PERSPECTIVE 2000: THREE NEW PRODUCTS
The car was a generation ahead of its time. It has been said that the Airflow might have been a great success if it had been introduced in the mid-1960s. That's a bit like saying the Edsel would have wowed the market if it had had a 109.5-inch wheelbase as did the Ford Falcon a few years later.
The failure of the Airflow drove Chrysler Corp. into a shell of conservative styling from which it did not emerge for 20 years.
The styling of the 1936 Lincoln-Zephyr was just as radical as that of the Airflow, but this time the market accepted it. The Zephyr could not be called a "baby Lincoln"; it bore no resemblance to the senior member of the family. It was "streamlined" (the new buzzword in automotive styling). So was the Airflow. But one caught on; the other didn't.
The Lincoln-Zephyr was introduced as a 1936 model, and the sales charts tell the story of its success. In 1935, Lincoln sales totaled 2,370. The Zephyr carried sales to 15,567 in 1936 and to 25,242 in 1937. Deliveries slipped a bit after that, but they remained strong.
Lincoln outsold Cadillac in 1936-39, a first for the Ford entry. There was no chance of leading the luxury class, though. Packard had a lock on that segment.
The Zephyr lived from the 1936 through the 1942 model years. It was not in the Lincoln lineup when production resumed after World War II.
Late in 1939, the Lincoln Continental joined the team as a 1940 model. The Continental was designed and built as Edsel Ford's personal car. Edsel received so many requests for duplicates that it became a production model. It lived until 1948, except for the war years. It went through many reincarnations, the most recent being the Mark VIII, which died in 1998.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright called the 1940 Lincoln Continental the most beautiful car ever designed.
The Zephyr reduced the miles-wide price gap between Ford and Lincoln, but the company wanted a medium-priced entry to reduce the spread even more. Enter Mercury as a 1939 model.
Prices started at $944, including taxes. Just as Ford Motor planned, it was midway between the Ford and the Zephyr.
And that has been the Mercury story for 62 years. It has been more than a Ford and less than a Lincoln. Mercury nameplates have generally been rebadged and slightly revamped versions of Ford Division entries.
That mold was broken in 1957 when the Turnpike Cruiser appeared. It was an innovative, highly styled car that was all Mercury. Unfortunately, the Turnpike Cruiser did not open new avenues for Mercury. Its high price and a brutal recession in 1958 doomed it and put Mercury back under the wing of Ford Division.
Other product news during the Depression included the death of Oakland, which made Pontiac No. 2 (after Chevrolet) in Alfred P. Sloan Jr.'s step-up plan for GM car buyers, and Plymouth's inspired "look at all three" advertising campaign that linked Plymouth with Chevrolet and Ford. Plymouth never approached either Ford or Chevy in sales, but the ads established Plymouth as one of "the low-priced three,'' a tag that endured until the proliferation of nameplates in the 1960s.