Edsel Ford and his influence on Lincoln
February 4th, 2022 marked the 100th anniversary of the purchase of The Lincoln Motor Company by Ford Motor Company.
Portions of this article were previously published in the 2022 program for the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.
February 4th, 2022 marked the 100th anniversary of the purchase of The Lincoln Motor Company by Ford Motor Company. The real result of that purchase is that for more than 100 years Lincoln products have reflected the design sense of a true automotive industry visionary, Edsel Ford. The DNA of the brand and its vehicles from the earliest days have been based on Edsel Ford’s sense of grace, beauty, art, spirit and design. We will get to the vehicles that show Edsel’s and Lincoln’s contributions to automotive history in a bit, but let’s set up the story first.
Henry Leland founded Lincoln in 1917, after he left GM and the Cadillac Division, in a patriotic move to build airplane engines during World War I. Leland named the company after Abraham Lincoln, who he claimed was the first President he ever voted for. The firm built Liberty V12 engines during the war under a $10 million governmental bond. After the war, relying on his previous experience, Leland shifted the production to automobiles, with the company finally producing the Model L in 1920. Unfortunately for Leland, Lincoln was plagued with production and design issues. Customers who placed orders for the Model L waited up to a year to receive their cars, and while Leland’s reputation for fine engineering was well deserved, the Model L styling was drab and lacked appeal to car buyers in the post war environment. Given these factors, The Lincoln Motor Company suffered financially and by 1922 had entered into receivership with nearly $8 million still owed to major creditors.
At the request of Edsel and his wife Eleanor, and his own wife Clara, Henry Ford was convinced to place an offer for Lincoln. The ultimate sale price was set at $8 million which was used to pay off the principal creditors of The Lincoln Motor Company. The sale date was set as February 4th. Edsel Ford was named President of the company shortly thereafter.
In one of his first moves, Edsel Ford showed his true character in authorizing additional money after the purchase saying, “in addition we voluntarily paid all of the general creditors. This additional amount, aggregating more than $4 million, was paid purely out of generosity and without any obligation whatsoever to do so. In addition to this, a gift of $363,000 in cash was made to Mr. Henry M Leland on his seventy-ninth birthday, which was the equivalent of his investment in the old company.” That was quite a birthday gift, adjusted for inflation it would be comparable to over $6 million today.
Edsel Ford’s impact on the vehicles that Lincoln began to produce was nearly as profound as his business decisions. The oft used quote from Edsel that “Father made the most popular car in the world. I want to make the best car in the world” became the operating vision of The Lincoln Motor Company and was quickly noticeable in the vehicles and the company advertising.
Contrary to the concerns of Henry Leland at the time of the sale, Edsel not only embraced the engineering quality of the cars, he worked to improve them. He also understood that “a Lincoln not only has to function perfectly, it also has to look perfect.” With that goal in mind, (as is covered so eloquently in the 1996 Concours program) Edsel began to utilize the services of the greatest coachbuilders of the day. Names that ring down in automotive history like Brunn, Judkins, Fleetwood, Holbrook and LeBaron began to build the custom bodies coveted by Lincoln customers, raising the prestige of the brand. Edsel also changed the way Lincoln operated by ordering some of the body styles in batches of 50 and 100 units, which offered luxury at a relatively affordable price. The sales at Lincoln reflected the sweeping changes that Edsel Ford was making as 5,512 Lincolns were sold in the year after the purchase, effectively doubling what the Lelands had been able to sell the previous 17 months.
The Model K was introduced in 1931 to replace the Model L, which debuted under Leland's ownership of Lincoln. For 1932 the Model K was split into the Model KA and KB series. The KB was the longer wheelbase at 145" and sported a 447 cu. in. V-12 engine. The KB series badge sported a blue background, while the KA had a red background. There were nearly two dozen standard and customized body styles available. On May 30, 1932 Edsel Ford drove a Lincoln KB Murphy bodied roadster as the pace car at the Indianapolis 500. The Model KA and KB were only used through 1934 MY. In 1935 they reverted back to Model K and were designated by wheelbase. Some of the custom body designers were Derham Body Co., Willoughby, Brunn, Dietrich, Murphy, LeBaron and Judkins. Eventually, the Model K was discontinued after the 1939 Model Year as prices and tastes changed. The final few Model K’s were sold at 1940 MY.
