This car, another of Lee Iacocca’s many product planning brainstorms, was one of Ford’s greatest successes in the late sixties and early seventies. A gaudy, overstuffed personal luxury car that critics aptly described as an overgrown Thunderbird, it was nonetheless a hugely profitable exercise and one of the most stylistically influential cars of its era. This week, we look at the origins and history of the 1969-1979 Lincoln Continental Mark III, Mark IV, and Mark V.
PHONY MARKSThe first Lincoln Continental was a customized version of the Lincoln Zephyr convertible, designed by Ford design chief Eugene T. (Bob) Gregorie and built in 1939 for the personal use of Ford president Edsel Ford, becoming a limited-production model in 1940. Although the Continental was mechanically undistinguished, its styling was widely acclaimed and is now considered a classic. (We remain unmoved by the Continental and consider the facelifted post-1942 models rather grotesque, but we recognize that we’re in the minority on both points.)
There were plans for an all-new postwar Lincoln Continental, but they fell victim to the Ford Motor Company’s financial predicament, so the Continental disappeared after 1948. However, in the early 1950's, Ford decided to try again, launching a new Continental division to produce a single high-end, ultra-luxury model. It was called simply Continental Mark II, suggesting a spiritual continuity with Edsel Ford’s original “Mark I” Continental.
The Mark II was extremely well made and quite tasteful for its era, but it was a commercial failure: Only about 3,000 cars were produced in two model years and the division lost about $1,000 on each of them. The Continental division was shuttered in July 1956 and the Continental again fell under the auspices of Lincoln-Mercury.
The Mark II vanished at the end of the 1957 model year, but Lincoln applied the Continental name to the top series of the gargantuan 1958-1960 Lincolns. Unlike the Mark II, the new Continentals were much the same as lesser Lincoln models, distinguished mostly by trim and a unique reverse-slant roofline with a retractable rear window (later recycled by Mercury for its 1960's Breezeway sedans ). To create a sense of continuity with the entirely unrelated Mark II, Lincoln called the 1958 Continentals “Mark III,” the 1959s “Mark IV,” and the 1960s “Mark V.”
These big Continentals sold better than the Mark II (mostly because they were almost 40% cheaper), but they still didn’t sell very well and were not particularly special. In a 1985 interview with Dave Crippen of the Benson Ford Research Center, stylist L. David Ash summed up the view of many when he dubbed them “phony Marks.”
In 1961, Lincoln applied the Continental name — but not the “Mark” designation — to all its cars. The new Continentals‘ crisp styling earned them great critical acclaim, if not runaway sales success, and helped save the venerable Lincoln marque from cancellation.
MAY BE QUITE CONTINENTALWhile the post-1969 Lincoln Continentals were not the money-losers their predecessors were, they were still not as profitable as Lincoln-Mercury would have liked. Despite sharing some structural commonality with the Ford Thunderbird, which helped to reduce engineering costs, the Continental did not sell in large enough numbers to be a big money-maker; even in Lincoln’s best years, Cadillac outsold it by at least six to one.
Why? The Continental was a match for a contemporary Cadillac in most objective categories except trunk space and acceleration (neither a major priority for contemporary luxury car buyers) and the Lincoln’s styling was cleaner and arguably more tasteful. Cadillac had backed off from the excesses of 1959, but still had a space-age jukebox flair, where the Continental was understated and largely free of gimmicks.
If the goal of the Continental was to appeal to wealthy aesthetes, it succeeded, but its lack of ostentation did not necessarily appeal to the masses. As we noted in our article on the 1967-1970 Cadillac Eldorado, the success of Cadillac hinged on its popularity with working-class and middle-class customers, quite a few of whom would eagerly beg, borrow, or steal to get their hands on one. A buyer prepared to scrimp and scrounge for three or more years to put a symbol of prosperity and achievement in the driveway was not interested in understatement. The whole point of purchasing such a car was to win the approval and the envy of friends, neighbors, and coworkers — what good was it if nobody noticed? Chrysler had gone too far in the other direction with its early-sixties Imperials, which moved well past ostentatious into the realm of the grotesque, but we suspect that many Cadillac buyers simply found the Continental too bland.
