Tuesday, July 26, 2011

1957 Continental Mk. II

Chronology of a Failure
Text and Photography by David W. Temple
At the time this 1957 Mk. II was photographed it had traveled only 62,700 miles
From the start, the Continental Mark II was doomed to failure by a combination of unreasonable expectations, high cost, and bad timing. This was an ignominy for such a well-crafted and beautiful car for which much effort was expended over several years. The origins of the Mark II can be found even before the final run of the original Continental which debuted as a prototype in 1939 and finally as a production car from 1940 to 1948. Its end can be seen in photographs of a clay model named Mark III Berline.
The man responsible for the prestigious Continental, Edsel Ford, died in May of 1943, which left the future of the model in doubt. Edsel’s untimely death led to the departure of a number of talented people who worked under him. Edsel’s father, Henry, had little interest in his son’s work. Furthermore, World War II had to be won before a full scale effort could once again be the focus of Ford Motor Company which was turning out B-24s, the Jeep, armored personnel carriers, etc. As the war drew to a close, poorly managed FoMoCo was in financial trouble which was a great concern not only to the Ford family, but to the U. S. Government as well; the government had major war contracts at stake. To rescue the company from certain oblivion, Navy Secretary Frank Knox (with President Franklin Roosevelt’s approval) ordered Henry Ford II’s early discharge from the Navy so that he could take control of the company. The board of directors instated 26-year old Henry Ford II as executive vice-president on January 23, 1944. The elder HF was reluctant to resign, but at the insistence of his wife, Clara, he resigned from the presidency on September 20, 1945, leaving the way open for his son to assume the presidency the following day.
The new president quickly found he was in over his head and knew he needed to surround himself with skilled managers and designers. With the internal corporate turmoil and the war at an end, a new Continental could now at least be given some serious consideration. During 1945, stylist Bill Schmidt sketched a design that resembled a mid-50s Nash in front and a ‘40s Continental in back; the proposal also featured cut down doors. Apparently, Schmidt’s Continental never got any further than the paper stage. Another attempt – a proposal for a 1949 model – reached the clay model stage, but the car was considered to awkward looking to go into production. The efforts continued, though.
One of the early hires of Henry Ford II was Ernie Breech. Breech had served as an executive at General Motors and HF II hired him to serve as executive vice president for his company. Breech realized Ford Motor Co. needed experienced design talent so he asked independent stylist George Walker and some of his key people – Joe Oros and Elwood Engle – to serve Ford as long term design consultants. Breech also managed to bring in some GM engineers as well which lead to the hiring of George Snyder. Snyder had been working on an advanced design when he left Oldsmobile which he brought with him when he came to Ford. The advanced concept became another attempt at a new Continental. Advanced is certainly the proper term for the car as time would later prove because it looked more like something from the early to mid-60s. In fact, one of its prominent features showed up on the 1965 Mustang – the indented fake scoops.  The concept was regarded as spectacular, but much too advanced for the time. Nevertheless, the desire to revive the Continental stayed strong, thus another proposal followed.
Attention to detail is abundantly evident throughout the Mk. II
On January 10, 1952, the Continental 195X made its debut at the Chicago Auto Show. Much interest was shown in the nonfunctional vehicle by those who saw it and for a time it seemed as though the 195X would serve as the basis for the hoped for Continental Mk. II. The following year, the 195X received upgrades and a drivetrain to make it fully functional. The car which was originally named X-100 got the designation back by the time it was ready for the show circuit again. During the time the car was being made operable, a committee (dubbed the Davis Committee) recommended to Henry Ford II that a low volume luxury car be produced; in other words build the Continental. At this point, a survey of prominent people across the country was made.  They were shown various drawings of proposed Continentals and the vast majority preferred something called the “modern formal” rather than the 195X. This discovery lead to that car being renamed the X-100 because it was no longer being considered for the Continental program. Finally, FoMoCo executives and designers had something to develop into the long sought prestige car.
The Davis committee’s findings lead to the creation of the Special Products Division which later became the Continental Division in 1955. (Incidentally, the committee also recommended what became the Edsel.) The independent division needed managers, stylists, and engineers. William Clay Ford occupied the top spot while John Reinhart and Harley Copp headed styling and engineering respectively.  Gordon Beuhrig (of Cord 810/812 fame) was the chief body engineer. The Continental Division had all the right people in the right places. Their task was to create an American version of the Rolls Royce. Initially, the car was to be a prestige flagship which was not expected to make money, but rather embellish the image of Ford Motor Company. Along the way, the purpose changed. The division was required to make a profit almost from the start – an unreasonable goal and helped to doom the luxury marque to extinction. To make a profit, the Continental Division would have needed to have sold about 10,000 Mark IIs per year over a four year period at $10,000 each. The need to make a profit with the Mark II stemmed from the decision to go public with FoMoCo stock for 1956.  Ernie Breech did not believe going to the first stockholder’s meeting with a Ford division loosing money was in the company’s best interest; this belief likely sealed the fate of the Mark II.
