Historically, cars heralded as being "ahead of their time" have usually disappeared before their time. Not the 1936-1948 Lincoln Zephyr. Simply put, it was the most saleable and longest-lived of the pioneering streamlined designs that appeared in the early 1930s, the first genuinely successful car of the modern age.
Cars like the Hupmobile Aerodynamic and Chrysler's Airflow twins folded early because they were too radical for most buyers -- in other words, ugly. But the Zephyr was attractive as well as advanced, and thus far more acceptable to far more buyers than any of its futuristic contemporaries.
A vee’d grille and deftly handled details reflected
the best thinking of Edsel Ford and designer Bob
Gregorie -- and made this the best-looking
of the early streamliners. See more classic car pictures.
Despite a questionable engine and anachronistic chassis details, the basic Zephyr design was so good that it lasted better than 10 years, remaining competitive even as late as 1948, Ironically, the Zephyr never achieved sufficient sales volume to put Lincoln in the same league with Cadillac and Packard, which had help from "junior editions" of their own, but it emphatically kept the grand old marque alive at a time when the luxury market had all but died out.
This popularity didn't go unnoticed, and many of the Zephyr's features were quickly picked up by rival producers. In fact, the Zephyr arguably did more than any other single model of the immediate prewar years to shape the automobile as we would come to know it in the postwar era.
The Zephyr was a breakthrough, difficult though that may be to appreciate in this age of "high tech." Of course, the automotive world was a vastly different place a half-century ago, and the Zephyr wafted into it like a breath of fresh air to stir the winds of change.
The Zephyr was created not so much as the trendsetter it so obviously was as the sort of lower-priced, higher-volume product that represented the only path to survival for luxury makes in the Depression.
In a brief history of Lincoln issued in mid-1976 as part of the press kit for the forthcoming Continental Mark V, a Ford Motor Company scribe offered this rationale for the Zephyr's development: "Just as dramatic as the styling improvements of the handcrafted cars of the 1930s was their decline in sales. Improved manufacturing techniques had closed the gap between handcrafted and mass-produced automobiles. With these facts and the improving economy, [company president] Edsel Ford and other Ford executives felt the medium-priced market was ready for a Lincoln."
Actually, they had no choice. From a best-ever total of 8,858 units in calendar 1926, Lincoln production had fallen to just 3,312 cars by model year 1930. Volume picked up slightly for 1931, reaching 3,556 units largely on the strength of the new Model K, an improved version of the original V-8 Model L designed around 1920 by Lincoln Motor Company founder Henry Martyn Leland.
The total rose again for 1932, reaching 3,749 units with introduction of the superlative V-12 Model KB. Then the luxury market bottomed out completely, and Lincoln output sank to just 1,703 for model year 1933.
As historian Leslie R. Henry notes: "The Depression and its aftermath had forced many luxury-car manufacturers to the wall: Duesenberg, Franklin, Peerless, Pierce, Cord, Auburn, and Cunningham all folded during this period. The remaining marques either rode out the lean years on the profits of their popular-priced smaller brothers [Cadillac, for instance] or moved into the production of compromise cars that traded on an honored name [such as Packard]. In Lincoln's case, the big K-series continued to be built until 1940, while an effort was made to attract more buyers and to fill the price gap between the Ford and Lincoln."
Zephyr styling was so on point that the car lasted more
than 10 years. Here, a rare 1941 convertible coupe.
That effort, begun in 1932, was the genesis of the Zephyr.
Learn about the Zephyr's beginnings on the next page.
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