In 1932, Edsel met Bob Gregorie, who had been designing yachts until the depression drove him to find work in the Detroit auto industry. Edsel, Gregorie, and John Crawford, Edsel’s executive assistant and shopmaster, formed a three-person design team for the Ford Motor Company and Lincoln. Two of the first projects they turned their attention to were the 1936 and 1938 Zephyr, both considered design classics for different reasons. The Briggs Body Company had been a featured coachbuilder for both Ford Motor Company and the Model L luxury Lincolns, but with the beginning of the depression and declining sales of ultra-luxury automobiles, they began to look for an alternate vehicle. Briggs designer John Tjaarda had done some preliminary studies of streamlined prototypes which were shown to Edsel Ford who immediately saw the potential in the vehicle.
The 1936 Zephyr was based on that aerodynamic shape (that Tjaarda had shown at the 1934 World’s Fair) but was converted to a front engine vehicle with a special version of the Ford flathead V-8, which had been converted to a V-12. While the 1936 Zephyr was not the first aerodynamic automobile produced, it was the first to achieve broad public acceptance. The aerodynamic design of the car was captured in its teardrop shaped logo and headlights that evoked the spirit of the “west wind.”
With the 1938 Zephyr, Bob Gregorie and Edsel Ford achieved one of the most successful makeovers of an existing automobile line. The original Zephyr sold well, but Gregorie and Edsel felt that it could still be improved. Gregorie changed the position of the radiator, necessitating a new lower front grille, which he designed with a horizontal pattern that was soon copied by the automobile industry. One pundit stated that while the Zephyr had been considered a successful streamlined car, beginning with the 1938 model it was beautiful as well.
In October of 1939, the Lincoln Zephyr Continental was introduced, and in many ways achieved Edsel’s vision of the perfect luxury automobile. The Continental was an immediate design icon and was displayed by the Museum of Modern Art in 1951 as one of eight cars epitomizing design excellence. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright considered it “the most beautiful car in the world” and bought two.
The inspiration for the Continental began with a trip by Edsel and Eleanor Ford to Europe in 1938. Edsel was impressed by the design and elegance of European automobiles. When he returned from the trip, he challenged Gregorie to work with him to create a new and stylish Lincoln.
The team began with the existing Lincoln Zephyr chassis. Gregorie designed a special convertible coupe, or cabriolet, by October 1938 with a 10th scale clay model produced shortly thereafter. The car became a passion point for Edsel Ford as he stopped by the design studio daily to monitor progress and offer suggestions. Gregorie later said of Edsel Ford “He had the vision. I did the work of translating his vision into workable designs.” In one instance, Gregorie wanted to hide the spare tire in the trunk, but Edsel insisted on keeping it mounted to the rear of the car to reinforce the image of a low speedy automobile. Special panels were added to lengthen the hood by 12 inches, while four inches were removed from the body to lower the car. The low, sleek Continental design was born.
By the beginning of 1939, as work on the prototype Lincoln-Zephyr Continental neared completion, Edsel liked it enough to order two more for his sons, Henry II and Benson. These vehicles were only eight inches longer and three inches lower than the original Zephyr, which became closer to the future Continental standard. With that order placed, Edsel headed to his winter home in Hobe Sound, Florida with instructions that the prototype be delivered to him there. According to legend, the car turned heads among his friends in Florida and Edsel returned to Dearborn with orders for 200 more! Sensing the demand, Edsel, Crawford, and Gregorie worked on a plan to produce the cars at a greater rate.
On October 2, an assembly line was set up to begin manufacture of the Lincoln-Zephyr Continental. By the end of 1939, 25 had been produced and were designated 1940 models. In all, 404 Continentals were produced the first model year, 350 cabriolets and 54 coupes. Each car was essentially hand built using Lincoln Zephyr branded trim pieces, with the upholstery a combination of leather and whipcord. The cars featured a Model H V-12 engine and prices began at $2,640 for either the cabriolet or the coupe.
With the 1941 Model year, Zephyr was dropped from the name plate and the car was known simply as the Lincoln Continental. Upgrades and modifications remained constant, as the goal was always to produce the finest automobile possible. Demand remained high and there were always standing orders for all of the cars produced. With the beginning of WWII and the conversion to wartime production, the manufacture of the Continental was discontinued in 1942.