Lincoln-Mercury did not help their case by offering a limited selection of models and body styles. The four-door Continental convertible was a novelty in which few buyers were interested. While Cadillac offered an assortment of pillared or pillarless coupes and sedans, sometimes with a choice of different roof styles, Lincoln had only the four-door pillared sedan. It took Lincoln until 1966 to even add a two-door hardtop, consistently the era’s most popular body style. Lincoln seemed out of touch with the tastes of the actual luxury car market.
THE STRAWBERRY STUDIOIn the mid-sixties, Ford, like GM, maintained styling studios for each division, including both production studios and “preproduction” studios developing concepts for future models and a separate Advanced studio.
For some projects, Ford would stage competitions between multiple studios, commissioning several alternative designs from which senior management could select — the Ford Mustang was designed in this way in the summer of 1962. Lee Iacocca described this strategy as the chocolate and vanilla approach; it gave management more options and encouraged a healthy sense of competition among the stylists.
In 1965, styling vice president Eugene Bordinat put stylist Dave Ash in charge of a new Special Development Studio, with Ken Spencer and Don Kopka as his executive stylists. If the regular and advanced studios were chocolate and vanilla, Ash’s group was what Lee Iacocca dubbed the “strawberry studio,” offering a third alternative that would compete with the existing groups.
By that time Iacocca, riding high on the success of the Ford Mustang, had been promoted from vice president and general manager of Ford Division to group vice president in charge of the Car and Truck Group, responsible for all of Ford’s automotive divisions, including Lincoln-Mercury. Iacocca had an excellent sense of his buyers’ tastes and priorities and his insights in this era were usually astute. He also had a strong grasp of the bottom line.
One of Iacocca’s early ideas was to give Lincoln-Mercury its own Thunderbird-style personal luxury model. There were several compelling rationales for doing so: For one, the four-seat Ford Thunderbird was already positioned firmly in Lincoln-Mercury territory in price and image, about halfway between the most expensive Mercury and the cheapest Continental. For another, Ford wanted to utilize more of the capacity of the Wixom, Michigan factory where the Thunderbird was built.
The task of designing such a model was assigned to Ash’s team in the summer of 1965, although Iacocca took a keen personal interest in the car’s development. Initially, the new car, which reached the full-size clay model stage by December 1965, was a cautious agglomeration of Lincoln and Mercury design cues applied to the Thunderbird ‘package.’ That was appropriate, given its intended market position, but the general consensus was that the design lacked the sort of pizzazz that had made the four-seat Thunderbird such a success.
While Iacocca was on a business trip to Canada later that year, he found himself unable to sleep, which sparked a late-night brainstorm. He picked up the phone and tried calling Gene Bordinat back in Dearborn, but Bordinat was traveling in Europe, so Iacocca finally ended up on the phone with Dave Ash. Iacocca suggested that Ash add the spare tire bulge theme of the Continental Mark II and an upright, formal grille reminscent of Rolls-Royce’s. Ash told him they would try it.
Iacocca’s idea ran contrary to the conventional wisdom of stylists of the time. Stand-up radiator shells were considered archaic, an antiquated throwback to the days of hand cranks and wooden artillery wheels. Ash said later that if he had suggested such a thing without Iacocca’s imprimatur, Bordinat would have flatly refused. Nonetheless, Ash liked the concept and he and his team got to work on it. Bordinat was not fond of the project, but recognized that Iacocca was and reluctantly acquiesced.
LANCELOTSince the new model was originally intended to fill the price gap between Mercury and Lincoln, Dave Ash suggested calling the car Merlin, a contraction of Mercury and Lincoln that would refer to both the figure of Arthurian legend and the highly successful Rolls-Royce aircraft engine of World War 2. Lincoln-Mercury executives didn’t like that name, so by the time the first clay model was ready in mid-October, it was dubbed Lancelot instead.
