How Lincoln Cars Work


Image Gallery: Classic Cars The fast 1932 Lincoln KB sedan featured an impressive V-12 engine. See more pictures of classic cars.

Lincoln and Cadillac had a common founder: the stern, patrician Henry Martyn Leland, "Master of Precision." Leland and his associates formed Cadillac in 1902 from the remains of the Henry Ford Company -- which is why his first Cadillac and the first production Ford, both named Model A, are so similar. William C. Durant bought Cadillac in 1909 for his burgeoning General Motors. Leland, meantime, went off to build Liberty aircraft engines during World War I. Then, with son Wilfred, he returned to the car business by forming Lincoln -- named for the U.S. president, one of his heroes. When this enterprise ran into financial trouble, Leland came full circle by selling out to Henry Ford in 1922.

At first, Ford Motor Company did little to alter or update the Lincoln Model L that Leland had designed around 1920. Powered by a 385-cid V-8 with 90 brake horsepower, it was beautifully built and handsomely furnished. But by 1930 it was an anachronism: unfashionably upright and sluggish next to contemporary Cadillacs, Packards, and Chrysler Imperials.

Then Henry and son Edsel brought forth the 1931 Model K (why they went backward in the alphabet remains a mystery). Its new 145-inch-wheelbase chassis carried a modernized, 120-bhp V-8 that retained "fork-and-blade" rods and three-piece cast-iron block/crankcase assembly, Leland engineering features that let ads dwell lovingly on "precision-built" quality.

The new chassis was massive, with nine-inch-deep side rails and six crossmembers with cruciform bracing. The transmission gained synchromesh on second and third gears. Like the L, the K employed torque-tube drive and a floating rear axle. Other features included worm-and-roller steering, hydraulic shock absorbers by Houdaille, and mechanical brakes by Bendix. Stylewise, a slightly peaked radiator led a far longer hood, punctuated by twin-trumpet horns and bowl-shaped headlamps. The K was also longer, lower, and sleeker than the L, and it offered an improved ride, greater stability and, with its extra power, faster acceleration and higher top speed.

That changed the following year when the KA exchanged its V-8 for a smaller bore 381.7-cid V-12 with the same 125 bhp. This was also installed in the shorter Lincoln chassis, topped by Murray-built bodies made of wood, steel, and aluminum. KB continued as the senior line.

The K-chassis had been designed for an all-new V-12 that arrived for 1932 in a new KB-Series. This was a smooth 448-cid engine with 150 bhp -- Ford's answer to the 12- and 16-cylinder giants from Cadillac, Packard, and others. The V-12 provided better performance than the K's V-8, yet KBs sold for slightly less and came in a wider range of body types. A magnificent around-town car and a fast open-road tourer, the KB was an extraordinary machine that stood far above most contemporary automobiles.

Accompanying the 1932 V-12 was the V-8 KA-Series on a 136-inch wheelbase. Its chassis was dimensionally the same as the old Model L's but structurally equal to the new KB's. The bodies were less lavishly furnished than on 12-cylinder models, but the KA was high-class, not a middle-priced product. Still, this V-8 wasn't as smooth as the engines from Cadillac, Packard, or Pierce-Arrow.

The Evolution of the Lincoln Model K

The 1938 Lincoln Model K Judkins suffered slow sales after the Great Depression.
The 1938 Lincoln Model K Judkins suffered slow sales after the Great Depression.

The artistic Edsel Ford transformed Lincoln styling, updating the standard factory-built bodies, and secured a plethora of custom and semicustom styles from the cream of America's coachbuilders, including Brunn, Dietrich, Judkins, LeBaron, Murphy, and Willoughby. The result was some of the finest expressions of Classic-era design and an evolution of the Lincoln Model K. A cautious move toward streamlining began with the 1932 models and was more evident on the '33s, which wore a rakish Vee'd radiator with a chrome grille. Also new that year were hood louvers (replacing shutters), drawn-down "skirted" fenders, Vee'd front bumper, and redesigned trunk racks.

With sales slow in the Depression-ravaged market, Lincoln consolidated for 1934 around a single 414-cid V-12, a bored-out KA unit with the same 150 bhp as the old 448. Differences included aluminum cylinder heads and 6.3:1 compression. The latter was unheard of at the time, but made possible by the advent of 70-octane gasoline, which was nearly as potent as contemporary aviation fuel.

Most 1934 Lincolns could reach 95 mph, helped by the 414's broader rev range compared to the 448. Chassis specs were virtually unchanged, but Murray custom bodies were eliminated and radiators were now lacquered in body color. Smaller headlamps, parking lamps, and color-matched metal spare-tire covers helped clean up appearance. Sedans and limousines also received sloped tails, fairly radical for the day. Like Pierce, Packard, and Stutz, Lincoln was reluctant to abandon the graceful "oh gee" fenders so characteristic of the period -- but it would after 1935.

By that point, big-Lincoln engineering was in the essential form it would carry through 1940. The slightly smoother-looking 1935s were all called Model K, and a vast array of body types was still available on the previous two wheelbases. Semi-teardrop fenders appeared for '36, along with a simpler radiator, new disc wheels, and larger hubcaps.

The 1937s emphasized absolute styling simplicity, possibly influenced by the Cord 810. Headlamps were integrated into the fenders, belt moldings were erased, and doors were extended down almost to the running boards. Spare tires lived within new built-in trunk compartments (unless sidemount spares were ordered), and factory bodies received their first Vee'd windshields. As ever, standard Model K interiors were done with rich broadcloth and curly-maple garnish moldings; rarer woods and fabrics were available in custom styles. The V-12 gained hydraulic lifters and moved further forward, which improved ride. Nominal horsepower remained 150, but post-1936 models probably had more usable power because of a different cam contour.

The lush luxury-car market of the 1920s had long since dried up in the economic drought of the '30s, and Lincoln suffered as much as any premium make. Annual sales hovered around 3500 from 1930 through '33, then dropped by about half in 1934. After that, the K-Series would see no more than 2000 units per year. By 1940 it was available only by special order, built on chassis completed during 1939. (The largest of these, the 160-inch-wheelbase "Sunshine Special," served as the parade car of presidents Roosevelt and Truman.)

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Lincoln Zephyr

The 1936 Lincoln Zephyr was a radical departure from previous Lincoln styling.
The 1936 Lincoln Zephyr was a radical departure from previous Lincoln styling.

What pulled Lincoln through the Depression was the Zephyr. It burst on the scene for 1936 as a medium-price product of the sort Cadillac and Packard also relied upon for survival, but was far more advanced. Its major design concepts evolved from a series of radical unit-body prototypes designed by John Tjaarda along aircraft principles and built with help from Briggs Manufacturing Company, eager to win some volume body business from Lincoln. Tjaarda's original design featured a rear-engine layout, but this was switched to a conventional front-engine/rear-drive format.

The rest of the Zephyr was unconventional. Tjaarda claimed this was the first car in which aircraft-type stress analysis proved the superiority of unit construction. And indeed, at around 3300 pounds, the Zephyr was lighter than Chrysler's body-on-frame Airflow, yet much stiffer. Best of all, unit construction offered important cost savings.

A modified Ford flathead V-8 with about 100 bhp was initially slated, but company president Edsel Ford decided that, as a Lincoln, the Zephyr had to have a V-12. As the existing 414 was too large for this smaller package, engineer Frank Johnson, one the ablest in the industry, was told to add four cylinders to the Ford V-8. Cost pressures, however, compromised the result. A four-main-bearing L-head unit of 267 cid, the Zephyr V-12 employed a "monobloc" casting similar to the V-8's, with an exhaust cored between the cylinders. Initial horsepower was unimpressive for a twelve at only 110. The rest of the drivetrain was also derived from Ford V-8 components.

Zephyr styling was similar to that of Tjaarda's prototypes, but a pointy rear-hinged "alligator" hood and matching Vee'd radiator were grafted on under Edsel's direction by Ford stylist E.T. "Bob" Gregorie. The changes made for a much prettier car than either Tjaarda's prototypes or the curved-nose Airflow, yet the essential shape remained more slippery than the Airflow's even though it wasn't "styled in the wind tunnel" like portions of the Chrysler design.

Briggs built most of the Zephyr. Ford only installed the drive­train, added front sheetmetal, and saw to trimming and painting. Edsel laughingly told Tjaarda that Briggs might as well build the whole thing, as the Zephyr assembly line was only 40 feet long!

Designated Model H, the Zephyr bowed as a two- and four-door sedan on a 122-inch wheelbase. Prices were attractive at around $1300, and performance was at least decent. Top speed was over 87 mph, and a 4.33:1 rear axle, chosen for low-end acceleration over all-out speed, made for 0-50 mph in 10.8 seconds and 30-50 mph in six seconds flat. Yet mileage ­consistently averaged 16-18 miles per gallon.

With all this, the Zephyr was an immediate hit. Nearly 15,000 were sold for '36, better than 80 percent of Lincoln's total model-year output. That boosted the make to 18th on the industry production card -- the first time Lincoln broke into the top 20. Sales for the 1937 HB models came to nearly 30,000 despite few changes, though a three-­passenger coupe and division-window Town Limousine were added.

The 1938 Zephyrs bowed with a three-inch-longer wheelbase and revised styling announced by a "mouth organ" grille that beat everyone to the next design trend: the horizontal front-end format. Two- and four-door convertibles arrived. A Custom interior option provided additional model variations for 1939. A deep recession limited 1938 sales to just over 19,000 -- though that was still some 5500 more than Cadillac managed with its LaSalle. The '39 total was more encouraging at nearly 21,000, but might have been higher had it not been for intramural competition from the new medium-priced Mercury.

Zephyr mechanical alterations before 1940 followed those of other Ford Motor Company cars. Old Henry's stubbornness precluded hydraulic brakes until '39. An optional two-speed Columbia rear axle came along, reducing engine speed by 28 percent in its higher cruising ratio. The V-12 was modified to cure several persistent problems. Water passages, for example, proved inadequate, leading to overheating, bore warpage, and excessive ring wear. Inadequate crankcase ventilation created oil sludge buildup, and oil flow was poor. Yet despite the addition of hydraulic valve lifters for 1938 and cast-iron heads after '41, the powerplant never shed its poor reliability image. Had World War II not intervened, it might have been fully reengineered. But it wasn't, and many collector/owners have since replaced the V-12 with L-head or later overhead-valve V-8s.

