1956-1957 Lincoln Continental Mark II

The Lincoln Continental Mark II is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of automobile production. It was supposed to establish Dearborn's dominance at the top of the market -- which it did -- but it was somehow supposed to make money -- which it couldn't. Here's the intriguing story behind the revival of a grand idea that proved too grand even for the 1950s.

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1956 lincoln continental mark 2
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The Lincoln Continental Mark II had a short, brilliant, doomed existence. See more classic car pictures.

Great cars are never forgotten, and the original Lincoln Continental is one of them. In the early 1950s, memories of that timeless 1940-1941 design prompted dealers and would-be owners to ask Ford Motor Company for a successor, the first new Continental since the last of the postwar continuations was built in 1948. The result was the unforgettable Lincoln Continental 1956-1957 Mark II.

Riddles and myths about the end of the first-series Continental persist to this day, but several facts are indisputable. First, a second-generation model was included in Ford's postwar plans as late as early 1947, conceived for a 132-inch wheelbase to be shared with a new limousine at the top of the Lincoln line.

Second, those plans were drastically changed -- almost at the 11th hour -- by Ernest R. Breech, second in command to newly named company president Henry Ford II.

Economics was the reason. Ford Motor Company was in dire financial straits by the late-1940s, and cost-cutting was imperative for survival. The Continental was a natural target. It was not only expensive and thus had limited sales potential, it was old.

Though running gear had been improved over the years, its basic design still hearkened back to the V-12 Zephyr of the 1930s. Worse, the gorgeous original styling, executed by Eugene T. "Bob" Gregorie, had suffered from a 1942 facelift, which continued after the war.

But the main reason the Continental died after 1948 was that there was no one left to sponsor it. Its creator, former company president Edsel Ford, died in May 1943, precipitating a leadership crisis that only aggravated his firm's financial plight.

Despite the chaotic atmosphere of the early war years, he hand-worked with Gregorie and others on ideas for the firm's first new postwar designs. But if Edsel had any particular visions about a second-generation Continental, he carried them to his grave. His death left a vacuum that the Mark II would soon fill.

Keep reading for more about the birth of the Lincoln Continental Mark II.

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Birth of the Lincoln Continental Mark II

In the vacuum left by Edsel Ford's death, designers were left to ponder a possible successor -- the eventual Lincoln Continental Mark II -- bearing the "bathtub" shape that had emerged from wartime studies as management's favorite for the 1949 Lincoln and Mercury.

Stylist Bill Schmidt sketched one Continental in 1945 that looked like a mid-1950s Nash from the front and a 1948 Continental from the rear. Doors were cut down in a fashion predictive of the later Nash Metropolitan.

Other proposals envisioned the trademark closed rear roof quarters and external spare tire, but these classic elements clashed with the bathtub form like thunder and lightning.

lincoln continental mark ii
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The Lincoln Continental Mark II was developed at Ford's Special Products Division.

Had things gone differently, the second-generation Continental would have appeared as part of a completely redesigned Ford Motor Company fleet for 1949. The reason it didn't was explained in 1955 by Walt Woron of Motor Trend magazine:

"It wasn't long after the last Lincoln Continental had rolled off the assembly line that rumblings were heard about a rebirth of this all-time beauty . . . After much diligent checking, I found out that they did build an abortive version of the 1949 Lincoln. It was rumored that this would be the new Continental. It bore some resemblance to the earlier car . . . but it was much too cumbersome and awkward-looking to meet with approval."

Former Ford stylist Robert Thomas recalls another ill-fated attempt. In 1947, George Snyder came over from General Motors to be co-director of Ford Styling and wanted to make his mark. Under his direction, a new Continental was mocked up as a full-size clay, with very advanced styling that was nothing at all like that of the eventual 1949 Lincoln Cosmopolitan.

Thomas had done something similar in 3/8 scale at GM, so creating it again was "a piece of cake." As he recalls: "Snyder decided on a convertible . . . so that both the exterior and interior could be modeled in clay and the top could be made separately to be set off to show the convertible as it would look with the top up or down. The finished model was beautiful. Both the exterior and interior were painted, and the hardware was made of aluminum. The model was so realistic that Ernie Breech grabbed the door handle and tried to open the door."

