1939 Lincoln Zephyr convertible
1939 Lincoln Zephyr convertible
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Lincoln’s roots go back to New Englander Henry Leland, a fiercely meticulous machinist who gained his skills working for the Colt firearms company, and precision machine tool maker Brown and Sharpe. He moved to Detroit in the 1880s and established a machine and toolmaking shop called Leland and Faulconer. They were soon supplying engines to Oldsmobile and Cadillac.

The Cadillac Automobile Co. couldn’t keep up with the demand for its cars, although Leland and Faulconer supplied enough engines. Cadillac and Leland and Faulconer merged in 1904, and Henry Leland became Cadillac’s general manager.

Cadillac was acquired by General Motors founder Billy Durant in 1909, and in 1917 when Durant wouldn’t allow Cadillac to build World War I V-12 Liberty airplane engines, Leland and his son Wilfred departed. They set up the Lincoln Motor Co. (named for Abraham Lincoln), and built 6,500 Liberty engines.

When the war ended the Lelands entered the automobile business. Unfortunately, the Lincoln’s styling was not up to contemporary standards, and high start-up costs and poor sales led to receivership by 1922.

Henry Ford’s son Edsel recognizing that Ford needed to diversify, urged his father to buy Lincoln to gain a toe-hold in the up-scale market. Henry agreed, and the Lelands were to stay on to manage the company. The two Henrys clashed, and the Lelands left after only four months. Edsel took over the presidency of Lincoln.

Edsel kept the Lincoln’s high technical quality, and had stylish bodies supplied by such coachbuilders as LeBaren, Briggs, and Locke. He increased engine power, making Lincolns so fast that they were the gangsters’ favourite. Police forces had to buy Lincolns to keep up.

In 1931 a major revision came with the introduction of the model K Lincoln, followed by the mighty 1932 V-12 model KB. Its engine displaced 7.3 litres and developed 150 horsepower, good for nearly 161 km/h (100 mph).

Unfortunately, the Depression was a desperate time to be selling huge V-12 cars. By the mid 1930s Ford realized that it had to offer a more affordable Lincoln; the Lincoln Zephyr was the result.

Styling for the new Lincoln was done by John Tjaarda of Ford body supplier, Briggs coachbuilding company, and Eugene Gregory, Ford’s chief stylist. They produced a beautiful “teardrop” design, slightly reminiscent of the Volkswagen Beetle from the windshield back. It potentially had much more in common with the Beetle because a rear engine was under consideration during early development.

The Zephyr was very tastefully styled, with its long, horizontal hood, headlamps integrated into the front fenders, and delicate grille with fine horizontal bars. The roofline tapered gently back and down to the rear bumper, and length was accentuated by fitting fender skirts at the rear.

The Zephyr, along with the Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow, was the first really streamlined American car. It set the tone for Ford styling for more than a decade, and even inspired other cars, including the post-Second World War English Jowett Javelin.

In addition to its smooth styling, the Zephyr had unit construction, which was stiffer than body-on-frame designs, and kept the weight of the sedan down to a commendable 1,520 kg (3,350 lb). It was also the first Ford product to have an all-steel roof. Suspension, however, was still by Ford’s antiquated transverse “buggy springs” with a solid front axle. It also retained mechanical brakes.

The Zephyr had a side-valve 4.4 litre V-12 which used components from Ford’s V-8. Its bank angle was 75 degrees rather than the V-8’s 90, and it developed 110 horsepower. Although smooth and quiet, the Zephyr engine was not noted for durability, in spite of the availability of an optional Columbia two-speed rear axle.

The 1936 Zephyr was introduced in November 1935, and in spite of its questionable engine, sold some 15,000 in its first model year, which accounted for 80 percent of all Lincoln sales. It came as a coupe and sedan for 1936; in 1937 a convertible was added.

Performance was surprisingly good for that era. The British magazine, The Motor, recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 14 seconds, and a top speed of 145 km/h (90 mph).

In 1938 the Zephyr received a new front end, which included a lower, two-piece, vertical-bar grille. The wheelbase was stretched 76 mm (3 in.) to 3,175 mm (125 in.). It finally got hydraulic brakes for 1939. The Zephyr was continued until 1942 when the Zephyr name was dropped, although early post-Second World War Lincolns were still Zephyrs except in name.

The Zephyr was an important car for Lincoln, helping it get through the Depression without seriously eroding the Lincoln prestige, something that, unfortunately, the low priced Packard 120 inflicted on the grand old Packard name. The Zephyr also formed the basis for its much more famous corporate sibling, the 1940-48 Lincoln Continental.

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