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A Look Back at the Lincoln Continental

On the eve of this year’s New York Auto Show, Ford has announced the return of the Lincoln Continental nameplate. Affixed to a big, bold luxury sedan, the hope is that a production version slated for 2016 will restore Lincoln to its former glory. It’s a daring move by Ford CEO Mark Fields, who clearly understands the Continental name’s intrinsic value.

The Early Years

The Continental was first introduced in 1939 when Edsel Ford, the only son of founder Henry Ford, created a hand-built, one-of-a-kind car for himself. The car proved so popular with those who saw it that Ford began offering the public a small number of models. That ended with the start of World War II, but Ford resumed production after the war, only this time resurrecting the Continental name as its own division. Although the company only survived for a few years, it is credited with building one of the most expensive and desirable American cars ever produced: the 1956 Continental Mark II.

By 1959, the Continental name returned to the Lincoln fold, but the cars sold poorly for the reminder of the decade. Faced with the possibility of dissolving Lincoln altogether, Ford knew it had to come up with something so radical and new it would take the public by storm. In the 1961 Continental, Lincoln found its savior. Originally sketched as a 2-door Ford Thunderbird concept, designer Elwood Engel stretched the wheelbase and added two more doors to create one of the most iconic and collectible Continentals of all time. Commonly associated with President John F. Kennedy (he replaced Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential Cadillac limo with a fleet of Continentals), this car was most notable for its rear-hinged suicide doors and available convertible model, the last 4-door convertible ever put into production in the U.S.

Over time, the Continental grew in size and fuel consumption while simultaneously shrinking in power output. With the advent of the 1970s gas crisis and subsequent recession, the Continental saw its sales fall and its dominance as a luxury car called into question. The models were still attractive, but Cadillac’s downsized Fleetwood for 1977, as well as the emergence of Mercedes-Benz and BMW as new status symbols, further eroded the Continental’s position as a world-class luxury car.

Major Changes

In 1981, Lincoln transferred the Town Car name to the full-size car that was previously the 1980 Continental. This freed up the Continental name for use on a new, smaller car. Built on the same platform as the Ford Granada, the 1982 Continental’s unique bustleback rear styling, and later on, fuel-injected engine and airbag suspension, made it a leader in both design and technology. There was even a short-lived diesel engine option sourced from BMW in 1984. Unfortunately, younger buyers were increasingly gravitating toward imports, and sales never took off the way Lincoln had hoped. Still, for the model years between 1982 and 1987, the Continental offered numerous trims, colors and even special designer editions from legendary fashion designers Valentino and Givenchy, helping to keep the Continental in the public eye.

The year 1988 brought a big change for the Continental, jettisoning its strongly American sense of style in favor of a more European look. Based on the newly introduced Ford Taurus, the 1988 edition boasted a fresh image, new size, and for the first time ever, front-wheel drive. The 1988 Continental impressed critics, but buyers seemed lukewarm to a Lincoln without the brand’s distinctive styling cues that only offered a 140-horsepower V6 engine. To placate the public, Lincoln added numerous high-tech features to the Continental, including a heated windshield, automatic level-control suspension, and standard driver and passenger airbags, a first for a U.S. production car.

The End of an Era

Enthusiast magazines and journalists loved the new Continental, but Lincoln loyalists had different ideas. Instead of moving further in the direction of its European competitors, the 1995 Lincoln Continental became a larger, more distinct sedan, one sharing its styling with the sleek Mark VIII coupe, as well as that car’s modular 260-hp V8 engine. A major update in 1998 brought a new face, an updated interior, a driver-selectable 3-mode suspension and a more powerful 275-hp V8. Sales briefly climbed but ultimately began to decline, and by 2002 Lincoln pulled the plug, retiring the Continental name in favor of an all-new, rear-drive sedan simply called the LS.  

After more than a decade without the Continental, Lincoln is reviving the historic luxury sedan as a concept at the 2015 New York Auto Show.

2017 and 2018 Production Model

For 2017 that Continental Concept turns into a real production car that’s already available at your local dealer. While we think the concept looked more attractive and edgier, the production model is still good-looking but slightly subdued compared to the concept car. Either way, we like the new 2017 Lincoln Continental so much, we included it on our list of “Must Test Drive” vehicles for 2017.

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Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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