Of all the many cars that have been gutless frauds, the Lincoln Continental of 1939-1948 is perhaps the most respected as a classic body. That Frank Lloyd Wright went so far as to describe it as "the last classic car built in the United States" and that in 1951 the Museum of Modern Art should have selected it as an automotive work of art should silence critics - but I persist in my uncertainty.
In my adolescence I treasured a catalogue of the 1947 model and was in love with its long bonnet, its straight lines, grotesque length, spatted rear wheels and spare wheel propped upright behind a boxy boot. At 15 I was not to know that under this body lay the chassis, engine and transmission of an altogether humbler car, the Lincoln Zephyr.
In 1935 Ford sold 1,400 Lincolns against General Motors' 23,559 Cadillacs and 52,256 cars of Packard. Ford were on the brink of closing the factory and the Zephyr was its last chance. Conceived by John Tjaarda, it was a six-seater saloon on a more than 10-foot chassis, with four doors unencumbered by wheel arches, a sloping rear end and a short bonnet under which lay a V-12 engine.
The Zephyr not only sold well but changed the styling of every other American car. The V-12 engine was pure Ford, sharing many components and the stroke of the reliable V-8. Of 4,378cc, it was neither large nor powerful, but 110 bhp was enough to haul it to 90 mph; it cruised easily at 70 mph. Henry Ford himself insisted on replacing Tjaarda's ingenious suspension system with agricultural transverse leaf springs front and rear, and the three-speed synchromesh gearbox was, again, pure Ford. Edsel Ford, then the moving spirit behind the company's designs for bodies, called in his friend Eugene Gregorie to tinker with the body, but he did little more than lengthen the bonnet to accommodate the forward engine, giving the car a distinctive V-shaped prow. Exit Tjaarda, the Zephyr no longer his, but an almost ordinary Ford.
In its first year, 1936, 13,635 were sold, with that number more than doubled in 1937; in 1938 the car was given hydraulic brakes and the engine bored out to 4785cc. It was on this marginally improved chassis that the Lincoln Continental body was mounted. This was little more than a back of-an-envelope job to satisfy Edsel Ford's whim to have a more distinctive car for himself. Within an hour of putting a sheet of tracing paper over a blueprint of the Zephyr, Gregorie had radically amended it with a longer, lower bonnet, a square convertible coupé roof and the reversion to a Thirties-style box-like boot, to which spare wheels were attached, that transformed the aerodynamic common sense of the Zephyr into a Frenchified fantasy. The Lincoln became Ford's answer to Delahayes, Delage and Talbot. "I wouldn't change a line on it,'' said Edsel.
Between November 1938 and March 1939 one car was built by hand and shipped to Florida for Edsel to drive on a brief holiday. He cabled Gregorie to say that he could have sold it a thousand times. Without body dies this was impossible, but in 1939-40 Lincoln's craftsmen made 404 complete cars, hand-beating the panels into shape by eye; dies were installed in 1941 and a further 1,241 were constructed before the war put an end to production early in 1942.
By then, the temptation to interfere with the clarity of Gregorie's design was irresistible and the last pre-war models were given an ornate grille in place of the flared "wings'' of chrome. Edsel Ford hated this response to the new noses of new Cadillacs, but he died in 1943; Gregorie, supported it and the embellishment grew to Wurlitzer scale in post-war models.
Made by hand or pressed by die, the Lincoln Continental was, in essence, cobbled together; it cost more than half as much again as the Zephyr, was heavier and slower and was best for boulevardiers.
When at the age of 36, I drove an early model nurtured by a grandee of Philadelphia, it wallowed on every bend, the steering had more slop than ever Oliver Twist could plead for, and the brakes were, at best, absent-minded. But the engine whispered at boulevardier pace and the three-speed gearbox was surprisingly precise. And the body was utterly seductive.
Is such seduction enough to make a classic? Only two models were made, the convertible Cabriolet (a two-door drop-head coupe) and the Coupé (a closed car with rear quarter-lights); the former has much the cleaner line, less cluttered by chrome window frames, and is by a ratio of one to two the rarer of the pair.
The most desirable is the model made in 1941 with the original nose and the substitution of push-buttons for door handles, the model that still speaks of Edsel Ford as a frustrated connoisseur of design and taste.
But in performance the Continental is a sluggard (even the post-war model with power pushed to 130 bhp) and its Ford suspension more the successor to Constable's Hay Wain than the precursor of today's Mondeo; am I too much of a purist in damning it as all wow and no integrity?