But it was doomed, he says, probably because it was too "far out." More to the point, Ford simply couldn't afford a low-volume luxury liner that would return only marginal profits at best. Thomas left for Nash in 1950.

The clay he remembers may have influenced the experimental Continental-X, first shown in early 1952. A running prototype with aluminum bodywork on a 123-inch wheelbase, this five-passenger, two-door hardtop bore futuristic lines created by staff designers Elwood Engel and Joe Oros.

Among its many novel features was a "rain-cell" roof over the driver's compartment, a panel that closed automatically at the first sign of moisture. As the first of Dearborn's famous 1950s showmobiles, it was a real pacesetter, and was subsequently renamed Lincoln XL-100 and, later, Ford X-100.

More significantly, it prompted a new two-pronged corporate styling program. One path led to the firm's more radical production designs of the period, such as the 1957 Mercury, while the other led to a new Continental, intended to run against then-current trends by reviving "classic era" styling themes. This second path led to the birth of the Lincoln Continental Mark II.

Continue reading for information on the early development of the Mark II.

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Early Lincoln Continental Mark II Development

The impetus for what came to be the Lincoln Continental Mark II was the Ford family's deep-seated desire to revive the spirit of the original Continental in the modern idiom, thus establishing a new tradition of excellence. Pride also played a part.

After a long period of design stagnation, executive upheavals, and eroding sales, Ford Motor Company had made a spectacular turnaround with its well-received 1949 products. The entire fleet was again completely overhauled for 1952, when the firm regained its rank as the industry's number-two producer from a faltering Chrysler Corporation.

1956 lincoln continental mark ii model
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
This Lincoln Continental Mark II clay model shows the basic shape of the eventual car.

With profits higher than at any time since the war -- and with the company's Golden Anniversary coming up in 1953 -- it seemed like a good time to celebrate with a super-luxury model aimed at establishing Dearborn's dominance at the very top of the market -- higher, even, than Cadillac.

In early 1952, Ford brass formed a committee headed by long-time sales executive John R. Davis to investigate possibilities for future model expansion. The group returned in June with two recommendations: a brace of medium-price products to supplement Mercury (which culminated in the 1958 Ford- and Mercury-based Edsels) and a very high-priced luxury car.

To handle the latter, a new team called Special Product Operations was set up. This was later renamed Special Products Division, then Continental Division in 1955.

From the outset, Special Products was completely divorced from Lincoln-Mercury, so it couldn't borrow any of that division's talent. Accordingly, John Reinhart, veteran designer with GM, Packard, and the Raymond Loewy studios, was brought in to head styling, and Bob Thomas and Ray Smith were recruited from Nash-Kelvinator to work directly under him.

Reinhart's engineering counterpart was young Harley Copp. Harold Johnson was named chief chassis engineer, while Gordon Beuhrig, renowned for the striking 1936-1937 Cord 810/812, became chief body engineer. Overseeing all was William Clay Ford, the youngest of Edsel's three sons and brother of the company president.

The brief for Special Products was simple but daunting: Create the most luxurious, carefully crafted production car in the land -- literally an American Rolls-Royce. Retail price was projected at a formidable $7,500-$8,000; it ultimately worked out to near $10,000.

At that level, the new Continental would cost more than twice as much as a contemporary Lincoln, which meant that it couldn't be simply an updated version of the last 1948 model.

Ford's aim was a modern car with the quiet elegance and quality construction of the great 1930s classics. Originally, the firm didn't see it as a profit-maker so much as a prestige flagship, which explains why the project was approved despite an estimated annual loss of $1.6 million, based on 1,600 sales per year over a three-year period.

Harley Copp underscored this intent in a 1956 address to the Society of Automotive Engineers: "The Continental does not have the most chrome, the most horsepower, or the greatest size. [Instead, it emphasizes] elegance, and not only the elegance of appearance. Certainly, an essential requirement of elegance is enduring value. Rhinestones are no substitute for diamonds."

