1961 Lincoln Continental
1961 Lincoln Continental. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The original Lincoln Continental was not intended to be a production car. Using a Lincoln Zephyr as a base, it was created as a 1930s styling exercise for use by Ford Motor Co. president Edsel Ford as his personal transportation. It proved so popular, however, that it was made into a production model in 1940, and built until 1948. Now referred to as the Mark I, it stands as one of the American industry’s milestone designs.

Ford tried to recapture the Mark I’s cachet in 1956 with the beautiful Continental Mark II. Although its lines were clean and classic, it failed to generate the hoped-for sales, partially due to its high $10,000 price-tag.

The Mark II was built for only two years, and then Lincoln descended into a morass of gross and garishly sculpted monsters. Not surprisingly, response was tepid; Lincoln sales slipped from 41,567 in 1957, to 24,820 in 1960.

A new direction was needed to replace those dreadnoughts, and for 1961, Lincoln designers met the challenge with one of the most beautiful Lincolns ever. Its uncluttered and tasteful lines, limited use of chrome trim and clean smooth sides would set the American car styling tone for the decade.

For 1961 it was decided that Lincolns would come as Continental models only, and would not be designated as Marks. Body styles were limited to four door sedans and convertibles, down from 12 body types. The designers started by chopping 203 mm (8.0 in.) from the wheelbase and 376 mm (14.8 in.) from the length, while retaining the same interior space. At 5,395 mm (212.4 in.) long the Continental was still far from small, but it was a step in the right direction.

The ’61 Lincoln really started life as a Ford Thunderbird design, but when Ford Motor Co. president Robert McNamara saw it he thought it was stylish enough to use as the Lincoln. To change the Thunderbird into a Lincoln, which would replace the ’61 Lincoln design that was already well under way, the body was lengthened. The Lincoln and Thunderbird, therefore, had some commonality under the skin.

Lincoln had started using unit construction in 1958, and continued it in the ’61s. The body lines were dominated by sharp edges running at fender-top level almost dead straight from front to rear, relieved only by small “kick-ups” in the rear doors. The tail was adorned with a “grille,” and although fins were subsiding in the 1960s, they were still present in subdued form in the Continental.

Horizontal quad headlamps nestled in the end of the fine-mesh grille replaced the controversial slanted ones used from ’58 to ’60. The headlamp-level front bumper was unusually high but didn’t seem out of place. Overall, the ’61’s elegant lines were somewhat reminiscent of the lovely but slow-selling ’56 – ’57 Mark II.

Surprisingly, Lincoln still used rear-hinged type rear doors, dubbed “suicide doors” because the wind would catch them if inadvertantly opened at speed. The convertible top folded into the trunk using a modified version of the 1957 to ’59 Ford Skyliner retractable hardtop convertible mechanism, which ironically had originally been intended for Lincoln. Although giving a smoother line it severely compromised luggage capacity, and the rear-hinged decklid made the trunk access awkward. The wraparound windshield had thankfully been laid to rest.

The 7.0 litre (430 cu. in.) overhead valve V8 and three-speed automatic transmission (no manual was available) were largely carryovers. All Lincoln engines were dynamometer tested before installation, and all cars were given a 19-km (12-mile) road test.

Although the ’61 Continental held no breathtaking engineering breakthroughs, Car Life magazine awarded it its 1961 Engineering Excellence Award. The editors were impressed with the combination of tasteful styling, exhaustive testing, and attention to assembly detail lavished on it by the factory. The Continental’s styling was also awarded a prestigious bronze medallion by the American Industrial Design Institute.

The Continental’s performance could be termed adequate. Car Life (3/61) recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 11.2 seconds for the 2,368 kg (5,220 lb) sedan, and estimated the top speed at 188 km/h (117 mph). More important than the raw numbers, however, was the testers’ impression of the Continental as a smooth, quiet, comfortable 129 km/h (80 mph) highway cruiser. Fuel economy was 12/14 mpg (U.S.).

For 1962 the Continental’s front bumper was lowered, but management knew it was onto a good thing, so there were no significant changes. The 1963 was also little changed in appearance, but under the hood a four-barrel carburetor raised horsepower to 320, and an alternator replaced the generator.

The 1964 Continental would begin the seemingly inevitable growth; both the wheelbase and overall length were increased 76 mm (3.0 in.) for easier rear seat entry and a slightly larger trunk. Otherwise, it was not changed substantially. There was a freshened grille and standard front disc brakes for 1965. Much more significant changes would come for 1966.

The 1961 to ’65 Lincoln Continentals were trend setting designs that strongly influenced American car styling for many years. They made a bold styling statement, while at the same time maintained an uncluttered appearance that returned Lincoln to styling leadership.

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