With no change in wheelbase or basic appearance, Zephyr was fully rebodied for 1940, gaining sealed-beam headlamps, larger windows and trunk, bodysides bulged out to cover the running boards, and a more conventional dash. A larger bore brought the V-12 to 292 cid and 120 bhp. The slow-selling convertible sedan was discarded. Among Custom-interior closed models was a special five-passenger "town limousine," a four-door-sedan conversion by Briggs. Brunn also built 10 Zephyr town cars in 1940-41 (three of which went to the Ford family); all were heavy-looking rigs with rooflines that didn't match well with the chiseled lower body. Zephyr production again inched upward, reaching just over 21,750.

But Lincoln had bigger 1940 news. It was, of course, the Zephyr-based Continental, one of the most-stunning automobiles of all time.

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Lincoln Cars of the 1940s and The Lincoln Continental

The 1939 Lincoln Continental was conceived by Edsel Ford and caused an immediate sensation.
The 1939 Lincoln Continental was conceived by Edsel Ford and caused an immediate sensation.

Though executed by Bob Gregorie, the Lincoln Continental's styling was conceived by Edsel Ford, who directed him to make it "thoroughly continental," complete with outside spare tire. The design originated with a one-off convertible that Edsel used on his annual winter vacation in Palm Beach during 1938-39. Everyone who saw it thought it sensational, which encouraged Ford to offer production models scarcely a year later. A coupe and cabriolet debuted at about $2850 and brought customers into Lincoln dealerships by the thousands.

Continental was broken out from the Zephyr line for 1941, and received its own badges. Model-year production increased from 404 to 1250. Meantime, Lincoln maintained a semblance of K-Series coach built tradition with a Zephyr-based Custom sedan and limousine on a 138-inch wheelbase. But at about $2800, only 650 were called for. The Briggs town limo was scratched for '41, but other Zephyrs returned with minor mechanical improvements, including power tops for convertibles and optional Borg-Warner overdrive in place of the two-speed Columbia axle. Styling changes were slight: fender-mounted parking/turn-indicator lights and, for Continentals, pushbutton exterior door releases (replacing handles). In all, Lincoln built about 18,250 cars for the last full model year before World War II.

War-shortened 1942 brought significant engineering and design changes. The V-12 was bored out to its limit for 305 cid and yielded 10 additional horsepower. A flashy facelift forecast immediate postwar styling. All models now had longer and higher fenders, a busy two-tier horizontal-bar grille, and headlamps flanked by parking lights on either side. Overall height was a bit lower, curb weights a bit higher. Lincoln built 6547 of these cars by early February 1942, when the government ordered a halt to civilian production for the duration.

Despite the dictates of war, Ford stylists found time to experiment, making hundreds of renderings and dozens of scale models. Most involved the "bathtub" look that materialized on several makes for 1948-49. Some Lincoln concepts bordered on the grotesque. Many looked as if they'd been "carved out of a bar of soap," as one stylist put it.

Like most other makes, Lincoln resumed peacetime production with warmed-over '42 models that would not change much through 1948. However, the prewar Customs and three-passenger coupe did not come back, and the Zephyr name was abandoned for just plain Lincoln. The V-12 reverted to its pre-1942 displacement and horsepower dropped to 125. The larger bore had created casting problems for the factory and mechanics found it difficult to rebore for overhauls. Because of the V-12's design flaws, overhauls were all too frequent -- especially if the maintenance schedule wasn't rigidly followed. Custom interiors were still available for closed standard-model Lincolns.

The main design difference between 1946 and '42 was grillework composed of vertical and horizontal bars, with a Lincoln emblem in the upper segment, plus a new winged-globe hood ornament. The 1947s carried "Lincoln" lettering on the hubcaps, plus pullout door handles, "pocket" interior armrests, and a hood ornament with a longer wing. There were no visual changes for 1948.

Lincoln's first new postwar cars arrived in mid-1948, but a Continental wasn't among them. One had been planned, but was shelved due to low projected sales. It would have looked clumsy anyway, and some Ford designers, respectful of the late Edsel Ford (who died in 1943) were thankful it didn't appear.

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1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 Lincoln Cars

The 1951 Lincoln Lido Coupe was a successor to the "bar of soap" design style.
The 1951 Lincoln Lido Coupe was a successor to the "bar of soap" design style.

Concentrating on high-volume models, Lincoln issued two series for 1949: a 121-inch-wheelbase standard line and the costlier 125-inch Cosmopolitan. The former, sharing basic bodyshells with that year's new Mercury, comprised sedan, coupe, and convertible; Cosmo added a Town Sedan, a massive six-window fastback. The aged V-12 was replaced at last by a 152-bhp 337-cid L-head V-8 originally designed for Ford trucks. Overdrive was a $96 extra.

Dearborn's original '49 planning called for a 118-inch-wheelbase Ford and a 121-inch Mercury. What emerged as the Cosmo­politan was conceived as a Zephyr. At the last minute, Ford's policy committee, led by Ernest Breech and Harold Youngren, mandated a smaller 114-inch-wheelbase Ford, so the proposed Mercury became the '49 standard Lincoln and the 118-inch Ford was made a Mercury -- hence the latter's change from "senior Ford" to "junior Lincoln" in this period. The ex-Mercury Lincolns were thus much cheaper than the Cosmos, spanning a $2500-$3100 range versus $3200-$3950.

Predictably, given its wartime design exercises, Lincoln's '49 styling was of the "bar-of-soap" school, but clean and dignified nonetheless. Fadeaway front fenderlines marked base models. Cosmos had fully flush fenders, plus one-piece (instead of two-piece) windshields, broad chrome gravel deflectors over the front wheel arches, and thin window frames. All models wore conservative grilles, sunken headlamps (glass covers were planned), and "frenched" taillamps. Model-year volume set a record at 73,507 units.

Lincoln's first new postwar generation continued for the next two years with no major alteration. Offerings, however, were shuffled for 1950, as the standard convertible and the tubby Cosmo Town Sedan were deleted. This left a notchback coupe and a four-door sport sedan (with throwback "suicide" rear doors) in each series, plus a Cosmopolitan convertible. There were also two newcomers for 1950: the $2721 Lido and $3406 Cosmo Capri. These were limited-edition coupes with custom interiors and padded canvas tops offered in lieu of a true pillarless hardtop to answer Cadillac's 1949 Coupe de Ville. Few were sold through 1951.

All 1950 Lincolns sported a restyled dashboard by chief designer Tom Hibbard. It was an attractive "rolled-top" design with an oblong instrument cluster, a format that would continue through 1957. A self-shifting Hydra-Matic transmission, bought from archrival GM, arrived as a new 1950 option; it would be standard in 1952-54. The '51 models were spruced up by longer rear fenders with upright taillamps (versus the previous round units), plus a simpler grille and different wheel covers.

While not known for performance, Lincoln had enough of the right stuff to place ninth in the 1950 Carrera Panamericana -- the first of the legendary Mexican Road Races. Lincoln then won the 1951 Mobilgas Economy Run with an average 25.5 mpg. Neither of these feats helped sales, which were well down from record '49. The totals were just over 28,000 for 1950 and a more gratifying 32,500 for '51.

All Ford Motor Company cars were completely new for '52 but though sales rose -- to nearly 41,000 by '53 -- Lincoln was still miles behind Cadillac. One problem may have been sedate, square styling through 1955: again very much like Mercury -- and also Ford. Uniformity may have caused trouble, too, with only the same five models offered through '54. Cosmopolitan became the lower series in this period, Capri the upper. Both listed four-door sedan and a belated hardtop coupe (three years behind Cadillac's); Capri added a convertible.

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1952, 1953, 1954 Lincoln Cars and Lincoln's Mechanical Advancements

The 1955 Lincoln Capri featured a flat windshield despite the popularity of the wrapped windshield.
The 1955 Lincoln Capri featured a flat windshield despite the popularity of the wrapped windshield.

The period from 1952-1954 was significant in Lincoln history. The most notable mechanical development was the make's first overhead-valve V-8: a new short-stroke design of 318 cid, good for 160 bhp at first and 205 bhp for 1953-54.

It was superior in many ways. Its crankshaft, for example, had eight counterweights versus most competitors' six. Intake valves were oversized for better breathing and higher specific output. (Among '53 engines, it produced 0.64 bhp per cubic inch against 0.63 for Cadillac and 0.54 for the Chrysler Hemi.) The crankcase extended below the crankshaft centerline to form an extremely stiff shaft support, hence this engine's family nickname of "Y-block."

Model-year 1952 also introduced ball-joint front suspension to Lincoln. Together with the new V-8, it made for taut, powerful road machines that would dominate their class in the Mexican Road Race. Other new features included recirculating-ball power steering, oversized drum brakes, liberal sound insulation, optional four-way power seat and, with the extra-cost factory air conditioning, flow-through ventilation (when the compressor was idle). Fabrics, leathers, and fit-and-finish were all top-notch, far above those of lesser Dearborn products.

Despite a rather short 123-inch wheelbase, the 1952-54 Lincolns were roomier inside than previous models -- and some later ones. Visibility was better than on any other contemporary U.S. car save Kaiser, and exteriors were notably free of period excesses. Fluted taillamps shed water and dirt, just like those Mercedes would adopt in the '70s.

Lincoln turned in some spectacular performances at the Carrera Panamericana -- virtually unrivaled in the Inter­national Standard Class. Lincolns took the first five places in 1952, the top four in '53, and first and second in 1954. Race preparation was largely owed to Clay Smith, a gifted mechanic who was tragically killed in a pit accident in 1954. Of great help were publicity-conscious Dearborn engineers who supplied stiff "export" suspension pieces, Ford truck camshafts, mechanical valve lifters, special front spindles and hubs, and rear-axle ratios that enabled a "stock" Lincoln to top 130 mph. The 1952 race winner, Chuck Stevenson, finished the 2000-mile grind from Juarez to the Guatemala border nearly an hour ahead of the Ferrari that had won the year before.

Lincoln wasn't ready with a total redesign for 1955, so its cars were among the most conservative in that banner Detroit sales year, despite an extensive facelift. Still, they were crisp, clean, and elegant. Though the wrapped windshield held sway most everywhere else, the '55 Lincolns didn't have one, and were thus more practical. Interiors remained luxurious combinations of high-quality fabrics and top-grain leather.