This would prove to be the guiding wisdom behind the development of the Lincoln Continental Mark II.

For more information on early development and design of the Mark II, go to the next page.

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Early Lincoln Continental Mark II Design

Initial Lincoln Continental Mark II styling proposals picked up where the old Continental left off. But they failed to impress Henry Ford II, so four outside design teams were called in to compete with Reinhart's group, the same sort of situation that surrounded development of the 1949 Ford.

lincoln continental mark ii
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The Lincoln Continental Mark II driveline and unique cow-belly frame were tested in a fleet of 1953 Lincolns.

Special Products now submitted three new proposals: a pair of 1948 updates and an entirely new, but conservative, concept labeled "Modern Formal." From George Walker's staff at Ford Styling came a Kaiser-like design, a mid-1950s interpretation of the 1948, and a third concept recalling the first Continental.

Walter Buell Ford (no relation to the Ford family) offered a pair of more radical designs, Vince Gardner stayed pretty close to original Continental themes, and the team of Reese Miller and A. B. "Buzz" Grisinger showed several, more contemporary ideas.

Each consultant prepared five views, all rendered in Bill Ford's favorite color, Honolulu Blue. None were signed. Interestingly, the company's Executive Committee was unmoved by any of the throwback or 1950s approaches, but it immediately went for Reinhart's "Modern Formal." The Lincoln Continental Mark II had been born.

This design "religion" was quickly translated into a 3/8-scale clay model, followed by a full-size clay approved in June 1953. Introduction was tentatively scheduled for 1956.

Meantime, Buehrig ordered six running "mules" for testing the new car's frame, suspension, and running gear. They were cobbled up with channeled 1953 Lincoln bodies by the Hess & Eisenhardt coachworks of Cincinnati, five hardtops and a convertible.

Despite the initial cost-no-object decree, budget considerations precluded drivetrain components unique to the Lincoln Continental Mark II. Continental historian Bob Davis notes that an all-new V-12 was briefly considered to maintain a link with the 1940s original, but production economics dictated the use of Lincoln hardware. And that was fine, because Lincoln was being completely made over for 1956.

Included was a new 368-cubic-inch V-8 developing 285 horsepower at 4,600 rpm, Lincoln's most powerful engine ever. It was the logical choice for the new Continental, along with Lincoln's new Turbo-Drive automatic, introduced for 1955.

From an appearance standpoint, the Lincoln Continental Mark II engine differed from its Lincoln twin only in paint color, oil pan, and cast-aluminum instead of steel valve covers. Production was another matter.

Mark II drivetrain components were machined to higher tolerances than the Lincoln's. Every engine was dynamometer tested, then partially disassembled for inspection, and transmissions were checked in another vehicle before being approved for installation. Rear axle and differential were basically stock 1956 Lincoln.

Though the Mark II rode the same 126-inch wheelbase as the 1956 Lincoln, its chassis was entirely different. Since the Continental's overall height could not exceed 58 inches (versus the Lincoln's 61.2), Copp and Johnson developed a unique "cowbelly" frame. This referred to side rails that dipped low between the axles, so that the floorpan sat nearer the bottom of the frame than the top.

The result was a recessed passenger compartment floor like that of the Step-down Hudsons, which permitted comfortably upright seating without a high roofline. A similar approach was taken with the 1957 Ford, but it wasn't until 1965 that the company took full advantage of the Mark II's superior "perimeter" design.

To see how these early designs translated into the 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II, go to the next page.

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1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II Design

The 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II was unique in its innovative design. Structurally, the Lincoln Continental Mark II chassis combined ladder-type and Y-shape cross-bracing, which made it 30 percent stronger and much more rigid than Lincoln's 1952-1955 X-member frame.

Because the "cowbelly" design meant a relatively higher transmission hump, a special three-joint driveshaft was developed to minimize intrusion.

1957 lincoln continental mark ii
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The Lincoln Continental Mark II was offered with limited options.

The low-profile chassis also dictated some suspension differences compared to the 1956 Lincoln, but geometry was the same: coil springs and control arms in front, longitudinal leaf springs at the rear.

