Eugene "Bob" Gregorie had a unique ability. Listening to his mentor and boss Edsel Ford talk about concepts or designs, Gregorie could sketch along to capture Edsel's ideas.
Edsel wanted a "special little sports car" that he could drive during the 1939 winter months at his Hobe Sound estate in Florida. On a September day in 1938, Gregorie, then 29, listened to Edsel's concepts. Then the consummate draftsman tacked down a sheet of tracing paper over a drawing of Ford's leading streamlined vehicle, the V-12 Lincoln Zephyr, and jotted some outlines.
Gregorie later recalled to biographers that the work took less than an hour; to some, he said that it took just 30 minutes to flesh out the first Lincoln Continental.
By today's standards, some elements might seem awkward: the bulbous fenders, relatively massive stance, plain wheels with baby moon hubcaps and a slightly hunchbacked convertible top.
In 1939, though, the car was lean, long and low - and sensational. Edsel's concept brought the roofline down 3 inches and lengthened the hood 7 inches. The downward-sloping hood was daring, as were the shortened trunk and the extended length of the front fenders. Jauntily perched on the rear bumper was a spare tire.
Seeking a Continental flair
Edsel had been touring in Europe in 1938 when the idea of bringing Continental styling to America took root. He knew that, with Lincoln, he had an opportunity to innovate. Lincoln was Edsel's turf, a place where he could give his styling concepts room to grow.
His first market success, the V-12 Zephyr, had debuted to wide acclaim on the show circuit in 1936. The car, based on a concept built at Briggs Manufacturing Co., a body maker, and designed by Dutch engineer John Tjaarda, had been shepherded by Edsel to become a midpriced Lincoln. The project had been shielded from Henry Ford and production chief Charles Sorensen until the last moment, and so it came to market with excellent styling but without much mechanical refinement.
The Zephyr had received a lot of Ford publicity, sharing pages with the civic celebrations honoring Henry Ford's 75th birthday.
After the approval of a one-tenth-scale clay model in October 1938 and a set of full-sized drawings, but no full-sized clay, Edsel's Continental concept was assembled using off-the-shelf Zephyr parts for much of the construction. It weighed more than 5,000 pounds and was said to include more than 500 pounds of solder to smooth the sheet metal.
The car was painted dove gray and photographed against a steely winter industrial landscape in Dearborn on Feb. 23, 1939.
Edsel's Florida drives among the rich were reputed to have led to more than 200 open orders filed for the Continental, with blank checks offered in many cases.
That enthusiasm led Edsel to push the car into production. Continental No. 2, a production prototype, moved the passenger compartment forward to give more interior room, shortening the hood and front fenders, and the trunk was raised. Ford thought enough of the new model to put a new piece of equipment in the car - the company's first steering column-mounted shifter. On Oct. 2, 1939, the Continental went on sale for $2,840.
Over the years, Bob Gregorie's idea of a rear-mounted spare remained, although in subdued form.
The V-12 engine borrowed from the Zephyr was unreliable, and the suspension and mechanical systems under Gregorie's sweeping design lines were outdated by competitors' luxury vehicles.
Edsel's unfailing taste, his willingness to experiment and his success in encouraging skilled subordinates created what the Museum of Modern Art declared, in 1951, was one of the eight most important cars before World War II.
Sadly, Edsel's death in 1943 and the war itself halted Continental production and killed the Zephyr, as though fate intended to wipe away all of the Ford son's marks on the company. The Continental returned for 1946-48, but it was not in the lineup for 1949, the first postwar Lincoln.
William Clay Ford's distinctive Continental Mark II made the scene in 1956-57. From 1958 through 2002, the Continental was either a Lincoln series or a separate nameplate.
Gregorie purchased Edsel's original "special little sports car" and modified it several times. The car later was scrapped, and only its photographs and drawings remain to show the original design that so captivated Edsel's friends.