Wheelbase was unchanged for '55, but the restyle added extra sheetmetal (mostly in back) and 50-100 pounds in curb weight. A good thing, then, that the V-8 was bored to 341 cid and gained 20 bhp. Elsewhere, Cosmopolitan was retagged Custom, and Lincoln finally offered its own auto­matic transmission. Called Turbo Drive, it was basically the four-year-old Ford/Merc-0-Matic unit enlarged and strengthened to withstand the greater torque of Lincoln's V-8. But likely because its '55s weren't "new" enough, Lincoln was one of the few makes to suffer in Detroit's best sales season of the decade, dropping from nearly 37,000 for '54 to a bit over 27,000.

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Lincoln Styling in the Late 1950s

The 1958 Lincoln Capri Landau was longer and wider, during a time when even luxury buyers were interested in smaller cars.
The 1958 Lincoln Capri Landau was longer and wider, during a time when even luxury buyers were interested in smaller cars.

Lincoln styling in the late 1950s ushered in a new era. The '56 Lincolns were new -- really new. Ads proclaimed them "Unmistakably Lincoln," but there was scarcely a trace of the trim '55s. Wheelbase grew by three inches, overall length by seven, width by three inches.

Capri now signified the lower series, Premiere the costlier models. Body-style assignments were unchanged, though pillared four-doors were made to look much like hardtops. Styling, partly previewed by the 1954 Mercury XM-800 show car, was fully up to date, with a wraparound windshield, clean grille, and peaked headlamps. Rakish vertical taillights capped long exhaust ports flanking a "grille" motif that echoed the front-end design. Ornamentation was simple, with two-toning confined to the roof.

Matching the expansive new '56 styling was an expanded engine, a Y-block enlarged to 368 cid and 285 bhp. "True power that works for your safety at every speed," blared one ad. Despite their greater bulk, the '56s didn't weigh much more than the '55s. But they cost a whopping $500-$700 more, the range now running from $4120 to about $4750. Yet as the only make with a major restyle instead of a mere facelift, Lincoln did well for '56, moving more than 50,000 cars. Still, even that was only about a third of Cadillac's total.

Prices rose another $500-$700 for 1957, when Lincoln joined a popular Detroit trend by offering its first four-door hardtops, dubbed "Landau" and available in each series. Huge tailfins sprouted, and the front gained "Quadra-Lites": conventional seven-inch-diameter headlamps above 53/4-inch "road" lamps. Though not a true four-light system, it put Lincoln ahead of most rivals. Compression went to 10:1, horsepower to 300. Overall, 1957 was a good, but not great, Lincoln year. At just over 41,000, model-year volume was slightly higher than for Chrysler's Imperial but still less than a third of Cadillac's.

Lincoln pinned hopes for 1958 on yet another all-new design. But '58 proved to be a horrible year for Detroit and a devastating one for Ford's finest, considering the millions invested in new tooling. A flash recession sent the economy reeling and buyers rushing off to buy more-economical cars as industry sales fell 50 percent from 1957. Ford trailed Chevrolet by a quarter-million units, Dearborn's new Edsel began a rapid slide to nowhere, and Mercury ran 46 percent behind its '57 pace. The '58 Lincolns were longer, lower, and wider in a year when even luxury-car buyers were starting to think about more-sensible size. As a result, model-year production tumbled.

At the bottom of this avalanche was a square-lined giant stretching six inches longer overall than the '57 Lincoln on a 131-inch wheelbase. It was easily recognized, for there was nothing else like it: heavily sculpted sides, a wide grille flanked by true quad headlamps in garish slanted recesses, enormous flared bumpers. Under a hood not much smaller than a Ping-Pong table was 1958's largest American passenger-car engine: a new big-block 430-cid V-8 making 375 bhp. Frameless unibody construction was an unexpected departure for the luxury field.

Of course, this package had been conceived in the far healthier market of 1955. And recession or not, most luxury buyers still wanted big cars like this. Despite appearances and 21/2-ton curb weights, the '58 Lincolns were surprisingly quick in a straight line and not that clumsy in curves. But they were too large and ornate for a public that was tiring of blatant excess. Cadillac did better business with a heavy, if still glittery, facelift, and Imperial offered a mild restyle of its tasteful, though heroically befinned, '57s. Both rivals also had ­lately expanded offerings, and comparable '58 Cadillacs cost several hundred dollars less than Lincolns. No wonder 1958 was a debacle for Dearborn's prestige make. At least it ushered in a three-year program that would culminate in a more-compact -- and vastly more-successful -- new Lincoln for 1961.

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Lincoln Marks and Lincoln Downsized Models

The 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible was downsized and more successful than the behemoths of the recent past.
The 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible was downsized and more successful than the behemoths of the recent past.

Lincolns and the companion Continentals were little-changed for '59. The Premiere convertible had transferred to the separate 1958 Continental Mark III line, leaving a four-door sedan and two- and four-door hardtops in Capri and Premiere trim. All returned for '59, when Continental was absorbed as a Lincoln subseries and Capris became simply Lincolns.

It bears mentioning that although the 1956-57 Mark II and 1958 Mark III were products of a separate Continental Division, and thus "non-Lincolns," all later Marks and Continentals are properly regarded as Lincolns. The reason is the collapse of Ford's grand scheme for a GM-like five-division structure following the '58 recession, and the particular failure of Edsel and the Mark II to sell as planned. The Continental marque was thus merged with Lincoln for the 1959 model year. In January of 1958, the Edsel and Mercury Divisions were combined into a short-lived M-E-L structure as a cost-cutting move. Ford's upper division then reverted to its original status as just plain Lincoln-Mercury, which continues to this day.

The '59 Mark IV was just a facelifted Mark III, but added a formal-roof Town Car and limousine priced about the same as the short-lived $10,000 Mark II. Likewise, '59 Lincolns were lightly touched-up '58s. Horsepower was reduced to 350 for all models in a faint sop to a now mileage-minded public. Though the division desperately held prices close to previous levels -- $4900-$5500 for Lincolns and Premieres, $6600-$7000 for standard Marks -- Imperial surged ahead in 1959 model-year volume -- and would win again the following year. Lincoln's '59 total was dismal at 15,780, plus 11,126 Mark IVs.

Lincoln and Continental styling was lightly touched up for 1960. Grilles gained new inserts, the massive front bumper guards moved inboard of the canted headlamps, and rear ends were reworked. Lincolns also sported a reshaped roofline and rear window, plus new full-length upper-body moldings. Horsepower dropped to 315. Prices stayed much the same, and standard equipment was as compre­hensive as ever, but Lincoln sales withered to just under 14,000, though Continental held steady at about 11,000.

A much happier chapter opened for 1961 with an all-new "downsized" Continental. Replacing all the old behemoths, it bowed in just two models: a thin-pillar four-door sedan and America's first four-door convertible since the abortive Frazer Manhattan model of a decade before. Both rode a 123-inch wheelbase, same as on the trim mid-'50s Lincolns, and featured a '30s throwback in rear-hinged "suicide" back doors. Prices were in the middle of what had been Mark V territory: an announced $6067 for the hardtop, $6713 for the convertible.

With its classic beauty and superb engineering, the '61 was arguably the most-satisfying Lincoln since the V-12 K-Series. It was certainly one of the '60s best Detroit cars. Enhancing both its image and sales was fortuitous timing, the '61 arriving just as a youthful new First Family was occupying the White House. The new Continentals were soon seen in newspaper and magazine photos as the new Administration's transport of choice, personal and official, which is why these cars have since become known in some circles as the "Kennedy Continentals."

Their chiseled good looks reflected the efforts of seven Ford stylists: Eugene Bordinat (corporate design chief), Don DeLaRossa, Elwood P. Engel, Gale L. Halderman, John Najjar, Robert M. Thomas, and George Walker. They were collectively honored with an award from the Industrial Design Institute -- unusual, as the IDI rarely bothers with cars. But the '61 Lincoln, it said, was an "outstanding contribution of simplicity and design elegance." Interestingly, the basic cowl structure was shared with Ford's new '61 Thunderbird, which halved tooling costs for two low-volume models, even though the 'Bird was very different aft of the cowl and rode a 113-inch wheelbase.

The '61 introduced a basic Lincoln look that would continue into the late 1980s. The original was naturally the purest: smooth, gently curved bodysides topped by straight-through fenderlines edged in bright metal; a modest grille with outboard horizontal quad headlamps; a simple tail (not unlike the Mark II's) with a panel repeating the grille texture and taillamps set in the trailing edges of the fenders. All corners were easily seen from behind the wheel, handy for parking. Side windows curved inward toward the top were a first for mass production, matched by a greenhouse with the greatest degree of "tumble-home" yet seen on a large American luxury car. Door glass would remain curved through '63, became flat for 1964-70, then be curved again. Unlike the old Frazer, the convertible sedan's window frames slid completely out of sight. So did its fabric top, stowing beneath the rear deck via 11 relays connecting mechanical and hydraulic linkages. (Much of this design stemmed from Ford engineering for the 1957-59 Skyliner "retrac" hardtops and 1958-60 Thunderbird convertibles.)

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Lincoln Quality During the 1960s

The 1965 Lincoln Continental sported a horizontal grille motif.
The 1965 Lincoln Continental sported a horizontal grille motif.

Styling aside, Lincolns were renowned for quality. This was mostly due to the efforts of Harold C. MacDonald, then chief engineer of Ford's Car and Truck Group. The '61s had the most-rigid unit body/chassis ever produced, the best sound insulation and shock damping in series production, and extremely close machining tolerances. The model year also brought an unprecedented number of long-life components, including a completely sealed electrical system, and superior rust and corrosion protection.

The 1961 Lincolns were also among the most thoroughly ­tested cars in Detroit history. Each engine -- still a 430-cid V-8, though detuned to 300 bhp -- was run three hours on a dynamometer at 3500 rpm (equal to about 98 mph), torn down for inspection, then reassembled. Automatic transmissions were tested for 30 minutes before installation. Each car was given a final 12-mile road test and checked for nearly 200 individual items, after which an ultraviolet light was used to visualize a fluorescent dye in lubricants as a check for leaks. Backing these measures was an unprecedented (for 1961) two-year, 24,000-mile warranty.

