Thursday, December 28, 2017

Continental Mk II Design Competition

The original Lincoln Continental was iconic, beloved, and considered an automobile styling masterpiece by many observers.  Some background on it can be found here (scroll down for discussions of the Edsel Ford prototype and early production generations).  The original design was marketed during the 1939-1941 model years.  A facelift appeared for the short 1942 model year and there was some further facelifting for 1946-1948.  Model year 1949 brought redesigned Lincolns to market, and Ford Motor Company elected to not offer a Continental model.  This bothered some potential buyers who made their views loudly known, so eventually Ford decided to revive the Continental, this time as a separate, very exclusive brand (Wikipedia entry here).

William Clay Ford, youngest grandson of Henry Ford, was placed in charge of the new Continental project.  An initial design by his team was poorly received by company president Henry Ford II and others, so Bill had to come up with Plan B, a design competition.  What happened is described by Michael Lamm & Dave Holls in their authoritative book "A Century of Automotive Style," pp. 146-147:

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[William Clay Ford, in charge of the Continental project] asked his staff to suggest names of outside stylists, and the groups invited were: George Walker Assoc., consultant to Ford Motor Co.; [Buzz] Grisinger & [Rhys] Miller, independent designers, previously with Chrysler and Kaiser-Frazer; Vince Gardner, formerly with Cord and Loewy; and Henry [Ford] II's brother-in-law, Walter Buhl Ford, who later merged with Harley Earl Assoc.

The Continental project now became a five-way contest.  The four outside teams would receive $10,000 each for their Mark II designs, chosen or not.  To keep everything fair and consistent, each team had to deliver side- plan- and end-view drawings plus 3/4-front and 3/4-rear perspective sketches.  Rules stipulated that all artwork had to be the same size, same matting, use the same supplied perspective grids and be of the same color.   No sketches could be signed or identified.   Judges -- five executives from Lincoln -- could cast only one vote each and had to pass through the final display area separately so they couldn't talk, nod or read each other's body language.

The final judging took place in Apr. 1953, and the design that ended up winning the competition came from Bill Ford's own Special Products group [the team led by John Reinhart].

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One thing to keep in mind is the styling fashion context of the competition and the resulting production car.  The Continental Mk. II appeared for 1956, the same year the Studebaker Golden Hawk and the Chrysler Corporation line began sprouting tail fins.  Elaborate two-tone paint schemes were found on some 1954 Oldsmobiles and three-tones appeared on 1955 Dodges.  Panoramic (wraparound) windshields were found on a few 1953 Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs, then in 1954 all Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs had them.  Contrasting all this, the Continental was very conservative, having only a moderately wrapped windshield, a single-color paint job and no tail fins.  So to some degree the Mark II fit more closely to 1952-53 when it was designed than for its actual model year.  On the other hand, even in 1953 its stylists were probably aware of the near-term new concepts and they or management chose to ignore them.

Decent images of the competing designs are hard to find on the Internet, so I had to resort to scanning images from books in my automotive library.  The design renderings are from Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1974, pp. 100-101.  Side drawings are from "Lincoln & Continental: The Postwar Years" by Paul R. Woudenberg (Motorbooks International, 1980), p. 72.  Click on the images to enlarge.


1940 Lincoln Continental Club Coupe
This is the Real McCoy.  Future Continental designs had to either speak to it or consciously ignore it (at their peril).

1948 Lincoln Continental Club Coupe - RM Southey's photo
The last Lincoln Continental using original bodywork and facelift features from 1942 and 1946.

1956 Continental Mk. II
The result of the competition and later refinement.  Features echoing the original Continental include: a long hood (by the mid-1950s, long trunks were coming into fashion, hoods becoming shorter); somewhat similar passenger greenhouse, including the general shape of aft side windows and the large C-pillar; and the spare tire at the rear (the hump on the trunk lid was atop the actual tire mounted in an angled position beneath it).

I don't think any of the design proposals makes for an appropriate successor to the original Continental.  Some details here and there are not bad, but the overall designs are lacking the right stuff.  A consistent problem has to do with grilles and front ends in general; most of these designs are bland, characterless.  The best of the lot, an opinion I've held for many years, is the second (lower) Grisinger-Miller design.  I don't like its front and the little fins at the rear, but the rest of the design comes closest to the spirit (not the details) of the original.

As can be seen in these side views, the designers had very little flexibility in basic layout of the car.


jrm said...

I'm not sure the car enthusiast population of today realizes the awe the original Continentals were held in. As a child in the 1960's, I looked for any car-related material I could find, including general-subject encyclopedias and old 1950's "Motor Trend" magazines, as well as the few books on "car styling" I could get ahold of. The 1936 Cord, the original Lincoln Continental, the 1953 Studebaker coupes, and sometimes the 1955 Ford Thunderbirds were often shown as the most praiseworthy exemplars of automobile design. What would they have made of today's "cult" of the 1959 Cadillac?

The saga of styling a revived Continental was often used as a launch-point for a critique of 1950's car design trends, and there was always a background theme of "good taste". (Somehow, the chrome-heavy front end of the 46-48 Continental got a good-faith pass).

I used to think the mid-50's Continental design was a bit too cautious, a bit too constrained, but this car has been looking better to me the last ten years or so. Some of those drawing board designs were painfully bland; turns out this re-boot wasn't bad at all, in retrospect.

Anonymous said...

In retrospect, in my view, the importance of the Mark II was the trickle down effect. The 1958 Thunderbird was the upper middle class version; then the 1964 1/2 Mustang was the working man's version. The 1959 Galaxie is also in the mix. The Mark II created the top and general proportions of the cars that followed.

emjayay said...

Were the original Continentals made by actually sectioning a Zephyr? Or did they make original stampings?

I think they picked the right one. The result is an awesome classic. A bit awkward from some angles between the greenhouse and body, but still awesome. Notice that in the renderings the character line down the side is straight but in the profile line drawing it has the bump up as in the production car. No fins, but the rear fenders are pretty sharp.

I think the current Continental could have been much improved if the rear fender shape had been sharpened, raised, and straightened out just a bit, recalling the Mark II.

The Mark II tail lights are brilliant and like a lot of styling cues were adapted for the 1961 sedan version.

Little noticed thing: the 1961, although a four door, has short rear windows and long C pillar to echo the shape of the Mark II. The suicide doors may have been super cool and echoing the Cosmopolitan, but actually you would have to crawl out of the back seat without them.

Ed Cahill said...

My grandfather Frank Stinn, ran a FLM store in Rice Lake Wisconsin at the time. I was born in 55 but I remember him running a Continental out on the ice once to visit his fishing shack. A Chestnut Red beauty —but I can't recall the year. Most like likely "59 or early 1960.