Visitors to Henry Ford Museum will see a new vehicle in Driving America. Edsel Ford’s 1941 Lincoln Continental convertible is now in the exhibit’s “Design” section, located just behind Lamy’s Diner. The original Lincoln Continental, built between 1939 and 1948, is regarded as one of the most beautiful automobiles ever to come out of Detroit. It’s an important design story that we’re delighted to share.
The Continental’s tale began in the fall of 1938 as Edsel Ford returned from a trip to Europe. While overseas, Ford was struck by the look of European sports cars with their long hoods, short trunks and rear-mounted spare tires. When Ford got home, he approached Lincoln designer E.T. “Bob” Gregorie and asked him to create a custom car with a “continental” look. Using the Lincoln Zephyr as his base, Gregorie produced an automobile with clean, pure lines free of superfluous chrome ornaments or then-standard running boards.
The finished Continental prototype was shipped to Florida to a vacationing Edsel Ford in March 1939. Ford turned heads wherever he drove and, according to Lincoln lore, received no fewer than 200 requests to purchase his chic new automobile. Convinced there was a market for it, Ford called back to Dearborn and instructed Gregorie and company to put the Continental into production.
The production Lincoln Continental debuted in October 1939. While sales were never particularly high – this was an expensive prestige automobile, after all – the Continental’s impact was enormous. Critics were quick to praise it, and Hollywood celebrities like Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth and Mickey Rooney were quick to drive it. Lincoln suddenly had a “halo car” that cast a glow of style and sophistication on its entire product line. After a hiatus during World War II, the Continental returned for 1946, then disappeared after the 1948 model year. But it was too great a name to vanish permanently. Edsel’s youngest son, William Clay Ford, revived the Continental in 1956, and seven further generations came and went through 2002.
The 1941 model now on display in Driving America is particularly special. It was Edsel Ford's personal car, which he drove until his death in 1943. The Lincoln Continental proved to be a capstone in Edsel Ford’s career. His father Henry dominated in all matters related to Ford Motor Company, but Lincoln Motor Company – purchased by Ford Motor in 1922 – gave Edsel an outlet for his natural design talents. He quickly remade Lincoln’s stilted Model L into an elegant automobile, a change readily seen by comparing the museum’s 1923 example with its 1929 model. Edsel also took the lead in styling Ford Motor Company’s 1929 Model A, rightfully described as a “Baby Lincoln.” But it is the Continental that stands above all others as the ultimate testament to Edsel Ford’s abilities. It’s a wonderful legacy.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford