In addition to eschewing the Lincoln brand name for the Continental Mark II, Ford Motor Company executives initially declined to assign model years to the Mark II, arguing that the halo car represented luxurious timelessness. Time, however, has a way of catching up to even the most timeless of cars, as evidenced by today, the 60th anniversary of the public debut of the Mark II.
The original Edsel Ford-envisioned Lincoln Continental proved a tough act to follow; after all, it set the tone for American luxury automobiles upon its introduction in 1939 and fired the imagination of designers from Walter Dorwin Teague Jr. to Frank Lloyd Wright. Lincoln itself even declined to replace it after 1948, letting its distinctive grace – not to mention its V-12 engine – lapse from dealership showrooms. Ford designers made a handful of drawings for a 1949 or 1950 Continental and the X-100 concept car seemed to promise a gadget-laden Continental of the future, but those all came to naught.
The absence wouldn’t last forever, though. In 1952, thanks in large part to the influence of William Clay “Bill” Ford, Edsel’s son and a director of the company since 1948, Ford began preliminary work on establishing a new division, the Continental division, that would build a successor to its namesake, a car intended from the start to represent the pinnacle of American luxury and compete with Chrysler’s Imperial and Cadillac’s Eldorado.
As manager of the Special Product Operations, Bill Ford then handpicked a team to guide the new Continental into existence: John Reinhart, who worked under Bill Mitchell at GM and later served as chief stylist at Packard; Harley Copp, who would later go on to engineer the Ford Falcon, as chief engineer; and Gordon Buehrig, Cord 810 designer; as chief body engineer. He secured the recently vacated building that housed the Henry Ford Trade School, separate from any other Lincoln or Ford design studios and engineering departments, for the development work as well as a dedicated manufacturing facility in Dearborn where the cars would be hand-built.
While the Mark II emerged as a two-door, four-passenger hardtop only, it nearly had a couple other bodystyles join it when it bowed on October 6, 1955, at the Paris Auto Show. Keeping in line with the original Continental, Ford’s team naturally proposed a convertible, but it also seriously considered Gil Spear’s idea of a retractable hardtop. A team led by John Hollowell and including Ben Smith ended up building one complete and functioning Mark II retractable – a prototype called the XC 1500 R, based on a cobbed-together 1953 Lincoln – before Ford’s team ultimately canceled both body styles and Ford division adapted the design to its own 1957 Skyliner.
(The XC 1500 R actually sat upon a prototype Mark II chassis, one of two that the Continental division commissioned Hess and Eisenhardt to build. The second chassis went on to serve as the basis for the Futura concept car and later as the basis for the Batmobile from the 1966 television series.)
While assembly took place in Dearborn, the bodies of the Continental Mark II were supplied by Mitchell-Bentley of Ionia, Michigan, best known for supplying wood- and steel-bodied station wagons and fiberglass-bodied prototypes to Detroit’s automakers. Power came from Lincoln’s 285hp overhead-valve 368-cu.in. V-8 backed by Lincoln’s three-speed automatic transmission, but Continental touted the Lincoln drivetrain’s hand-assembled nature, with each bolt individually torques. With leather seats and power accessories standard, the option list consisted of just one item: air conditioning for $595. With air conditioning, the sales price of the Mark II topped $10,000 – at a time when a Ford Fairlane could be had for less than $2,500.
First-year production came in at 2,550; for 1957, production tailed off to 444. As The Henry Ford noted, even at $10,000 Continental lost money on every Mark II sold – such is the nature of halo cars, after all – but that didn’t sit well with stockholders once Ford Motor Company went public in 1956. The far less expensive unibody Mark III, built alongside the Thunderbird on the Wixom assembly line, replaced the Mark II for 1958; the Continental division lasted a few years more before the Lincoln division reabsorbed the Continental series. The Continental as a model lasted until the 2002 model year.
These days, the Mark II has gained near-universal recognition as one of the most stylish cars of the 1950s, a car that bucked the chrome-everything trend and thus showed off its natural elegance to great effect. A car that, though aged, still carries the same impact it did 60 years ago.
Article courtesy of Hemmings Daily, written by Daniel Strohl.