Exclusive to the Mark II were special temperature-sensitive shock absorbers, for a smoother ride. Each finished chassis was dynamometer tested and tuned before its body was added. Wheel alignment was held to super-fine tolerances, and wheels, tires, and the power-assisted drum brakes were all carefully balanced.

Attention to detail quality was evident in every phase of Lincoln Continental Mark II assembly. Consider the care involved with just the painting. First, the supporting structure and all body panels were fitted on a simulated chassis, then removed. After the body was surface-sealed, a primer coat was applied, water-sanded by hand, then baked.

Next came a surfacer coat with another hand sanding and baking, followed by two lacquer color coats that were oil-sanded by hand, then baked. Finally, two more lacquer coats were applied and baked, followed by a thorough hand-buffing and polishing.

Similar care was lavished in places where most customers would never think to look. Chrome plating exceeded SAE specification by a factor of three. Nuts and bolts were near-aircraft quality, and some were chromed.

Door end panels and door jambs were plated in hard chrome and screwed into place, and chrome was used even on stainless-steel trim. The Mark II was chromed where it counted, not necessarily where it showed.

This obsession with perfection partly explains why the Mark II was offered in just a single body style, a hardtop coupe, and with only one driveline. Buyers had a wide choice of exterior colors, but there were no pinks, aquamarines, or other shocking 1950s favorites. There were no two-tones, either, and they would have been out of place anyway.

From any angle, the Mark II was exceptionally elegant for this flamboyant era: clean, dignified without being stuffy and, most important, thoroughly evocative of its 1940-1941 ancestor.

Though its long-hood/short-deck proportions weren't as pronounced, it did have the same sort of close-coupled appearance. And it maintained tradition with a trunk-lid styled to resemble the familiar "continental" spare tire.

Keep reading for pictures and information about the 1956 Mark II's interior.

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1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II Interior

The Lincoln Continental Mark II was known for its sober but elegant design, and matching the understated exterior of the Lincoln Continental Mark II was an equally low-key interior.

1957 lincoln continental mark ii instrument panel
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The Lincoln Continental Mark II's low-key instrument panel housed complete instrumentation ahead of a big, dished steering wheel.

Designers resisted the metallic threads and bright colors that were then all the rage, opting for good old-fashioned broadcloth, a "cross-checked" nylon, and a new fabric called "Matelasse" with an embroidered thread pattern, all in conservative hues.

Leather upholstery was available, and came from Bridge of Weir in Scotland. A few U.S. leathers looked just as good, but they were spray-dyed, not vat-dyed, and thus not good enough for Ford's finest.

The instrument panel was similarly restrained and rather modest dimensionally. An upright pod ahead of the steering wheel presented four round dials with brushed-finish faces housing complete instrumentation, including tachometer and chronometer.

Lights, wiper, ignition, and radio were arrayed below on a sub-panel stretching either side of the wheel. Five vertical-sliding levers with large chrome handles looked after heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, mounted low in the center just above the transmission tunnel.

lincoln continental mark ii trunk
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The humped trunklid of the Mark II served a purpose, even if the spare was awkwardly placed.

With all this, the Lincoln Continental Mark II was the closest America had come to a hand-crafted custom since the last coach-built Classics of the 1940s, though it was technically a series-production model. Its assembly plant was shared with no other car in the Ford stable, and included a half-mile road course and various test stations.

After undergoing an exhaustive round of tests and inspections, each car was prepared for shipment like a priceless painting, protected by a full-size fleece-lined cloth cover, then wrapped in a big plastic bag. The cars arrived customer-ready. All the dealer had to do was remove the distinctive radial-vane wheel covers from the trunk, put them on the wheels, bolt on the license plates, and hand over the keys.

Befitting its lofty position, the Lincoln Continental Mark II was given one of the 1950s biggest publicity pump-ups, at least before the Edsel. First word that a new Continental was in the works came from William Clay Ford at the first national meet of the Lincoln Continental Owners Club, held at Dearborn's historic Greenfield Village in October 1954.

Details leaked out over the next year, and suspense mounted until the car's formal unveiling at the Paris Auto Show on October 6, 1955.

