The story begins in 1922 with the acquisition by Ford of the Lincoln Motor Co. and all its assets and debt for $8 million, a move spearheaded by the 28-year-old Edsel, who by then was president of Ford. "Father made the most popular car in the world," he said at the time of the purchase, "and I would like to make the best car in the world." As Russ Banham wrote in the 2002 book "The Ford Century," the Lincoln provided the company with "access to a market that the Model T did not-nouveau riche Americans eager to display their sudden prosperity."
Coupled with this, Edsel Ford possessed something his father lacked-or at least was indifferent to-a keen and well-developed sense of styling. The younger Ford, along with E.T. Gregorie, company designer, set up an independent design section outside the corporate engineering group. By the 1930s, they were developing innovations such as the integration of headlights and tailights into fenders in place of the previous "can" appendages, Peter Collier and David Horowitz noted in "The Fords: An American Epic" (1987).
They also were turning out the company's most stylish models, including the first Mercury, the Lincoln Zephyr and the capstone of their collaboration-the Zephyr-inspired Continental. In the late '30s, Edsel had traveled around Europe and was impressed with the automotive styling he saw there. Full of enthusiasm, he returned home and quickly set to work with Mr. Gregorie to create a totally new automobile, a marked departure from even the sleek, aerodynamic Lincoln Zephyrs they had been developing in the last years of the Depression decade to compete with Chrysler Corp.'s streamlined Airflow. A clay model was created, with Edsel insisting that the spare tire be exposed on the trunk, in the manner of continental designs-hence the new car's name.
The design group hand-made a single prototype, but what a prototype it was! Edsel drove it around Florida during a winter vacation in 1939, and stories-some of them perhaps apocryphal-abounded concerning the reaction to the car in the Sunshine State. It has been written that as many as 200 people, some of them friends of Mr. Ford, became so enamored of the elegant Continental that they tried to order cars on the spot. It also has been written that Edsel originally had no intention of putting the Continental into production, other than perhaps hand-crafting two other cars, one for each of his sons, Henry II and Benson.
Returning home from Florida, Edsel, buoyed by reactions to the Continental (it would only later be dubbed Lincoln Continental), ordered it into production. In October 1939, the first models with their V-12, 292-cubic-inch engines rolled out, and by the end of the year, 25 cars had been built and "demand was building rapidly," according to Paul Woudenberg in his 1980 book "Lincoln & Continental: The Postwar Years." The first several hundred cars had hand-hammered body panels, because body dies weren't added to the production process until 1941. Early models were priced at about $2,800.
To meet the demand, more than 5,000 Continentals were built and sold over the next two years. Among the purchasers were Duke Ellington, John Steinbeck and Frank Lloyd Wright. The flamboyant and often acerbic Mr. Wright, no mean critic of all manner of design other than his own, termed it the most beautiful car ever made. High praise indeed from one not given to doling out superlatives.
The Lincoln Continental was made until the U.S. entry into World War II dictated the conversion to the manufacture of military vehicles. Ford resumed production of the Continental after the war until 1948, albeit with design modifications including an altered grille and more generous use of chrome. For several years, ad agency Kenyon & Eckhardt produced elegant, copy-free, full-page ads for Fortune and other magazines picturing the car in profile against a white background with its headline clearly targeted to the upper crust: "Nothing could be finer."
After an absence of several years, a new Continental iteration, the Mark II, was introduced in the mid-1950s, but it was an altogether different automobile. And although attractive, it never approached the design status of its storied predecessors, nor have subsequent models bearing the Continental nameplate.
The accolades showered on the original Continental ensured a place in the automotive design pantheon for both Mr. Gregorie and Edsel Ford, who died in 1943 at the age of 49, more than a decade before the unfortunate marque bearing his first name was introduced. The Continental ranks with-or above-such trailblazing American automotive icons as Gordon Buehrig's classic Cord Westchester of the late 1930s, Raymond Loewy's first postwar Studebaker, the 1957 Chevrolet BelAir and various Corvettes and Thunderbirds.
And even today, more than 60 years after Edsel Ford with justifiable pride steered that first gleaming, handtooled model down the sun-dappled avenues of Palm Beach and other Florida resort towns, an original Continental-and there are still more than a few of them around-will turn heads as it cruises by...a design for the ages.