When you ask professional automotive stylists to name their favorite designs, the 1961 Lincoln Continental is usually near the top of the list.
It’s one of the great stories in American car design: The 1961 Lincoln Continental, celebrated to this day for its exquisite taste and refinement, was originally conceived as a sporty Ford Thunderbird.
Created by a Ford Special Projects team that was led by Elwood Engel and included John Najjar, Bob Thomas, John Orfe, and Colin Neale, the car first took shape in clay in the summer of 1958 as a close-coupled, four-seat coupe. Ford styling boss George Walker took a liking to the project, as did powerful Ford executive Robert S. McNamara, who asked Engel to expand the finely chiseled package into a full-sized sedan with four doors—that is, as the next Lincoln Continental. A crash program followed, and by mid-autumn the new Continental was ready to receive the green light for production.
According to preeminent automotive historian Michael Lamm, there’s another interesting angle to the Continental creation story (Special Interest Autos #154, July/Aug 1996). In June of ’58, Engel visited the Ford styling studio in Cologne, Germany, where he saw the next Taunus 17M P3 (above), then under development by Wes Dahlberg and Uwe Bahnsen. Engel was taken by the sharply creased front fenders and hood—like a sheet of canvas stretched between two wires. We can see that theme used to fine effect, and both front and rear, on the much larger ’61 Continental.
When Engel’s group repurposed their T-Bird coupe as a Continental sedan, the result was a significantly smaller package than usually found in the luxury class at the time. The wheelbase was 123 inches, compared to 131 inches for the 1960 Lincoln and 129.5 inches for the 1961 Cadillac, permitting Harold C. McDonald’s engineering team to design an extremely rigid unibody. The structure was beefy, too. Despite its smaller size, the new Continental outweighed the Cadillac and Chrysler Imperial by several hundred pounds.
Among other benefits, this sturdy foundation allowed the Lincoln division to offer a four-door convertible, which featured a folding top that stowed under the deck lid, above. This was the Motor City’s first four-door convertible in a decade. The new Continental also shared its cowl assembly and other internal sheet metal with the ’61 Thunderbird, and both were built on the same production lines at Ford’s Wixom assembly plant just northwest of Detroit. (Read our feature on the ’61-’63 Bullet ‘Birds here.)
Inspired, we like to think, by the new car’s simple and elegant style, the Lincoln division greatly simplified the product line for ’61 as well, from three model lines and a lengthy list of body styles to just one model, Continental, and two body styles, sedan and convertible. While the Continental was a reasonable commercial success for Ford, posting measurable sales gains for the company, its lasting impact is on multiple generations of American luxury car designers, who often cite it as among the best.
Article courtesy of Mac's Motor City Garage.