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Ford’s Lost and Nearly Forgotten Continental Division – 1953-56

Designers Examine Scale Model of Mark II

The 1956-57 Continental Mark II Is Not a Lincoln

Continental Division MemoEveryone remembers Ford’s recently departed Mercury division, and most are familiar with the spectacular failure that was Edsel, but few today know about Continental. The original Lincoln Continental of 1939, which provided the division with its name, was custom made for the president of Ford Motor Company, and eventually put into production from 1940-48 as a halo car. In 1953, when Ford was again looking to move upmarket, the Special Product Division used that original Continental as the inspiration, and in 1954 they were officially the Continental Division.

 

 

Continental Division BuildingIn 1953, 28-year-old William Clay Ford was tasked with building a halo car for Ford Motor Company as a stand-alone division. They were to evoke the grandeur of the original Lincoln Continental but updated for the Jet Age; the Continental Mark II. The Special Product Division was born at the defunct Ford Trade School building. They turned the gymnasium into a clay studio and classrooms into drafting rooms. In the beginning, just four employees, plus William Clay Ford, started the design process, but that grew to nearly 300 before they moved to their new plant, which is still visible off I-94 in Allen Park, MI.

Their first design attempt was reportedly dismal, and Henry Ford II roundly rejected it. Rumor has it he remarked, “I wouldn’t give you $5.00 for that pile…” or something to that effect.

 

 

Mark II design competitionIt was back to the drawing board, literally. Four other, independent, design teams were invited to compete for the design of the, as yet, unnamed car and division (unofficially it was called “Continental Mark II” by William Clay Ford’s team; officially it was called the X-1500). All of the teams designed around the same physical parameters and aesthetic design cues. All five teams were instructed to present design images in identical sizes and ink colors for a true blind competition. The identical views were all presented in the same manner so no one viewing would know which team did what work.

 

 

Mark II design competition 2The winning new design from the in-house team was everything lacking in the first attempt; no shenanigans, their’s was the best design. In June of 1954, the Special Product Division was officially changed to the Continental Division. The same directive spoke of obtaining needed materials and parts from other divisions, including the 368 cubic inch, 285hp V8 engine, and air-cooled Turbo-Drive automatic transmission from Lincoln. While there’s room for a V-12 under the hood, like the original Continental, a bespoke engine development program would have been too much of an investment for the 2,500 cars a year goal.

In fact, Continental was more of an assembler than a manufacturer, as there was no welding or stamping done at the factory. They’d finish and paint the Mark II bodies on site, and wrap carpet and leather around parts made elsewhere. The “assembly line” was only 100 feet long, and each car was largely hand finished.

Production of the Continental Mark II started in May of 1955 as early release 1956 model years. The new plant slowly churned out about 300 “Introductory Units” displayed in Lincoln showrooms but as a separate brand. These cars were provided on consignment and couldn’t be sold until dealers had ordered cars to fill the pipeline; Ford didn’t expect a Lincoln dealer to pay for a car they couldn’t sell. Having the dramatic new Continental Mark II was great for Lincoln sales, drawing many people in to see something new.

Proposed 1958 Continental Mark IIIThe Continental Mark II listed for $9,966, with the only option being air conditioning, and at that price they reportedly lost $1,000 on each car. At that time a new home in Detroit’s suburbs was $10,000, and a Ford sedan could be had for $2,000, so the market was limited. They sold 2,550 cars in the extended 1956 model year but fell short in 1957 with only sales of 444 units. An even more advanced model, with a retractable hardtop developed at the cost of $2.14 million, was canceled. The prototype retractable, made by Hess & Eisenhardt, disappeared and was rumored to be walled-up in a garage in Dearborn.

 

There was a recession looming, and Ford was about to go public, so Continental was deemed a blemish on Ford’s ledger sheet. However, had the cost of the retractable hardtop development been shared with Ford, where it was adopted and used on the 1957-59 Ford Skyliner, the 3,000 cars the Continental Division sold would have been a wash or a very inexpensive halo car.

 

Edsel memoHere’s where the real confusing history of the Continental Division set in. When the Continental program was canceled, so was the division. The Lincoln Division had been planning their own advanced unit body car, which was not well-received by higher-ups but still got the go-ahead, leading to a $60 million loss. Many people think that the Continental Division lived on to build the badge-engineered 1958 and subsequent Lincoln Continental models, but Continental died in November of 1956.  Another loser, the Edsel Division, soon occupied their offices. William Clay Ford went on to Ford Styling, and everyone else at Continental went on to other departments within the company.

Marketing has only added to the confusion as most people have become accustomed to seeing the Continental Star as the symbol for Lincoln. However, they took that along with the name and prestige created by the Mark II halo cars of 1956. Ford set out to create a car rivaling Rolls Royce and the world’s best cars, and some would say they achieved it, but as is often the case, the accountants had the final say.

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