In 1939, Edsel Ford, son of automotive pioneer Henry Ford, vacationed at his estate in Hobe Sound, Fla.
Ford took the trip every year, but this time he brought along a one-of-a-kind convertible that Ford’s chief stylist E.T. “Bob” Gregorie had made for him. Having seen the stylish sedans running around Europe, Ford had told the draftsman he wanted a car like the ones “on the Continent … long, low and rakish.” Ford was surprised when friends, awestruck by his one-off car, began leaving him blank checks in hopes he’d make them one, too.
As soon as Ford could gear up a production line, Ford’s friends (and anyone else with the means) could get their hands on the special new sedan: the Lincoln Continental. And the nameplate has been synonymous with luxury ever since.
It was, said car expert and automotive digital marketing firm PureCars CEO Jeremy Anspach, “as good as Ford could build you. If you saw a Continental going down the street, it was a wealthy man who had a lot of pride in American automobiles. The name had weight for many, many decades.”
And it still does, even though fans hung their heads in July when Ford announced that it would be discontinuing the Continental at the end of 2020. Last year, of the 112,000 vehicles that Ford sold, only about 6,400 were Lincoln Continentals, a 25% dip from 2018. Turns out today’s car buyers want SUVs, not sleek sedans like the Continental.
“What we’re doing with our strategy,” Lincoln’s North America director Michael Sprague explained, “is responding to what our clients are asking us for.”
But as Sprague’s comment suggests, Lincoln is—and always has been—more than just the Continental. And even though Lincoln will soon be available only as the Aviator and Navigator SUVs, it remains one of the most storied brands in Detroit.
In 1917, Cadillac veteran Henry Leland started a new car company. He named it after Abraham Lincoln, a president whom the 74-year-old Leland had actually voted for in 1860. But Leland was bankrupt just a few years into his venture, and in 1922, Henry Ford snapped the company up for $8 million. At the time, Ford Motor—still cranking out its bread-and-butter Model Ts—was losing ground to General Motors and its variety of nameplates.
At the stroke of a pen, Lincoln gave Ford a means to compete at the high end of the market, which is exactly what it did for the next century.
In addition to the Continental, Lincoln also offered the Lido, the Capri, the Premiere, the Sport and the Custom. In the 1960s, Lincolns sat in the garages of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and James Brown. And starting in the late 1990s, the Lincoln Town Car became a mainstay of the livery trade—the limo you rode to the airport.
Today, the Lincoln Navigator bears no resemblance to the 20-foot-long land yachts of yore, but Sprague observes that, even though Lincoln is a brand with a long history, millennials are just discovering it.
“The brand when they were growing up wasn’t as popular as a Lexus or a Mercedes that their parents drove,” he said. “Now they’re looking for something that’s their own and something that’s rich in heritage, a compelling product.”