The Lincoln Mark Series Cars, Feeling Continental (Part VI)


We pick up the story of Lincoln’s Mark series cars once again today, at a low point in the coupe’s history. The intensely expensive development and launch of the new Continental marque arrived at exactly the wrong time for Ford.

Shortly after the family-owned company spent $21 million ($227 million adj.) on the launch of its new super-luxury brand, the company had its IPO. That meant the big money poured into the black hole that was Continental was visible to everyone who cared to see, including shareholders. The pressure was just too much, and the Continental brand was canceled in 1956 by Henry Ford II, just a year after the Mark II entered production.

But let’s back up a year, right as the Mark II went on sale. Management of the Continental Division knew the singular, hand-assembled model was not enough to keep the company going. They needed to save and make more money, and fast.

Part of Continental’s plan for success included two additional models, as discussed in our last entry. The Mark II was to transform itself via a folding metal roof into a convertible, a technology that was fully developed at the time Continental was canceled and ported directly into the Fairlane 500 Skyliner.

The other was the Mark II sedan, a hardtop four-door called Berline. Continental’s plans did not initially include a four-door version of the Mark II, but the coupe’s niche ultra-expensive nature meant it was destined for niche sales. Management at Continental realized quickly that a sedan would be the volume seller of the two.

Mark II’s Berline version was worked up quickly after the Mark II coupe’s debut, with a simple frame extension in the middle of the coupe’s 126-inch wheelbase for an even 132 inches. The increase in the middle gave the length necessary while ensuring new body panel requirements were kept to a minimum.

And though the design period of the Berline was a short one, it was already too late for the Continental brand. The original plan was to sell it in March 1957, but that idea was squashed rather quickly. By spring of 1955 the people at Continental knew there’d be no Mark two-door model after 1957. And there’d be nothing with four doors based on the Mark II either. In comes the Mark III.

The new Continental Mark III started its life under the guidance of the folks at Continental. Designers worked up two full-size blocks of clay, finalized them quickly, and were ready for presentation to the management in Ford product planning in mid-June, 1955. It was a new design, meant to be more affordable to produce than the Mark II.

Accompanying the new Mark III sedan was a new take on marketing, to help get the brand better exposure and assist sales figures. And there was a new price point too, as the Continental Mark III would go on sale in 1958 for about $6,800 ($68,739 adj.), or about 25 percent less expensive than the Mark II. And that was half the price of the illustrious Cadillac Eldorado Brougham sedan.

When the product planning meeting took place, the Mark III design shown to management was not the one preferred from within Continental. However, through some internal negotiations and styling revisions, by the time the Mark III was finalized the less preferred design had most of the trappings of the preferred one.

As the Mark III proceeded, the Continental Division was on its last legs from an internal perspective. The slow-selling Mark II ended up as lot poison and was most often shifted at a discount after the small initial demand for them was satisfied. And that was adding insult to injury since the Mark II lost Ford money on every one sold. Remember those greedy dealers expected to make 30 percent on each one.

Continental management pitched the finalized Mark III sedan to executives at Ford in November of 1955 and showed off the new marketing. The end-of-year product meeting was to show off designs and justify the division’s budget for the following year.

Here’s where the cost savings came into play: Continental determined by that time the Mark III would use the same wheelbase as a standard Lincoln Capri/Premiere of 1958. Both cars were slated for a new generation that year. To differentiate the Mark III from the Lincoln, it would be shorter by about five inches in length.

As far as marketing was concerned, Continental wanted to reclassify dealers so only certain outlets could have Continentals on the showroom floor. The plan also mandated better training for sales and more marketing across the country. The team did some testing among well-heeled consumers, with a side-by-side of Mark III’s design and the Eldorado Brougham. Results were favorable for the Mark, which most surveyed preferred.

With the lower price and parts sharing, Continental proposed a stretch budget of $335 ($3,386 adj.) per car produced to add special features like a hardtop and rear-hinged doors as on the deceased Berline. If approved, the Mark III would also receive a push-button controlled automatic, fuel injection, as well as automatic climate control. The differences and advanced features were presented via three separate and complete concept Continental Mark IIIs.

Along with the big budget and additional $335 ask, Continental assured there would be more parts sharing with Capri and Premiere. They’d have the same exhaust, glass, and fender linings, and use the parts bin for power equipment.

The budgeting ask included production at Continental Division separate from Lincoln, and a newly revised sales price on the Mark III: $9,800 ($99,065 adj.) One might imagine some faces of chagrin when the design that was supposed to be at dealers for $6,800 was suddenly $9,800. Sales were expected to hit 4,000 per year, and the company would start making money back after 3,825 cars. A slim margin for error.

Executive approval was granted by the product committee but came with a strong warning for Continental: Share more parts with the Lincolns and sell the car for $7,000 ($70,760 adj.). The Mark III was subsequently approved for production by Ford’s administrative committee.

The plan was to start production in September 1957 for the ’58 model year, and have Mark IIIs at dealers before Thanksgiving. With their new sedan approved, Continental had long thrown in the towel on the Mark II and put it in run-off mode. The triumph of Mark III was short-lived, however, as the budgeting meeting came to order in May 1956.

Sitting at the head of the table was a new kid in town at Ford by the name of Lewis Crusoe. Crusoe was previously an executive at General Motors’ property Fisher Body (1908-1984) who retired. Shortly thereafter he was recruited to Ford by his buddy Ernie Breech. Breech was feeling generous after Henry Ford II recruited him from GM, too. Ford II liked Crusoe, and he was appointed as VP of all passenger vehicles at Ford-Continental-Lincoln-Mercury.

Crusoe was actively shaking things up at Ford, where he’d already made a lot of beneficial/damaging changes depending on who was asked. Before he attended the Continental budget meeting, he’d already split Lincoln and Mercury into separate divisions after axing the head of the Mercury division. Then he recruited his understudy to lead Mercury and assigned accountant Ben Mills to run Lincoln (who had served as Continental’s accountant).

Other things Crusoe did around that time were to push extra hard for Edsel and substitute the ghastly Mercury Turnpike Cruiser in place of the Mercury Monterey. And he was no fan of Continental, either. As part of the product and administrative committees that approved the Mark III, he engaged in a little secret mission afterward.

Crusoe questioned whether the new direction of Continental would work, in particular the marketing strategy. So Crusoe lead his own personal background investigation into Continental’s accounts, undoubtedly with assistance from accountant Ben Mills who was grateful for his recent big promotion.

Crusoe decided Continental would never make the break-even sales point it suggested with the Mark III. His immediate recommendation was that Continental Division be integrated into Lincoln. The convergence of IPO, Henry Ford II’s hiring of Crusoe out of retirement, and the accountant with the most knowledge of Continental’s financial inner-workings converged into a single big bang event.

And just like that, Continental was quickly merged into Lincoln as we discussed in the last entry. William Clay Ford was the lone dissenting voice in the board room, as the votes came down in favor of immediate cancellation. The meeting also determined that all actions to do with personnel and structural dismantling of Continental be handed directly to Crusoe, to do as he saw fit.

Crusoe’s final argument when he got his way was that there was some value in a Mark III. But building the finalized Mark III would be far too costly, as it was not intended to share a production line with other Lincolns. Instead, Crusoe decided to throw the whole thing in the trash: The 1958 Continental Mark III would consist of a quick trim job on the 1958 Premier.

The name choice was very intentional, as Crusoe planned to sell the new Mark III based upon the hand-assembled ultra-luxury reputation of the Mark II. We’ll pick up there next time.

[Images: Ford]

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