1961 Lincoln Continental redefined luxury cars

Before the era of armed vehicles with bulletproof

Before the era of armed vehicles with bulletproof glass, the early-1960s Continental was used to shuttle around former President John F. Kennedy. (Credit: Ford Motor Company)

Few cars are ever seen as being pivotal. You know . . . game-changers. But, for the 1961 model year, Lincoln, in once fell swoop, killed the design culture that luxury meant lots of chrome and big fins.

 

By comparison, the '61 Contintental seemed to have virtually no chrome at all. And no fins.


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How could this be?

By their very nature, luxury cars are all about excess . . . especially chrome. Traditionally, they offer more size, more power, more standard features and, without a doubt, more digits (or larger ones) on their window stickers than all of their plebian counterparts.

That's why it seemed so earth-shattering when, in the autumn of 1960, Ford Motor Company's Lincoln division saw fit to introduce its latest Continental prestige liner with what appeared to be very little chrome.

Closer inspection, however, revealed more illusion than fact when it came to the amount of shiny bits attached to the car. Sure enough, both of its massive bumpers featured plenty of electroplating, as did the rocker panels, door sills, window frames, tail lens trim and, of course, the full wheel covers.

So, why did the car appear so different, so unusual, so . . . naked?

The answer could be found in the Continental's unique architecture. Lincoln's stylists purposely sculpted the new "Conti" with what seemed like acres of unbroken slabs of sheetmetal. They also kept the hood, roof and trunk lid as flat and featureless as possible to give the car a graceful, yet larger-than-life, appearance. Another trick was to angle the side glass inward toward the roof instead of designing it perpendicular to the body. This created the effect of a smaller interior (again, pure illusion) that in turn made the Continental seem bigger than it really (or already) was.

The Continental's crowning touch, though, was its center-opening ("suicide") doors on both four-door hardtop and jaw-dropping four-door convertible models, a style that hadn't been used in years. The idea of suicide doors was more than just retro-inspired. In yet another interesting design twist, the ragtop's absent mid, or "B"-pillar necessitated the rear doors be hinged in this fashion.

The Continental's convertible top remained completely hidden when not in use by means of a system of 11 electric relays, plus assorted hydraulic pumps that caused the trunk to open out from behind the rear seat while the power top folded back and dropped into place. The trunk lid then automatically closed shut. This novel system was actually adapted from existing technology of the time, having been used on the retractable-roof 1957-'59 Ford Skyliner.

In constructing the Continental, Lincoln's slide-rule types abandoned the traditional ladder-frame chassis in favor of a unitized body. This meant the car sat low to the ground, further accentuating its wide stance.

To match its eye-popping design, the Continental was fitted with a robust 300-horsepower 430-cubic-inch V8 (carried over from the 1958-'60 version), mated to a three-speed automatic transmission. The large engine size was necessary since the sedan tipped the scales at nearly 5,000 pounds, while the convertible exceeded that total by about 315 pounds. This accounts for the Lincoln's leisurely 12-second trot to 60 mph from a standing start, but once the engine was sufficiently wound up, it could propel the car to a top speed above 115 mph.

In an age where "quality control" was merely a slogan, the newest Continental (the brand name had been used at various times as far back as 1940) received extra attention from an army of nitpickers before being shipped out of the plant. All engines and transmissions underwent an extensive three-hour shakedown prior to being bolted under the hood, and every car was test-driven over a 12-mile road course to uncover any lingering quality issues. Finally, Continentals were warrantied for two years or 24,000 miles, impressive coverage at a time when most new cars received only a cursory 90-day/3000-mile warranty.

Public acceptance for the new-look Continental, as evidenced by its healthy sales figures, was extremely positive, with Lincoln moving a total of 87,354 examples from 1961-'63. One of those cars - a stretched and specially-equipped convertible - will be forever etched in the minds of anyone who recalls the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who was riding in the back seat beside his wife Jacqueline on that tragic Dallas, Tex., day in 1963.

The following year, the car received a mild facelift, including a three-inch lengthening between the front and rear wheels. In 1966, engine displacement grew to 462 cubic inches, resulting in a bump in the Continental's horsepower rating to 340. A two-door hardtop also joined the lineup.

The Continental maintained a steady sales pace until the end of its run in 1969. The expensive-to-produce and slow-selling (less than 10 percent of total production) convertible, however, was yanked off the assembly line after 1967.

Decades after the last of its type left the factory, the Continental's timeless lines, not to mention distinctive rear door-handle location, can still draw a crowd. Today, it still continues to represent classic luxury at its classiest.

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