By January, the Continental hump and stand-up grille had been added to the clay model. Iacocca loved the results, but Gene Bordinat remained lukewarm, as did Lincoln-Mercury general manager Paul Lorenz, particularly after a marketing clinic found that prospective buyers preferred the original design.
Any reluctance Lincoln-Mercury management may have had was overridden by the enthusiastic endorsement of company chairman Henry Ford II. Ash told Dave Crippen that when Henry saw the clay model on March 24, 1966, he declared that he wished he could take it home with him. The car was approved for production.
THE THUNDER WITHOUT THE ‘BIRDThe engineering budget for the Lancelot was set at about $30 million, a very modest figure; the Mustang had cost around $65 million. For cost reasons, the Lancelot would be mechanically based on the Ford
Thunderbird, which was all-new for 1967. The two cars shared cowls, windshields, roof panels, and door glass. The Lancelot was originally intended to use the Thunderbird’s doors, as well, but Ash and Bordinat eventually convinced Iacocca to authorize the cost of new exterior door shells.
Although the Lancelot was conceived only as a two-door coupe, product planner Hal Siegel suggested basing it on the longer wheelbase of the new Thunderbird four-door, which allowed both more interior space and a heroically long hood. (Regular readers might recall that Pontiac later used the same strategy to create the long-nosed 1969 Grand Prix.)
From 1958 to 1966, both the Thunderbird and the big Lincoln Continental used unitary construction, but for 1967, the Thunderbird reverted to body-on-frame. As with contemporary big GM cars, the body shell was a stiff, welded semi-unitized structure, but it was mounted on a separate perimeter frame, isolated from the body with thick rubber mounts. The Lancelot shared the four-door Thunderbird’s frame; the only substantive chassis differences were in suspension tuning.
The use of the long-wheelbase frame allowed the designers to give the Lancelot exaggerated long-hood, short-deck proportions, in the mode of the old Continental Mark II. Passenger room was unimpressive for the huge exterior dimensions, but its appointments — supervised by Damon Wood and Hermann Brunn, son of the famous coachbuilder — were suitably lavish. Occupants were insulated from the outside world by over 150 lb (68 kg) of sound deadener. The standard upholstery was a very slick tricot knit that Ford designers called “panty cloth” (also used by the Ford LTD) with real leather optional. To create a posh English men’s club feel, the cabin made heavy use of wood trim, although in typical American fashion, it was plastic. (For a truly baroque touch, customers had the choice of two different fake wood grains: “English Oak” or “East Indian Rosewood.”) Shortly after introduction, there was also an ostentatious Cartier dashboard clock, marked with Roman numerals.
As Iacocca had directed, the Lancelot had a Mark II-style fake spare tire bulge in its decklid, a styling feature Chrysler design chief Elwood Engel (a former Lincoln designer) had recently cribbed for the 1964 Imperial. The pièce de résistance, however, was the upright grille, a daunting piece of automotive architecture that cost Lincoln-Mercury around $200 per car, 10 times the cost of an ordinary grille.
Behind that grille and beneath the prodigious hood was Ford’s largest engine, the “385-series” V8 introduced on the Thunderbird in 1968, expanded from the T-Bird’s 429 cubic inches (7,027 cc) to 460 (7,536 cc). This was actually fractionally smaller than the 462 cu. in. (7,565 cc) M-E-L engine used by the big Lincoln Continental, but the 460 was a much more modern design better suited to the emissions controls that U.S. law would shortly require. It was rated at 365 gross horsepower (272 kW).
The sheer size of the car caused considerable strife with Lincoln-Mercury engineers. Lincoln-Mercury chief engineer Burt Andren was particularly unhappy about its pronounced front overhang, which had unpleasant effects on weight distribution. Andren went to Ash and demanded he reduce the front overhang by four inches (102 mm), which Ash steadfastly refused to do. Eventually, Gene Bordinat went over Andren’s head and had him overruled, allowing the design to go forward unmolested.
