A new dimension in Lincoln elegance
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1977 Continental Mark V
Why a small Lincoln was necessary
Lincoln was taken by surprise in the fall of 1973 when a conflict in the Middle East resulted in an oil embargo against the United States. This resulted in a domestic gas crisis that filled newspaper headlines and the nightly news programs with stories of gas stations closing due to running out of gas, often accompanied by images of long lines of motorists waiting to buy gas.
No one saw this coming, and a concerned public abandoned the full-sized automobiles they'd always loved in favor of smaller, more fuel efficient cars. Some auto makers were better prepared for this than others, as increased sales of their smaller cars helped to offset the loss of sales of the larger ones. But companies like Lincoln and Cadillac didn't have any smaller models to offer customers, so their business was perhaps impacted more than others.
The conflict was resolved within a few months, and the flow of oil to the U.S. was restored, but the gas crisis had been a warning, and some would heed that warning better than their competitors.
After spending decades struggling to find a look that it could identify as its own, Lincoln finally created a true masterpiece with the 1961 Lincoln Continental, a car that set the tone for many automotive designs of the sixties and beyond. There had been brief glimmers of hope in the past, such as the 1956-1957 Continental Mark II, but that program was never intended to be high volume, and even though it helped to established Lincoln as a luxury leader, it was quickly forgotten when Cadillac introduced its Eldorado Brougham in 1957.
During the early to mid-sixties, Lincoln was showing sales increases every year, but was still trailing Cadillac in overall sales. Lincoln was pleased that its marketing indicated conquest sales from Cadillac were increasing, which meant traditional Cadillac customers were buying new Lincolns more often than they had in the past. Lincoln focused on quality control and even ran an ad campaign touting the results of testing that showed Cadillac owners thought Lincoln had the best ride and was easiest to drive. This is when the gas crisis hit.
Lincoln returned to business as usual after the crisis, unaware at the time that Cadillac had been motivated by the crisis—as well as the encroachment of luxury imports into its market—to initiate a crash program to develop and build a new smaller car. The time frame from initiation of design to introduction was ridiculously short, just 16 months, which set a new record for GM, and shattered the old record by two months! Cadillac turned to the Chevrolet Nova platform for its new smaller car, and designed an all new body for it that shared body panels with no other car. It designed a luxurious interior from scratch, and looked to Oldsmobile to provide V-8 power, but added its own Electronic Fuel Injection System. Cadillac loaded up the Seville with most of its optional items, and included them as standard. The Seville became the most expensive model in Cadillac's standard line, with the exception of only the big Fleetwood Seventy-Fives.
The Seville was ready to go by the spring of 1975, and its announcement preceded its introduction by a month. Not long before the introduction of the Seville, Lincoln became aware that Cadillac was getting close to introducing a smaller car. Lincoln was also aware of the issue with luxury imports gaining popularity in the U.S., and taking sales from the American makes, so it too decided it needed to respond to the import issue, but even more pressing was a response to Cadillac's new Seville.
How the Versailles developed
Not having anything in development upon which to start, Lincoln was forced to look elsewhere for a platform on which to base its new compact car, just as Cadillac had done with the Nova. The Ford Granada/Mercury Monarch was determined to be the best fit, as it was a new design that had was to be introduced in 1975, intended to replace the Ford Maverick and Mercury Comet models. Since Lincoln had an even shorter time frame to work with, and a smaller budget as well, the new compact car would have to share body panels with the other models. It was hoped that Lincoln's stylists would be able to conceal the new car's origins with the use of unique trim and only a couple of unique sheet metal panels.
It was decided that the new Lincoln would be equipped with almost everything Lincoln had to offer as standard, and on introduction the new car was indeed the best equipped Lincoln ever in standard form. While Cadillac had boldly priced its new Seville near the top of its line, Lincoln made a reluctant decision to price the Versailles some $2,000 lower than the Seville, keeping its base price more in line with that of the Continental Mark V.
What Lincoln came up with was a very slick looking smaller luxury car that was instantly identifiable as a Lincoln. The Mark V grille was fitted up front, and a unique deck lid complete with the classic Continental kick-up was included in the rear. The focus was on quality control, fit and finish, and quality of the materials used. Available only as a four door sedan, the new car was named Versailles, which was a name that came highly rated from a marketing study done in 1966 during the search for an appropriate name for what eventually became the 1969 Continental Mark III.
