Walk through the City of San Francisco police garage and there, among the Harley-Davidsons, Ford Crown Vics, and the occasional battered Chevy Caprice, you would see what is believed to be the oldest active police car in the United States. It's a fully restored 1931 Lincoln Model K seven-passenger touring, an excellent example of the 1931-1940 Lincoln Model K series.
This 70-year-old beauty is a rolling history lesson, its back seat having played host down the years to presidents, war heroes, movie stars, politicians, and other notables.
Back in 1937, when it was still the police chief's official car, this Lincoln was reportedly the first automobile to cross the Golden Gate Bridge during opening ceremonies. Even today, it occasionally emerges from the garage to take part in parades and other civic functions.
The purchase of this Lincoln was something of a civic extravagance in Depression-era 1931, for its factory price of $4,400 would have bought 10 Ford phaetons.
For that matter, a Packard of comparable size and power would have cost the city about $800 less and carried arguably more prestige to boot. Then again, San Francisco, long known as "The City that Knows How," had a certain status of its own to maintain.
This historic Lincoln Model K was powered by a V-8 that was carried over from the last of the predecessor Model L Lincolns. (Nobody, it seems, has an authoritative answer as to why Lincoln went backwards in the alphabet.)
The L was the very first Lincoln, designed by the legendary "Master of Precision," Henry Martyn Leland, who founded Cadillac in late 1902, then built Liberty aircraft engines during World War I before establishing Lincoln.
The Model L, introduced in September 1920, carried a 60-degree flathead V-8 of 357.8 cubic inches and 81 horsepower. By 1928, this smooth, quiet engine had been bored out to 384.8 cubes and 90 horsepower but was otherwise basically unchanged. Fast and sturdy, the Prohibition-era Lincoln was a favorite on both sides of the law.
The Lincoln Model K appeared in 1931 with 120 horsepower on unchanged displacement. A higher compression ratio (5.2:1 vs. 4.8:1), together with a dual-downdraft carburetor -- an industry first -- accounted for most of the difference.
Developed in response to faltering Lincoln sales, the K was much more handsome than the rather stodgy L. A new 145-inch wheelbase, up nine inches from the L's span, contributed to a graceful look.
So did bodies mounted slightly lower on the chassis and wheel diameter reduced from 20 to 19 inches. Again riding atop the radiator cap was a sleek greyhound designed by the Gorham silversmiths, a Lincoln hallmark that would persist until World War II.
Other new technical features in the Lincoln Model K included a larger fuel tank; a mechanical fuel pump, replacing the troublesome vacuum tank; and worm-and-roller steering, an improvement over the previous worm-and-sector type.
Houdaille double-acting hydraulic shock absorbers were carried over from late Model Ls. Freewheeling, a popular -- though dangerous -- fad of the time, was supplied as standard equipment.
Times were tough in 1931, especially for luxury-class cars. Sales at both Cadillac and Packard were off by about one-third from the previous year.
Yet, Lincoln was able to post a minuscule gain of about 2 percent in 1931, producing 3,311 cars for the model year and 3,592 for the calendar 12 months -- about 77 more cars than in 1930.
Though this was far from sufficient volume to turn a profit (Lincoln lost some $4.6 million in 1931), the new line had clearly won the public's acceptance.
But the competition had been busy, too. Cadillac introduced its huge new Sixteen in January 1930, then followed up in October with a V-12 priced about $800 less than the eight-cylinder Model K.
Others soon got into the multi-cylinder race, Marmon with a superb V-16 during 1931, Packard and Pierce-Arrow with V-12s the following year. Even Franklin would offer a huge V-12 by 1933.
To learn how Lincoln responded to the competition, check out the next page.
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1932 Lincoln Model K
The big news for the 1932 Lincoln Model K line was the magnificent Model KB, still considered by some classic-car buffs to be the finest Lincoln of all time.
