The more one studies the early history of the American automotive industry, the more one sees patterns and overlaps. Lincoln is a good case in point. Henry Leland started the Lincoln Motor Company with his son Wilfred in 1917. When Lincoln eventually got into financial trouble it was purchased by Ford, which was ironic because Ford had been pushed out of his second car company by a pack of moneymen led by Leland. That company went on to become Cadillac, which was eventually purchased by William C. Durant to become the General Motors flagship automobile brand—and Lincoln’s chief American competitor.
Henry Leland was born in February of 1843 in Vermont. His engineering chops were honed while working for the Brown & Sharpe machine tool company in its Providence, Rhode Island facility. He also spent some time producing firearms for the Colt manufacturing company. Leland’s varied experiences lead him to develop a model of interchangeability of parts to better facilitate mass-assembly techniques.
He started a machine shop in 1870 and went on to produce engines for Ransom Olds’ Oldsmobile vehicles, among other clients. Leland’s expertise enticed William Murphy and his partners at the Henry Ford Company to consult him regarding the value of the tooling and factory after they pushed Henry Ford out. Their plan was to liquidate, take the money, and run. Leland convinced them to hold on to the factory and produce a car based on an engine design he had done for Oldsmobile.
Cadillac was born.
Incorporating Leland’s philosophy of interchangeability made Cadillacs profitable to build right off the bat. Further, it improved the reliability and quality of the products as well. The success of the brand attracted Alfred Sloan, then-president of General Motors who paid $4.5 million for Cadillac in 1909—keeping Leland on to run the company until 1917. At the onset of World War I, Cadillac had been asked to build aircraft engines, but William Durant, founder of General Motors was a pacifist and did not want to do so.
Leland left Cadillac and started Lincoln with a $10,000,000 contract to build the aircraft engines. At the end of World War I, the Lincoln factory was reconfigured to build cars. The V8 engine in the first Lincoln model is said to have been derived from those aircraft powerplants. Despite Leland’s pre-war success with Cadillac, he had trouble finding traction with Lincoln and financial woes soon set in.
Those aircraft engines Leland built during the war used Ford cylinders, so when he ran into trouble he called upon Henry Ford (quite ironically) for help. Ford purchased Lincoln in 1922, but largely left Leland to his own devices through the first part of 1940. Ford had tried to market a luxury vehicle before, but it wasn’t well received. The buying public just couldn’t wrap its head around the idea of an expensive Ford. Durant had gotten around this problem at General Motors by having dedicated nameplates for each class of car. Ford caught on to this and established Lincoln as its luxury brand.
One of Lincoln’s real strengths was the smoothness its engine design permitted its cars. But that engine was trapped in an ugly car. With Ford development money, attractive new designs were penned and new production efficiencies were realized. This enabled the price of Lincoln cars to come down, just as their image was being freshened up. The result was considerable sales success. Lincoln chassis were also supplied to coachbuilders Fleetwood, Derham, and Dietrich to produce exclusive Lincoln sedans, cabriolets, and town cars. This success led Lincoln to partner with a number of other coachbuilders through the 1920s and 1930s.
1n 1932, Lincoln offered a V12-powered model with streamlined styling. This car led to the development of a smaller similar model, which ultimately led to the creation of the signature Lincoln automobile; the Lincoln Continental—the first of which was a custom one-off design for Edsel Ford—but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. That smaller car was called the Lincoln-Zephyr, which eventually became a brand within Ford on its own.
The Lincoln-Zephyr was very well received and the marque lasted until 1940, when Ford decided to make Lincoln Motor Company the Lincoln Division of The Ford Motor Company. Where before Lincoln had operated largely on its own, the parent corporation was now taking a more hands-on approach to the management of the company.
That first Continental appeared as a production model in 1940. Where the previous designs had been somewhat boxy, the Continental caressed the eye with gracefully flowing curvaceous lines, similar to the European cars of the day. This was also the first model to employ the infamous “Continental kit” rear spare tire mount. That feature went on to become a styling element of all Lincoln “Mark” series Continental models. Production ceased during World War II to concentrate on the war effort, but in 1945 Lincoln came back with a two-model strategy. The big Continentals and the standard Lincoln model range based on the pre-war Zephyr automobiles. However, this strategy was dropped in 1949.
By 1956 though, the Continental was back. This time as a personal coupe in the guise of the Continental Mark II and a full size sedan sold as a Lincoln. The Mark II car was positioned above the Lincoln marque. The 1956 Lincoln Mark II was essentially hand-built like a Rolls Royce and Ford charged Rolls-Royce money for it too —$10,000 (almost $90,000 in today’s money). Even still, the cars were sold at a loss of some $1000 each.
The separate Mark division idea was abandoned and the mass-produced Continental Mark III replaced the Mark II, before being discontinued in 1961. Not to be outdone though, 1961 was the year Lincoln introduced the Continental model with the iconic “suicide” doors. This model was also offered as a convertible, which made it the last American convertible four-door sedan.
In 1968, the Mark series was revived, this time sharing a platform with the Ford Thunderbird. The spare tire hump in the trunk made a comeback, along with hidden headlights and a Rolls-Royce-inspired grille. Those features (with the exception of the hidden headlights) would be styling hallmarks of the Mark series of cars through the remainder of their run, which terminated in 1998 with the Continental Mark VIII.
Fuel economy concerns hit Lincoln’s all-V8 lineup hard in the 70’s and predicated the ultimate decline of the brand from which it has yet to really recover. In 1981, Lincoln introduced the Town Car, which quickly became a favorite of the livery trade. In fact, this business kept that model in production well past its sell-by date. Lincoln finally laid the Town Car to rest in 2011.
Going into the second decade of the 21st century, the new Lincoln models are struggling to find their identity. While Lincoln automobiles are noted for having the nicest interiors of any American brand, the marketplace has shifted to a more European-oriented definition of luxury. Lincoln is working hard to adapt to the new paradigm, while still reflecting the core values of the historic marque.