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From the Editors: Lincoln Continental Divide

Larry Bean

If a car’s visibility in pop culture is any measure, then the Lincoln Continental convertible’s cool quotient is on the rise. In mid-May, the cover of Sports Illustrated announced that Cleveland Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore, "one of the greatest players of our generation," drives a 1966 baby blue Continental convertible. On TV, the HBO series Entourage features a 1965 black model cruising through Los Angeles during the opening credits. The car has not received this much exposure since the release of the Zapruder film, which shows President Kennedy sitting in the backseat of a customized 1961 navy blue Continental convertible. This spike in status comes 40 years after the car—the world’s last luxury four-door convertible, the one with the suicide doors—went out of production.

At the same time that sports fans were learning about Sizemore’s favorite ride, DaimlerChrysler was dumping Chrysler, and we here at Robb Report were wrapping up a cover story on the Ocean Drive, a four-door convertible concept car from Mercedes-Benz, one of Daimler’s remaining auto brands.

Perhaps the enduring fascination with the Continental convertible played some role in prompting Mercedes to create the Ocean Drive prototype. As automotive editor Gregory Anderson notes in this month’s cover story, "Testing the Waters", if the Ocean Drive ever does go into production, it will be Mercedes’ first four-door convertible since the 1962 300D, and it will not arrive in showrooms until 2010 at the earliest. And if the Continental convertible’s history is an accurate indicator of the Ocean Drive’s fate, it might enjoy greater cachet in 2050 than it would during its production run.

In the seven-year period that the four-door Continental convertibles were rolling off the assembly line, from 1961 through 1967, Ford sold only about 25,000. In the car’s penultimate year of production, in 1966, Ford sold fewer than 3,300—versus a total of more than 51,000 Continental sedans and coupes. The sedan and coupe continued to sell well throughout this design phase, which ended in 1970, when the model received a comprehensive makeover that included the elimination of the suicide doors. (The front-opening, rear-hanging back doors had been a necessity in the convertible model, because the car’s design would not support front-hanging rear doors.)

Ford had been building Lincoln Continentals since 1939; however, the car’s third generation, the one that Elwood Engel designed and Ford released in 1961, has been credited with saving the Lincoln marque from extinction. The story goes that Robert McNamara, who served officially as Ford’s president for only a month at the end of 1960 before resigning to become Kennedy’s secretary of defense, was prepared to terminate the Lincoln brand because of declining sales. But he saw enough promise in Engel’s Continental to reconsider that plan. Engel’s original design actually was a rejected proposal for the 1958 Thunderbird; McNamara subsequently instructed Engel to convert the coupe into a sedan and to make a convertible version.

After leaving Ford, McNamara, who had been hailed as one of Ford’s Whiz Kids—the 10 American military veterans who joined the company after managing the logistics of waging World War II—earned ignominy as one of David Halberstam’s Best and Brightest for his role as an architect of the Vietnam War. Soon after McNamara went to the White House, Engel moved to Chrysler, which, in 1963, introduced a restyled Imperial. Time magazine noted at the time that the car "resembles the clean-limbed, handsome Lincoln Continental and was, in fact, designed by the same man: Elwood Engel."

Engel, who retired from Chrysler in 1973, never crafted a four-door convertible Imperial, and indeed, Chrysler was the first U.S. carmaker to abandon all of its convertible designs, in 1970 (and the first to revive the style, in 1982). However, two years ago, Chrysler introduced a four-door, luxury convertible prototype, the Helios, a topless version of the 300C that would have been priced at about $50,000. Chrysler abandoned the concept by 2006, a year that it lost $680 million. Those and earlier losses led DaimlerChrysler to sell 80 percent of its share of the brand this spring to the private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management.

A four-door convertible would have only contributed to Chrysler’s woes, or so opined the former owner of a 1966 Continental convertible in a letter to the editor of Automotive News in response to a story on the Helios: "How often does anyone see passengers in the rear seat of any convertible? To sit in the back when the top is down is nothing but uncomfortable with all the wind and noise."

For that owner at least, the Continental convertible was breezy, and not so cool.

Photo by Darin Schnabel
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