Replacing the K but built on a modified version of its chassis, the KB carried a new 65-degree V-12 with 150 horsepower (which was probably a conservative rating). At a whopping 447.9 cubic inches, this engine was very nearly a match for Cadillac's 452.6-cubic-inch V-16.
Road tests conducted at the famed Brooklands circuit by Britain's The Autocar showed a KB could do 95-100 mph despite curb weights of 5,200-6,000 pounds.
Fortunately, Lincolns of this period had brakes to match their speed. As on the Model L and 1931 K, these were cable-controlled Bendix Duo-Servo units with 340 square inches of lining area, 24 percent more than on the Cadillac Sixteen. Drums were ribbed for cooling and made of tough high-carbon steel.
Though technically new, the KB powerplant was derived from the K-series straight eight, and thus inherited its costly fork-and-blade connecting rods that had been a Lincoln hallmark from the start.
The rock-hard cylinder blocks were cast from a close-grained iron alloy comprising 15 percent steel, 1 percent nickel, and 0.5 percent chromium. A massive 93-pound crankshaft was cradled by seven huge bronze-backed babbitt main bearings. In short, this engine was built to last.
The other string to Lincoln's bow for 1932 was the Model KA, a V-8 series on the same 136-inch wheelbase as the last Model Ls. The engine here was essentially that of the 1931 K, except that horsepower was raised to 125.
At $3,200 for the five-passenger sedan, the KA cost a sizeable $1,500 less than comparable 1931 models. The KB, on the other hand, was quite pricey for the day at $4,300-$7,200, yet most models actually cost a few dollars less than comparable 1931s.
The KA was offered in seven body types, all factory styles built by Murray. It has been reported that the Soviet government ordered 400 of these cars -- nearly 19 percent of 1932 series production -- for use by tourists and foreign dignitaries, although "Uncle Joe" Stalin himself was partial to Packards.
KAs were usually delivered with colored bodies and black fenders, while KBs were typically finished in two tones of a given color and reportedly required some 59 quarts of paint.
Another distinction was the cloisonne radiator badge: red on KAs, blue on KBs. Like 1930-1931 Lincolns, the KB offered both factory body styles as well as semi-customs supplied by some of America's leading coachbuilders -- 24 choices in all.
Enhancing appearance for both series were more rounded radiator shells, hoodside doors instead of louvers, fender-mounted parking lamps, and wheels again reduced in diameter, this time to 18 inches.
Find details on Lincoln Model K design on the next page.
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Lincoln Model K Design
The 1932s were undoubtedly the most elegant Lincolns yet, a fact owed in no small degree to Edsel Ford and his Lincoln Model K design. Though nominally the president of Ford Motor Company, Edsel didn't run the place in most respects; his irascible father was still really in charge.
But there was an exception. According to industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague, who worked with Edsel in creating several Ford exposition buildings during 1934-1940, "In the field of design [Edsel] had a free hand. Here his unique ability was, in his father's eyes, both mysterious and highly respected, not to be interfered with. . . .
"By choice he moved quietly, behind the scenes, where public eyes could not follow him. Thus, the fact that among his many superb qualities he was also a great designer was known to few except those who had the privilege of collaborating with him in this field."
Edsel Ford was a prominent patron of the arts, serving for many years as president of the Detroit Institute of Arts, where he commissioned and inspired masterful, if controversial, frescoes by Diego Rivera.
A man of impeccable taste, with a keen eye for line and form, he had set up a studio in the old Leland Lincoln plant as a sort of retreat where he could develop his design concepts, free of interference from old Henry. His goal was succinctly expressed when he remarked, "Father made the most popular car in the world. I would like to make the best."
He'd begun influencing Lincoln design soon after Ford bought out the founding Leland family in 1922. Each year he would solicit proposals from America's most prominent coachbuilders and decide which firms would supply which body types.
