11/22/63

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Family, friends, casual acquaintances, my confusingly large population of readers in Poland, and gearheads alike: we are gathered today to mourn the passing of a true hero. The full size American luxury sedan has served our country very well and for many years. These land yachts have ferried everyone from Elvis Presley to Al Capone to Adam Levine. The rebels used one in The Matrix. It was the Gadgetmobile in the beloved American classic Inspector Gadget. And of course, a full size Lincoln was the car in which JFK was proverbially “blown away.” So a long and storied history all around. And this one was one of the true greats. This is a 1967 Lincoln Continental Convertible.

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Ford first used the Continental name in 1939, and it remained in the Lincoln lineup until 2002, a stretch of over sixty years. That’s pretty impressive, especially considering that, for three of the car’s nine generations, it was the flagship Lincoln. The top of the line. The big daddy. The Obergruppenfuhrer Smith to any other Lincoln’s Joe Blake. This however is a fourth generation car, which means it isn’t any of that. It is the most interesting of the Continentals though, and by far the most iconic. I feel some backstory coming on. So in the late fifties Lincoln was in a bit of a rough spot economically. Two expensive flops and a Ford vice president just itching to pull the plug on the brand spelled an environment at Lincoln akin to what I assume it must be like at, well, um, Lincoln today, I guess? Whatever Adam Sandler’s agency is? Jeb Bush’s campaign? Come back to me, I’ve got something for this.

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Anyway, Ford (Lincoln’s parent company) was in the process of picking a design for their new Thunderbird. They had it down to two: a sporty one from a guy named Joe Oros, and another one that was, in the words of Monty Python, something completely different. They ended up going with the Oros design for T-bird, which worked out pretty well. They sold a bunch of them. But the other design, the weird one- all full of hard angles and slab sides- stuck around. It was drawn up by a guy named Elwood Engel (great name) and it caught the attention of Robert McNamara, the same Ford vice president who wanted to get rid of Lincoln altogether. And you know what? He loved it. He said to get that design into production, lickety split. So they lengthened it a bit, and gave it an extra pair of doors (the original Engel design was a coupe). The Continental and the Thunderbird shared some substructures, and possibly the same windshield as well. In a sense, this is the car that saved Lincoln. Singlehandedly.

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A word on those doors. They’re suicide doors (No, doors, there are so many reasons to live! Don’t give up now! We can… eh, enough of that joke). But unlike other cars, the setup was the product of a completely practical decision. The design of the Continental was really unique, especially for the time. Rear-hinged rear doors allowed for easier ingress and egress given the design of the car. That’s it. Real simple. One of the most iconic parts of one of the most iconic cars exists for the sole reason that it makes it easier to sit down. Funny, right?

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The engine in the Continental was huge. Just massive. Now, bearing in mind this was one of the smaller cars in its class in the late sixties (which tells you something about just how freaking huge cars were back then), when I say the V8 in this car was 7.6 liters, even if you don’t know a lick about cars, know that that a staggeringly large figure. It went through some pretty harsh testing as well, with one of the requirements being that it had to maintain a speed of 98 miles per hour at 3500 rpm for three hours. Horsepower was at about 320, which is a figure that can be surpassed by a modern Ford Focus, just as a point of comparison. Which brings us to a rather interesting point about the Continental. Lincoln had two main competitors during this time: Cadillac from GM and Imperial from Chrysler. Here and here are what each of those cars look like, respectively. They’re much more… more, aren’t they? Stylized is the word, I guess. Plus, both the Cadillac and the Imperial made more power than the Lincoln. But many consider that to be intentional on Ford’s part. The Continental didn’t need huge fins or taillights that look like rocket ships. And it didn’t lower itself to the level of a petty horsepower war. The Lincoln was removed from all that. It wasn’t even better than the other cars. It was a new thing entirely.

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Now, it’s tough to talk about the Continental without talking about John F Kennedy. So we’re going to do that now. Tragically shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, an ex-Marine, Soviet defector, and Bronx native (where this particular Continental was found), in 1963, JFK’s presidential limousine was a Lincoln Continental like no other. Codenamed the SS-100-X, the car was stretched 41 inches and featured such advances as an especially small turning circle (about 62 feet) a telephone and a rear seat that could be raised up to 10 inches. It did not feature, however, any sort of armor plating or for that matter, a roof at all. After Kennedy’s assassination on a street in Dallas, SS-100-X remained in presidential service until 1977, when it was retired to the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. Over that time it was painted black, as Lyndon B Johnson felt that the car’s original midnight blue color was too closely associated with the assassination, and gained titanium plating in the doors, bulletproof glass and a permanently affixed roof. The car cost over $200,000 to make, and that’s in 1963 money remember, but Ford gracefully leased SS-100-X to the Secret Service for just $500 per month.

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As the years wore on and the Continental saw its fifth, sixth and seventh generations, the whole majesty behind full size luxury cars started to die out. Slowly at first, and then more quickly as smaller, better handling cars from companies like BMW began to enter the scene. Full-sizers are still around, but their sales are pretty dismal, even if some of them are pretty good (I’m looking at you, Chevy Impala). But it’s all cyclical, of course. Trends wear off, things become popular and then, seemingly just as quickly, not. It happened with wagons, minivans, SUVs, and now crossovers. Perhaps one day we’ll see the resurgence of this proud, uniquely American thing. Perhaps.

Additional Thoughts:

  • The 1961 Lincoln Continental was the first American built car to offer a two-year, 24,000 mile warranty.
  • This was the first postwar, four-door convertible from an American brand.
  • And like that, Lincoln unveiled a concept for the new Continental! Sure, it’s front wheel drive, and it has a V6, and it’s really directed at the Chinese market, but hey. It’s something.
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One thought on “11/22/63

  1. Pingback: Long, Low, Lovely, Lincoln | Forgotten metal

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