Octane
By Nick Caruso
on 11.11.13

A great deal changed at the dawn of the 20th century’s seventh decade. Indeed, the Sixties were flush with revolutions: in music, sexuality, drugs, fashion, wider-sweeping social reform and more. And then there was the look. Psychedelic patterns and deep-pile shag carpet ran rampant through the era, but it was the Don Draper-esque looks of the Sixties that stuck and still strongly reverberate today. Skinny ties, streamlined furniture, chrome, elegance: these are the essences that seems to ooze forth from the paint of Lincoln’s 1961 Continental sedan and convertible. At the time, Lincoln was coming off the booming ’50s, high on both the spirit of Americana and of bulbous, massive vehicle design. The Continental needed to go on a diet, and in ’61, the result was the automotive revolution we needed.

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What It’s All About

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Originally a singular, custom-built cruiser commissioned by Mr. Edsel Ford himself to use on a vacation in sunny Florida, the Lincoln Continental was born into obscurity. Yet it quickly exploded to popularity as a competitor to Cadillac’s chauffeur-class, well-heeled cars. That very first Continental was built from the modified body of the Lincoln Zephyr, and featured what would be the Continental’s trademark for most of its life: a trunk-mounted spare tire. Early models were V12 powered and exclusive, but second-generation Continentals were limited in number and so top-tier in build quality that they sold for $10,000, which in the mid-Fifties was four times what a “regular” car would cost. This put the Continental square in Rolls-Royce territory and meant that only the very privileged (like Frank Sinatra and Nelson Rockefeller) could snatch them up. Third-gens were even more massive, as cars typically were at the time: the Continental grew to nearly 20 feet in length, setting size records within the Lincoln division that still stand to this day.

But then the Sixties ushered in a drastic shift in most aspects of American life, and Lincoln responded handily. Designer Elwood Engel, who could easily be famous for his name alone, is credited with redesigning the Continental for the ’61 model year, though the vehicle he created was originally meant to be the new ’61 Ford Thunderbird. In order to resurrect its then-weak business, Lincoln snatched his Thunderbird design, then stretched and reconfigured it to do duty instead as the sole car in Lincoln’s lineup. The resulting vehicle was a resounding success and has continued to be one of the more visually memorable cars to grace the American landscape, and American cinema, alike. Notably, along with its significant place in car design history — with its rear-hinged doors, still imitated grille and symmetrical “slab sides” (or “blade sides”) that continued mostly unchanged for eight years — the Continental convertible gained unfortunate fame as the car President John F. Kennedy was riding in when he was shot and killed in 1963.

In fact, the new Continental’s shrunken size was such a departure from its forebear that some ads showed a sedan being parallel parked by — gasp — a woman.

Technical Rundown

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The ’61 was 15 inches shorter than the previous generation model, though its weight went almost unchanged due to the solidity of its manufacturing. The new Continental’s shrunken size was such a departure from its forebear that some ads showed a sedan being parallel parked by — gasp — a woman. (Suffice it to say not all the decade’s revolutions made quick progress.) In fact, size played a big role in the ’61 Continental’s going down in history: due to the length of its new wheelbase, engineers chose to use rear-hinged suicide doors to allow rear seat passengers easy access to their resplendent domain. The unique portals were a callback to coachbuilt cars of yore and allowed for the unibody construction to boast burly B-pillars, meaning the new Continental was 67% stiffer than its predecessor.

Lincoln was so intent on producing a high-quality machine that every 430-cubic-inch V8 — making 300 horsepower and 465 lb-ft of torque — was tested on a dyno for three hours before being disassembled, scrutinized and rebuilt; the three-speed automatic transmission was worked torturously for half an hour before going into the chassis, and each vehicle underwent a 12-mile road test before sale. Engineers made sure that each vehicle that rolled off the line would keep rolling as only a luxo-barge of this era was meant to do, and maintain its composure at speed (up to around 120 mph, reaching 60 from a standstill in about 10 seconds) as well as during parking lot maneuvers. Available with only four doors as a sedan or convertible, the new Continental also broke ground, customer-service-wise, by offering a 24,000, 2-year warranty as standard — a first for any American-made car.

Over the eight years of this design’s life, little was changed, and most of what was altered was subtle at best. A few inches were eventually added to the wheelbase to afford rear-seat passengers more room, the grille and dash were slightly modified, and the fuel door moved. A two-door convertible model was offered starting in 1966, and over the years the car received larger V8s, eventually making way for a 462-cubic-inch motor, along with some safety features like lap and then shoulder belts on the bench seats throughout the cabin.

Why It Matters

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Style, panache, cachet; Don Draper, thin lapels, drinking at the office; revolutions, change, a strong and prospering country. The Sixties represented a great many things, and gave us a great many iconic vehicles to boot — the E-Type, the 911, muscle cars for days — but nothing quite captures the soul of that Sixties look like the ’61 Continental. It’s immortalized for its simplicity, masculinity, elegance, and those suicide doors. The ’61 Continental remains a favorite of collectors because it didn’t (and still doesn’t) fade into the background, and even overshadows its pricey and lavish predecessors in many intangible ways. Especially today, as Lincoln faces another valley in its seemingly ever-endangered existence, the Continental shines bright as the brand’s most enduring model line to date.

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