William Clay Ford's luxury-car legacy

Continental Mark II faded fast, but the styling was classic

Ford modeled just 3,012 Continental Mark IIs.

UPDATED: 3/16/14 8:07 pm ET - correction

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date of death for William Clay Ford.

As a separate Ford Motor Co. division, Continental lasted just 457 days. It produced one vehicle, the Continental Mark II. Total production run: 3,012 cars. A failure? Not exactly.

The Mark II, created 60 years ago under the direction of William Clay Ford, who died March 9 at age 88, still influences Ford, which is struggling once again to revive Lincoln.

World-class quality and customer service -- two pillars that Lincoln chief Jim Farley is pursuing in the effort to rebuild Lincoln -- were part of William Clay Ford's vision for the Continental Mark II.

Ford: A low profile, but some key moments

At $10,000 (about $87,000 in today's money) the Continental Mark II was the most expensive car available in America when it debuted in the fall of 1955.

The team that created the Continental Mark II was led by William Clay Ford and consisted of designer John Reinhart, former head of design for Packard; chief body engineer Gordon Buehrig, the man responsible for the design of another classic American luxury car, the Cord 810; and chief engineer Harley Copp, who went on to engineer the Ford Falcon and the LeMans-winning GT40 race car.

The goal was to develop a worthy successor to the original 1939-48 Continental, created by Edsel Ford, William Clay Ford's father. The new car would be big, fast, built to the highest standards and look like nothing else on the road. Its broader mission was to elevate Ford and Lincoln to take on Cadillac.

The craftsmanship that went into the Continental Mark II was unprecedented for a Ford-built vehicle. The leather upholstery came from Scotland but was dyed in America. The paint was lacquer -- four double coats -- each coat hand-sanded. Ford built entire mass-produced cars, such as the Fairlane, faster than it painted the Continental Mark II.

Although the Mark II's powertrain was standard-issue Lincoln, engineers tested the engine and transmission on dynamometers before and after installation. The front end sheet metal was test-fitted before painting so adjustments could be made to ensure a uniform gap that would not vary more than 25 one-thousandths of an inch.

Specifications for the car's chrome, paint and trim were the industry's highest. Suppliers routinely had parts returned because Continental's inspectors were not convinced of a component's long-term reliability, not just for fit and function, but for appearance.

Continental also set the standard for customer service. Defects in cars that had been sold were remedied quickly and personally. The Continental Division sent service personnel to dealerships to assist in repairs. They would also call on satisfied customers to make sure the cars were operating properly.

A quality committee monitored all aspects of production, warranty claims and customer complaints. Committee members also selected cars at random off the production line and tested them extensively. All Continental employees were empowered to point out defects so they could be remedied before the car left the plant. A guard at the plant halted a shipment when he noticed a Continental Mark II with a paint defect.

The Mark II's long, sculpted hood, short deck and low roof height helped it achieve a top speed of nearly 120 mph from its 368 cubic inch V-8 and three-speed "turbo-drive" automatic transmission. Customers could customize the car by selecting from a large pallet of colors and interior materials; there was only one extra-cost option: air conditioning.

The car was hailed as an instant classic, but Ford lost money on every one. Continental sold 2,556 Mark IIs in 1956 and 444 units in 1957 before production ended. Continental built one convertible as a test car. It was driven by Martha Ford, William Clay Ford's wife.

Today, the Continental Mark II has a loyal following among classic car collectors. Because it uses unique body and trim parts, it is difficult and very expensive to restore, said Paul Duchene, an auction analyst with Hagerty Classic Cars magazine.

A mint condition black Continental Mark II sold for $99,000 in January at the Barrett-Jackson classic car auction in Phoenix, but that's top-dollar. Clean originals sell for $30,000 to $50,000.

Long after production of the Continental Mark II ended, its influence could be seen. Lee Iacocca cited the Continental Mark II's long hood/short deck in selecting the final look for the 1965 Mustang. And the shape of the Continental Mark II's trunk lid, which contained space for the spare tire, lived on in Lincolns into the 1990s.

Chronicling the Continental

  • July 1952: William Clay Ford named manager of newly established Special Products Operations. Mission: Create a modern Continental.

  • October 1953: With the Mark II taking shape, the group is renamed Special Products Division. William Clay Ford dubs the style of the Mark II “modern formal.”

  • Oct. 16, 1954: William Clay Ford announces Ford will produce a new Continental.

  • April 19, 1955: Continental Division is created.

  • Oct. 6, 1955: Mark II makes its debut at the Paris auto show.
  • April 21, 1956: Continental folded into Lincoln Division.

  • 1955-56: In 20 months of production, Ford makes 3,012 Continental Mark IIs. At 5,190 lbs, it was the heaviest car on the market; at $10,000, it was the most expensive.

  • Today: The Mark II's styling and craftsmanship are regarded as a highlight of the post-World War II era.

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