Go to the next page to read about the Mark II's 1956 debut.

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1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II Debut

The 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II debuted amongst much fanfare. For starters, Ford staged a series of private showings of the Lincoln Continental Mark II in major U.S. cities, all strictly invitation-only.

Bill Ford was usually on hand to greet the guests, most of whom were industrialists, politicians, and celebrities. Typically, a Mark II was the centerpiece, revolving slowly on a spotlighted turntable while pianist George Feyer played "The Continental" and other 1930s tunes.

1956 lincoln continental mark 2
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II debuted to critical and consumer acclaim.

A special introductory commercial aired on the The Ed Sullivan Show, then sponsored by Lincoln-Mercury, and Continental Division managed to strong-arm Ed into letting Feyer play "The Continental" on his show. The pianist got all of two minutes. Evidently, "The Host of the Toast" wasn't impressed by Feyer or the Mark II. He reportedly drove a 1956 Lincoln Premiere. So did Walt Disney.

Nevertheless, there was no shortage of famous names on the Lincoln Continental Mark II owner list. Included were future New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, Milton Eisenhower (brother of the U.S. president), Barry Goldwater, and the Shah of Iran.

From Hollywood: singers Frank Sinatra and Louis Prima, actors Walter Brennan and Stuard Granger, and movie moguls Cecil B. DeMille, Darryl F. Zanuck, Mike Todd, and Jack Warner.

Tobacco baron R. J. Reynolds and Nevada hotelier Bill Harrah were also included, as was shipbuilding tycoon and erstwhile automaker Henry J. Kaiser.

You really had to be rich and famous to own a Mark II, because its suggested $10,000 retail price was simply simply stratospheric for the mid-1950s. Actually, most went out the door for about $8,500, and a short-lived rumor that Ford would sell only to blue-bloods was just a public relations ploy.

Whatever your station, you got a fully equipped car, which was only right. The only major extra was air conditioning, and about 75 percent of all Mark IIs were so equipped.

Minor accessories for 1957 were limited to automatic headlamp dimmer and Ford's "Lifeguard" seatbelts, dished steering wheel, and padded dash and sun-visors.

The Mark II may have cost twice as much as a Lincoln Premiere hardtop, but it was not exactly twice the car. It was more carefully crafted, to be sure, and it handled a little better -- but then the 1956 Lincoln was an exceptional handler for its size, and Mark II brakes were characteristically weak.

This would play a role in the eventually disappointing overall sales of the 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II. Keep reading to learn more about these sub-par sales.

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1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II Sales

The 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II had debuted to popular acclaim and earned some glowing reviews from the critics as well.

1957 lincoln continental mark ii
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The Lincoln Continental Mark II's astronomical price damaged its sales.

Motor Trend magazine's Walt Woron had these observations about the Lincoln Continental Mark II: "It's with considerable pleasure that you get the feeling of being part of the car, even though the hood is long (which could give you a detached feeling).

"You're close to the windshield. Vision forward . . . is exceptionally good because of the combination of the wraparound windshield and extremely narrow (1 1/2-inch) post. You can see the ground just a few feet in front of the bumper, even with the seat in its full down position and despite the expanse of metal up front.

"Once you're out on the street, you're amazed at the quietness with which your Continental rolls along. Even when you really tromp down on the throttle and surge forward, you don't hear a mechanical clattering. You note with satisfaction that acceleration is plenty good from a stoplight or on the highway (around 11 or 12 seconds from 0 to 60, for instance). As you take your first few corners you feel confident that, if need be, you could drive this car hard."

Veteran tester Floyd Clymer drove a Continental 817 miles for Popular Mechanics. And he did drive it hard: up to 118 mph on a dry lake and under every kind of road and weather condition.

He reported that the car's "handling qualities are a combination of those found in sports, foreign, and conventional U. S. cars. It has the road 'feel' of the semi-sports car and handles not entirely unlike the Thunderbird, although it has softer front springing, which the average U.S. buyer wants in a stock car."

