Image Gallery: Classic Cars
Image Gallery: Classic Cars

Image Gallery: Classic Cars The 1956 Continental Mark II was built in a "go-slow" plant, with most of the work on the $10,000 car done by hand. See more pictures of classic cars.

How Continental Cars Work

Officially, the Continental "Marks" of 1956-58 were not Lincolns but the products of a separate division created to establish Ford Motor Company at the very top of the market -- even above Cadillac.

Only one model was offered for 1956-57: the flawlessly styled, beautifully crafted Mark II, worth every penny of its stratospheric $10,000 price. Yet Ford lost about $1000 on every one, because this was primarily an "image" car -- more ego trip than calculated profit-maker.

Dearborn then attempted to put Continental in the black with a lower-priced 1958-60 line based on the giant "unibody" Lincoln of those years, but it never sold particularly well.

Dealers and customers had pleaded with Ford to revive the Lincoln Continental since the last of the original line in 1948. But there was no money until 1953, when profits were looking up and Dearborn managers, determined to outflank arch-rival General Motors in every market sector, approved a development program to create a new Continental in the contemporary idiom.

This came under the auspices of a new Special Products Division headed by William Clay Ford, the younger brother of company president Henry Ford II. After calling in five outside consultants, management reviewed 13 different proposals and unanimously selected the one submitted by Special Products.

It was, nevertheless, an excellent choice. Harley F. Copp, Special Products' chief engineer, gave it a unique "cowbelly" chassis dipped low between the front and rear axles to permit high seating without a high roofline. The roomy cabin was ­starkly simple, but richly appointed in a choice of three cloths (including fine broadcloth) or Scottish "Bridge of Weir" leather. The dash echoed locomotive and aircraft motifs with full, brushed-finished instrumentation and large toggle-type switches.

Chosen power was the 368-cubic-inch V-8 destined for the all-new '56 Lincolns, with the same 285 horsepower. However, Mark II units were specially selected and individually adjusted before installation. The same applied to the transmission, Lincoln's three-speed Turbo-Drive automatic, also new for '56, and the 3.07:1 rear axle.

Actually, great pains were taken throughout the assembly process, as Mark IIs were built in a special "go-slow" plant. Bodies, for instance, were first trial-fitted to chassis, then painted, sanded, and polished by hand. Chrome plating exceeded industry standards. Nuts and bolts were torqued by people, not machines. Finally, each car was given a 12-mile preshipment road test, followed by a detailed inspection and correction of any defects.

Appearing on a 126-inch wheelbase, the sleek and timeless Mark II measured 218.5 inches overall and weighed over 4800 pounds. It came only as a hardtop coupe, though the original plan was for a retractable hardtop-convertible (an idea quickly evolved by Ford Division into the 1957-59 Skyliner). The price may have been breathtaking, but it reflected the unusual amount of hand labor and high luxury content. Indeed, air conditioning was the sole option ($740).

The Mark II bowed to thunderous applause from both sides of the Atlantic, and was immediately hailed as a design landmark. But the euphoria didn't last. The Mark II made little impression on the ultra-luxury market. Production came to approximately 2500 of the '56s and a mere 444 of the near-identical '57s. With that, Ford canceled not only the Mark II, but also a beautiful four-door sedan and a convertible that were planned as 1958 "line extensions" (though not before a couple of prototype convertibles were built in 1957).

Years later, one Ford executive declared the Mark II was, on balance, a big mistake. "What we had going for us . . . was literally a revival of the Duesenberg concept. What we ended up with was something much less -- and even that didn't last long. It was a project that for a time broke Bill Ford's heart, and I guess you could say that in many ways it broke ours, too."

In line with an upper-management decision, price was cut drastically for 1958's "new" Continental, the Mark III. The result of recommendations from a Mercury cost analyst, this square-rigged Lincoln-based leviathan had a 131-inch wheelbase, elongated fenders, large chrome appliques, canted quad headlamps, a reverse-slant roofline, and a huge new 430-cid V-8 with 375 horsepower.

Convertible, four-door sedan, hardtop coupe, and Landau hardtop sedan were offered in the $5800-$6200 range. Closed models sported a rear window that dropped down electrically for flow-through interior ventilation. Standard luxuries abounded once more, but not hand craftsmanship. The Mark III was "built to a price," and those reduced prices increased sales to 12,550 cars -- respectable for that difficult, recessionary model year.

But the luxury market had shriveled badly, so Ford canceled Continental as a separate marque after 1958, though a little-changed Mark III returned in the Lincoln line as the 1959 Mark IV. Continental Division was folded into Lincoln-Mercury, which also absorbed the fast-faltering Edsel Division, thus ending Ford's dream of a GM-like five-division hierarchy.

A decade later came a new Mark III, so numbered to signal its "official" status as the Mark II's lineal successor. This was never anything but a Lincoln, however. Also unlike its forebear, it was an immediate sales success.

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