The First Continental

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  “I want to make the best cars in the world.”

– Edsel Ford, 1922

Edsel FordWhen customers walked into dealerships to buy their 1968 Lincoln Continental, whether it was in Black Satin or Spanish Moss, they may have received a booklet containing information about their new purchase. The following excerpt was included in the pamphlet:

“A few years back, among a pile of yellowing old records in the Ford Motor Company’s archives, a researcher came upon a large old fashioned scrapbook in which he found an unusual collection. On the first page was an illustrated catalog for a 1911 foreign car, called the Continental Peumatik. Flipping the pages the researcher found many pictures and advertisements. The significant thing about the book was that marginal notes in the handwriting of Edsel Ford were interspersed among the pictures. This was the beginning of the idea from which the Lincoln Continental was to come many years later.”

When the Ford family bought The Lincoln Motor Company from Henry Leland and his son in 1922, Henry Ford handed the reins of the brand over to his own son, Edsel. Edsel had a vision and aesthetic for automobiles that had been cultivated his entire life. He was a man dedicated to the preservation of craft and artisanship, while also skilled with the business acumen of his father. He carried the company to iconic levels of automotive design and quality.

While Edsel built a unique audience of individuals who preferred the design aesthetic and performance capabilities of the Lincoln marque, he also had a dream for his own vehicle, one that personified the style and aesthetic that he was known for. The Continental, possibly Lincoln’s most iconic design and division, was originally the concept for Edsel’s own dream car.

From his early days with the company, Edsel nurtured a fixation on aesthetics. In the early 1930s, he created the first “styling department” for Ford Motor Company. The team consisted of Edsel, his executive assistant and shopmaster John Crawford, and a young yacht designer, Eugene Terenne ‘Bob’ Gregorie.Eugene Terenne ‘Bob’ Gregorie

Edsel and Gregorie shared a vision as well as a passion for sleek and innovative automotive design. The styling department was Edsel’s refuge from the corporate duties he carried out as President. Their workspace was a corner area with several prototype cars covered with dust sheets. Edsel would sometimes visit the studio, peel back the dust sheets, and just sit in one of the cars. Gregorie would join him and the two would talk about design, cars, and life. Gregorie recalls, ‘There he would sit, in the cool dark, to meditate and talk. Mr. Ford seemed to just relax. He would talk about anything that came into his head, such as boats, in which we had a common interest.”

Gregorie had helped design the groundbreaking Lincoln Zephyr in the early 1930’s. Edsel wanted to build something on the same chassis, but this would be just for him. After he returned from a trip to Europe in 1938, Edsel was inspired to not only be brave with design, but to express himself. He asked Gregorie to help sketch his dream car: a coupe with low lines – a continental style cariole. This would be his vacation car, and statement piece around Florida, where he spent his winters.

It’s a family legend that, after hearing Edsel’s vision, Gregorie sketched what would be the basis of all Continental designs in under an hour. Regardless, Edsel saw the first clay models of his dream car in November of 1938. He immediately ordered it, and ordered two additional prototypes for his sons, Henry II and Benson. The cars were built using panels from the 1940 Zephyr.

On March 1st, 1939, the first Continental rolled up the driveway of Edsel’s Florida vacation home. It was painted “Eagle Grey” with grey leather trim. He sat inside and drove around Palm Beach and Hobe Sound, the conversations of so many meditation sessions in the dark studio now fully come to life.

The 1939 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet

It wasn’t long before word spread and Edsel’s contemporaries wanted Edsel’s new car, too. He returned to Michigan that spring with orders for 200 more similar vehicles.

The decision was made to produce the new Continental as a limited run basis as an addition to the Zephyr line. Around 400 Continentals were built from October of 1939 to September of 1940 – 54 coupes and 350 Cabriolets. They were almost completely handmade – to fit the many custom requests – and offered extensive interior options. The cars were advertised as a Zephyr with the “flavor of European boulevards.”The 1940 Continental Cabriolet

By 1940, The Continental was its own line, available in coupe and cabriolet. Eventually, Lincoln would open its own Continental division, which would again be absorbed back into Lincoln studio. The Continental was sold from 1940 to 1948, 1956 to 1980, and then from 1981 to 2002. The low lines, large windows and sleek frame inspired by Gregorie and Edsel’s love for the ease of an ocean yacht live on in The Lincoln Motor Company vehicles of today.

The legacy, however… that’s one thing that can be seen in every Lincoln on the road.

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