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1961 Lincoln Continental
Quality Control Audit

Setting new standards for inspection, testing, and quality control

Image: 1961 Lincoln Continental Convertible in Quality Audit areaNot long after the newly-styled 1958 Lincolns hit dealer showrooms, Lincoln realized they had a problem. A decision had been made in 1955 by Lincoln executives that the make needed to address several key areas in order to be competitive. Lincoln's smaller size, lower horsepower rating and slower performance were obstacles to salesmen when customers were making comparisons with Cadillac, which naturally they did. Cadillac's wider range of models was also seen as an issue. The 1958 models addressed all of these areas, but in doing so opened up the door to additional problems. The Lincolns of 1958 were soon tagged with quality concerns. They rattled noticeably, and experienced body panel shake on rough roads. The doors fitted so tightly that Motor Trend Magazine reported that the weather stripping had torn away on the left rear door. Problems with the windshield wipers were reported, and some degree of annoying reflection of instruments was reported on the windshield at night.

Admittedly, 1958 was a poor year for automotive sales, as the country was in a recession and people were waiting for things to improve before buying new cars. The 1958 models also represented a totally new image for Lincoln, which sought to compete directly with Cadillac on size, model availability, engine displacement, and performance. It was an image that the public was cautious at accepting. Early sales indicated resistance in the market for the new cars, and modest styling revisions for 1959 and 1960 didn't help much. Quality was also a concern, and even though quality improved toward the end of the three year production run, the Lincolns of this era suffered with poor resale values and were viewed as a sales failure by Lincoln.

As soon as the 1958 models began production, design of the 1961 models became a priority. Initially, the '61 cars were to be an evolution of the 1958 design, but this changed quickly once the 1958 cars were met with a cool reception. Should Lincoln risk another major change so soon? And if so, which direction would Lincoln head? Meeting Cadillac model for model, and with a bigger, more powerful car wasn't the answer. One of the first areas identified was quality control. Lincoln knew it had to have the best designed, best built, best warranted cars in the world to send a clear message to the public that Lincoln was serious about quality.

Ford was understandably concerned about the future of Lincoln in the late fifties. The Continental Mark II program of 1956-57 was designed to put the brand on top of the luxury car map, but Ford lost money on every car sold—such is the price of establishing a reputation. The Edsel had been a spectacular failure in marketing, introduced at the exact time the market for such a car had declined. Not wanting to become another statistic, Lincoln knew the '61 models would be their last chance, and they could not afford any marketing mistakes or quality issues.

Image: Lincoln Continental engine testThe best way to guarantee a trouble free car was to test components thoroughly before shipping. This began with the design of the components for the new Lincoln. Precision aircraft tolerances were introduced to the fine car field by Lincoln during the design and engineering of the '61 cars. Lincoln's powerful 430 cubic inch V-8 was America's largest automobile engine at the time, and for '61, it was America's most exactingly built engine.

Critical parts in each engine were hand-matched in sets for perfect balance and fit. Standards were so exacting that new equipment had to be designed and built before any parts could be manufactured. Chrome plating was applied to critical parts to ensure longevity and dependable performance, while others were made of stainless steel for the same reasons. To make sure these parts fit the engine block precisely, cylinder bores were honed twice to provide better lubrication of the cylinder walls, due to the tight specifications.

Once completed, every engine was tested for three hours (shown at left). Then it was torn down and carefully inspected. After re-assembly, each engine was tested again. A stop watch was used in final testing to determine how long it took an engine to start. And these design and testing procedures weren't limited to just engines, either. Gears were made to the same precision standards, and were selected by hand. Special jigs and body gauges were designed and built to check the fit of body panels, doors, and windows. In response to the tightness of the doors on earlier models, special gauges are used to determine how much pressure was required to open or close a door. Wind tunnel tests were performed to ensure a quiet, undisturbed ride at highway speeds. To make sure no outside noises made their way into the passenger compartment, more than 200 pounds of soundproofing and weather stripping were used. Multiple layers of felt, sound deadeners, mastics, and fiber glass pads measured up to 2-1/2 inches thick in critical areas to muffle out sounds, eliminate vibrations, and insulate the interior from temperature extremes.