THIRD TIME’S THE CHARMAs the new car’s development proceeded, its name became a pressing issue. Everyone accepted that “Lancelot” was a placeholder, but no one had yet offered an acceptable alternative. Since the car showed a clear design kinship with the Mark II, someone — most probably Iacocca, although some sources say Henry Ford II — suggested reviving the Continental Mark designation. Logically, this would have made the new car the Mark VI, but no one had been especially fond of the 1958-60 Marks, which had had little connection with their glamorous predecessors. The new model was therefore dubbed Lincoln Continental Mark III.
Resuscitating the Mark name was an interesting decision. It’s a sign of the Mark II’s commercial failure that barely a decade after its demise, it was apparently acceptable for Ford executives to publicly criticize it. On the other hand, the commercial failure of the contemporary Cadillac Eldorado Brougham had not moved Cadillac to abandon the Eldorado name or dissuaded them from applying it to their new personal luxury coupe, launched in late 1966 as a 1967 model.
News of the new Cadillac Eldorado had a definite impact on Lincoln-Mercury’s plans for the Continental Mark III. Late in its development, the division (possibly prompted by Iacocca) decided that instead of being a Thunderbird rival positioned between Mercury and Lincoln, the new Mark would be a top-of-the-line model, Lincoln’s most expensive and prestigious offering and a direct rival to the front-wheel-drive Eldorado.
The battle between the Eldorado Brougham and Mark II 10 years earlier had been inconclusive, so the imminent clash between the Mark III and the new FWD Eldo represented something of a rematch — a new front in the ongoing war of corporate egos.
LINCOLN CONTINENTAL MARK III VS. CADILLAC ELDORADOIacocca was fond of mid-year introductions, which, as the Mustang’s launch demonstrated, were an effective way for new models to stand out from the herd. Therefore, the Lincoln Continental Mark III bowed on April 5, 1968 as an early 1969 model. It arrived about 18 months after the Eldorado, which had already found an eager market.
The Continental Mark III’s starting price was $6,585, $20 less than the Eldorado. That price tag included many standard amenities, including power steering, power brakes, and automatic transmission, but not air conditioning or a radio. With a full load of options — as most Marks were equipped — the price rose to around $9,500, enough to buy two well-equipped Mercury Cougars. The Mark III was still somewhat cheaper than the old Mark II and on an inflation-adjusted basis was about 30% less expensive.
With its extravagant styling and unexceptional engineering, the Continental Mark III was not the sort of car to appeal to enthusiasts. No one at Ford was concerned. In March 1968, Gene Bordinat told Motor Trend‘s Robert Irvin, “The buffs may not like it, but people with money will.” Even before the car’s release, Dave Ash and designer Art Querfeld noted that Ford assembly workers loved the Mark III and were very taken with its styling. The Mark had the same sort of appeal as the Eldorado: it was in no way subtle, but it looked like money.
Buyers responded enthusiastically, despite the high prices. The late introduction limited first-season sales to 7,770 (compared to 24,528 1968 Eldorados), but for the Mark’s first full-year, the tally rose to 23,088.
While the Eldorado had done little to increase Cadillac’s total sales, the Continental Mark III boosted Lincoln’s business significantly. Lincoln sold only 39,134 Continentals in 1968 and 38,290 in 1969, so the Mark III accounted for more than half of Lincoln’s total volume. More importantly, it was an exceedingly profitable car. The Mark III’s 1968-69 sales grossed around $275 million, which enabled Lincoln to recoup the modest tooling and development costs very quickly. The Mark III was also far less costly to build than the Eldorado; Lincoln’s profit margin on each car was reportedly around $2,000.
