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William Clay Ford and the Continental Mark II

March 12, 2014

William Clay Ford, who passed away on March 9, 2014, is remembered for his generous philanthropy, his dedication to the city of Detroit, and his long-time ownership of the Detroit Lions. They are important legacies that will continue to benefit and inspire for years to come. Automotive industry leaders, historians and enthusiasts point to another of Mr. Ford’s lasting contributions: the 1956 Continental Mark II.

While his brothers Henry II and Benson – especially Henry II – made their marks in Ford Motor Company’s business offices, William Clay Ford inherited his father Edsel Ford’s passion for automotive styling, as well as his consummate good taste. Fittingly, the younger Ford’s most important automobile project was a revival of Edsel’s much-admired Lincoln Continental of 1939 to 1948. The revival car, built and sold under a separate Continental Division, not only measured up to the original Continental’s legend, but became a classic in its own right.

William Clay Ford (left) reviews a clay model of the Continental Mark II. (THF112905)

At just thirty years of age, William Clay Ford headed a team of stylists and engineers who worked around the clock to design a car of rare style and luxury. The resulting Continental Mark II, with its clean lines and understated trim, stood in stark contrast with the chrome confections typical of the 1950s. Build quality was of the highest order. Suppliers’ parts were checked and re-checked, and factory components were tested and re-tested. Each car was essentially hand-built, and workers were encouraged to report even the slightest defect so that problems could be corrected before a car ever left the factory.

Power came from a 368-cubic inch Lincoln V-8 capable of 300 horsepower. The car was appointed with every available convenience. Automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes and power windows were all standard equipment. Air conditioning was the only optional extra. Quality and luxury, of course, came at a cost. The Continental Mark II debuted with a price tag of $10,000 – more than twice the cost of a conventional Lincoln. The car quickly became a status symbol among business and entertainment elites. Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor were proud owners, as was Elvis Presley – despite his penchant for Cadillacs.

Ford Motor Company never intended the Mark II to be a mainstream success. Instead, it was a “halo car” that sprinkled a touch of status over the automaker’s entire line. Even with that imposing price tag, Ford undoubtedly lost money on each Mark II it sold. But the company was willing to take the loss in return for the prestige and publicity the car generated. That mindset changed swiftly when Ford became a publicly-traded company in 1956. The limited-market Continental Mark II was no longer sustainable, and production ceased after just 3,000 cars over two model years.

The Continental Mark II was built by a separate Continental Division headed by William Clay Ford. (THF113239).

Today the Continental Mark II is regarded as one of the most elegant American automobiles ever built. Some 1,500 examples survive, and bidding is intense whenever one comes up for auction. Mark II owners and fans keep the car’s spirit alive through clubs and car shows, and car magazines regularly include it in their “best ever” lists. It’s an enduring testament to William Clay Ford’s contributions to the automobile industry.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford

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