The luxury automaker is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, showcasing its rich heritage to commemorate the occasion.
Lincoln is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. To commemorate the centenary, Roadshow got an intimate tour of the company's archives in Dearborn, Michigan. On display were carefully curated historical documents, important memorabilia and of course iconic cars from the luxury brand's past, artifacts that celebrate the highs -- and acknowledge the lows -- of Lincoln's history.
At the urging of his wife, Clara, and son, Edsel, Lincoln was purchased by Henry Ford from another Henry, renowned machinist and entrepreneur Henry Leland for a whopping $8 million on Feb. 4, 1922. Accordingly, this 100th anniversary marks the year Lincoln was acquired by Ford, not the date it was founded, which was a few years earlier in 1917. Lincoln was established to build aircraft engines during World War I and perhaps not coincidentally, the notion of flight is something the automaker has highlighted throughout its history and continues doing today.
After Germany surrendered and hostilities ended, Lincoln began producing its first vehicle, the Model L. "Leland was known for his precision engineering, however, he wasn't known for the style or beauty of his cars," explained Ted Ryan, who spearheaded our tour. He's the archives and heritage brand manager at Ford. An imposing vehicle, though not a flamboyant one, the Model L on display nonetheless has significant historical provenance -- Henry Ford gave this car to his mentor and friend, Thomas Edison.
But the man who would completely revamp Lincoln's model range and transform its image from dowdy to designer was none other than Edsel Ford. A lover of the arts, he became president of the brand shortly after it was acquired. Lincoln's makeover got underway with the beautiful Model K, which cemented the company as a builder of tastefully styled, well-engineered cars.
Unfortunately, the pricey Model K didn't sell well during the Great Depression, so Edsel led the development of a more affordable model. "He quickly pivoted and built and designed what is considered a … classic today, the Lincoln Zephyr," said Ryan. Introduced in 1936, "It wasn't the very first streamlined car in the world," he noted, alluding to models like the star-crossed Chrysler Airflow and various Tatras, "But it was the first that was broadly accepted by the public."
Named after a westerly breeze, the Zephyr is a design icon and one of the most beautiful Lincolns ever. Built to cheat the wind like an aircraft "even the teardrop logo is once again calling out aerodynamics" noted Ryan.
The Ford archive contains around 16,000 cubic feet of historical records and documents. To prevent degradation, some 3 million photographic negatives are stored in temperature-and-humidity-controlled rooms, while more than 10,000 film and video titles are kept in separate coolers. The company history preserved in this archive is irreplaceable.
After its construction, Edsel took this custom car on a trip to Florida. The vehicle proved to be so popular Ryan said he "reportedly came back with orders for more than 200 Continentals," which was enough for it to officially join the Lincoln range. One look at Edsel's personal 1941 model and it's easy to see why. The car is gorgeous and its flathead V12 engine delivered, for the time at least, a heady 120 horsepower.
Jumping forward, the 1953 Lincoln X-100 prototype, with its jet-inspired designed, is another brand highlight. Built to celebrate the Ford Motor Company's 50th birthday, the car is a laboratory on wheels. Ryan said, "It's supposed to be your Jetson's car of the future, with every innovation known to man." Amenities like a rain-sensing sunroof, heated seats, a telephone and even integrated hydraulic jacks were included -- and well ahead of their time. The vehicle even had a variable-volume horn and an electric razor. Yep, you could shave on your commute to work.
Another legendary Lincoln is the Continental Mk 2. Its introduction was headed by William Clay Ford as a tribute to his late father, Edsel. Production of this beautiful machine began in 1952 and only 3,000 examples were built. Underscoring its exclusivity, celebrities and dignitaries from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra to President Dwight D. Eisenhower all owned one. But this car isn't important for just its sultry looks. "The other interesting story with the Continental Mk 2 is the star," said Ryan, Lincoln's logo for decades. "The star was designed the night before the board meeting where they actually selected the vehicle and selected the emblem," he added. Yep, Lincoln could have easily had a different logo than it does today.
The next-generation Continental was something of a step backward. These massive cars were much more ordinary than their predecessors and they were gaudy-looking, which was nothing surprising in the late 1950s. Still, out of this came one of the most iconic vehicles of all time.
Showing off a stack of original company documents, Ryan explained that during a meeting on Jan. 5, 1959, the product planning committee decided the future of the Lincoln brand. The group was presented with four options: They could continue forward with their current range, the company could develop a different vehicle lineup entirely, Lincoln could create a new model similar to the Ford Thunderbird in its appeal or they could close up shop entirely and exit the luxury market. And you thought CEO Alan Mullaly was the first to consider axing Lincoln. Ultimately, product planners chose option three, "and the resulting car is the 1961 Continental," said Ryan, which is an automotive legend, imposing but not ostentatious, cleanly designed but not bland, sizable but smaller than its rivals of the day.
Arguably, another low point is the 1979 Continental Mk 5 Cartier Edition on display during our tour. No, this yacht-sized two-door isn't out of step with its era, but the car's aggressively squared-off body (and 460-cubic-inch V8 that delivers just 202 horsepower) looks strikingly outdated compared to its more restrained predecessors. Still, buyers of the time liked what they saw, "And this became such a popular edition of the Lincoln Continental that at one point a quarter of all the Continentals sold were Designer Series," said Ryan. "And it continued for several decades … additional designers were added to the series after the fact." This included jewelry and fashion houses like Bill Blass, Pucci and Givenchy. These outlets helped build cars with unique colors, pinstriping and special interior details.
From the 1970s up through the 2000s, Lincoln was lost. It didn't have a strong brand identity or seemingly any idea of what it should be. But even in these dark days, there were still some successes, like the Navigator, which arrived in 1998. Based on the Ford Expedition, this vehicle helped jumpstart the luxury SUV craze, something we're still experiencing today. In fact, Lincoln's 2022 US lineup is comprised exclusively of utility vehicles: the Corsair, Nautilus, Aviator and, yes, Navigator, which was just refreshed, gaining updated styling and hands-free driving capability on freeways.
But what are Lincoln's future plans? Well, like other automakers, the brand intends to go electric in a big way, but it probably won't abandon its core ethos. "Quiet Flight" has been Lincoln's slogan for a few years, but this is nothing new. "[Certainly] aviation is an inspiration, but sometimes ... mechanical aviation can kind of be loud and overbearing," saidRobert Gelardi, Lincoln's chief interior designer. "So, we tend to also look at nature," he noted while pointing out advertisements from the 1920s that include colorful paintings of exotic birds, a campaign that could easily work today.
Going forward, Gelardi said we can expect to see vehicles with strongly horizontal interior and exterior design cues as well as restrained exuberance. "We never look back to try and resurrect anything, right? We're always looking forward towards the future, and you'll see some of that soon."