After the war, the Continental was built from 1946 to 1948, but changing tastes and production techniques made it difficult to maintain sufficient manufacturing quantities. There was no longer room in the market for a small production, highly personalized luxury automobile. In order for The Lincoln Motor Company to continue the Continental line, a total redesign would have been required, and Edsel Ford passed away in 1943, leaving a void in vision and design for a new model.
This first generation, later designated Mark I, of the Lincoln Continental offered driving excellence and design elegance for a generation of auto enthusiasts. Ultimately, 5,324 Continentals were produced, 3,047 coupes and 2,277 cabriolets, all manufactured individually and hand constructed. The vision of Edsel Ford and the design expertise of Bob Gregorie led to one of Detroit’s classic cars.
Production of the first generation of Lincoln Continentals ended in 1948, but in 1951, with the same appetite and vision as his father, William Clay Ford, Sr. accepted the project to develop an all-new generation of Continental. He joined Ford Motor Company in 1949, after graduating with an Engineering degree from Yale University, and was in a training program designed to familiarize him with all aspects of the Company. Just as with his father, automobile design and product planning were his primary areas of interest.
Ernie Breech, Ford’s executive vice president, told William Clay Ford, Sr. that he constantly received letters asking when a new Continental was going to be produced. These letters came from persons in all walks of life. Fairly typical was one from Author John Steinbeck, who wrote:
"Many years after my Model T period, I had a Continental convertible - surely the most beautiful car ever made in America. I would want to beg to be high on the list for one of the first (new) Continentals. There will undoubtedly be a great scramble for them… I had many cars in my life, but none that so satisfied my soul as the Continental. She was a real lady.”
Breech asked the young Ford if he was interested in bringing back the car, and William Clay Ford, Sr. jumped at the chance. The vision for the program was to develop a top-of-the-line luxury Continental that would add prestige to the entire Ford Motor Company lineup. While that was the program goal, a secondary motivation for Ford was to design a vehicle that would honor his father.
In the summer of 1952, the Special Products Division was formed to design and build the new Continental, with a proposed introduction date of fall, 1955. The team set up shop at the old Henry Ford Trade School, just a few miles from the Rouge and near the location that would later become Ford World Headquarters. The team took an unusual approach when they tried to imagine how the Continental would have changed in the years after production ceased in 1948, creating several clay models of what could have been. In a 1955 speech, John Reinhart, the chief stylist of the Continental Division noted, “our task might have been simpler if we had been trying to develop an entirely new car; but we weren't. What we had to do was design a car with the basic features of the Lincoln Continental, yet one which would surpass the earlier model as a style-leader and not be just a carbon copy of it."
William Clay Ford, Sr. surprised many with his long hours and dedication to the project. According to accounts, designers would often arrive to find that he had stayed late into the night making changes to the clay models, adding notes on what his intent for the changes was. He identified his broad styling concept for the car as “Modern Formal” and further defined it as "a functional, enduring design emphasizing an air of distinction and elegant simplicity.” He was looking for a degree of sophistication not usually seen in the automobile industry.
In another unusual move, William Clay Ford, Sr. invited several outside designers to submit proposals for the Continental for a flat fee of $ 10,000. Ford’s Special Products designers prepared drawings of three different cars to compete with the entries from George Walker and Associates, Buzz Grisinger and Rhys Miller, W.B Ford (a brother-in-law) and Vince Gardner. To make the review process equal, all entries had to conform to a provided grid, laid out like a transparent checkerboard, be printed on the same size paper, and painted the same color - Prussian Blue.
The design review was scheduled for May 5, 1953, and much to the delight of the Special Products team, the drawing selected to move forward had been prepared by William Clay Ford, Sr.’s team and was designed by Fred Beamish. The long, low, rakish look that became the Mark II was evident from the drawings. The only thing missing was the iconic Continental spare tire hump on the back of the trunk, which was added shortly thereafter.