Response to the '61s was immediate and satisfying. Sales exceeded 25,000, and Lincoln surged ahead of Imperial for keeps. Styling changes for the second and third year were minimal, Lincoln having promised to concentrate on functional improvements, at least for a while. The '62s had a tidier grille with narrowed central crossbar and head-lamps no longer recessed; the '63s gained a finely checked grille, matching backpanel appliqué, and increased trunk space, plus engine tuning that yielded an extra 20 bhp.

Wheelbase grew to 126 inches for 1964, where it would stay through '69. But the essential look was unchanged. The main alterations, aside from the aforementioned flat door glass, were a slightly convex vertical-bar grille, broader rear window, and a lower-profile convertible top. The '65s received a horizontal grille motif, parking/turn-signal lights in the front fenders, and ribbed taillamps.

A body change for 1966 restored a two-door hardtop model as Lincoln sought higher volume, the convertible having accounted for only 10 percent of sales. Body lines became less rectilinear as a slightly larger fender "hop-up" appeared just ahead of larger rear-wheel cutouts. An extended front added some five inches to overall length, the grille acquired fine horizontal bars and a bulged center section (carried through in the sheetmetal above), and the front bumper wrapped all the way back to the front wheel openings. The V-8 was bored and stroked to 462 cid and 340 bhp.

All this plus lower prices -- as little as $5485 for the hardtop coupe -- pushed 1966 Lincoln sales to nearly 55,000 units, though that was still only 25 percent of Cadillac's model-year volume. A segmented grille, shuffled emblems and taillamps, and a spring-loaded hood emblem appeared for '67, when the convertible sedan took a final bow with only 2276 copies sold. Overall production remained strong, however, at over 45,500 for the model year.

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Lincoln Continental Mark III

The 1969 Lincoln Mark III, with its more than six-foot-long hood, was immensely popular, nearly matching the Cadillac Eldorado in sales.
The 1969 Lincoln Mark III, with its more than six-foot-long hood, was immensely popular, nearly matching the Cadillac Eldorado in sales.

Lincoln's most intriguing development for 1968 was the $6585 Continental Mark III. Not a revival of the leviathan '58 Mark III, this was the putative successor to the charismatic 1956-57 Mark II. It bore the personal stamp of company president Henry Ford II, just as his brother, William Clay, had influenced the Mark II and their father, Edsel, had hatched the original 1940 "Mark I" Continental. Why "Mark III" instead of the expected "Mark VI?" Because HF II didn't view the heavyweight 1958-60 Mark III/IV/V as true Continentals.

But this new one was true to its heritage, at least in spirit. The project had begun in late 1965 as a personal-luxury coupe with long-hood/short-deck proportions in the Continental tradition. Exterior styling was naturally supervised by corporate design chief Gene Bordinat. Hermann Brunn, scion of the great coachbuilding family and a member of Bordinat's staff, was chiefly responsible for the interior, endowing it with large, comfortable bucket seats and a dashboard with simulated woodgrain trim and easy-to-reach controls. Henry Ford II himself selected both the interior and exterior designs from numerous proposals submitted in early 1966.

The result was actually a structural cousin to the new-for-'67 Thunderbird sedan, set on the same 117.2-inch wheelbase (some nine inches shorter than the Mark II's). Overall length was identical with that of Cadillac's new 1967 front-wheel-drive Eldorado. Though slightly baroque, the Mark III was handsome, helped by America's longest hood -- more than six feet. It also offered a wide choice of luxury interiors and 26 exterior colors, including four special "Moondust" metallic paints. The 1969-71 models cost a fair bit more: ultimately over $8800. Standard equipment ran to Select-Shift Turbo-Drive automatic, power brakes (discs in front, drums in back), concealed headlamps, ventless door windows, power seats and windows, flow-through ventilation, and 150 pounds of sound insulation. Beneath that long hood was a new 460 cid V-8 -- one of Detroit's largest -- with 10.5:1 compression and 365 bhp. Also adopted for standard '68 Continentals, it would remain Lincoln's mainstay powerplant for the next 10 years.

Because of a late introduction (in April), the Mark III saw only 7770 units for model-year '68. But there was no question that it was right for its market. As proof -- and despite no major change -- more than 23,000 were sold for '69, another 21,432 for 1970, and over 27,000 for '71. The front-drive Eldorado may have been more technically advanced, but the Mark III seemed to have more magic, for it nearly matched Eldorado sales each year through 1971 and never trailed by more than 2000. This was a great achievement considering Lincoln's annual volume had never come close to Cadillac's.

Aside from the larger engine, the '68 Continental sedan and hardtop updated their basic '66 look with a new horizontal grille texture and matching rear-panel applique, beefier bumpers, and large "star" ornaments on the nose and trunklid. A multifunction lamp at each corner imparted a cleaner look by combining turn signals, side-marker lamps (newly required by Washington), and parking lamps (front) or brake/taillamps. Also new were a government-required dual hydraulic brake system with warning light, a four-way emergency flasher, and an energy-absorbing steering column and instrument panel. Model-year volume for this line totaled more than 39,000.

Announcing the 1969 Continentals was a square, finely checked Vee'd grille more-distinct from the headlamps. A new Town Car interior option for the sedan provided "unique, super-puff leather-and-vinyl seats and door panels, luxury wood-tone front seat back and door trim inserts, extra plush carpeting and special napped nylon headlining." Series production eased once again, settling at about 38,300.

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Lincoln Continental Town Car

Throughout the 70s, Lincoln reverted to its longer-lower-wider formula, as evidenced by the 1975 Lincoln Town Car.
Throughout the 70s, Lincoln reverted to its longer-lower-wider formula, as evidenced by the 1975 Lincoln Town Car.

The 1970 Continentals carried new bodies on a "torque-box" chassis inspired by Mercury, with coil-link rear suspension (Lincoln's first since 1959), an inch-longer wheelbase and wider rear track. Styling was freshened with hidden headlamps, a more prominently bulged slat grille, plus ventless front-door glass, concealed wipers, and full-width taillamps -- all popular period features. Less obvious were wider doors, with the rears now front-hinged on sedans, and a slightly smaller fuel tank (though still ample at 24.1 gallons). The hardtop, again advertised as the Coupe, gained a sweeping roofline with huge C-pillars that made over-the-shoulder vision dodgy. The powertrain was essentially a carryover. Prices were still about what they'd been back in 1961: $5976 for the hardtop, $6211 for the sedan.

This heavier, bulkier-looking Lincoln continued through 1974 with relatively few changes -- most dictated by federal, not market, requirements. Prices did change, pushed by inflation past $7000 for 1971 and a little beyond $8000 by 1974. Horse­power numbers changed, too, but only because more-realistic SAE net measures replaced gross figures after 1971. Thus, the big 460-cid ­V-8 suffered a paper drop from 365 gross bhp to 212/224 (Mark/Continental). An even bigger Continental arrived for '75 with a fractionally longer wheelbase and some eight inches added to overall length. Curb weight, though, was ­slightly lower at around 5000 pounds.

Continental styling remained resolutely blocky and formal throughout the '70s as Ford designers sought to maintain a family resemblance with the Mark. Sales moved up smartly for 1972 -- to nearly 95,000, including Marks -- then to a record 128,000-plus for '73. A decline followed the energy crisis touched off by the OPEC oil embargo, but it was only temporary, and Lincoln rallied along with most other big Detroiters in 1975. Output was more than 190,000 by '77, a new Lincoln high, though still only slightly more than half of Cadillac volume.

Longer-lower-wider was the formula that had traditionally worked well for luxury makes, and it worked well for Lincoln with the new Continental Mark IV of 1972. Sales nearly doubled over those of the '71 Mark III and would average 50,000 or so each year through the final 1976 models. Remarkably, the Mark IV offered less passenger room than the III and was predictably thirstier and less agile. It, too, shared a basic structure and wheelbase (now 120.4 inches) with the concurrent Ford Thunderbird, but it wasn't immediately apparent.

Lincoln enjoyed good success with the Continental Town Car option. The 1970 package consisted of special leather inserts and vinyl bolsters for seats, woodlike panels on the backs of the front seats, deeper cut-pile carpeting and a soft nylon headliner, all color-keyed in a choice of five hues. For 1971, Lincoln offered an extra-special Town Car with dash and front-fender nameplates plus a set of keys and door-mounted owner initials all done in 22-carat gold -- which made for a Golden Anniver­sary Continental to celebrate Lincoln's 50th birthday. For 1972, the Town Car became a Continental submodel. The hardtop got the same treatment for 1973 to become the Town Coupe.

There was little new for '74. Heavier bumpers sprouted at the rear to match the beefier front units adopted the previous year per federal mandate, and the Mark added a brace of Luxury Group interior/exterior options. The revamped big-car line for '75 exchanged pure "hardtop styling" for "opera window" roof­lines with fixed B-posts and heavily padded vinyl coverings. These ­models continued largely intact through 1979.

For 1977, the Mark IV was restyled inside and out to become the Mark V, distinguished by a crisper, lighter appearance. And appearances were not deceiving. Though it rode the same wheelbase and was little changed mechanically, the Mark V weighed some 500 pounds less than the Mark IV. It also ­boasted 21 percent more trunk space -- which seemed like a large gain only because the IV had so little. Engineers paid belated attention to fuel economy by standardizing the corporate 400-cid V-8 with 179 net bhp. The old reliable 460-cid V-8 continued as an option except in California, where it could no longer meet the state's tougher emissions hurdles.

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Lincoln Compact Luxury Cars, the Lincoln Versailles, and the Lincoln Collector Series

The 1979 Lincoln Versailles was hastily developed to rival Cadillac's more compact Seville.
The 1979 Lincoln Versailles was hastily developed to rival Cadillac's more compact Seville.

Model-year 1977 also saw Lincoln move into the luxury-­compact class, its first response to the radically changed market left behind by the energy crisis. Called Versailles, this was a hastily contrived reply to Cadillac's remarkably successful 1975-76 Seville. It was little more than an everyday Ford Granada/Mercury Monarch adorned with a Continental-style square grille, a stand-up hood ornament and humped trunklid, plus more standard equipment. Established Lincoln buyers looked askance at the plebeian origins (which the press never failed to mention), while buyers balked at the $11,500 price. You can only fool some of the people some of the time, and Lincoln didn't fool many with this one. Versailles' 1977-model sales were a mere 15,434, a fraction of Seville's.