Thus, for 1932 as an example, Willoughby was assigned to do Lincoln's limousines, Brunn the cabriolets, Dietrich the coupes and convertible sedans, Judkins the berlines and formal coupes, and Murphy the phaetons and roadsters.
Among the rarest and most desirable of 1932 KBs are the convertible Victoria by Waterhouse (only 10 built) and a Murphy sport roadster (just three copies).
But despite coachbuilt cachet and a more impressive lineup, Lincoln sales sagged in 1932 as the Depression headed toward rock bottom. A major reason was that even those few people who could still afford expensive automobiles were often reluctant to be seen in one at a time when people were selling apples on street corners and lining up at soup kitchens.
For the calendar year, Lincoln managed 1,765 KAs and 1,641 KBs for total sales of 3,406, down about five percent from 1931. Still, this wasn't a bad showing in comparative terms, as both Cadillac and Packard dropped 39 percent from their dismal 1931 totals.
Lincoln godfather Henry Leland died on March 26, 1932, at age 89. By year's end, the remarkable V-8 he had designed more than a dozen years earlier would also pass into history.
Anticipating even more challenging competition, Edsel Ford had instructed chief engineer Frank Johnson in 1931 to develop a new 12-cylinder engine that would be less costly to build than the Leland-based engine but just as smooth, quiet, and powerful.
To learn about the models that got the new engine, check out the next page.
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1933 and 1934 Lincoln Model K
Ford Motor Company's new 12-cylinder engine arrived in the 1933 Model KA, a version of the 1933 and 1934 Lincoln Model K, sporting an unusual 67-degree cylinder-bank angle.
At 381.7 cubic inches, the new V-12 was marginally smaller than the eight it replaced but made the same 125 horsepower.
More importantly, it was lighter than the KB twelve, which enhanced handling, and was, if anything, even smoother. The new KA powerplant also marked a radical departure from Lincoln's traditional engineering, with four main bearings instead of seven and no costly fork-and-blade con-rod arrangement.
Instead, blocks were offset and rods placed side-by-side on the crankshaft journals. Also featured were replaceable insert bearings, an innovation at the time.
Lincoln established its own coachworks in 1933, making that year's "factory" bodies literally that. Styling was a cautious evolution of 1931-1932, with a few touches prompted by competitors and industry trends.
Among the most noticeable was adoption of skirted fenders as a running change in February, though these were available for earlier 1933s as a no-cost retrofit.
Also evident were larger freestanding headlamps (no more crossbar), a bolder grille with standard thermostatic shutters and slightly greater rearward rake, newly hidden horns, a stylish dip in the front bumpers, and a return to hoodside louvers. Wheelbases were unchanged.
Inside was a redesigned dashboard with a speedometer recalibrated to 110 mph, though that was wishful thinking.
All this applied to both 1933 series -- the KA and the KB -- as did a stronger new-design X-member chassis, a reworked transmission, new thermostatic shock absorbers that automatically adjusted for temperature, and brakes allowing the driver to select different pressure levels to suit road conditions.
Yet for all this, sales fell again. The market for cars of this character and price had all but disappeared by 1933. The patrician KB was especially hard hit, with only 533 built for the year.
A broad array of semi-custom models was still cataloged, but most again numbered in the mere handsful. KA production totaled 1,114, down nearly 37 percent from 1932.
Lincoln responded to "hard times" more aggressively for 1934, regrouping around a single engine. In essence, this was the 381.7-cubic-inch V-12 bored out to 414.2 cubic inches, which combined with higher compression (6.38:1) to yield the same 150 horsepower as the larger 1932-1933 KB mill.
The tighter compression mandated costlier high-octane Ethyl gasoline, but at a time when premium fuel rarely cost more than 22 cents per gallon, the extra expense was probably no handicap to Lincoln sales.
The new KA 414-cubic-inch V-12 was four inches shorter and an inch narrower than the KB's 448; it also boasted aluminum cylinder heads. Even so, some Lincoln purists took a dim view of it, among them Wilfred Leland, son and longtime associate of Lincoln founder Henry Leland.
