1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II
1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Ford Motor Company’s 1956 Continental Mark II had two missions: to recapture the magic of the original Continental, and to displace Cadillac as North America’s most sought after luxury car.

The original Continental evolved in the late 1930s when Ford Motor Company president, Edsel Ford (Henry’s son), had Ford’s chief stylist Eugene Gregory design a sporty car for his personal use. Gregory based Edsel’s special on the V-12-powered Lincoln Zephyr.

The result was so popular with the country club set that Ford put it into production as the 1940 Lincoln Continental, eventually referred to as the Mark I. It was built from 1940 to ’42, and following the Second World War from 1946 to ’48.

Ford had planned to replace the Mark I but the company’s resources had to be concentrated on developing new post-war Ford and Mercury models. The ’49 Ford was a stunning success. Another complete redesign in 1952 enabled Ford to move ahead of Chrysler to second place in the industry behind GM.

With its return to prosperity Ford set out to recapture the original Continental’s glamour by creating the most luxurious American car. Although not necessarily the largest or most powerful, Its elegance was to be a reincarnation of the great classics of the 1930s, ranking with the world’s top models such as the Rolls-Royce.

The projected selling price was to be in the heady $7,500 to $8,000 range (it was ultimately $10,000), about twice that of regular Lincolns. Even then its primary goal was not to make a profit, but to replace Cadillac as the domestic industry’s most prestigious nameplate.

To achieve this, Special Products Operations was established. This later became the Special Products Division, and in 1955, the Continental Division as Ford gave the new car the prestige of division status.

From several styling proposals Ford’s executive committee selected one by the Special Products Division’s own team, which included Gordon Beuhrig of Cord 810/812 fame. Termed “modern formal,” it combined clean, contemporary lines with styling cues that related it to the original Continental.

The Mark II had an understated eggcrate grille, and the long- hood/short-deck motif of the original. Horizontal fender lines swept back to a point just ahead of the rear wheels, then kicked up slightly before continuing to the tail lights.

The formal roofline’s blind spot also harked back to the original Continental, but the real link was the “Continental” spare tire shape that was moulded into the trunk lid. The spare was mounted under this hump in the rear of the trunk, preserving authenticity, but making trunk loading an awkward operation.

In an era of excess, chrome trim was used sparingly, and no two-tone paint jobs were available. The fuel filler cap was concealed behind the left tail light, a la Cadillac.

Extensive preparation and care went into body finishing. Panels were painted and hand-sanded several times, then two coats of lacquer were applied. Chrome plating was used extensively, not for appearance, but to protect such areas as the door end panels and door jambs.

Although there was a certain cost-no-object approach to the Mark II, the line was drawn at the powertrain. A V-12 was considered, but deemed too expensive. Lincoln’s new-for-1956 6.0 litre V-8 was used, fitted with special cast aluminum valve covers. Each engine was dynamometer tested.

The rest of the driveline, including the standard equipment three-speed automatic transmission, was also from Lincoln, although with more extensive testing. Air conditioning was the only option.

The Continental was quietly elegant inside. When leather upholstery was ordered, for example, it was from Bridge of Weir in Scotland. The brushed-finish instrument panel held four round dials of equal size, including a tachometer.

The Continental Mark II came only as a hardtop coupe. Although a convertible was theoretically offered, only one or two were apparently ever built. A retractable hardtop was considered but abandoned; it saw brief production as the 1957-59 Ford Skyliner.

Following extensive publicity, introduction of the Mark II took place at the 1955 Paris Auto Show. This was followed by several exclusive “by invitation-only” private showings in North America.

In spite of its price, about 1300 Continentals were sold during the last quarter of 1955, many to celebrities such as politician Barry Goldwater, actor Frank Sinatra, and the Shah of Iran. But after strong initial sales it was all downhill. Only about another 1300 were built during 1956, and 450 in 1957, when production ceased.

There were several reasons for the early demise of the Mark II. First was the high $10,000 price, which is said to have lost Ford $1000 on each car. Its plain appearance in an era of styling flamboyance may also have hurt sales.

In spite of its lack of market success, the Continental Mark II is a beautiful example of classic elegance married to modern engineering. It was a valiant attempt to recapture the spirit of the great cars of the thirties, but unfortunately for Ford, that era was gone forever.

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