American Cruisers: Lincoln Continental

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There was a time when the Lincoln Continental was one of the premiere luxury cars on the market, but by the end of its life, it was nothing more than an old man's car.

Lincoln's naming scheme has been somewhat vague at times, and because of this, we're going to point out that here we are talking about the 1956-1998 series of cars starting with the Mark II and ending with the Mark VIII. This was at times a direct competitor to the Cadillac Eldorado, and one which lasted nearly as long. It even evolved along roughly the same lines, from excess in the Fifties to a land yacht in the Seventies to becoming totally irrelevant in the Nineties.

It might seem odd to start with the Mark II, so it should be explained here that the original Lincoln Continental was built in 1939 (11 years before the first Bentley Continental) and being a prewar car, it's not a cruiser in the classic sense. Since the nameplate was brought back in 1955 for the 1956 model year, it's easy to mistake it for a response to the 1953 Cadillac Eldorado, but this wasn't actually the case at first. The Mark II was launched with a price tag of $10,000 ($81,600 today). This was about as much as a contemporary Rolls-Royce or a pair of top-end Cadillacs (until 1957 when the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham out-priced it).

The car was actually a slightly cheaper alternative to the Bentley Continental, and Ford gave it special treatment for its first generation. The first car was built by Lincoln and sold through its dealer network, but was sold as a separate marque, being badged simply as "Continental" and was without Lincoln badging. But this would last only until 1958, when the Mark III was introduced and was folded back into Lincoln. '56-'57 was inspired by the V12 prewar car, one of the finest every built by Lincoln, but with a more sensible V8. The car sold well, considering the price, but Ford still ended up losing something in the order of $1,000 per car.

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The price would drop to about $6,000 when the Mark III debuted for 1958. Weirdly, the only option on the original car was air conditioning, at a frighteningly expensive $595 ($4,855 today). Lincoln quickly burned through three generation names starting in 1958 with the Mark III. The Mark IV then debuted in 1959 and the Mark V followed in 1960. These were some of the biggest cars ever made anywhere in the world, and the Mark III is possibly the biggest unibody car ever made. These were exactly wrong for the late fifties, and Lincoln would lose $60 million between 1958 and 1960.

This would effectively kill off the Continental for several years, and the '58-'60 cars are sometimes referred to as the "forgotten Marks". Ford would revive the nameplate for 1969, but called this new generation "Mark III". This was finally a more sensible Lincoln with a reasonable price and was a serious competitor to the Cadillac Eldorado. From this point on, the Continental's naming scheme was more or less normal, which a new higher number being to each successive generation every few years. A massive 460 cu-in (7.5-liter) V8 engine sat under the long hood, and the grille was a fairly blatant copy of Rolls-Royce's signature piece.

The Mark III was given a vinyl roof, but it was with the 1972 Mark IV that the Continental got those oh-so-Seventies opera windows. These would live on until the Mark VI was replaced in 1983, and the Seventies Continentals are still the car we most closely associate with movie pimps. The nameplate would live on, but with each successive generation sharing a platform with a different Ford vehicle. The Mark VIII would be the last one, introduced in 1993 and running until 1998. This was the first Continental in some time to show some real improvement, but it was too little too late, and the car was killed off after that.

The Mark VIII has since become strangely popular with pro touring builders, and some genuinely excellent examples of the car now exist. Ford would take a couple of stabs at reviving the nameplate, but to no avail. First was the 2001 MK9 concept, which was actually pretty attractive, but didn't go anywhere. Next was the 2004 Mark X concept, a coupe version of the LS. This made it essentially a rebadged and even more hideously expensive version of the Ford Thunderbird. Unsurprisingly, this was never produced either. The personal luxury car was an idea which, though good for a time, had reached the end of its life.

There are still luxury coupes, to be sure, but few can exist in today's market without also having some kind of sportiness about them and these are no longer in this kind of price range. It's a shame, but it seems the personal luxury car was finally eclipsed by the GT car.

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