Over time, however, the 414 proved even smoother and more flexible than the bigger V-12, as well as more fuel-efficient. It nearly matched the 448 in low-rpm torque, though it fell somewhat short at the top end.
Detroit was moving to streamlined styling, and the 1934 Lincolns reflected the trend, becoming smoother and more integrated in appearance. Highlights included painted shells surrounding more strongly vee'd radiators, a return to hoodside doors, skirted rear fenders, new cowl ventilator doors, and painted metal spare-tire covers.
Both series now wore blue radiator emblems, and there were new "Equal Action" mechanical brakes with twin shoes and molded linings.
Wheelbases remained the same, but the factory touring and phaeton styles became available only on special order, due to dwindling demand, and the KB series now listed far fewer semi-custom bodies.
The Depression had all but wiped out the market for expensive handcrafted cars. Locke, Waterhouse, Holbrook, and Murphy had already closed their doors, and other coachbuilders were soon forced to do the same.
Only Brunn, Dietrich, Judkins, Willoughby, and LeBaron remained as "authorized" Lincoln coachbuilders, and for 1934, they produced only 159 semi-custom KBs combined.
Production of factory-bodied models totaled 445, plus a few bare chassis. The KA fared much better at about 1,545 units, which boosted Lincoln's total volume by some 31 percent to 2,149.
To learn about changes for the 1935 model year, see the next section.
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1935 Lincoln Model K
For 1935, Lincoln eliminated its less expensive models to concentrate on two substantially changed series marketed under a revived 1935 Lincoln Model K designation.
Lincoln was still losing money, and Edsel Ford and other company officials (no doubt with a nudge from the founder) evidently decided there was no profit to be had with big cars costing less than $4,000.
It seemed a surprising move, but only until November 1935, when Lincoln unveiled an even bolder response to the changing market. This, of course, was the radically styled Lincoln Zephyr, with pioneering unibody construction, V-12 power, and prices as low as $1,275.
Zephyr was to Lincoln what the LaSalle was to Cadillac: a more saleable medium-priced product to keep the company afloat until happy days, again, really were at hand.
Though the economy had not fully recovered in 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal had made things better, and the Zephyr sold like no Lincoln before: more than 14,000 in its first season alone, and that with just coupe and sedan body styles.
By contrast, the most affordable 1935 Model Ks cost $4,200, a jump of $900 from the comparable 1934 models -- which was a major jump. Lincoln again offered semi-customs, but fewer of them: by LeBaron (now part of Briggs) and Brunn on the 136-inch chassis; by Brunn, Judkins, and Willoughby on the 145. (Dietrich, now a part of Murray, was no longer building Lincoln bodies.)
The costliest of these was Willoughby's $6,800 sport sedan; only five were built. With this price range, the Model K was just too expensive to sell very well in 1935, and production fell 30 percent to 1,411, including 580 short-wheelbase cars and 820 long models, plus chassis and miscellaneous specials.
And more's the pity, for the 1935s were the most improved Lincolns since the original Model Ks. Styling underwent a major transformation, becoming softer and more rounded, yet more imposing.
Wheel size was reduced once more, to 17 inches. The radiator cap was newly hidden beneath the hood, though the Gorham greyhound remained in its customary place.
Fenders were larger, bumpers smaller, headlamps more bullet-shaped. Safety glass was newly standard for all windows.
In addition, bodies were moved 11 inches forward on the chassis to position all passengers firmly between the axles for a more comfortable ride. The center of gravity was lowered as well. Softer front springs and new shock absorbers were adopted, as was a rear anti-sway torsion-bar stabilizer.
The 414-cubic-inch V-12, still at 150 horsepower, got needle-bearing tappet rollers for quieter operation and got an extra rubber mount for a total of five. Freewheeling became standard, and the transmission picked up better synchronizing for easier shifting.
