Lincoln Mark Series Cars, Feeling Continental (Part VI)
We pick up the history of Lincoln’s Mark series cars once again today, at a low point in coupe history. The extremely expensive development and launch of the new Continental brand happened exactly at the Wrong time for Ford.
Shortly after the family business spent $21 million ($227 million adjusted) launching its new luxury brand, the company went public. This meant that the big money pouring into the black hole that was Continental was visible to anyone who wanted to see it, including shareholders. The pressure was just too much and the Continental marque was canceled in 1956 by Henry Ford II, just a year after the Mark II entered production.
But let’s go back a year to just when the Mark II went on sale. Continental Division management knew that the singular, hand-assembled model was not enough to keep the company running. They needed to save and earn more money, and fast.
Part of Continental’s plan for success included two additional models, as noted in our last entry. The Mark II was to transform via a folding metal roof into a convertible, a technology fully developed at the time of Continental’s cancellation and carried directly into the Fairlane 500 Skyliner.
The other was the Mark II sedan, a four-door hardtop called the Sedan. Continental’s plans did not initially include a four-door version of the Mark II, but the coupe’s ultra-expensive nature meant it was intended for niche sales. Continental management soon realized that a sedan would be the volume seller of the two.
The Sedan version of Mark II was developed quickly after the debut of the Mark II coupe, with a simple frame extension in the middle of the coupe’s 126-inch wheelbase for an even 132 inches. The increase in the middle gave the necessary length while ensuring that new body panel requirements were kept to a minimum.
And although the Sedan’s design period was short, it was already too late for the Continental brand. The original plan was to sell it in March 1957, but that idea was crushed pretty quickly. In the spring of 1955, the folks at Continental knew there would be no two-door Mark model after 1957. And there would be nothing with four doors based on the Mark II either. The Mark III arrives.
The new Continental Mark III began life under the stewardship of the folks at Continental. The designers worked on two full-size clay blocks, quickly finalized them, and were ready for presentation to Ford’s product planning executive in mid-June 1955. It was a new design, meant to be more affordable to produce than the Mark II.
The new Mark III sedan came with a new approach to marketing, to help raise brand awareness and increase sales figures. And there was also a new price, as the Continental Mark III would go on sale in 1958 for around $6,800 (adj. $68,739), about 25% less than the Mark II. And it was half the price of the illustrious Cadillac Eldorado Brougham sedan.
When the product planning meeting took place, the Mark III design presented to management was not Continental’s preferred one. However, through internal negotiations and styling revisions, by the time the Mark III was finalized, the less preferred design had most of the attributes of the preferred.
As the Mark III advanced, the Continental Division was on its last legs internally. The slow-selling Mark II ended up being batch poison and were mostly moved at a discount after the small initial demand for them was satisfied. And that added insult to injury since the Mark II made Ford lose money on every sale. Remember that these greedy dealers should earn 30% on each.
Continental management presented the finalized Mark III sedan to Ford executives in November 1955 and introduced the new marketing. The year-end product meeting was to present the creations and justify the division’s budget for the following year.
This is where the cost savings came into play: Continental then determined that the Mark III would use the same wheelbase as a standard 1958 Lincoln Capri/Premiere. Both cars were slated for a new generation that year. . To differentiate the Mark III from the Lincoln, it would be about five inches shorter in length.
In terms of marketing, Continental wanted to reclassify dealerships so that only certain outlets could have Continentals in the showroom. The plan also included better training for sales and more marketing across the country. The team conducted tests with affluent consumers, with a side-by-side design of the Mark III and the Eldorado Brougham. The results were favorable for the Mark, which most respondents preferred.
With the lower price and parts sharing, Continental offered a stretched budget of $335 (adj. $3,386) per car produced to add special features like a hardtop and rear-hinged doors like on the defunct Sedan. . If approved, the Mark III would also receive push-button-controlled automatic fuel injection, as well as automatic climate control. Differences and advanced features were showcased via three distinct and comprehensive Continental Mark III concepts.
In addition to the big budget and the additional request of $335, Continental assured that there would be more parts sharing with Capri and Premiere. They would have the same exhaust, glass and fender trim, and use the parts tray for electrical equipment.
The budget request included production at Continental Division separate from Lincoln, and a newly revised selling price on the Mark III: $9,800 ($99,065 adj.) $9,800. Sales were to reach 4,000 a year, and the company would start making money after 3,825 cars. A small margin of error.
Management approval was granted by the product committee, but came with a strong warning for Continental: share more parts with the Lincolns and sell the car for $7,000 (adj. $70,760). The Mark III was later approved for production by Ford’s administrative committee.
The plan was to begin production in September 1957 for the 58 model year and have Mark IIIs in dealerships before Thanksgiving. With their new homologated sedan, Continental had long since thrown in the towel on the Mark II and put it in run-off mode. Mark III’s triumph was short-lived, however, as the budgeting meeting began in May 1956.
Seated at the head of the table was a new kid in town at Ford by the name of Lewis Crusoe. Crusoe was previously an executive at Fisher Body (1908-1984), owned by General Motors, which retired. Soon after, he was recruited to Ford by his buddy Ernie Breech. Breech felt generous after Henry Ford II also recruited him to GM. Ford II liked Crusoe and he was named vice president of all passenger vehicles at Ford-Continental-Lincoln-Mercury.
Crusoe was actively shaking things up at Ford, where he had already made many beneficial/damaging changes depending on the interviewee. Prior to attending the Continental budget meeting, he had already split Lincoln and Mercury into separate divisions after firing the Mercury division chief. Then he recruited his understudy to run Mercury and appointed accountant Ben Mills to run Lincoln (who had been Continental’s accountant).
Other things Crusoe did around this time were pushing harder for Edsel and replacing the ugly Mercury Turnpike Cruiser in place of the Mercury Monterey. And he wasn’t a Continental fan either. As part of the product and administrative committees that approved the Mark III, he embarked on a small secret mission afterwards.
Crusoe wondered if Continental’s new direction would work, especially the marketing strategy. Crusoe therefore conducted his own personal investigation of Continental’s accounts, no doubt with the help of accountant Ben Mills, who was grateful for his recent big promotion.
Crusoe decided that Continental would never break even as he suggested with the Mark III. His immediate recommendation was that the Continental Division be integrated into Lincoln. The convergence of the IPO, Henry Ford II’s hiring of retired Crusoe, and the most knowledgeable accountant of Continental’s financial workings converged into a single big bang event.
And just like that, Continental was quickly merged with Lincoln as we discussed in the last entry. William Clay Ford was the only dissenting voice in the council chamber, as votes fell in favor of immediate cancellation. The meeting also determined that all actions related to Continental’s personnel and structural teardown be assigned directly to Crusoe, to do as he sees fit.
Crusoe’s final argument when he got his way was that there was has been some value in a Mark III. But building the finalized Mark III would be far too expensive, as there were no plans to share a production line with other Lincolns. Instead, Crusoe decided to throw it all away: The 1958 Continental Mark III would be a quick finishing job on the 1958 Premier.
The choice of name was very intentional, as Crusoe planned to sell the new Mark III based on the Mark II’s hand-assembled ultra-luxury reputation. We will come to that next time.
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