The Mark II got off to a dynamite sales start, and most of the "beautiful people" bought early. Some 1,300 orders were taken during the last three months of 1955, and 1,261 cars were produced before the end of the calendar year.

But sales began to fizzle in January 1956 and continued downward, with 1,307 units built for the 12 months. Production continued into 1957 and another 672 examples before the model was discontinued in May. (These figures are based on serial number spans. Some sources list model year production at only 1,325 for 1956 and just 444 of the 1957s.)

The next page has more information about the 1957 Lincoln Continental Mark II.

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1957 Lincoln Continental Mark II

Despite a new 1957 model year, Ford did not observe a formal model changeover with the Lincoln Continental Mark II, and serial numbers on all examples begin with the code C56. Nevertheless, a few running changes were instituted when Lincoln entered the 1957 season.

1957 lincoln continental mark ii
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The 1957 Lincoln Continental Mark II was outwardly little changed from the 1956 but boasted more horsepower.

Compression was boosted from 9.0 to 10.0:1, and rated output rose to an even 300 horsepower. There were several transmission improvements, including availability of an add-on oil cooler and "Directed Power" differential, the oil-bath air filter was exchanged for a more modern paper-element type, a more efficient Carter carburetor replaced the previous Holley, and four new acrylic lacquer colors were added.

Other changes included an air conditioning intake repositioned form the leading edge of the rear fenders to the front fenders, increased-amperage generator, and removal of the center frame member (to reduce weight).

1957 lincoln continental mark ii engine
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The Mark II's big 368-cid Lincoln V-8 put out 300 horsepower in 1957.

In the end, though, the Mark II couldn't last. Despite its high price, FoMoCo lost about $1,000 on every one it sold, but that wasn't the only factor in its demise. For one thing, dealer support was weak. Of Lincoln-Mercury's 1,300 outlets at the time, only 652 signed up for the Mark II program, partly because promotional materials were expensive and partly because of the factory's requirement that dealers stock Lincoln Continental Mark IIs at 10 percent of their inventory, another costly proposition.

Worse, many cars were discounted when sales started falling, which only hurt its image and antagonized those who'd paid the full $10,000. Then too, some owners ran into service problems, yet most dealers weren't equipped to handle them. For the money they paid, Mark II owners rightfully expected a little extra attention; by and large, they didn't get it.

The product wasn't entirely faultless, either. Some have criticized the styling as too conservative for the "movers-and-shakers" market Ford had targeted, while others cite the single body style and lack of jazzy innovations customers could see. While no two Mark buyers were alike, the cars were, and the 1950s gadgetry expected in such a lofty carriage simply wasn't there.

But perhaps the main problem was that, somewhere along the way, Ford lost sight of its objectives. Many Mark II sales undoubtedly went to the longer-lower-wider 1956-1957 Lincolns, which were more in tune with the times and far less expensive. In fact, Lincoln's 1956 model year production set a record that would stand until 1966, a smashing 50,322 units.

And even before the Lincoln Continental Mark II appeared, Ford had already dug its grave. Unit construction seemed like the wave of the future in 1955, and the firm broke ground that year for a new assembly plant at Wixom, Michigan, designed for the unit-construction Lincolns and Thunderbirds being planned for 1958.

These moves effectively precluded continuation of the existing body-and-frame cars, so the Mark II really had no place in the corporate scheme after 1957, and thus no future.

Despite the dismaying sales numbers, Mark II designers were busy planning variations of the car. Keep reading to learn about two of them.

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Lincoln Continental Mark II Convertible and Retractable

Though the Lincoln Continental Mark II was not destined to last, its designers had big plans for it. Two of the ideas Ford toyed with were retractable and convertible versions of the Mark II.

lincoln continental mark ii convertible
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The proposed Lincoln Continental Mark II convertible.

­­The Lincoln Continental Mark II Retractable

Gimmicky roof designs fascinated Dearborn designers in the 1950s, and Special Products was no exception. The fixed-roof pillarless coupe, sometimes called the "hardtop-convertible," had swept the market since GM pioneered the style back in 1949. What could be better for Ford's new super-luxury car than a hardtop that could actually transform itself into a convertible?