This basic three-car squad held the fort for 1978-79 while Lincoln readied a troop of downsized 1980 models. Amazingly, the big cars continued to sell well, defying the combined threat of further fuel shortages and a fleet of luxury intermediates from lesser makes. Part of this was due to circumstance. By 1979, anyone who wanted a truly large luxury car -- "traditional-size," Lincoln called it -- had precious few choices.

One of Lincoln's most successful marketing ploys in the '70s was the Designer Series. American Motors had tried something similar with Gucci Hornets and Pierre Cardin Javelins. As a luxury make, however, Lincoln was in a much better position to exploit the snob appeal of haute couture brands. First seen for 1976, these extra-cost packages were decorated inside and out with colors and materials specified by well-known high-fashion designers. The schemes varied somewhat from package to package and year to year, but the results were invariably striking and usually pleasing. Perhaps the most consistently tasteful was the Bill Blass edition, a nautically inspired blend of navy-blue paint and eggshell-white vinyl top outside and navy velour or dark blue-and-cream leather upholstery inside. Other combinations were created by Hubert Givenchy (generally tur­quoise or jade), Emilio Pucci (maroon and gunmetal grey), and Cartier (champagne/grey). The last, of course, was not a designer but the famous jeweler.

Following a spate of limited-edition 1978 packages to mark Ford Motor Company's 75th anniversary, Lincoln devised a "Collector Series" option group for the '79 Continental and Mark. Both were adorned with appropriate nameplates, gold grille accents, special midnight-blue metallic paint, and a host of "custom" accoutrements such as color-keyed umbrella and leather-bound owner's manual and tool kit. It marked the end of an era: The day of oversized Lincolns was over.

So, too, it seemed, any differences between Continentals and Marks. The 1980s were much more alike, but also much more sensible. Lincoln now adopted the "Panther" platform introduced for '79 with the full-size Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis as the basis for a substantially smaller Continental and an upmarket Mark VI sibling, thus resuming its 1958-60 practice of fielding two versions of one basic design. Compared to their immediate predecessors, these cars were up to 10 inches ­shorter between the wheels and significantly lighter. Yet they were nearly as spacious, thanks to only marginal reductions in width, plus taller, boxier styling.

Each line retained its usual appearance cues, but not the usual big-block engines. Standard for both was the corporate 302-cid small-block V-8 in new 129-bhp fuel-injected form; a 140-bhp 351 was the only option. It was all for the sake of economy, as was Ford Motor Company's new four-speed overdrive automatic transmission, basically a three-speed unit with a super-tall fourth gear added (0.67:1). Handling was more competent, thanks to a revised suspension, and refinement was emphasized with retuned body mounts and suspension bushings, plus standard high-pressure radial tires, which also helped eke out slightly more mpg. A pillared four-door Mark returned for the first time since 1960, and the various designer editions were bolstered by a new Signature Series much like the pre­vious Collector option.

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Lincoln Sales in the 1980s

The 1980 Lincoln Town Car was a harbinger of the success Lincoln would enjoy throughout the decade.
The 1980 Lincoln Town Car was a harbinger of the success Lincoln would enjoy throughout the decade.

A second fuel shock occurred in 1979, touching off a deep national recession that drastically reduced 1980 volume throughout the industry. Lincoln suffered more than most, its model-year total sales skidding to just under 75,000 -- nearly 115,000 below '79. The underwhelming Versailles was in its final year and found fewer than 5000 buyers.

The 1981 result was even worse, falling to about 69,500. But that would be the decade low, and Lincoln followed the overall market in making a strong recovery. By 1985, it was up to some 166,500. Output dipped the following two years, then rebounded to over 215,000 through 1990. More important to proud division managers, Lincoln passed Cadillac in 1988, only to lose that position, but Ford's finest remained competitive with its arch­rival despite offering just three distinct models to Cadillac's five.

Remarkably, much of this success was owed to a single 1980-vintage four-door that saw only one major change through 1989: a rounded-corner "aero" facelift for 1985. Called Town Car after 1980, it soldiered on following the cancellation of the 114.3-inch-wheelbase Town Coupe after '81 and the Mark VI duo after '83. The throttle-body fuel-injected 302-cid V-8 was the only engine available after 1980, but it would be upgraded. After an '84 boost to 140 bhp came more sophisticated multi-point fuel injection that ­lifted horsepower to 155. Trim and equipment shuffles were the only alterations in most years.

But it didn't matter: At 50,000-100,000 units annually, this series outsold other Lincolns by margins of 2-to-1 or more -- sometimes upwards of 5-to-1. Yes, the Town Car was smaller than its late-'70s predecessor, but it proved that traditional Detroit biggies still had a place in the '80s. As Mark Twain would have said, reports of their demise (in the wake of "Energy Crisis II") were greatly exaggerated.

Such consistent popularity was remarkable for this large, rela­tively old-fashioned car. Though Cadillac remained the luxury sales champ, its lead over Lincoln dwindled as the '80s progressed. One reason: An increasing portion of Cadillac sales depended on smaller "big" cars that looked too much like cheaper GM models and lacked the Town Car's sheer presence. Lincoln was quick to play up its rival's "lookalike" problem in snobbish TV commercials designed to pull in more and more "conquest" sales. Chrysler, meantime, had nothing remotely like a traditional full-size car after 1981, though its midsize Fifth Avenue found a steady market for the same reasons Town Car did: plentiful creature comforts in a package that "mature" buyers could relate to, all at reasonable prices. Of course, stickers swelled a lot on all cars from 1981 to '89 -- in the Town Car's case from about $14,000 to about $25,000. But relatively speaking, this Lincoln remained a good buy, and the public's "pocketbook vote" confirmed it.

If the late-'70s Versailles was a hasty reply to Cadillac's Seville, the new compact Continental sedan of 1982 was a more-considered response. It even had "bustleback" styling like that of the new 1980 front-drive Seville, plus a Mark-type grille and the usual base, Signature Series, and designer-edition trim and equipment variations.

Underneath, though, it was just a heavily modified Ford Fairmont with an extended-wheelbase version of the same rear-drive "Fox" platform -- and it was really none the worse for it, except perhaps for rear-seat room, which was limited. A 232-cid V-6 was offered in the debut '82s, but proved somewhat weak for their weight, so most left the fac­tory with injected 302 V-8s of 130, 140, or 150 bhp (the last adopted after 1985). The front and rear ends were smoothed out for '84 a la Town Car, the only appearance change for this design generation.

A noteworthy mechanical development was an antilock brake system (ABS), a 1985 option that became standard equipment for all Lincolns the following year. Developed jointly by Ford and the German company Alfred Teves, ABS greatly improved steering control in panic stops and shortened stopping distances on slick surfaces, a laudable safety advance.

The compact Continental was far more successful than the Versailles it effectively replaced, selling an average 21,000-26,000 a year through 1987. If not a vast aesthetic improvement, the bustleback sedan was more roadable and enjoyable, well put ­together, and as posh as any Lincoln. And at $21,000-$26,000, it, too, represented good luxury value.

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Lincoln Mark VII LSC Hot Rod

With its aerodynamic look, the 1985 Lincoln Mark VII LSC represented a departure from the typical stodgy Lincoln design.
With its aerodynamic look, the 1985 Lincoln Mark VII LSC represented a departure from the typical stodgy Lincoln design.

After years of square-lined formality, Lincoln's premium coupe took a dramatic new direction with the 1984 Mark VII. Though it shared a platform with the bustleback Continental, this swoopy semifastback was derived from the new-for-'83 Ford Thunderbird/Mercury Cougar. The result was smooth, distinctive, and more visually aerodynamic than any previous Mark. A humped trunklid, modest taillamps in the rear fender trailing edges, and a toned-down Mark grille were stylistic links with the past, but the car was clearly aimed at a very different clientele: younger, affluent buyers who'd been defecting to high-dollar, high-status imports, a group Lincoln had never courted before. It was also a bold challenge to Cadillac's Eldorado, which was still relatively overblown.

The Mark VII was an instant critical success, especially the performance-oriented LSC (Luxury Sport Coupe) -- the fabled "Hot Rod Lincoln" come to life. Enthusiast magazines even thought it a credible rival to the vaunted BMW 6-Series and Mercedes-Benz SEC. No wonder. Where the base and Designer models had a soft ride and traditional appointments, the LSC boasted a firmer suspension with fat performance tires on handsome cast-aluminum wheels, plus multiadjustable sport bucket seats and Lincoln's best cloth or leather upholstery. For 1985 it adopted the Mustang GT's high-output V-8 with 165 bhp (versus 140 for other models). The '86 got an even hotter port-injected engine with 200 bhp (versus 150 bhp on other Marks), plus standard ABS four-wheel disc brakes and a nice set of analog gauges (replacing the digital/graphic electronic display retained for its linemates). Engine refinements extracted another 25 bhp for 1988-90.

With all this, the LSC was the most overtly sporting Lincoln since the very first Continental and the most roadable Lincoln since the "Mexican Road Race" days. It was also one terrific buy at initial prices of $23,700 -- about half the cost of erstwhile German competitors. Lincoln-Mercury planners thought lesser VIIs would outsell it, but buyers confounded them by ordering more LSCs -- enough that by 1988, the original four models had been cut to just LSC and Bill Blass. Overall Mark VII sales were good: 30,000-plus in the first season 15,000-38,000 thereafter. Prices inevitably escalated, reaching the $27,000 level by decade's end, but standard equipment also kept growing even as trim variations thinned. The 1990s boasted an important new safety feature in a standard driver-side airbag, which also brought a reworked, slightly more ergonomic dash.

Perhaps even more daring than the Mark VII was the all-new Continental sedan that bowed for 1988. Essentially a stretched version of the excellent midsize Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable, it was the first Lincoln with front-wheel drive and the first with all-independent suspension, both of which contributed to a noticeable increase in cabin room despite a wheelbase only half an inch longer than its bustleback predecessor's. In appearance, which L-M described as "aero limousine," this new Continental departed even more from tradition than the Mark VII: squarish but carefully detailed for efficient "airflow management." The old humped trunklid was abandoned at last, leaving only a vertical-bar grille to echo the past -- and even that was low and smoothly curved to match the nose and modern flush-fit Euro-style headlamps.