By September 1953, a full-size clay rendering of the car was approved by the design committee, but much hard work, and thousands of decisions, had to be made before a running prototype was delivered the day before Christmas 1954. The team celebrated by taking the car out for a ride, but William Clay Ford, Sr. had another goal in mind. On Christmas day, he drove the prototype to his mother’s house, in Grosse Pointe Shores, to surprise her with a drive in the car that he had developed as an homage to his father, and her late husband, Edsel Ford.
The journey from prototype to production was still long and arduous, but the focus of the team was for each car to be handcrafted with unsurpassed attention to detail and to quality. It would have to withstand a thorough test to prove its performance in desert heat, and under winter conditions that were more severe than any place on earth. It ran for weeks on durability runs without ever stopping except for gas and oil -- and, in a blackout disguise, it travelled from coast-to-coast before final approval was given.
Each car was essentially hand built with a level of precision, attention to detail, and quality control that was unprecedented at the time. A document from 1955 gives an overview into the assembly process.
Each individual engine is checked out on the dynamometer. Every body is first assembled and checked - then taken apart, numbered, and the sections painted as a set -- assigned to one particular car. A painstaking painting process -- with two double coats of paint. Each double coat is sanded and baked before the next is applied. Wheel covers are hand assembled rather than welded, producing a superior chrome finish. Higher standards in plating techniques were set to provide a chrome trim that would last unblemished for years. Hand fitted leather goes into interiors of every car. Not just the prototypes -- but every Continental made goes out for a severe road test -- and the results of' the test will be checked, down to the performance of every bolt.
With the quality that the unique assembly process ensured, and the expanded testing program, the Mark II was built to stand apart, even in the luxury car market.
The Continental Mark II was introduced at the Paris Auto Show in October 1955, and from the outset was positioned and marketed as the finest US automobile in the world. It was also priced accordingly with an MSRP approaching $10,000 in the United States, and £4,535 in England. The car also attracted a who’s who of buyers among celebrities and business professionals. During the three years of its production, only 3,000 Mark IIs were assembled. The exclusive clientele and striking images of the car made it the image builder for Ford that the return of the Continental hoped to achieve.
From a design perspective, William Clay Ford, Sr. and his team delivered what was called by the media of the day an “instant classic.” The long low body, sleek appearance, and recognizable spare tire hump on the trunk struck a chord with the car buying public. The car only had one fault, it was only offered as a two-door and the world was looking for four door options in most cases. William Clay Ford actually began planning a four-door option that would have multiple interchangeable parts with the two-door and would utilize coach doors! Looking back on the creation of this modern classic, I think Edsel Ford would be proud of the homage his youngest son made with the timeless Mark II - it is essentially a story of love and design.
Surprisingly, the 1958 to 1960 Lincolns did not sell well and there were discussions within Ford Motor Company about discontinuing the Lincoln and Continental names. What happened next was the inadvertent classic. Elwood P. Engle had joined Ford Motor Company in 1955 and had been assigned to Special Products. One of his first projects was to do a proposal for the 1961 Thunderbird. The drawing and subsequent clay drew heavily from the design characteristics of the Mark II with its clean styling and lack of ornamentation. When completed, his design was considered too beautiful for a Thunderbird, but Robert McNamara fell in love with the design as a Lincoln Continental - if it could be done as a four-door.
The only way to produce the car as a four-door, while not extending the length beyond what has been shown in the clay form, was to use rear hinging on the door, creating the iconic coach door entrance to the vehicle. The Product Development meeting notes from the January 5, 1959, where the ultimate decision on the doors was made, showed that if the safety concerns could be addressed that Henry Ford II was the prime advocate for the coach doors, saying they gave the vehicle a unique design that would set it apart in the market. When the car went into production it not only saved the Lincoln and Continental names but became the design standard for the future generations of the Continental.
The design DNA of Edsel Ford courses though the veins of the Lincoln and its pinnacle, the Continental. Edsel’s vision is apparent in the early design classics like the Zephyr and the original Continental, and are then carried forward with the Mark II created by William Clay Ford, Sr. as homage to his father. The Mark II later served as the inspiration for the 1961 Continental, which became the foundation for future generations of Continentals. From the time he became president of Lincoln Motor Company in 1922 and even after his death, Lincoln owed its design elegance to Edsel Ford’s sense of grace, beauty, art, spirit and design, and in the process, created some of the most beautifully designed automobiles in the world.