Throughout the decades, the Lincoln Continental has become synonymous with premiere American luxury. Spanning ten generations, this marque has delivered a stylish and innovative driving experience that showcased American luxury to those lucky enough to get behind the wheel. This driving icon has made a lasting impression on automotive history, but the story of how it found its way on the road is different than any other production carof its time. The Continental did not come from focus groups, design studies, or endless bureaucratic meetings, but rather the simple desire for an elegant automobile for the enjoyment of the road.
The original Lincoln Continental was birthed from the minds of two men: Edsel Ford, who wished to build a low, long, and sleek roadster similar to cars he had seen while vacationing in Europe, and Eugene “Bob” Gregorie, Lincoln’s chief stylist who desperately needed to update Lincoln’s top of the line Model K. Working off scale-drawings of the Lincoln-Zephyr sedan, Gregorie designed a new car to work around the existing Zephyr chassis that would fit the bill of Edsel’s newest desire. After moving the windshield backward, lowering the roofline and ride height, as well as extending the fenders and hood, Gregorie had come up with a sporty, yet elegant design ready Edsel’s approval. The whole process took him only 35 minutes.
When Edsel stopped by the Design Department that afternoon, Gregorie showed him his new idea to which Edsel exclaimed “That looks great! That’s it! Don’t change a line on it!” The project for a one-off custom was greenlit and told to be completed in time for Edsel’s upcoming vacation to Palm Beach. Gregorie, with the help of Bud Adams and Ed Martin, produced a small clay model of his concept and full-size engineering sketches for reference in constructing the body panels of the new custom vehicle. Edsel himself was involved in this process, adding slight design cues or advising Gregorie to use minimal trim on the car to give the car clean bodylines. The name “Continental” also came from Edsel, who wanted the car to have a European presence with “continental” styling cues, this the name.
This unusual path to production avoided the lengthy process of watercolor sketches, full-size clay models, discussion meetings across several departments, and more that are typical when designing a new car, and instead went directly into the construction phase without the knowledge of any Ford designers. This car was to be built solely for Edsel himself without consideration of the public’s perception or the market segment to which the car was intended to be sold. Edsel’s sole vision of what he wanted in a car was brought to life by Gregorie and is what helped to create a unique car that stood out among everything else on the road at the time.
Once Edsel took delivery of his new special project, he was amazed at the public reaction, exclaiming to Gregorie on a phone call that he “could sell a thousand of them down here [Florida] right away.” Edsel ordered Gregorie to immediately begin work on a limited production of cars. By the time Edsel had returned from Florida, decided to incorporate it into regular production for the 1940 model year as the top of the line option for the Lincoln-Zephyr brand.
Picture taken of the Engineering Car at the Lincoln Plant in 1939 for Documentation Purposes.
Edsel’s original prototype had a short life as it was disassembled and destroyed after being noted to have “No further use”, which was common with Ford special prototypes of the time. However, once the decision was made to send the Continental into production, a second 1939 prototype was built for the Lincoln engineers to shake down in preparation of its debut and public sale.
This new prototype, known as the “Engineering Car” was based upon Edsel’s original special project and is the earliest surviving Lincoln Continental Prototype in existence. The engineering car was built with the general consumer in mind and therefore had slight modifications made for the vehicle to be more production friendly. Gregorie had the hood extended 8 inches beyond the stock Zephyr (as opposed to the 12-inch extended hood of the Edsel’s car) to give passengers more room and the luggage compartment was heightened to increase cargo space. The engineering car was also powered by a Zephyr V12 (Engine number H-82410), connected to Lincoln’s earliest “three on the tree” column gear shift, painted black with a tan leather and whipcord interior, no radio, and minimal trim. The Lincoln Assembly plant took roughly a month to construct the vehicle (due to its custom body panels), after which it went through extensive testing as the engineering team drove it for throughout the summer of 1939.
After the car had completed testing, Edsel gifted the car to Gregorie for his personal use, to which Gregorie decided to make the vehicle his own through further modifications. Gregorie decided to switch out the original black paint and to an ivory color, cut out the rear fenders to exposed the hubcaps, added gravel guards on the rear fenders, mud flaps on the front fenders, a metal tire cover for the rear mounted spare, incorporated the rear view mirror into the dash, and put a 1939 Zephyr front bumper on the rear! Outside of the cosmetic modifications, Gregorie also added a structural “X-brace” underneath the dash to stabilize the car due to excessive shaking he experienced on the highway. Gregorie originally jammed a pair of 2x4s into position to fix the issue, but later added a more permanent solution with a welded, metal brace.
(Left) Photo of the Engineering Car during Gregorie’s ownership with his extensive modifications. (Right) Photo showcasing the “X-brace” added by Gregorie after testing
After Gregorie’s ownership, the car passed through the hands of many collectors throughout the years, travelling throughout the states and even being used to haul lumber for housing projects at one point in its life. In December of 1956, the car was unfortunately blindsided in an accident which damaged a majority of the driver side profile of the car and made it unfit for the road. The then-owner of the car received a settlement to have the car repaired, but never followed through with the work, leading the Continental Prototype to sit in storage for many years.
In 1978, a man by the name of Bob Anderson was able to purchase the car and was determined to finally finish its restoration. Restoring a prototype car to original specifications turned out to be more of a hurdle than Anderson expected, causing the restoration to take decades in order to determine what was original and have the work done correctly. Many Lincoln enthusiasts thought the car was doomed to never return to the road or see the light of day again, but Bob continued his work outside of the limelight until everything was finished. Working with his sons, Bob Anderson was able to restore the car just in time for a public debut in completed form at the 2002 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
In 2018, the prototype car was acquired by Ford House, the prior residence of Edsel and Eleanor Ford that is now a public museum and grounds to showcase the lives and historical contributions of the Ford family. Ford House representatives recently showcased the Continental Prototype at the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance where it received our National Automotive Heritage Award for its pivotal role in launching one of the most iconic personal luxury cars in American history. When we asked them about the significance of the Continental Prototype and why they wanted to share the story of Edsel’s involvement, they said:
“Edsel’s greatest contribution to styling might have been the Lincoln Continental he designed that was sold prior to and immediately after WWII. Although only a few more than 5,000 were built, those still on the road today are in great demand because of their classic styling. […] There’s a great quote by Edsel where he said ‘Father makes the most popular cars in the world. I want to make the best cars in the world.’”
The Continental Prototype will be a part of Ford House’s upcoming exhibition “Driven by Design” which will showcase the history of Edsel Ford’s influence on Ford brands, automotive design, and three of his special projects including the 1932 Ford Model 18 Speedster and the 1934 Ford Model 40 Special Speedster (both pictured below). Set to open in December of 2020, this exhibit will be the first time these three Edsel Ford special projects will be on public display together, so don’t miss out on your chance to see them all on a beautiful property that has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. In the mean time, enjoy our photo gallery below of this amazing piece of American automotive history and the other vehicles to be on display during Ford House’s Driven by Design exhibition!
All photos courtesy of Ford House except where otherwise stated