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.