the decision was made to drop them before production started. People present at the time said the two 1968 cars were complete models, with updated 1968 styling. One was Cranberry (red) and the other was Royal Burgundy. Both were parked in an area near a crane where pre-production and test vehicles were taken to be destroyed. Apparently no one stuck around to actually watch the deed be done. Lincoln built its one millionth car during the 1968 model year.
For 1969, styling updates provided a fresh new look, but the styling integrity that dated back to 1966 was retained. In fact, much of the original design influence from 1961 was still intact. There are those who believe the 1969 models are the best of the bunch. There is little doubt that by 1969 the unitized body was getting a bit dated, and it was time for change once again. The question was, can Lincoln move forward and retain the "Lincoln look" established during the sixties, only update it for the seventies? The answer would come for 1970.
The all-new Lincoln Continentals for 1970 were longer, lower, and wider than the ones that came before them. The clean, classic look was still there, and the cars were immediately identifiable as Lincolns. The center-opening rear doors were gone, and new concealed headlamps up front blended in with a bold new horizontally-textured grille to give the car a very contemporary look.
The basic 1970 styling would remain through 1974, with only annual updates to the front grille, headlamp doors, and rear tail lamps. In 1971, a special Golden Anniversary Town Car was built to celebrate Lincoln's 50th Anniversary. For 1972, the kickup in the rear door area was modified and was most effective in updating the profile. A new Town Car option would be offered for the sedan in 1972, and it would become a very popular option going forward.
Another restyle for 1975 would give the Lincoln an even more impressive appearance, which would continue through 1979. A Town Coupé option for the two door model joined the line in 1975 and oval opera windows from the Mark series appeared on the big four door Continentals as an option. Large rectangular side windows in the roof quarter area gave the two door cars improved visibility for the driver. All of the Lincoln models received the Mark IV/Mark V-style grille for 1976.
Lincoln drove sales with special editions and unique color schemes during this time, including the Williamsburg Edition, which featured a two tone paint treatment. A color-keyed, tinted glass roof section that ran from side to side over the front seat area and appropriately named the Fixed Glass Moonroof was an option and allowed front seat passengers to watch the sky, or close the sunshade and enjoy the shade.
1979 would be the end of the line for the traditional-sized luxury cars, with Lincoln holding out longer than any other (Cadillac down sized in 1977, and Imperial was discontinued after 1975). Lincoln commemorated this milepost with a Collector's Series edition available in monochromatic Midnight Blue or White with dark blue interior. Late in the model year, a couple of additional paint colors were offered. Despite concerns about gas shortages, the last of the big Lincolns sold very well, and were much loved by their owners.
(This article is a work in progress, and will be updated and expanded in the future. —Ed.)
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