Powering the new Continental was the 140-bhp 3.8-liter V-6 made optional for the '88 Taurus/Sable, mounted transversely (in typical front-drive fashion) and teamed with a four-speed overdrive automatic transaxle. It didn't provide much snap in the heavier Conti (which was little lighter than its rear-drive forebear), and even L-M officials later admitted the car was underpowered for its class. At least quietness was a strength. A MacPherson-strut suspension employing dual-rate shock absorbers and LSC-style air springs, both computer-controlled, sounded great on paper. Unfortunately, this complicated design failed to provide a truly outstanding ride/handling balance in the real world. The standard all-disc brakes with ABS were superb, however, and interior decor was a blend of Euro-trendy and American traditional. For 1989, the dash and steering wheel were redesigned to accommodate dual airbags. Though just a driver-side airbag would have satisfied the government's new passive-restraint rule, Lincoln got the jump on Cadillac by providing inflatable cushions to protect both front occupants.

Arriving at dealers in December 1987, the front-drive Continental proved a strong seller, thanks partly to an attractive $26,000 base price -- again, thousands less than comparable European sedans. Model-year production totaled about 41,000 for '88, rose to 57,775 for '89, then climbed above 64,000 for 1990. The Continental wouldn't fare this well again, but the mere fact that Lincolns could now stand comparison with high-buck foreigners spoke volumes about how far Lincoln had come in the '80s and where it hoped to go in the '90s.

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Restyled Lincoln Town Car

The 1992 Lincoln Town Car was "fully redesigned," yet Town Car loyalists found it similar enough to older models that it enjoyed sales success.
The 1992 Lincoln Town Car was "fully redesigned," yet Town Car loyalists found it similar enough to older models that it enjoyed sales success.

A faint hint of the future arrived for 1990 in the first fully restyled Town Car in a decade. Actually, it was little more than the old model in new aerodynamic clothes. Dimensions, weight, and powertrain were all little changed. Not everyone liked the more rounded new look -- but then, Lincoln had the unenviable task of needing to modernize its top-seller without making it look too different.

Indeed, designers tried hard to satisfy Town Car loyalists by retaining opera windows and a square "formal" grille, though both were tastefully muted. Also continued were the expected lush interiors with cushy bench seats, tufted upholstery, pseudo-wood dash trim and power everything. Base, Signature, and Cartier models were still available to ease the minds of troubled traditionalists. Yet the 1990s did advance the Town Car with high-tech features such as speed-sensitive power steering, self-leveling rear air springs, and airbags for both driver and front passenger -- all standard at base prices in the $27,000-$32,000 range. Antilock brakes were optional at $936.

With all this, the rejuvenated Town Car was another sales hit on a lengthening Dearborn list. Model-year volume topped 147,000, a healthy gain of almost 20,000 over the still-popular '89. L-M must have heaved a big sigh of relief, for the Town Car still accounted for more than 60 percent of total Lincoln sales. For 1990 it outpolled the four-door Continental by over 2-to-1 and the Mark VIII by almost 7-to-1. It was thus a key factor in boosting Lincoln volume so much closer to Cadillac's.

But "closer" can still leave an unbridgeable gap, and Lincoln sales continued to trail Cadillac's into the early '90s by 22,000 to 78,000 units. Then again, Cadillac should have had the edge with its much broader lineup, so Lincoln did very well in running so consistently close with just three models. Evidently, a good many buyers agreed with the make's ad slogan of the time: "What a Luxury Car Should Be."

Even so, a sharp new recession and increasing luxury competition diminished Lincoln's yearly volume after 1990, pushing it down to the 160,000-197,000 range through middecade. But the Town Car kept rolling on, accounting for fewer buyers in this period but an even bigger piece of Lincoln's total sales pie, around two-thirds in this period.

Considered improvements played a part in this performance. The biggest one occurred for 1991, when Town Car introduced the first in a new Dearborn family of modern overhead-cam engines: the so-called "modular" (sometimes "mod") V-8. The name referred to a basic block that could also be used for V-6s and even slant-fours built on the same tooling and assembly lines. The core V-8 allotted to Town Car was a single-cam 4.6-liter unit with electronic multiport fuel injection and cast-iron block and heads. Standard horsepower was 190, up 40 from the ousted pushrod 302/5.0-liter, or 210 bhp with optional dual exhausts. Though not a huge advance for smoothness or quietness, the "mod" V-8 was more easily tuned than the old 302 for the tighter emissions limits then coming on the scene.

The '91 Town Car also boasted a revised front suspension for slightly crisper handling, plus better stopping ability via standard four-wheel disc brakes (versus rear drums). A new option also enhanced "active safety." Called Traction Assist, it was a simple form of traction control that relied on the ABS wheel-speed sensors and was thus tied to the available antilock brakes. When the sensors detected wheel slip, the system would automatically apply gentle pressure to the rear brakes until grip was restored. Other Lincolns would get this, too.

Town Car then stood pat for a few years, though there were notable minor changes. For example, 1992 brought more-responsive electronic shift control to the four-speed automatic transmission, plus a safety interlock that prevented shifting from Park without depressing the brake pedal, a legacy of the late '80s furor over "unintended acceleration." Research determined that unintended acceleration was caused by mistaking the accelerator for the brake pedal. Subtle grille and taillight revisions arrived for '93, as did a handling package option with somewhat firmer damping and wider tires on alloy wheels. The latter was welcome, if paradoxical for such a big cruiser.

There was also a new "designer edition" for '93, this one inspired by golfing great Jack Nicklaus. It was offered only this one year for the midline Signature Series. The dual-exhaust engine became standard for '94, as did high-tech "solar-tint" glass for all windows. The '95s got a few cosmetic touchups, and the Signature and top-line Cartier gained a new three-mode power steering system that allowed choosing low, medium, or high steering effort with the push of a dashboard button.

If the Town Car was relatively static in this period, prices weren't, rising to a minimum $41,200 for a '95 Cartier. Despite this, sales held up well at some 125,000 for '91, over 113,000 for '92, and 117,000-118,000 for 1993-94. Though not a sales factor, Town Car was affected by a shortage of airbags in 1991-92, owing to tight supplies of airbag propellant. Indeed, some '91s had to be built without the planned passenger-side restraint. When supplies improved, however, Lincoln did the right thing by retrofitting airbags to those cars at no cost.

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Lincoln Mark VIII

The 1993 Lincoln Mark VIII raised the standard for Lincoln driving with improved steering and more reliable braking.
The 1993 Lincoln Mark VIII raised the standard for Lincoln driving with improved steering and more reliable braking.

The Lincoln Mark VII just marked time before closing out after the 1992 model year. The only interim change was upgrading the Bill Blass model to the same steering, suspension, tires, and alloy wheels as the sporty LSC. Mark sales plunged from more than 22,000 for model-year 1990 to just 15,000 for 1991 and '92 combined. There were two reasons for the decline. First, the Mark VII had been around nearly a decade -- and looked it. Second, a brand-new Mark was waiting in the wings.

Arriving for 1993 as a single well-equipped coupe, the Mark VIII was even sleeker, smoother, and more "aero." It made the VII seem almost stodgy. Styling nodded to Mark heritage with a vertical-bar grille and trunklid tire hump, but both were sized and shaped to complement the overall design. Though certain design elements were debatable -- especially the "predented" bodyside concavities -- this was the most exciting Lincoln yet.

Structurally, the Mark VIII owed much to the latest MN12 Ford Thunderbird/Mercury Cougar, but was different enough to merit its own internal code, FN10. Compared to the Mark VII, it was 4.5 inches longer in wheelbase (using the 113-inch Thunderbird/Cougar span), 4.1 inches longer overall, and 3.7 inches wider, yet was actually 30 pounds lighter at the curb despite dual airbags and other added features. Engineer­ing was more sophisticated than ever, with all-independent air-spring suspension a la Continental, speed-variable power steering and optional Traction Assist. Under the hood lurked a potent new engine: the promised twincam version of the "mod" V-8. Displacement was still 4.6 liters (281 cid), but a 32-valve aluminum cylinder head helped deliver a smashing 280 bhp and 285 pound-feet of torque. A four-speed automatic remained the only transmission, but gained electronic shift control. And for the first time, Mark drivers worked the shifter from a center console, part of a sweeping new "cockpit" dash wrapped in from the center to give a "fighter plane" feel.

The Mark VIII could almost fly like a jet. Despite giving away 15 horses to Cadillac's Northstar-powered Eldorado Touring Coupe, the Lincoln proved decisively quicker in Consumer Guide® tests, posting a 0-60-mph time of just 6.9 seconds versus 7.7 for the Eldo. But more than just straightline go, the new Mark set a new high for Lincoln roadability. Cornering was flat and stable, steering fast and informative, braking swift and sure. It also featured a unique air suspension that lowered the car at highway speeds for greater stability. About the only things not to like were certain ergonomic details and less total space than expected in a car of this bulk.

In all, the Mark VIII was a revelation: fast, supremely capable, quiet, luxurious, and comfortable. It was a very different Mark, but also even more of a match for BMW, Mercedes, and Japanese upstart Lexus. Considering that, price was a real eye-opener at well under $37,000 to start, thousands less than comparable grand luxe imports. Buyers responded by taking ­nearly 32,400 of the '93s and 28,000-plus for '94. The '95 tally was lower, but so was overall demand for luxury coupes.

Hoping to buck that trend, Lincoln revived the LSC badge for an even hotter Mark VIII, announced for 1995 but not available until model-year '96. Dual exhausts netted 290 bhp, while a firmed-up chassis gave more tenacious handling and roadholding. But this did nothing for Mark sales, which slipped again.

The tally went up slightly for '97, when the Mark got a ­serious freshening. A new hood and grille (flanked by high-­intensity xenon headlamps) tilted the visual effect from "aero" back to "formal," and a reshaped tail sported a full-width neon light bar instead of incandescent bulbs. Among other changes were reshaped seats, standard power tilt/telescope steering column, brighter dashboard lighting, and the addition of wood cabin trim, which seemed at odds with the original "high-tech" design theme. The chassis gained uprated shock absorbers, larger antiroll bars and standard traction control. The LSC got even sportier calibrations and an extra 10 bhp. But the luxury-coupe market kept shrinking, so Lincoln decided to cancel the Mark VIII after 1998, when production was down to just 6100 units.

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Lincoln Continental Revamped

The Lincoln Continental sedan carried through 1994 with considered yearly improvements but no great alterations to the successful front-drive formula of 1988. The base model was renamed Executive Series for '91, when the pushrod 3.8 V-6 gained standard dual exhausts and 10 bhp for 155 total. Another five bhp arrived the following year via internal engine changes.

