The Lincoln Continental is perhaps best known as the SS-100-X, the iconic “target car” that carried John F. Kennedy on the day he was slain.
Before traveling through Dallas on November 22, 1963, Kennedy had the car custom-built and converted into a stretch limousine by Hess and Eisenhardt of Cincinnati, Ohio. The Lincoln Continental secured a place in American history as President John F. Kennedy’s final ride, but Ford’s perpetual underdog also secured a place in automotive history for the engineering and design firsts that had initially piqued the late President’s interest, among other things.
If Robert McNamara, the Ford Motor Company group’s vice president for vehicle operations in 1958, had his way, the Lincoln Continental would have been obsolete by the time Kennedy’s limo was designed. The failing Continental had already been axed three times by the time the newly redesigned Continental went into production. Henry Ford, whose wife lusted after Cadillac-style chauffeur-driven cars, had rescued Lincoln from the bankruptcy court. Ford’s famous founder bought the corporation named after still another legendary president, Abraham Lincoln, in order to put his wife in his car instead of a competitor’s.
Lincoln was still fighting for survival less than 15 years later, just squeaking by on sales of the mid-priced Zephyr. When sales problems arose again in 1958, Robert McNamara was ready to cancel the automobile entirely in order to reduce the company’s losses. But management wasn’t ready to give up on Henry Ford’s pet project, so they positioned 1961 as the final attempt to bring Henry’s pet project back to life.
The Lincoln Design Study
Ben D. Mills commissioned a design study to investigate the reasons for the 1961 Lincoln Continental’s previous failures in order to secure the car’s success. Lincoln discovered that customers wanted more design consistency, so the company chose to delay further model modifications and extend the time between significant redesigns.
However, Ford’s designers and management changed Continental’s design at least three times throughout the development process. When the concepts didn’t come together quickly enough, Ford considered canceling the car once more. Engineering issues were also a red flag that Clara Ford’s chauffeur-driven Ford would end up being a Cadillac.
When the Lincoln Continental finally hit the streets in 1961, it defied the odds and left everyone speechless. It was nothing like the 1960 model in terms of design—the 1961 model had been trimmed down and was clean and basic, omitting some of the more ornate elements of prior years’ models. The 1961 Lincoln Continental was also more compact, with a 14.8-inch shorter body and an 8-inch shorter wheelbase, reducing the car’s length from 131 to 123 inches.
(Ads showed women, who were often stereotyped as lousy drivers in 1960s pop culture, parallel parking the “small” automobile with ease.) The most iconic design characteristics, however, were the rear doors, dubbed “suicide doors” because they were typical of 1960s luxury cars. The luxury combination was complemented with a 450 cubic inch V-8 engine under the hood.
From Goner to Design Leader
The Lincoln Continental went from being a design laggard to a design leader almost overnight; the 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix, 1963 Buick Riviera, and 1964 Imperial all followed the 1961 Continental’s lead, and the Industrial Design Institute quickly hailed the car. Ford’s staff was also pleased since sales were up and continued to rise throughout the 1960s, much to the disgust of skeptical Robert McNamara.
Lincoln did little to the Continental in the years following its breakthrough in 1961, in keeping with the findings of Mills’ design study—and it paid handsomely. With few and minor adjustments, sales increased steadily—in 1962, they increased from 25,160 to 31,061 with little expenditure in design or engineering changes.
In 1963, minor changes like improved legroom and electrical modifications were made to the models.
The grille was given a makeover in 1964, with five vertical lines added, and flat glass replaced the curved glass on all of the doors. In 1965, a few minor tweaks resulted in a 10% increase in sales. Designers tinkered with the grille once more, while engineers fitted new front disk brakes for quicker stopping. Lincoln was now selling more than 40,000 vehicles per year.
Lincoln’s commitment to consistency took a slight detour in 1966. For the first time in over five years, the Continental was available in a two-door pillarless hardtop variant. To keep up, the engine was increased to 462 cubic inches, and the interior was updated. Buyers preferred Continental’s new price, which was reduced to put a little pressure on Cadillac. It ended up being a tight squeeze. The increase in sales was more than 35
Mills’ design research was a huge success—the return to design consistency saved the Lincoln Continental and knocked Cadillac off its pedestal. However, in 1967, Ford began to feel the first tremors of a shift when sales of four-door convertibles practically collapsed and purchasers became bored. The legendary 1960s suicide doors lasted only a few more years before Ford retired the 1961-inspired fourth-generation designs in 1969 and replaced them with the Mark III.