Windshield wiper problems of previous years were addressed by hydraulic motors being used to operate them on the '61 models. Nylon linings were used in parking brake cables to resist rust and provide smooth, easy operation. Front suspension ball joints required pressure lubrication only every 30,000 miles, and maintenance (including oil changes) was only required every six months or 6,000 miles—a vast improvement over prior maintenance schedules.

Lincoln continued to use the unitized body and frame construction introduced in 1958, which welded the body and frame together to form one strong, solid piece of steel. Structural sheet metal parts were of a thickness to contribute to overall body integrity, and were galvanized to prevent rust. The entire body was submersed into a vat of rust preventative chemicals prior to being painted, as an important step in preventing rust and corrosion.

Image: Lincoln Continental electrical testSpecial insulation was used on electrical wiring, and power window motors used stainless steel shafts to ensure reliable performance. These motors were also coated with liquid rubber to keep water out and increase longevity. A machine electronically checked the entire wiring system of every car (shown at right), and was so accurate that it not only identified any failures that were present at the time, but also could predict and identify future failures by monitoring the amount of electrical current a component drew—too much or too little indicated a problem that was corrected before the car underwent further testing.

Premium specifications carried through into the interior of the '61 cars as well. No cost was spared in locating only the very finest materials for upholstery, padding, and carpeting. And the ultimate test of the quality of these items was in their durability: a decade later, many used 1961 Continentals still had immaculate interiors, with carpeting that hadn't faded or worn from exposure, and stitching that still held panels together tightly. Leather hides were hand selected, and deep-dyed so that scuffs and wrinkles wouldn't mar their appearance. Fabrics were tested for durability in their resistance to soiling and sun fading, as well as their ability to be cleaned should the need arise.

As an additional precaution, the assembly process was carefully monitored. One car per day was pulled aside and checked against the master jig to make sure all of the body panel clearances and dimensions were within the extremely close tolerances specified. Each week, one completed car was taken apart by inspectors to look closely for any flaws related to the assembly process. Lincoln wanted to locate, identify, and correct problems before owners did. One out of every ten cars on the line was spot checked for door and door glass clearances, as well as other critical alignment and assembly procedures.

Once completed, each car underwent a 12-mile, hour-long road test with what Lincoln called "intolerant" inspectors. In all, they checked 189 different items, and marked each one off on a list. If a particular car required more time, it was given without question. If an inspector felt anything was slightly off, heard a strange sound, felt an unusual vibration, the car was returned for corrections and then tested again. After the inspector passed the car, each was subjected to a three minute high pressure water spray to make sure there were no leaks. Finally, each car was sent to a "slick-up" line where more detailed inspections were performed.

The result? Ford Motor Company was so confident in its new Lincoln Continental that it offered a 24-month, 24,000-mile warranty on the car. Henry Ford II announced the new terms to the media on October 31,1960. This doubled the standard Ford warranty, and sent a clear message about the new car's quality control. This was a completely new car that was delivered with very few problems for an all-new car. Many changes were made during the production run, and improvements were made prior to the end of 1961 production. Even more improvements came along for 1962 and 1963, each improving what was almost as close to perfection as was humanly possible to begin with.

Image: 1961 Lincoln Continental Convertible road testDuring the 12-mile road test, the inspectors inspected everything they could see, inside and out. The paint finish was closely observed. The alignment of exterior and interior trim was scrutinized. The upholstery was inspected for loose threads and soiled areas. Even the luggage and engine compartments were checked for fit and finish.

Next, the engine was cranked while using a stop watch to determine how many seconds it took to start. If it wasn't within specification, the car was rejected and returned to the factory for repairs. During the 12-mile trip, engine and transmission smoothness and performance were evaluated. Steering and braking response was checked. Every electrical accessory was tested, right down to the amount of pressure it took to engage the cigarette lighter. And that cigarette lighter had to heat up and pop out ready to use in a specified amount of time as well.

The amount of pressure it took to turn on headlights, wipers, washers, and move heater controls was considered as well. The inspectors checked each car as if it were there own, and if they would be concerned about it as an owner, they were advised to reject the car and send it back to the factory for repairs.

How many cars were rejected? No one is certain if records still exist with that information, but people who worked at Wixom at the time said the rate of units returned for corrections was very low. There was a lot of pride in being able to assemble a Lincoln Continental, and no one wanted to be responsible for poor workmanship. At the time, the Lincoln Continentals and Ford Thunderbirds built at Wixom were among the best built cars in the world. And that didn't happen by accident.