A detailed look at the 1961 Lincoln Continental

Fortunately for Ford, the 1961 Lincoln Continental was not a reluctant hero, afraid of the solitary responsibility of saving the day. The fourth-generation Lincoln Continental full-size luxury car was a true savior with the courage and skill to save the lincoln mark of a rather painful death – for the third time. It all started as a series of mid-size and full-size luxury cars made by the Lincoln Ford Motor Company division.

You could say Henry Ford’s wife is to thank for the birth of the renowned and historic Continental nameplate we know today. It is well documented that Lincoln Continental began life as a personal vehicle for Henry Ford’s son and Ford Motor Company President, Edsel Ford. But what many don’t know is that it was Mr. Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, who “coerced” her husband into buying Lincoln in the first place.

It turned out that Cadillac’s chauffeur-driven cars had caught Clara’s eye. So when Lincoln, Cadillac’s competitor, faced imminent liquidation in 1922, Mr. Henry seized the golden opportunity to buy Lincoln and divert his wife’s attention from Cadillac. Henry’s son, Edsel, oversaw the day-to-day operations of the new Lincoln Division. True, the Continental nameplate did not come immediately. Here is the preparation of the 1961 Lincoln Continental.

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The 1961 Lincoln Continental buildup

We like to think of Lincoln as a heroic brand with the DNA of a champion. Heroes tend to show up at the very last minute to save the day. The brand was on the verge of extinction when Ford bought it and saved it, ensuring its survival. It would happen again and again, only to be saved by a heroic Lincoln model at the very last minute. You could even say it saved Mr. Henry’s marriage to Clara.

Ford purchased the Lincoln brand in 1922, nearly two decades before the Edsel Ford prototype that gave birth to the Continental nameplate in 1939. By this time, the Great Depression again threatened the brand’s existence. In 1935, the depression bit so hard that Lincoln teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. The Hero came as the mid-priced Lincoln Zephyr produced by Edsel Ford. It would be the second time after the takeover of Henry Ford in 1922 that the Lincoln brand would escape the ax of fate.

Zephyr wasn’t just a champion. It was a testament to the imaginative talent of Edsel and the artistic skills of Eugene Turenne Gregorie. Like Continental, Zephyr was a futuristic luxury car marked by a low windshield, integrated fenders and a streamlined aerodynamic design. It was powered by a V12 mill, while competitors like the Chrysler Airflow and Packard One-Twenty opted for V8 and inline-8 engines. It was the car that formed the basis of the first Continental. Notably, Continental has become the brand’s oldest nameplate.

In 1938, Edsel Ford told Gregorie he wanted a unique convertible for his vacation the following year. Gregorie developed the concept based on the Zephyr but with redesigned bodywork. When the finished work was delivered to Edsel in Florida, he sent word back to Gregorie to immediately put the prototype into production. The car had been an instant hit among Edsel’s wealthy friends.

Ever since Edsel hoped to revive late 1920s and early 1930s Lincoln Victoria’s popularity, the planned production would feature a European-inspired design, hence Edsel’s decision to call it Continental. The all-new Continental, completely hand-built, consisted mainly of convertibles and a few coupés. Less than 500 copies were made between 1939 and 1940.

In fifty-five years, Lincoln introduced ten generations of the Continental, of which the 1961 Lincoln Continental fell into the fourth generation. The Continental then becomes the brand’s exclusive model. The reason for consolidating the Lincoln line into one model was a last-ditch effort to save Lincoln from death following the $60 million (about $569,000,000 in today’s money) losses suffered by the Lincoln cars from 1958 to 1960. In fact, Blue Oval’s then Vice President for Vehicle Operations suggested that the Lincoln division be phased out altogether.

The 1961 Continental was therefore Lincoln’s last chance – for the third time in its history. Not only did Continental ensure Lincoln’s preservation by becoming a commercial success, but it also brought new and lasting prestige to the brand. The 4th generation Messianic Lincoln was initially only available as a 4-door sedan and a convertible.

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A close look at the 1961 Lincoln Continental

Production of fourth-generation Lincoln Continentals lasted from 1961 to 1969, with a total of 334,345 Continentals sold. The production years also saw three versions of the Continental, with the 1961 model introduced as a 4-door sedan and 4-door convertible versions. These succeeded the larger Lincoln Premiere and Lincoln Continental Mark V of 1958.

It was about 15 and 8 inches shorter – in length and wheelbase – than the 1960 Continental Mark V, but still heavier than its fiercest rival, Cadillac or Chrysler Imperial. However, the circumstances of its creation contributed to its success as Ford not only ensured solid construction but also subjected each car to rigorous post-build inspection. In fact, the 1961 Continental was the first time in American automotive history that an automaker offered its product with a 2-year/24,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty.

Doors (rear doors were suicide doors) and dashboards were California walnut veneer. The car pioneered the “Door Ajar” dashboard warning light in today’s modern vehicles. It was also the first four-door convertible (with a power roof) from a major American automaker after World War II.

The car earned its designers led by Elwood Engel a bronze medal from the Industrial Design Institute (IDI) in New York, NY. This was no ordinary feat given that the IDI rarely awards vehicles. The 1961 Continental also won Car Life’s 1961 Engineering Excellence Award.

Engel originally designed the car that would later become the 1961 Continental as the Ford Thunderbird, which explains why the Continental rode on a stretched version of Thunderbird’s unibody platform. By 1969 Lincoln had stretched the chassis to 126 inches.

The powertrain was a 7.0 L (430 cu in) MEL V8 borrowed from the Mark V. The engine was paired with a 3-speed automatic transmission in sedan and convertible versions. The sedan variant was listed at US$6,067 (about $55,000 in today’s money), while the convertible was listed at US$6,713 (about $61,000 in today’s money). 25,160 1961 Lincoln Continentals were made that year.