Last but not least, the 1935s received a new dashboard with space for a newly optional radio.
Find out how the Model K continued to evolve on the next page.
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1936 and 1937 Lincoln Model K
Styling on the 1936 and 1937 Lincoln Model K became even sleeker than before, with updates the first year and a complete redesign the next.
On the 1936 model, windshield tilt went from 20 degrees to a more rakish 27, "pontoon" fenders appeared, headlights sat lower astride a deeper radiator, pressed steel wheels replaced the traditional wires, and running boards were noticeably narrowed.
Offerings in 1936 numbered 19, including coachbuilt models. Technical changes were few and minor but significant.
A much-slowed steering ratio required 4 1/3 turns lock-to-lock instead of three, freewheeling was (blessedly) dropped, and there was a new transmission with a helical-cut gear for first as well as second and third.
Though still improving, the national economy in 1936 was by no means back to pre-Depression levels. Even so, automobile sales increased dramatically, especially among medium-priced marques such as Buick, Chrysler, and the Packard One-Twenty.
At Lincoln, Model K volume rose about seven percent to 1,515 (some sources say 1,523), still a disappointment. It's worth noting, however, that Packard sold a thousand fewer of its senior cars during 1936 versus the previous year.
This situation must have been terribly discouraging to Lincoln management, and perhaps especially to Edsel Ford. But, determined to give it one more try, Lincoln introduced a completely restyled Model K for 1937. Rounded, even bulky in appearance, it carried streamlining a step further with fender-mounted headlamps and, on most offerings, built-in trunks.
Metal-covered dual sidemounts were standard on only five models, mostly coachbuilt styles, though still optional for others. The factory touring body was finally dropped altogether.
Mechanically, it was time to play catchup, at least to a point. Hydraulic valve lifters, pioneered by Pierce-Arrow in 1933, were finally adopted, and a revised camshaft helped improve performance, though advertised horsepower remained at 150.
But mechanical brakes were still the order of the day for the big Lincolns, and would remain so even after other Ford Motor Company cars got them for 1939.
Find details on the end of the Model K's run, through 1940, in our final section.
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1938, 1939, and 1940 Lincoln Model K
Only the most modest of changes marked the 1938, 1939, and 1940 Lincoln Model K as sales continued their downward slide until the line was dropped. The 1939s, however, included two of the most famous Lincolns ever built.
One was a special touring car, based on the LeBaron convertible sedan, used by England's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during their historic June 1939 tour of the U.S. and Canada.
The other special 1939 was a Brunn convertible sedan on a 160-inch commercial chassis built as presidential transport. FDR himself dubbed it the "Sunshine Special," and of the several cars in the White House fleet, this was the one he ordered be flown for use at his wartime conferences in Casablanca, Tehran, and Yalta.
But not even the presidential seal of approval could save the classic Model K. Production figures for the line's three final years are in dispute.
Richard Burns Carson, writing in The Olympian Cars, says 986 were built during 1937, followed by 378 in 1938, and 221 in 1939. On the other hand, the Encyclopedia of American Cars by Consumer Guide shows 977, 416, and 133, respectively.
Other authorities quote still different numbers, but it's a fact that a few leftover 1939s were sold as 1940 models.
It's remarkable the magnificent Ks lasted as long as they did. Duesenberg and Marmon were long gone by the time hallowed Pierce-Arrow closed its doors in 1938, and the Packard Twelve was history a year after that.
Cadillac had dropped its V-12s after 1937, and the Sixteen would follow after 1940 and a final 61 units. At least the big Lincolns didn't go to the grave alone.
An era had ended, and, as they say, we shall never see its like again. Classic-car authority Paul Woudenberg has said of the Model K Lincoln: "Perhaps no car in production at that time could match [it] for sheer quality without regard to cost." That's tribute enough to Edsel Ford's commitment to build the best.