The Versailles announcement
On January 20, 1977, the Lincoln Mercury Division sent out advance notice to dealers that a new compact Lincoln was on the way to compete with the Seville, as well as the luxury imports from Mercedes Benz, BMW, and Jaguar. A press release dated March 28th followed, which coincided with the official introduction date. The car was identical to the Granada/Monarch in size, with a 109.9-inch wheelbase, and virtually identical interior dimensions. Dealers were careful to display the new Versailles with other Lincoln models, avoiding the Monarchs since the appearance similarities were quite apart when sitting next to each other. Lot personnel were also advised to separate the two cars.
Versailles' strongest competitor, however, appeared to be the Mark V. Since the prices were comparable, customers weren't hard pressed to choose the very popular Mark V over the new Versailles that looked like a fancy Monarch. Sales of 15,434 units for the first year weren't bad, considering the late introduction, and in fact were on a par with Seville's first year sales during the 1975 model year, as the Seville debuted late in the year as a 1976 model.
In order to maintain high standards and a uniform appearance, the Versailles was available in only eight colors, and offered four optional two tone color schemes. In some ways, the Versailles was a step ahead of the Seville, as it came standard with forged aluminum wheels while the Cadillac had polished wheel discs that were rather plain in comparison. The Versailles also included dual illuminated visor vanity mirrors, while the Seville only offered one on the passenger's side, and it was optional. An Illuminated Entry System was also standard on the Versailles, and optional on Seville. But ultimately, none of these things made much of a difference, as customers weren't prepared to pay twice as much for the Versailles as they would for a Monarch, and of course Cadillac salesmen never hesitated to point out the compact Lincoln's origins, which were very apparent due to the lack of unique sheet metal.
Nevertheless, inside the Versailles was a quiet, elegant environment not found in other motorcars. Rich Dorchester Cloth upholstery was offered in a choice of four colors. The Flight Bench seats had a pleated sew pattern, and a center fold-down arm rest was provided front and rear. The instrument panel top pad was covered in hand-stitched leather, and quartz crystal clock by Cartier graces the panel in front of the passenger. Leather is wrapped around the steering wheel rim as well, also hand sewn. Luxurious cut pile carpeting is under foot, color-keyed to match interior colors. The luggage compartment and deck lid are lined with matching cut-pile carpeting.
Was the Versailles a bad car?
No, it was not. Quality control and fit and finish at Lincoln during this time was generally considered to be better than Cadillac's. This was verified somewhat by independent tests being done by Lincoln using Cadillac customers to evaluate things such as harshness and vibration, braking ability, handling, ride quality, and overall ease of operation. Lincoln consistently received the better score, and while the models being tested were the larger Lincolns, many of the same things that made them exceptional were also used on the Versailles.
There were many Versailles owners who were very pleased with their purchase, such as Margie, who we interviewed about her 1977 Versailles as well as the other luxury cars she'd owned over the years. The Versailles real problem was one of timing. Had it been introduced before the Granada/Monarch, or even at the same time, there's no doubt the less expensive models could have been advertised emphasizing their resemblance to the exclusive new compact Lincoln. Mercury had done this before, back in 1965-66, when it advertised its cars a being in the Lincoln tradition. But because of the timing, the resemblance was a bad thing for the more expensive car, whereas it could have been used as a benefit to sell the less expensive ones.
The Versailles would survive for four years, the exact same time frame as the first generation Sevilles. Cadillac would restyle the Seville in 1980, and introduce controversial "bustleback" rear deck styling. This was not popular with customers, and combined with engine reliability issues the Seville would never again enjoy the popularity of its first generation 1976-1979 models.
Sales of the Versailles would drop off sharply in 1978, then rebound to its best year ever in 1979 after a major restyle to the rear roof area. However, this was short lived as 1980 sales dropped severely, and the model was discontinued at the end of the year.
The Versailles played an important role in introducing the idea of a smaller, compact luxury Lincoln to the public. And smaller Lincolns were on the way for 1980, so it was a theme that needed to be addressed at the time. The Versailles offered nearly complete isolation for its passengers, from road shock, from outside noises, and from outside temperature extremes. What the Versailles was designed to do, it did very well. The one thing it couldn't overcome was the illusion of being a dressed up Monarch, and that's unfortunate because the Versailles was truly a wonderful car.
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