There was even a precedent in the Chrysler Thunderbolt, a series of six show cars built in 1940-1941 by Briggs Manufacturing Company. Here the top was relatively small, just large enough to cover a three-passenger cockpit with single bench seat, so there was relatively little trouble storing it in the trunk.

lincoln continental mark ii retractable schematic
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
A schematic of the the proposed Lincoln Continental Mark II retractable.

The retractable idea was first floated in Dearborn by stylist Gilbert Spear, whose mechanical drawings convinced Special Products head William Clay Ford to proceed with development for the forthcoming Lincoln Continental Mark II. A total of $2.19 million was allocated in 1953 and the task assigned to chief engineer Harley Copp. John R. Hollowell was the engineer in charge, however, and colleague Ben J. Smith did most of the actual design work.

A "mule" was constructed from a 1952 Lincoln body and probably a 1952 Lincoln frame, but the trunk was elongated to house a steel top much longer than the Thunderbolt's. Nevertheless, the finished product worked like the proverbial charm.

Though the retractable would have been the perfect gimmick for the pricey Mark II, management felt its development costs could never be recovered with the low production anticipated. Accordingly, the decision was made to offer only a fixed-roof hardtop, and the project was transferred to Ford Division in the summer of 1955.

After another $18 million had been spent for testing, the "retrac" made a belated debut in the 1957 Ford line as the Skyliner. Intended for much higher volume than the Mark II, it was just as complex and, relatively speaking, just as costly. To no one's surprise, it garnered only marginal sales, and was dropped after 1959.

The retractable idea resurfaced as part of the expanded Mark II line initially envisioned for 1958. Also considered were a more straightforward soft-top convertible, plus a hardtop sedan and "berline" limousine.

But with minuscule sales, high per-unit losses, and a platform already rendered obsolete by long-range plans, the Mark II was doomed and so were these extensions.

The Lincoln Continental Mark II Convertible

It was sometime during summer 1956 that Continental Division commissioned a prototype Mark II soft-top. Built by the famed Derham Coachworks of Rosemont, Pennsylvania, it was painted pearlescent white and sported red-and-white leather interior. Its top had very wide rear quarters, recalling the first-generation Continental cabriolet.

Sources disagree on whether Ford seriously intended to offer copies, but sales would have been limited in any case: Retail price was estimated at an eye-popping $18,000. Like the retrac, there was simply no money to be made with a Mark II convertible -- or any of the proposed 1958 models.

lincoln continental mark ii convertible
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
This Lincoln Continental Mark II convertible, built by Derham Coachworks, is the only of its kind.

The prototype convertible was shown extensively, then given to Bill Ford for his wife's personal use. The Fords repainted it twice, then had it stripped and re-finished in sky blue. At the same time, the interior was changed to blue and white.

The car was later turned over to a Ford executive. Another convertible was later cobbled up from a Mark II coupe by a private party in Florida, but the prototype car is the only one that can be considered "factory."

The convertible and retractable were not meant to be. In fact, the Mark II was not long for this world, as the next page details.

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Demise of the Lincoln Continental Mark II

By 1958, the future of the Lincoln Continental Mark II was clearly doomed. Bob Thomas neatly summarizes the situation in his candid autobiography, Confessions of an Automobile Stylist:

"We were working our asses off to make the car a success, and if management hadn't put so many stumbling blocks in our way, we might have succeeded. GM lost money every year on the Corvette, but they kept it going as a prestige plus. We at Continental had to make money on the car from the start, which was a ridiculous assumption."

1958 lincoln continental mark ii
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The 1958 Lincoln Continental Mark II never made it out of pre-production.

Predictably, cost experts went to work on making the Continental a money-maker. The result was the 1958 Mark III, a spiffier version of that year's new unit-body Lincoln, with boxy, undistinguished lines and the same king-size 131-inch wheelbase.

Left stillborn were several Mark II extensions to supplement the original hardtop, which would have continued in the 1958 lineup initially envisioned. Said Reinhart: "It was so perfect a design that we felt it could go as long as 10 years."