Like Town Car, the Continental picked up electronic transmission control ('91), shift interlock ('92), the usual trim and appearance shuffles, and a few extra standard features, plus new optional items like front bucket seats (for Executive from '93) and remote keyless-entry system. Also prevailing here were spotty passenger-side airbag availability for 1990-92 models, and steady price escalation that lifted base stickers into the mid-$30,000 range by 1994. Production went the other way, falling to 26,798 by '93, less than half the 1990 total -- which made the '94 tally of more than 52,000 a real surprise.

An all-new Continental debuted for 1995, appearing just ahead of Lincoln's 75th birthday. Though still front-drive, it was rather like a Mark VIII in more conservative four-door dress. It even had the same twincam V-8, though transverse mounting and a more restrictive exhaust robbed 20 horses to leave "just" 260. Wheelbase was unchanged, and width and height were up only an inch apiece, but weight ballooned nearly 400 pounds despite the use of plasticlike sheet-molding compound to replace steel in the hood, trunklid, and fenders. Some of the extra weight reflected a stiffer unitized structure with more sound-deadening. Other pounds came from added standard features like the full automatic climate control with pollen microfilter. Dual airbags and ABS were again included, and there was a no-cost choice of front seating: three-place bench with column shift or buckets with console shift.

Trying more than most cars to be all things to all people, the '95 Continental came with a dazzling bit of electronic trickery called the Memory Profile System (MPS). This provided "his and her" adjustments for many functions including the position of the power mirrors, driver's seat, and steering wheel (the last an electric tilt/telescopic affair); as well as personalized radio presets, power window and alarm operation, and -- most novel of all -- suspension and steering calibrations.

Like its predecessor, the '95 Continental rode an all-independent air-spring suspension, but with a second, horizontal pair of shock absorbers added in back. All shocks were electronically controlled, like the air springs and now the steering, too. All this allowed rigging the system to allow choosing Firm, Normal, or Plush damping via the MPS control panel. Steering assist still decreased as road speed increased, but overall effort could be varied through Low, Medium, and High modes. Dear­born's computer nerds widely prohibited a combination of Plush damping and Low steering effort, but differences weren't that great among the many possible settings. In fact, the car felt best in the Normal/Medium "default" mode. Firm/High only made the ride more fidgety and helm work more tiring.

With all its new gadgetry, the '95 Continental cost a good $5000 more than the last of the V-6 generation, the lone sedan running higher in the "near-luxury" class at $40,750. Options were restricted to chrome wheels, voice-activated cell phone (complete with a dashboard display for signal strength and call duration), power moonroof, all-speed traction control, CD changer, and a novel wheeled "cart" that moved back and forth in the trunk and could be partitioned for carrying smaller items so they wouldn't tip over.

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Lincoln Design Strategy

The 1998 Lincoln Town Car redesign was conservative with softly rounded curves and a more upright front aspect.
The 1998 Lincoln Town Car redesign was conservative with softly rounded curves and a more upright front aspect.

And so the battle was joined: front-drive V-8 Lincoln versus front-drive V-8 Cadillacs. On paper, the Continental covered all the bases. (Company marketers even coined the snappy name "InTech" for the dohc engine used here and in later Mark VIIIs, a reply to Cadillac's Northstar V-8.) The only question involved styling: Would buyers prefer the Conti's lozenge look or the more formal sharp-edged Cadillacs? The answer came quickly. Continental sales started slowly, about 45,000 in 1995, and continued at a modest pace that was well below expectations.

Added during the first full production year was a Personal Security Package comprising Lincoln's RESCU System -- a cell phone link to a special emergency operator -- and Michelin run-flat tires. But that ­didn't help turn the tide. Neither did a considerable $4600 price cut for '96, when a traction-control system became standard. It was clear to all concerned that stronger measures were needed.

They arrived with a 1998 redesign that made a substantial change in the Continental's character. Realizing a heavily sculpted look was no less controversial here than on parent Ford's latest Taurus, Lincoln designers went conservative, applying simple rounded sides and a more upright frontal aspect, plus shorter front and rear overhangs. The driver-adjustable suspension was relegated to the options list, where it was paired with a few minor features to make a Driver Select System. Otherwise, it was conventional shocks and simple rear load-leveling suspension, though the three-mode power steering remained standard. Model-year production rose by some 4000 units from '97, but that qualified as disappointing.

After gaining 15 horses for 1999, the front-drive Conti cruised on without major change. The RESCU option was dropped for 2001, then returned as a Vehicle Communications System. Also for 2002, as with other Dearborn products, major options were repackaged as "models": in this instance base, Driver Select, Personal Security, and Luxury Appearance (a gussied-up Driver Select). Signing on later was a $1550 Collector's Edition package with leather/suede interior and chrome wheels.

That suggested the Continental was about to exit. Sure enough, it didn't return for 2003, mourned no more than the Mark VIII was. Sales had been declining each year since 1998, and were down to less than 15,500 by calendar '02. Several factors were at work, including a broad ongoing buyer shift from cars to sport-utility vehicles all across the price spectrum. But the main problem was ever-stronger competition from import-brand cars with more prestigious nameplates. In the end, the front-drive Continental was a competent upscale sedan that ultimately couldn't cut it in a very cutthroat market.

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Lincoln SUVs

The 1998 Lincoln Navigator was Lincoln's first -- and most successful -- foray into the SUV market.
The 1998 Lincoln Navigator was Lincoln's first -- and most successful -- foray into the SUV market.

SUVs were storming the market. Most every one posted impressive sales gains each year, prompting even more entries as the '90s progressed. Significantly, many people began buying SUVs as replacements for cars, and some splurged for high-end models with all the trappings they could get.

Taking stock of this lucrative action, Lincoln fielded the Navigator for 1998. Though based on Ford's popular full-size Expedition SUV, it stood apart with a Lincoln grille, a few new body panels, a much dressier interior, and a number of standard features that were options on the Ford, including a 230-bhp 5.4-liter "Triton" V-8 with single overhead camshaft. At first, executives worried that people might balk at a gilded Ford costing some $10,000 more. "At least we won't be out too much money if it ­doesn't work," one Lincoln honcho said privately. But the Navigator did work, immediately zooming to the number-two spot in Lincoln sales with nearly 44,000 units for calendar '98. Cadillac, caught by surprise, rushed out a luxury GMC Yukon. Lincoln replied by adding 30 horses to that year's Navigator, then substituting an exclusive twincam 5.4-liter InTech V-8 with 300 bhp.

As Lincoln's first truck, the Navigator attracted buyers who had never looked at a Lincoln before, just what planners had hoped. Though it lost some sales momentum once Escalade arrived, Navigator remained vital to Lincoln sales into the new century, good for roughly 32,000 to 39,000 orders per year, each one a high-margin payday. After adding a few conveniences through 2002, Navigator was fully redesigned with a ride-enhancing independent rear suspension and power-operating standard third-row bench seat, both class firsts shared with Expedition. The makeover also introduced Ford's Advance Trac antiskid/traction-control system as an option and standard curtain side airbags to protect the heads of those in the first- and second-row bucket seats. Two other new extras were unique to Navigator among SUVs: a power-operated liftgate and power running-board side steps that automatically moved in or out when opening or closing a door. Sales finally weakened in calendar 2005, sliding below 26,000, though that was mainly due to a sharp spike in gas prices -- in some places to an unheard-of $3-plus a gallon.

But Lincoln was still a novice with trucks, and proved it with the 2002-03 Blackwood. This full-zoot take on the Ford F-150 Super Crew four-door pickup mated the Navigator's 300-bhp V-8 and front-end sheetmetal with a special four-foot, eight-inch cargo box with a power-operated front-hinged hard cover. Lincoln hoped to sell 18,000 Blackwoods in the first two model years, mainly to trailer-towing horse owners and other landed gentry, but moved less than a quarter of that number before giving up. This failure was easy to explain: Blackwood was pricey for a pickup -- no less than $52,000 -- yet woefully impractical. Serious truckers laughed at the lack of a four-wheel-drive option, the beautifully trimmed but coffin-small load bed, and the swing-out tail doors instead of a swing-down gate. If nothing else, the Blackwood is rare enough that it may interest collectors someday.

Lincoln was little more successful with its second SUV. A 2003 debut, the Aviator applied Navigator-like styling and trappings to the familiar Ford Explorer and related Mercury Mountaineer. Included were that pair's optional 4.6-liter V-8 with a bit more power, curtain side airbags, power-adjustable pedals, rear-obstacle-detection system, and an uptown interior. A laudable 2004 option became standard for model-year '05: the Advance Trac antiskid system with new Roll Stability Control. Developed by Volvo, now owned by Dearborn, RSC employed special sensors that could detect an impending rollover and would automatically activate the antiskid system to help prevent it. But despite numerous standard goodies and fair pricing, the Aviator never took off, and Lincoln bailed after 2005. Buyers were demanding more "car" in their SUVs, and Aviator was still too much a truck.

By contrast, the old Town Car kept cruising on as the most valuable player in the franchise, accounting for at least 50 percent of Lincoln calendar-year car sales from 1998 through 2005. Trouble is, if the star goes into a slump, the whole team suffers, and that's what happened. For those eight model years, Town Car and total Lincoln car sales tailed off in almost perfect unison. Things would have been worse without the Navigator's help, but they were bad enough, car volume plunging more than 50 percent for the period from 150,000 units to just over 71,000. In this, Lincoln symbolized the steady decline of Ford Motor Company itself.

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The Decline of Lincoln

The 2001 Lincoln Town Car Cartier imitated the "stretch" that limos boasted, allowing for king-size rear leg room.
The 2001 Lincoln Town Car Cartier imitated the "stretch" that limos boasted, allowing for king-size rear leg room.

In what must have been an "uh-oh" moment for Lincoln planners, Town Car sales were flat for 1998 despite heavy surgery that replaced dated boxiness with a massive rounded form. One wag termed it "a bloated copy of [a 1950s] Mark IX Jaguar" -- rather damning given that Lincoln and Jaguar were now corporate cousins. At least the restyle trimmed a helpful three inches from overall length and some 200 pounds from heft. Engine retuning added 10 horses to the Executive and midlevel Signature models. The dual-exhaust V-8 returned with 220 bhp for the top-line Cartier and a $500 Signature Touring Package. Traction control, leather upholstery, and a 40/20/40 split front bench seat were all newly standard.

