Lincoln Zephyr: Gorgeous, popular, but soon gone
The streamlined, affordable Lincoln is credited with holding the make together in the mid-1930s, when many thought Lincoln was headed for the scrap heap.
And there's an adjective that belongs with the Zephyr: unique.
Bowing in 1936, it featured swooping lines unusual for the period, many art deco touches, unibody construction, an all-steel roof, and a smooth and powerful V-12.
Priced between Fords (around $700) and the Lincoln K ($3,500 and up), it helped prop up Lincoln - many say it saved the make - and it influenced the design of Ford vehicles of that era and of the 1939 Mercury.
The Zephyr was marketed from 1936 until 1942. People had stopped buying Lincolns in the early 1930s. And the make was facing competition from Cadillac's LaSalle and an entry-level Packard that were proving to consumers that they didn't have to spend a fortune to get an upscale car.
"The Zephyr was a remarkable car for its day," says Chadwick Coombs of Nokesville, Va., secretary of the Lincoln Zephyr Owners Club. "But it wasn't Henry's car - it never received that level of engineering."
Edsel Ford championed the idea of adding the Zephyr.
John Tjaarda, then at Briggs Manufacturing, is credited with the overall design. Briggs sold bodies to Lincoln. Ford Motor Co. stylist Eugene "Bob" Gregorie added the finishing touches.
Sales: Up and up
It was an instant success. Lincoln sales had plunged to 2,061 in 1934, improving to just 2,370 in 1935. Then came the Zephyr. Sales soared to 15,567 in 1936 and to a record 25,242 in 1937.
The Zephyr was the star of the 1936 New York auto show. The repeated use of a teardrop design, including teardrop headlights mounted in rather than atop the front fenders and teardrop-shaped fenders, was unusual and appealing.
It also was affordable, at $1,275 for the two-door and $1,320 for the sedan.
The 110-hp V-12, an expanded Ford flathead V-8, was larger than engines in similar near-luxury vehicles, including the LaSalle and the Packard 120.
A longtime fan
Ralph Boyer spent 47 years in design at Ford Motor Co. He worked on the first Thunderbird as well as the revitalized version, retiring from the company in 2002.
Boyer had had a 1939 Zephyr LS sedan in his eclectic automotive collection since 1975. He sold it in 2002 to a man who was creating a museum in Queens in New York.
"I just loved that car," Boyer says. "It was very fast and had a marvelous ride."
In 1939, the Zephyr added a distinctive grille. PHOTO: From the Collections of The Henry Ford and Ford Motor Co.
"Its downfall was that people don't like to shift gears," he says. "With that car, you could put it in third, start it moving from about
3 mph and ride the clutch."
That kind of abuse, coupled with poorer grades of engine oil, equaled a bad reputation for the vehicles.
Despite that, the Zephyr was extremely popular. It was spacious, comfortable and "it liked to move," Boyer says.
Joseph Mooradian remembers going as a 5-year-old to Southwest Ford in Detroit with his father to see the car.
"That was a car that really excited me," he says. "Zephyrs had plush interiors. The seats were high like chairs and had chrome bars around the edge.
"The rear armrests were like theater armrests, and there were hassocks for rear passengers' feet."
Its floor was low, making it easier for women to enter and exit. The low center of gravity for the relatively light 3,600-pound car made it handle beautifully, Mooradian says.
"Narrow pillars improved visibility," he says.
Lincoln Zephyr production grew from about 15,000 units in 1936 to almost 30,000 the following year, its biggest.
Yet, the vehicle did not survive World War II. The first postwar American cars were warmed-over versions of their prewar offerings, and Lincoln was no exception. The Zephyr was gone after a brief but memorable seven-year life.
You can reach Jenny King at firstname.lastname@example.org.