The additions considered were a hardtop sedan with Mark II lines and what Buehrig dubbed the "berline," a limousine-type variation designed to be chauffeur-driven. The former got as far as a full-scale clay created by Reinhart at management's direction.

lincoln continental mark iii
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The 1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III marked the demise of the Mark II line.

Also proposed were a convertible and a retractable hardtop-convertible. With these, said Reinhart, ". . . we felt we had a full line of cars. And we thought each would be a 'classic' in its own right. But we got stopped at the gate."

Ironically, Ford abandoned the super-luxury market just as Cadillac was entering it with the 1957-1958 Eldorado Brougham. This was another low-volume prestige leader that went nowhere, though GM was more able than Ford to indulge such whims.

With the Mark III, the separate Continental Division was dissolved, and its headquarters building was turned into a pilot production plant. The division then faded quietly into a reformed Lincoln-Mercury Division following the demise of the short-lived Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln structure.

While the III wasn't technically a Lincoln, the little-changed 1959-1960 Mark IV and V were. Continental wouldn't return as a separate marque until 1968, when Henry Ford II decreed a new Mark III as the lineal successor to the Lincoln Continental Mark II. Thus began the third chapter of the Continental saga, a story that's still unfolding.

Specifications of the 1956-1957 Lincoln Continental Mark II appear on the next page.

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1956-1957 Lincoln Continental Mark II Specifications

The Lincoln Continental Mark II will go down as one of the most elegant flops in automobile history. Despite classic styling and massive promotion, it was simply too expensive for the average -- or even above-average -- consumer.

Check out the specifications of the Mark II in the chart below.

1957 lincoln continental mark ii side view
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The 1956-1957 Lincoln Continental Mark II may not have lasted very long, but its devotees' loyalty is enduring.

1956-1957 Lincoln Continental Mark II Specifications

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General Specifications
Manufacturer
Continental Division, Ford Motor Company
Dates of Manufacture
June 1955-May 1957
Body Type
two-door hardtop
As-New Price
$9,695 (1956), $9,966 (1957)
Wheelbase (in.)
126.0
Overall Length (in.)
218.5
Overall Width (in.) 77.5
Overall Height (in.)
56.0
Shipping Weight (lbs)
4,797 (1956), 4,825 (1957)

Drivetrain Specifications
Engine Type ohv V-8
Bore x Stroke (in.)
4.00 x 3.66
Displacement (cu. in.)
368.0
Compression Ratio (:1)
9.0 (1956), 10.0 (1957)
Carburetion
4-barrel downdraft (Holley 1956, Carter 1957)
Exhaust System
dual
Horsepower @ rpm
285 @ 4,600 (1956), 300 @ 4,600 (1957)
Torque @ rpm (lbs/ft)
402 @ 3,000 (1956), 415 @ 3,000 (1957)
Fuel Capacity (gal)
25
Crankcase Capacity (qts)
5
Radiator Capacity (qts)
25.5
Transmission Type
Lincoln Turbo-Drive 2-speed torque-converter automatic
Final Drive ratio (:1)
3.07

Chassis Specifications
Front Suspension independent; upper and lower control arms with ball joints, coil springs, temperature-sensitive shock absorbers
Rear Suspension
live axles, semi-elliptic leaf springs, temperature-sensitive shock absorbers
Steering
power-assisted recirculating ball
Turns Lock-to-Lock
3.9
Turn Diameter (curb-to-curb, ft)
45.3
Brakes
power-assisted 12.0-inch cast-iron drums front and rear
Wheels (in.)
15 x 6.5 (drop-center rim)
Tires (in.)
8.20 x 15 (tubeless 4-ply whitewall)

Standard Equipment
Power steering; power brakes; power front seat; power door windows; power vent windows; AM radio; heater; choice of cloth or leather upholstery; full interior and trunk carpeting; tachometer; electric clock; full engine instrumentation; tubeless whitewall tires; full wheel covers; dual exhausts.

Performance (a)
0-60 Acceleration (mph)
12-14
Top Speed (mph)
110-115
Fuel Consumption (mpg)
8-11
(a): Ratings based on contemporary road reports

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