BUNKIE’S MARKIn early 1968, Henry Ford II promoted Ford Motor Company president Arjay Miller to vice chairman, which left Ford in need of a new president. This was a particularly challenging decision for Henry Ford, who was reputedly angling for President Lyndon Johnson to give him an ambassadorship if he was reelected that fall. Although Lee Iacocca clearly desired the presidency of Ford Motor Company, Henry thought Iacocca was too young and was somewhat wary of Iacocca’s ambition (a conflict that would eventually lead to Iacocca’s firing in 1978). Instead, Henry decided to look outside the company, setting his sights on GM executive Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen.
Bunkie Knudsen was a second-generation GM man. His father, William “Big Bill” Knudsen had worked for Henry Ford’s grandfather in the teens and early twenties and went on to become the president of General Motors. Bunkie, who joined GM in 1939, became a rising star in the fifties with a very successful career at Pontiac, followed by a stint as general manager of Chevrolet. Knudsen had looked like a strong candidate for the presidency of the corporation, but in the fall of 1967, he was passed over in favor of Ed Cole. Knudsen had not planned on leaving General Motors, but when Ford called to offer him the presidency, Knudsen was not inclined to turn him down.
Like Lee Iacocca, Bunkie Knudsen was an ambitious, energetic executive with considerable chutzpah and very strong ideas about product development. He and Iacocca clashed almost immediately and their battle of wills raged throughout Knudsen’s tenure, forcing other executives — and sometimes designers and engineers — to choose sides. Many chose Iacocca, sensing that Bunkie would not be with Ford for long.
When Knudsen arrived, Styling was considering proposals for a successor to the Lincoln Continental Mark III, to be called Continental Mark IV. During an unannounced visit to the styling studios in mid-1968, Knudsen took a fancy to a design developed by Wes Dahlberg of the Advanced Styling studio (actually the work of Jim Arnold and Dean Beck), announcing that it would be the next Mark. Gene Bordinat, who hadn’t liked Dahlberg’s car to begin with, tried to talk Knudsen out of it, but Knudsen remained adamant, blocking all of Bordinat’s subsequent attempts to alter the design and reminding Bordinat that Knudsen was still the president. That may have been Knudsen’s prerogative, but it hardly endeared him to either Bordinat or Iacocca, who took a paternal interest in the Mark series. It was also a bold move considering Henry Ford’s well-known fondness for the Mark III; few executives would have had the brass to revamp the chairman’s favorite car without consulting him.
Bordinat continued lobbying for changes, so Knudsen grudgingly allowed him to create an alternative design. Stylist Ron Perry and Steve Sherer of Don DeLaRossa’s Corporate Projects Studio subsequently developed a new Mark IV clay, which both DeLaRossa and Bordinat liked much better than the Dahlberg car.
Although Knudsen showed no sign of changing his mind, Bordinat took the daring step of ordering DeLaRossa to continue work on Perry and Sherer’s design even after Dahlberg’s version had been approved for production, apparently hoping that Knudsen would be gone in time to substitute their concept for Dahlberg’s. It didn’t happen and Dahlberg’s car became the 1972 Lincoln Continental Mark IV.
As Bordinat had predicted, Knudsen’s presidency was short. Any dreams Henry Ford may have had of an ambassadorial post disappeared after Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for reelection in 1968. Henry soon decided that Knudsen was not right for Ford after all and Bunkie was fired in early September 1969, only 19 months after his arrival. After a brief interregnum, Lee Iacocca assumed the presidency in late 1970.
Knudsen’s Continental Mark IV debuted in the fall of 1971 as a 1972 model. It maintained many of the styling cues of the Mark III, although the Mark IV was noticeably bigger. It continued the Continental Mark III’s fake spare-tire hump and upright grille while adding a new neo-classical element: round “opera windows” in the sail panels. (They were initially an $81.84 option, although few Marks went without them; they became standard in 1973.)
One now-ubiquitous item introduced on the Continental Mark IV was the moonroof, a sunroof with a glass panel that allowed it to do double duty as a skylight. The idea of Heinz Prechter of American Sunroof Corporation (ASC), the moonroof became a very expensive option on the Mark IV in 1973. The Mark and Thunderbird had also offered a steel sunroof since 1969, which remained available as an alternative.