During the design phase, the cost is no object approach gave way to reality. Early on in the program a V-12 was considered, but rejected on budget considerations. Developing an entirely new V-12 engine would have added enormous cost to the project.  The Lincoln 368 was chosen; it received only cosmetic changes to differentiate it from the lower level Lincolns. However, the 368 was a new engine, plus it was the most powerful ever offered for a Lincoln, therefore it was not a bad compromise for the Continental. Furthermore, each engine was machined to higher tolerances than those for Lincolns, dynamometer tested, and dismantled for inspection before going into a Continental.
A new chassis on a 126-inch wheelbase with a “cowbelly” frame to keep the car within a low overall height of 58 inches was designed for the “American Rolls Royce.”  Other special features included extra attention to the fit and finish. Great care was taken in making certain all body panels were aligned to near perfection. The painting process involved a surface seal coat, a primer coat, water sanding by hand, another surfacer coat, another water sanding by hand, baking, followed by two lacquer color coats, oil sanding, which in turn was followed by two more color coats of lacquer which were baked, hand buffed and polished. Chrome plating exceeded SAE specifications. Even nuts and bolts received special attention. The pursuit of perfection meant the price tag expected to be around $7500-$8000 was far from accurate. The originally projected price was stratospheric for the time, but the actual price of about $10,000 was astronomical.
A 300hp 368 cid V-8 was standard.
The price of the two-door hardtop Mark II meant that a planned Mark II retractable was deleted from production plans. The added expense of such a model would only increase the price well beyond $10,000. The retractable program which got as far as a functional prototype cost nearly two million dollars to develop. Luckily for Ford Motor Co., the steel retractable roof proved to be adaptable to the 1957 Fords being planned at the time, thus it was transferred to that program. Amortizing the cost of the retractable program with the Mark II production would have meant even greater losses;  as it was, Ford lost $1000 on every one sold. Most of the Mark IIs had to be discounted to around $8500 in order to sell them.
Despite the termination of the retractable model, Ford contracted Derham Coachworks to construct three Mark II convertibles from factory stock; the order was later trimmed to just one. The car was first displayed at the Texas State Fair in Oct. of 1956, but by then the handwriting was on the wall for the Mark II.  Sales were dismal; less than 3,000 Mark IIs were built for ‘56 and ‘57, before the plug was pulled on the operation in May of 1957. The Continental Division was being absorbed by Lincoln well before that point.
Another factor in the demise of the Mark II, was the decision to build the new 1958 Lincolns as unibody cars. In early 1955, work commenced on the Mark III Berline, a chauffeur driven model. A little over a year later it was very apparent the Continental division was in trouble. However, there were last gasp efforts to save the car. Styling studio chief John Najjar asked one of the stylist to update a Mark II with stacked headlights; the car was proposed as a continuation of the Mark II for 1958. There was no interest in it. There was consideration given to building the Mark III Berline along with the new Lincoln line, but the costs associated with tooling for the two different cars was simply too high.  However, Ernie Breech recognized the Mark III Berline was a better looking car than the planned Lincoln and wondered if it should become the new Lincoln for 1958 instead. He wondered too late. Much of the tooling had already been developed for the new unibody Lincolns; they had gone beyond the point of no return.  These final efforts placed the final period in the saga of the classy Mark II.
The Lincoln Continental Mark III, IV, and V models that followed were not much more than badge engineered versions of the lower echelon Capri and Premiere series. The sales of the 1958-60 Lincolns were poor, as well, and the cars were forgotten by the time a true follow-on to the Mark II appeared in 1968, as a Mark III.
The Mark IIs are not forgotten, though. They are prized possessions of collectors lucky enough to own one. The 1957 model pictured here was owned by a Grand Rapids, Michigan resident and a Lincoln & Continental Owners Club member at the time it was photographed several years ago. The car was photographed at the club’s national meet in St. Louis in September 2000 shortly after it had received a total repaint. Then it had logged only 62,700 miles and retained its original upholstery. The long list of standard equipment for Mark II meant the options list was a short one; this one has the extra-cost air conditioning.
The Mark II was a failure where it counted the most as far as Ford Motor Company was concerned. Collectors have a different view – what a fabulous car this failure is. The Mark II’s timeless elegance and graceful lines is what is meaningful today.

1957 Continental Mk. II
Base price:  $9,966*
Engine:  368cid V8
Horsepower:  300@4,800rpm
Torque:  415@3,000rpm
Compression:  10.0:1
Bore and Stroke:  4.00 x 3.65 inches
Carburetion:  Carter 4-bbl.
Exhaust:  dual
Transmission:  Turbo-Drive two-speed automatic
Wheelbase:  126 inches
*Most had to be substantially discounted in order to sell them.


  1. The Mark II cannot compare to today's Mark II. they are totally different. Maybe the only thing they share is the name. And those wheels! They look amazing and beautiful. Not anything i have seen yet. I would be glad to know where i can get such wheels!

  2. There's an AC compressor under the hood and the trunk is shorter in the front indicating the AC unit is in there, but where are the air intake openings at the front of the rear fender bumps? Maybe some of them recirculated air by sucking it out of the cabin from below the rear seat or somewhere like that?

    1. 1956 had the air intake in the rear fender bumps.
      1957 had then behind the front grill and tunneled back.