The addition of front side airbags was Town Car's main news for 1999. The 2000s were mostly reruns, but the following year brought more power, with the base V-8 hiked to 225 bhp, the dual-exhaust version to 240. Also new for 2001 was the Cartier L, a "stretch" job of the sort limousine builders had been doing for years. The stretch here was a modest six inches, all in the wheelbase to provide king-size rear leg room. Rear doors were elongated to match. Fittingly, in a literal sense, Lincoln hired the towering Shaquille O'Neill of L.A. Lakers basketball fame to introduce the L to the press.

Another extensive makeover occurred for Lincoln's 90th-anniversary year and Ford Motor Company's centennial. In a modest nod to new-century expectations, the 2003 Town Car received more coherent styling via new sheetmetal at each end, plus a stiffer frame, revised suspension, and more precise rack-and-pinion steering to replace recirculating ball. Brakes added a "panic assist" feature that automatically kicked in full hydraulic power on a rapid push of the pedal, even without full force. Front side airbags and 17-inch wheels became standard, as did a dual-exhaust V-8 with 239 bhp, up 14 horses. Rear obstacle detection also joined the features array. Lincoln hoped all this would prompt luxury-class ­buyers to put Town Car on their short lists along with the Lexus LS 430 and comparable big German sedans. But though the '03s were the most roadable Town Cars yet, they did nothing to change the model's yesteryear image, and sales kept sliding through 2005.

Lincoln was now struggling to redefine itself for a new era. If Town Car and "American luxury" no longer ensured ­profits, what would? Affluent younger buyers hooked on high-status imports mostly associated Lincoln with the Town Car, which made a fine limousine but wasn't something they'd want in their driveways. Lincoln needed to win over such folks, who now dominated the luxury market, but how? These were tough questions, and finding answers was complicated by mounting problems and shifting tactics in Dearborn.

As one telling example, Ford decided to move Lincoln and Mercury sales and marketing staff to the company's Irvine, California, campus in July 1998. Southern California, so the reasoning went, was a hotbed of automotive talent and innovation; planting two wilted brands in such fertile soil would surely help them blossom anew. Three years later, L-M was folded into the Premier Automotive Group, a Southern California-based subsidiary formed in 1999 as an umbrella for Ford's high-end marques: Aston Martin and Jaguar, purchased in the early '90s, and newly acquired Volvo and Land Rover.

But it fast became clear that Lincoln and Mercury were out of place at PAG, each beset by daunting challenges that couldn't be resolved by simply soaking up "SoCal" culture. Accord­ingly, both brands were reabsorbed into Ford North American Oper­a­tions in April 2002; personnel were ordered back to Michigan seven months later. One top executive said it was only "good business sense" for L-M "to co-locate with Ford Division" again, but many thought the explanation lame.

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Lincoln LS, Luxury Sport

The 2002 Lincoln LS embodied the youthful spirit of buyers whom Lincoln hoped to attract.
The 2002 Lincoln LS embodied the youthful spirit of buyers whom Lincoln hoped to attract.

While sales of the Lincoln Town car languished, Lincoln introduced a youthful replacement for the Continental aimed boldly at high-buck imports. Simply called LS -- for "luxury sport" -- this midsize sedan employed a new rear-drive "DEW98" platform developed with Jaguar and shared with the British brand's mid-range S-Type sedan. Both models arrived for 2000, but looked nothing alike. Where the curvy S-Type recalled Jaguar's beloved "Mark II" series of the 1950s, the LS referenced no previous Lincoln. It was crisp, clean, and contemporary, though not a groundbreaking design.

Marketing dictates required the S-Type be imported from Britain with higher-grade trim and equipment than the American-made Lincoln. The Jag also had somewhat more power, though each version used the same basic twincam multivalve engines: Ford's own 3.0-liter "Duratec" V-6 and a Jaguar-designed V-8 billed as a 4.0-liter in the S-Type, a 3.9 in the LS. Because Jaguar buyers were typically wealthier than Lincoln folk, S-Types ran some $10,000 higher than comparable LSes, making the Lincolns quite a buy at an introductory starting price of $31,000. Indeed, strong "near-luxury" value was a prime reason the LS copped Motor Trend magazine's 2000 Car of the Year award.

Yet this was no poor Yankee relation. Like the S-Type, the LS had such requisite sport sedan credentials as a taut all-independent suspension (with no electronic tricks), powerful four-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction control, firm rack-and-pinion steering, and front torso side airbags. And though less sumptuous inside, the Lincoln had enough wood and leather to suit a Jaguar, plus all the comforts and conveniences Americans expected. Advance Trac antiskid system and a Sport suspension/appearance package were also offered. And where S-Types came only with five-speed automatic transmission, the V-6 LS offered a five-speed manual too. Not many buyers opted for it, but it indicated that Lincoln was serious about the enthusiast market.

The driver-focused LS was a radical break with Town Car tradition, but necessary and overdue. "Lincoln has taken a pronounced risk with the very Euro-themed LS," said Motor Trend. "…[T]he result fortunately justifies the gamble. The LS not only brings a new dimension to Lincoln…it's simply a blast to drive." Indeed it was: agile and assured on twisty roads and quick on the straights, with 0-60 mph taking around 7.4 seconds for a manual V-6, 7.2 for an automatic V-8. "Simply put," MT concluded, "the LS is the car that wholly changes the image of what an American luxury sedan can be."

But the LS did little to change Lincoln's fuzzy image or bottom line. A sporty four-door was a showroom oddity among Town Cars and "lux trucks," and buyers could find more status for similar money elsewhere. Sales waned quickly as a result, dropping from a first-year 61,000 to the high 30,000s in 2001-03, then skidding below 20,000 in calendar '05. Lincoln tried hard to lure buyers en route, juggling features and options each season; boosting V-6 power two years straight; and muscling up the V-8 for 2003, when all models received a mild restyle and changes to "more than 500 components and systems." Car and Driver found lots to like in its test '03 V-8 Sport -- including a quicker 6.7-second 0-60 mph dash -- but bemoaned steady price creep that had pushed a well-equipped LS to near $50,000. "…Lincoln thinks it can compete without a price advantage. Good luck. As exemplary as it may be, the LS lacks the reputation of its rivals -- Lexus for its antiseptic perfection, Mercedes for its unassailable pedigree, and BMW for its arrogant dash. Intangibles, to be sure, but in this class, perceptions count."

With Dearborn fast approaching the brink, the LS rolled on through 2004-06 with no further changes of note. It then died as an early casualty of Ford's "Way Forward" belt-tightening program, announced in early '06. The LS was a bold step for Lincoln, but it was only a first step. Had it been quickly followed by a similarly sporty compact sedan, Lincoln might have been in much better shape.

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The Future of Lincoln

The 2006 Lincoln Zephyr, aimed at first-time luxury buyers, was Lincoln's smallest car ever.
The 2006 Lincoln Zephyr, aimed at first-time luxury buyers, was Lincoln's smallest car ever.

It may not too late for Lincoln to transform its image and near-term prospects, as vital new products are now reaching showrooms or soon will be. Though all have Ford and/or Mercury counterparts, Lexus has succeeded handsomely with various tarted-up Toyotas, giving hope that Lincoln's newest can do likewise, salvaging Lincoln's future.

Two of them bowed for 2006. First up was the Mark LT, a "proper" luxury pickup based on the redesigned 2005 F-150 SuperCrew. The Lincolnized truck avoided the old Black­wood's foibles with a work-ready 5.5-foot-long cargo bed and available four-wheel drive with low-range gearing. A 300-bhp 5.4-liter V-8 and four-speed automatic transmission were familiar (also mandatory), but most everything else was inherited from the well-regarded new F-Series. Consumer Guide® thought Lincoln should have splurged for a more upscale interior, a unique engine, and safety features like curtain side airbags and antiskid system, the last available on the corporate shelf but not offered even as options. But Lincoln may correct those oversights in time, and fewer specific components allowed pricing the LT lower than the Black­wood: just under $39,000 with two-wheel drive, a bit over $42,000 with 4WD. One thing didn't change: Lincoln was still the only luxury brand to offer a full-size pickup -- a "difference to sell" that could yet pay off.

Also arriving for '06 was Lincoln's smallest car ever, a front-wheel-drive midsize sedan reviving the historic Zephyr name. The basic design was shared with that year's new Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan and owed much to Japanese partner Mazda, but the Zephyr had all the essentials of a modern near-luxury car, including antilock disc brakes, front and curtain side airbags, dual-zone climate control, and a reasonably roomy leather-upholstered cabin. Fusion/Milan charged extra for a 221-bhp 3.0-liter Duratec V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission, but both were standard for Zephyr.

So was a unique twin-cowl instrument panel recalling the dashboards of classic early '60s Continentals. Competitively priced at $29,000 to start, the Zephyr aimed at first-time luxury-class customers seeking a comfortable, well-appointed tourer, though it had sport sedan potential that Lincoln could exploit one day. Meanwhile, Lincoln focused on higher "brand recognition" by discarding model names for "MK" labels -- which is why the Zephyr was rebadged MKZ for 2007.

For the same reason, a totally different Aviator appeared for 2007 as the MKX. A sister to that year's new Ford Edge, it was Lincoln's first shot at the lucrative luxury "crossover" market exemplified by the popular Lexus RX wagon. Ford followed a similar formula, employing a car-type platform (designated CD3 and developed with Volvo) with front drive and optional all-wheel drive. The powertrain was fresh, too, comprising a 250-bhp 3.5-liter V-6 and a six-speed automatic transmission codeveloped with General Motors. Predictably, the main differences with Edge involved more standard features and available luxuries, plus a fine-checked grille reminiscent of '60s Lincolns. Though the MKX was just emerging as this book was prepared, it suggests that Dearborn is prepared to give Lincoln whatever it takes to ensure a successful future.

Part of that future rides with the so-called MKS, a new large sedan expected for 2008. It's the smaller of two such Lincoln models based on the corporate "D3" platform, another Volvo collaboration that premiered with the 2005 Ford Five Hundred/Mercury Montego. The apparent plan is to have this pair replace the LS and the venerable Town Car. The MKS was previewed in early 2006 with a "teaser" concept distinguished by crisp, tightly drawn styling and a 315-bhp 4.4-liter V-8 driving all four wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. "What that concept does for us," declared one Dearborn exec, "is say, 'OK, we're not stopping. [Lincoln is] going to be back. That is very, very important."

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