The Mark IV was even more popular than the Mark III, selling nearly 50,000 units in 1972 and nearly 70,000 in 1973. Even in 1975, its worst year, the Mark IV sold 47,145 units, better than the Mark III in its best year. The Mark usually accounted for nearly half of Lincoln’s total sales and most of its profits.
After Knudsen’s departure, Gene Bordinat ordered Don DeLaRossa to supervise the design of the Mark IV’s replacement, the Lincoln Continental Mark V, which would be closely based on the 1969 Perry/Sherer proposal. Introduced in 1977, the Mark V’s dimensions were much the same as its predecessor’s, but it was about 300 lb (136 kg) lighter, thanks in part to a smaller standard engine. The Continental Mark V proved to be the most successful Mark of all, selling around 75,000 units a year during its three-year run — remarkable considering its eye-opening prices.
Popular as they were, the two-and-a-half-ton Marks were not compatible with the demands of Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirements, nor were their massive engines suitable for ever-increasing emissions standards. In 1980, Lincoln replaced the Continental Mark V with the downsized, Panther-platform Mark VI. Sales immediately dropped by half and never really recovered. The 1984 Mark VII was a decided improvement over the Mark VI (and its LSC version was the first Continental that could be called sporty with a straight face), but sold no better. By the time the sleek Continental Mark VIII arrived in 1993, the market for all personal luxury cars was evaporating; the Mark finally died in 1998. While Ford showed Mk 9 and Mark X concept cars in the early 2000s, there has been no move to revive the series.
VULGUSThe styling and concept of the Lincoln Continental Mark III were hugely influential both at Ford and elsewhere. By the early seventies, the Thunderbird, whose sales had slumped badly, became increasingly Mark-like. So did the Mercury Cougar and later the Ford Torino. Soon, Ford had a host of pseudo-Marks at various price points, as did most of its rivals. It’s fair to say that we have the Continental Mark III and Mark IV to thank for the upright grilles, opera windows, and other neoclassical gimmicks that blighted American automotive styling well into the 1980s. Don DeLaRossa, who followed Lee Iacocca to Chrysler in 1981, made no apologies for recycling Mark styling cues as late as the 1990-93 Y-body Chrysler Imperial.
We may even hold the Mark III responsible for the later obsession with retro styling. As Dave Ash remarked to Dave Crippen in 1985, prior to the Mark, stylists would have considered such backward-looking designs embarrassingly old-fashioned. The Mark demonstrated that there was a lucrative market for looking backward; it was eerily prescient of the sometimes mawkish nostalgia that gripped American culture a few years later.
At the risk of sounding snobbish, we consider the Continental Mark III and its successors to be supremely vulgar. We mean that both in the sense of being tasteless — frankly, their heavy-handed and self-conscious ostentation makes us want to avert our eyes — and in the most literal sense. “Vulgus,” the word’s Latin root, means “common people,” and the Mark III definitely had a strong appeal to the man on the street.
The Continental Mark was perhaps the perfect car for the seventies. The giddy futurism of the fifties and the naive idealism of the sixties had collapsed by then, giving way to a queasy hangover of economic malaise, environmental anxiety, and political scandal. It’s little wonder that overstuffed personal luxury cars were so popular in that era. Americans often value symbols of success more than success itself and tend to see expressions of wealth as the highest of virtues — a tendency that becomes more pronounced when actual prosperity is hard to come by. The self-indulgent affectation of the Mark and its imitators was a palliative for the disillusionment and disaffection of Watergate, the energy crisis, Vietnam, and inflation.
It’s not difficult to see the connection between the Continental Mark and the SUV craze of 25 years later. The specific signifiers are different — brush bars and skid plates rather than opera windows, big rims instead of Continental decklid bulges — but the overwrought grilles, the needless bulk, the fuel-sucking engines, and the sheer look-at-me grandiosity are much the same. As they say, le plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.