1956-1957 Continental MK II

No it is not a Lincoln….it is “The Continental”

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No car epitomized luxury in the mid 1950s more than the Continental MK II. The long hood, hardtop styling, and short rear deck with the iconic “spare tire hump” became signature Mark styling cues for the subsequent series to follow. The 1956-1957 Continental MK II was a stand-alone division at Ford Motor Company. This personal luxury coupe had an elegant understatement. It was the pinnacle of motoring luxury with styling like no other car. Its hefty $10,000 price tag equates to around $70,000 today. No, it’s not a Lincoln….it’s “The Continental.”

The distinguished “Mark” series was a line of personal luxury cars that were the flagships of Ford Motor Company. Beginning with the Continental MK II in 1956, this was also the newly formed Continental Motor Division which was the successor to the original Continental of 1940-1948. When the Continental name was revamped in 1955 it was branded as a separate division absent of Lincoln branding. The new 1956-1957 Continental MK II was one of the most exclusive and expensive automobiles in the world at the time. The new Continental MK II was built largely by hand to extremely high standards.

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The 1956-1957 Continental MK II was the closest thing to a hand-crafted custom bodied car since the last of the coachbuilt classics of the 1940s. The Continental assembly plant was shared with no other Ford vehicle. The plant included a ¼ mile road test course. It was sold and serviced at Lincoln dealerships. The paint process alone was tedious with multiple coats of primer and paint air-dried, hand-sanded, double lacquered, and then hand polished to a glass-like shine. After an exhaustive round of testing and inspection, the car was carefully prepared for shipping in a unique way. It was protected by a fleece lined cloth cover then wrapped in a big plastic bad. The cars arrived dealer ready, all they had to do was pop on the hubcaps, bolt on the license plate, and hand over they keys to the new owner.

The Continental MK II was marketed in a most unique style. It was introduced at the 1955 Paris Auto Show. Advertising teasers went out in 1954 with details leaking out purposely over the next year until the car debuted in Paris. There was even a musical arrangement from Ford called “Continental” to promote this all new luxury car. Special commercials played on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The Continental MK II debuted in major US cities exclusively by invitation only. Nelson Rockefeller, Milton Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater and The Shah of Iran were on hand at one celebration. In Hollywood, Frank Sinatra, Cecil B. DeMille, Jack Warner, Mike Todd, Walter Brennan, and Louis Prima attended the star-studded debut. R.J. Reynolds and shipbuilding magnate & automaker Henry J. Kaiser were also in attendance.

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The Continental MK II had a luxury length of 218.4” with a long 126” wheelbase. Tastefully styled, impeccably hand-crafted, the Continental MK II was the epitome of luxury. If you drove this car in 1956-1957…..you were “there.” Warner Brothers Film Studio made a gift of one to actress Elizabeth Taylor in a custom color to match her eyes. The Continental MK II was one class act. It came equipped with power steering, power brakes, power windows, and a motorized radio with power antenna.

The interior could be ordered in an understated broadcloth with a cross-checkered nylon or luxurious “Bridge of Weir” leather imported from Scotland. There was also another choice called “Metallasse” which was an opulent embroidered thread pattern. In fact, it was so well equipped that its only available option in 1956 was air conditioning at $595. The Continental MK II was European inspired in its design, while other automakers were piling on the chrome and tail fins; it had a tasteful, elegant, understated appearance that gave it a classic simplicity.

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The engine for the Continental MK II was equally exclusive. It was the new 368 CID 6.0 litre “Y-block” Lincoln V8 that powered it. The engine used a Holley 4 barrel downdraft carburetor to produce 285 hp @ 4,600 rpm with 402 Nm of peak torque @ 3,000 rpm in 1956, and 300 hp @ 4,600 rpm with 415 Nm of torque @ 3,000 rpm in 1957. The engines were factory blueprinted and assembled from the closest-to-specification parts available by hand. It was mated to a Turbo-Drive 3-speed automatic transmission with torque converter. Both engine and transmission were subject to extensive pre-release testing. According to a 1956 report from “Popular Mechanics” the Continental MK II got 16 mpg @ 50 mph. Considering the sheer size and magnitude of this car, that gas mileage was superb….but then, who cared when the price of a gallon of petrol was less than $.50!

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A ladder-type box perimeter frame was used as the platform using a “Y” shape bracing. It was stronger than Lincoln’s 1952-1955 X-Member frame. Coil springs with upper and lower control arms, ball joints, and temperature sensitive shock absorbers were fitted to the front. The rear used live axles, semi-elliptic leaf springs and temperature sensitive shock absorbers. 12” Cast iron drum brakes were fitted to both front and real axles. Wheel alignment was held to superfine tolerances, while wheels, tires, and power drum brakes were all carefully calibrated. Because of the car’s “cowbelly” design, the transmission hump was higher and a special three joint driveshaft was needed. Each chassis when completed was dynamometer tested and tuned before being married to the body. Quality Control was paramount in every facet of the Continental MK II’s build.

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The Continental MK II had fierce competition from GM and Chrysler with the Eldorado Brougham and the Imperial. 3,000 MK II’s were built during the Continental branding from 1956-1957. Almost half of these still exist with prices ranging from $8,000 for a running car in poor condition and up to $70,000 in Concours condition. The Continental MK II was designed to echo styling cues from the classic Continental of the 1940s. It wasn’t intended to be the largest or most powerful car, but the most unique, luxurious, and elegant American automobile available. It was. In 1956 the Continental Division commissioned a convertible prototype from the famed Derham Coachworks of Rosemont, Pennsylvania. The retail price for this elegant ragtop would have exceeded $18,000.

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The 1956-1957 Continental MK II wasn’t your run-of-the-mill luxury car. First, it had its own branding as the Ford Motor Company spun the Continental off as a stand alone brand to fill the ultra-luxury niche. And, it was quite unlike any other car on the road at the time. Its pricey indulgence was in the Rolls Royce range and eventually led to the Continental MK II’s demise. America just wasn’t ready to spend $10,000 for a luxury car at the time.

It was, however, one of the most beautiful cars in the world…..and continues as such. It had a formidable opulence that was apparent upon its arrival in any gathering of fine automobiles. Its unmistakable presence is timeless in design making it an attractive investment as a collectible. The Mona Lisa, a Chateau Lafite Rothschild, and the Continental MK II all share one thing in common: serendipitous eloquence. It will become the Duesenburg of tomorrow.

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The 1956-1957 Continental MK II. Click on the photos to enlarge.

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