Continental Mark II: the height of personal luxury

I wrote this piece as my second piece for Motorpool.com. While editor Morgan Murphy did accept it, it was never published on the site, unfortunately.

Continental is a name that brings to mind luxury, comfort and, above all else, style. When Edsel Ford commissioned the original Lincoln Continental, those were the exact ideas he wanted the car to embody.

The Continental incorporated those ideas so well that it became an instant classic, and when it went out of production in 1948, Ford management, and dealers, wanted a successor. Unfortunately, Ford was skirting the edge of insolvency and management had to shelve plans for a new Continental.

Throughout the early ‘50s designers tossed around various ideas of what a new Continental would look like. The earliest ideas reflected the “bathtub” look of Nashes, Packards and Lincoln. Ford management rejected those ideas because they felt it was too awkward a look for a Continental. Designers then moved onto the futuristic, jet inspired styling that would come to define the ‘50s. The car became the Ford X-100 concept car, which would influence Ford styling for the rest of the decade.

Management ultimately decided, around 1952, that a Continental should be separate from the rest of the market. It should have an understated, classic style. 

Ford was making money again. They could afford to create a car that would outshine Cadillac, Imperial and even Rolls Royce in terms of quality and luxury. It would be the entire company’s halo product.

That is why the Continental Mark II was not a Lincoln. It was part of the Continental division, created in 1955 as part of Ford’s aim to go up against General Motors with a full five car divisions, as the Edsel was under development during this time as well.

What the Continental stylists created was another instant classic. The Mark II has the hallmark long hood/short deck proportions that immediately look elegant. The chrome egg crate grill manages to keep with the Mark II’s mission of understatement, as its slots are small and almost sieve-like.

Chrome use is almost minimalistic, used only where it causes the greatest effect, rather than set along every bodyline and crease. The character line running the length of the car, and the upswept rear fenders are unadorned, which was very rare in the late ‘50s.

The greenhouse is almost delicate with its thin, chromed A-pillars that give excellent visibility, while the C-pillars seem to hold up the entire roof of the car. It all creates an intimate and inviting feeling; just what the designers were going for. 

At the rear is the defining element of any Continental: the tire hump.

Unlike the later Continentals, this hump is actually functional. The spare tire sits upright in the trunk at the very edge, in a cloth cover. While it is not the best place to mount a spare, it gives the hump an actual purpose.

But there is more to the Continental then just looks. Its production was just as detailed.

Painting and finishing the body took 60 hours and hand finished at different points during the process. The chrome used was a higher quality than SAE requirements. Some components used aircraft grade nuts and bolts. For quality and reliability, interior parts were chromed even though the owner would never see them.

What the owner did see, though, was the interior. With seat options such as cloth, vinyl or Scottish leather, the driver would always have a comfortable, luxurious interior. All the climate controls were aircraft style sliding levers made from metal, which enhanced the Mark II’s perceived quality. 

The Mark II was comfortable and quite at speed. It used Lincoln’s proven 368cid V-8 that produced 285 hp in 1956, with a bump to 300hp in 1957.

When shipped, a fleece-lined cover and then a plastic bag were wrapped around the Mark II to protect the paint. Once at the dealership, the staff simply had to remove the wrapping and put the hubcaps on. The Mark II was then ready to drive.  

The cost for all this luxury and quality came in at just under $10,000, which was an astronomical sum for 1956. Even at that price, Ford lost $1,000 on each Mark II built, which is roughly half the price of a 1956 Ford Fairlane club sedan.

Price ultimately killed the Mark II. Between 1956 and 1957 only 1,979 Mark IIs found buyers according to serial numbers. However, other sources state that production actually totaled a lower 1,769.

With such a high price, the market for such an expensive car was already small. In addition, the Mark II was out of step with the trends of the mid ‘50s. It was not flashy and it did not have any sort of fancy gimmicks. So it was running contrary to what many customers in that price range expected

In spite of that, the Continental Mark II followed its predecessor in being an instant classic and a style icon. It laid out the basic formula for all the Continental Marks that followed and demonstrated what Ford Motor Company could do when it firmly set its sights on a single goal.

Ford wanted to build the finest car in America. By all rights, it succeeded.

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