Another look at the Continental Mark II

Tastefully understated yet fabulously overpriced, the Mark II was a failure in the marketplace, but it was still one of the finest cars the Ford Motor Company ever produced.

 

If you want to annoy a Continental Mark II owner, call the car a Lincoln. Get it right: It’s not a Lincoln. It’s a Continental.

The Mark II, manufactured for only two years, 1956 and 1957, was never badged as a Lincoln, nor was it marketed under that name. True, the Mark II was intended to retrace the legacy of the original 1940 Lincoln Continental, the elegant factory custom created by Edsel Ford and Bob Gregorie.  And true, the Mark II used a Lincoln drivetrain, and it was sold through selected Lincoln dealers.

But the Mark II was actually the product of a new and separate Dearborn entity. The Continental Division of the Ford Motor Co. was established on July 1, 1952, with its own plant and offices on Oakwood Boulevard, a mile from Ford HQ. (Read more history on the Continental facility here.)

A pet project of the Ford family, the Continental Division was headed by vice president and general manager William Clay Ford, then not yet 30.  Grandson of Henry Ford I, son of Edsel, younger brother of Henry II, and owner of the Detroit Lions, he is probably best known today as the father of current Ford Chairman Bill Ford, Jr.

 

It was Bill Ford, Sr. who sold his big brother Henry II, Ernest Breech, and the executive board on the need for the stand-alone Continental plant and its hefty $25 million price tag. He served as both quarterback and head cheerleader for the program, mixing cocktails for the design team in late-night poker-slash-brainstorming sessions at the Dearborn Inn.

With the new facility not yet ready, design and engineering work was underway in a space set aside in the former Ford Trade School near the Rouge. Chief body engineer was Gordon Buehrig, creator of the Cord 810, while the program’s styling chief was John Reinhart, designer of the 1951 Packard line, the best-selling Packards in history. Chief engineer was Harley Copp. A top Ford man, Copp later had a hand in the Ford GT and Cosworth DFV programs before he turned whistleblower. Excoriated by his own industry for his acts of conscience but vindicated by history, Copp was the Ford executive who provided the damaging revelations in the Pinto fuel tank case.

For the mid-1950s, a period of styling excesses of every kind, the Mark II arrived on the scene remarkably unmarked. Its clean, European lines, close-coupled proportions, and formal greenhouse nailed the essence of Gregorie’s original Continental as personal luxury car. Reinhart’s styling staff employed only one gimmick on the Mark II: Ford sales manager Jack Davis pushed for the phony spare tire bump on the decklid, a feature then copied by Lincoln and others for decades after.

 

Strip away the other motivations and the Mark II had one essentially mission: to be the world’s finest mass-produced automobile. It seems odd that the company that, in the Model T, perfected the meanest, cheapest volume production methods ever devised, would then completely reverse field and head off to the other extreme. Odd, but fitting.

Body assemblies received careful and extensive hand finishing, topped with four coats of hand-sanded lacquer. Bright metal trim was heavily triple-plated (copper-nickel-chromium; today we call it “show chrome”) and only the finest leathers and fabrics were selected for the interior. Few expenses were spared, if any. As the story goes, the delicate hood ornament was so difficult to cast that it was subcontracted to a defense firm, and cost as much as the car’s entire grille. Each wheel cover was assembled from scores of separate parts.

 

All this finery was erected on a unique Cow Belly chassis, so named for its drop in the middle to keep the car’s profile as low as possible.  With six crossmembers, the frame  was massively overbuilt  for a retractable hardtop version that was never produced. To spread the cost over greater production volume, the folding metal top technology was instead transplanted to the Ford passenger car line, creating the Skyliner.

By devising an articulated driveshaft and snaking the exhaust pipes through the outer frame rails, Copp and crew lowered the Mark II’s overall height to a sleek 56 inches. Standard 368-cid Lincoln engines were hand-assembled and dyno-tested, then fitted with special cast-aluminum valve covers. No horsepower figures were published, but the engines reportedly produced net output close to the Lincoln’s gross rating (285 horsepower in 1956, 300 in ’57).

Power everything was standard: Steering, brakes, windows including vent wings. The only mechanical option was air conditioning at $595.  There were 39 potential interior trim options and 215 catalog color combinations, including Bridge of Weir leathers and Matelasse fabrics, available via a special dealer ordering procedure.

As the carriage-trade features were piled on, the Mark II’s price point spiraled out of control, from under $7,500 to $10,000, twice as much as a standard Lincoln or Cadillac. And for the first wave of Mark II owners, price was not an issue—they included Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presely, Frank Sinatra, Nelson Rockefeller, Barry Goldwater, Cecil B. DeMille, and R.J. Reynolds. Taylor’s Mark II was a gift to her from Warner Brothers, reportedly, with custom paint in deep, deep blue to match her famous eyes.

The headline at Business Week for Novemeber 26, 1955 blared, “Selling Like Hot Cakes.” But once the initial demand for the Mark II was exhausted, sales fell straight off a cliff. It’s a classic story in the Motor City car biz. In the specialty segments of the market, business is often brisk early on. How long will it last, now there’s the question. Nearly 2600 units, approximately, were produced in the Mark II’s first year; in the second year, only 444. On May 8, 1957, the Continental Mark II was officially discontinued.

