The introduction of the Continental Mark II at the Paris Motor Show in October of 1955 was no accident, with the Ford Motor Company’s new halo car positioned to go bumper to bumper with the finest luxury automobiles in the world. Proclaiming a new vehicle, “the finest car ever built in America” would be met with snark and derision today, but in 1955 it was met with eager anticipation, as the legendary Continental name had returned to the U.S. market.
Lincoln’s Continental, a car that the Museum of Modern Art once described as an “automotive work of art,” had been absent from dealerships since the end of the 1948 model year. To reintroduce the Continental name, Ford opted to create a separate division; though the car would be sold and serviced through Lincoln dealerships (and would utilize a Lincoln drivetrain), it would be hand-built of the finest materials and styled unlike any other American car of the day. In the eyes of Ford’s Special Products Division and chief stylist John Reinhart, bigger was not necessarily better, and more chrome did not equal more elegance.
In its promotional launch video, Ford described the Continental Mark II in a contradictory manner, calling the car “big and impressive,” yet pointing out the car’s absence of bulk and ornamentation. Instead, the Continental Mark II relied on long and low styling to convey both a sense of motion and a sense of elegance. Compared to the previous Lincoln Continental, designed in the prewar years, the Mark II was positively futuristic in its appearance, and Ford’s description of the car as an “instant classic” was an accurate one.
Power came from a 368-cu.in. Lincoln V-8, rated at 285 horsepower (300 in 1957) and mated to a Turbo-Drive automatic transmission. In keeping with the car’s luxury mission, upholstery blended cloth and imported leather, while the paint consisted of multiple coats of hand-rubbed lacquer and the sole option was air conditioning. The elevated price tag that such amenities demanded only added to the car’s appeal; at $9,960, it was nearly as expensive as a Rolls-Royce and roughly twice as much as a 62 Series Cadillac, yet Ford easily managed to sell all of the 2,550 models produced for 1956.
The Continental Mark II would carry over into 1957, when Ford would construct just 446 examples, including two convertible models. For the 1958 model year, the Mark II was replaced by the Lincoln Continental Mark III, a less expensive (and far more ordinary) automobile that the automaker produced and sold in far larger quantities.
Ultimately, the Continental brand experiment was a commercial failure for Ford, as consumers weren’t able to differentiate between the upscale division and the more common Lincoln division. The loss that Ford reportedly took on each Mark II sold didn’t help, either, and in the decades since then few American automakers have attempted to build a cost-be-damned model to compete with the finest cars in the world. Still, the Mark II remains a coveted prize among collectors today, and serves as a reminder of a time when America was capable of producing both quality and luxury second to none.
Article courtesy of Hemmings Daily. Written by Kurt Ernst.