An earlier version of this story by MCG appeared in the April 7, 2003 issue of AutoWeek.

 

17 thoughts on “Another look at the Continental Mark II

  1. Nice car, but it wasn’t over-price, there just weren’t enough rich people to support mass production. Ford is missing a big bet by not doing what they did so well, produce a big luxurious, powerful, coupe. Better yet, build a big two-door 4-place convertible, like the new Bentley.

  2. It’s hard to believe 10 K was a price for only the rich 57 years ago when you look at todays offerings in that price point and there are none. Todays average price for an automobile is either 30K or very close to it. I recall a Mark 111 in the early seventy’s was about 10 K and Ford sold everyone they could produce. Sometimes it’s a tough business to figure out.

    • According to the Consumer Price Index inflation calculator, $10,000 in 1956 bucks is equivalent to $83,300 today. That’s still a lot of money, but not stratospheric as it seemed to be back then. A Coupe DeVille was $4600, ’56 Thunderbird was $3100. A ’56 Chevy Bel Air 2D V8 was $2275, which would be $19K today. Clearly, people are willing to pay more for cars these days.

      • Correction on the Mark 2 from 69 to 71. They listed in the 8500 dollar range and the early Mark 4’s 72 to 73 were in the 10000 dollar range. Both models sold like hotcakes.

  3. Possibly the most perfect design of any American production car in the fifties. I could look at these cars all day. As Barry and other commenters have noted, the luxury market is well-established today. Ford is truly missing the boat by not providing appropriate product to capitalize on this great heritage.

  4. Lincoln is missing the boat by not having “Lincoln” OR a Continental in the product offerings … rebadged cars are NOT going to save them …

    The ONLY bright spot in the last decade was the LS and they let that die on the vine …

    They REALLY need to offer a REAL Lincoln and/or a Continental to save themselves … look what Cadillac did … learn from your mistakes and others sucesses

  5. This car made a very attractive convertible but as prevously stated there just weren’t enough buyer’s that could afford cars in that price range back then and the convertible most likely would have been priced around 12K. For Lincoln to enter into the high end luxo market at this time would not be feasable. The company is attempting to restablish itself in the entry level and medium level luxury segement and to develope a high end low volume vehicle I feel would not be feasable for them at this time. I will pass final judgement on the Lincoln Motor Company after all their new products hit the market.

  6. Some research I did for a recent C/D piece showed a ’57 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham was $13,074…a Rolls Royce of that year was about $15k. The Eldo price is the equivalent of $108,000 today, using the same calculator Bill used for the Conti prices. I think you could load an Escalade into the 90k range but that’s about as high as the domestic luxury segment reaches now. Meanwhile, the Rolls of ’57 would be maybe $125k, or about half the entry ticket on the cheapest Ghost of 2013.

  7. Oh, and the priciest recent Cadillac went into the six-digit range, the XLR-V, the pre-bankruptcy Vette-platform two-seater. It didn’t do much for volume, but volume isn’t supposed to be the point of high-end luxury, is it?

    • No, but profit is and it seems eveytime a US car maker ventures into this segment it fails.

  8. I’ve always been a great admirer of the Mark II, but as the years went on I realized the design wasn’t perfect — the roof is too high and narrow, and it also has too much crown. Easy enough to fix!

  9. Special thanks to reader Supersix who color-corrected the lead photo. The magenta color shift was really sort of pretty but unfortunately, it wasn’t accurate. All fixed now.

  10. Bill, once again a superbly crafted summary. One thing omitted: two drop-dead convertibles built by Lehman-Peterson for the family and another wealthy patron. Sex on wheels.

    Perhaps more important is the gift of the Mk II – the proportions of the four seat TBird and the ’65 Mustang, both of which borrow the Mk IIs golden mean for their own mojo. We know what happened with them….

  11. There’s an old saying, “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sows ear” And so it is or was with cars like the Continental. You can load up a new design with every conceivable luxury extra, give it its own unique identity, build it in its own dedicated factory but at the end of the day, if its not being built by a company with a long history of having exclusively catered to the upper segment of the market, your doomed to failure. What you’re buying with cars like these is image and the prestige that goes with that image. The Continental simply didn’t have that history, to most it was simply an over priced tarted up Ford with no established pedigree.

    [We’ve seen the same with Toyota’s Lexus offshoot. Toyota markets the Lexus as an up market stand alone luxury brand but to most people Lexus is nothing more than a tarted up Toyota driven by wannabe prestige car drivers who can’t afford proper prestige cars like a Mecedes]

    And strangely, Ford went on to repeat the same mistake they made with the Continental, with the Edsel. One would have thought they’d have learn t their lesson with the Continental, but alas, no.

  12. I lived above my landlord’s garage when I was in college and he had a ’55 Mark II hardtop in primer in one of the bays. I wonder if he ever finished it and what it would be worth today.

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