Lincoln made little money for the Ford Motor Company in its first 45 years and then the luxury division suddenly became a cash cow.
It was the Continental Mark III that turned the tide.
Designed as a personal luxury car to compete against Cadillac’s new front-wheel drive Eldorado, the new car from Lincoln was an absolute sensation. People loved it, and Ford made a barrel of money every time it handed over the keys to a new Mark III owner.
The new car was introduced in April 1968 as a ’69 model, and was the brainchild of Lee Iacocca, who several years earlier had directed the company’s design team to put a Rolls-Royce grille on the front of a Thunderbird. The grille was based on the new Corniche, which had been recently introduced by the British luxury car builder.
The visual impact was immediate and from that moment forward planning began to resurrect the famous Mark brand that had earned such an extraordinary reputation during the late Fifties when Ford, for only a few years, had a Continental Division apart from Lincoln.
But the new Mark, to be called Continental Mark III, was anything but a new car. The two-door luxury coupe would share most of its mechanical underpinnings with the newly-designed Thunderbird for 1967. Development costs, set at an estimated $30 million (an inexpensive sum even for that era) would be devoted to sheet metal design and the like. The new Lincoln would make a lot of money for Ford because the cost to bring the new car to market was relatively low.
Having already established a distinctive but beautiful grille for the new Mark, designers placed the traditional Continental rear tire shape on the rear deck. The new Mark III was also given hidden headlights.
The car would be shaped much like its spiritual ancestor from the early 1940s – the first Continental featured a long hood, a short deck, and a rather wide C-pillar. That basic formula had been adopted by other car models, most famously by the 1963 Buick Riviera, but the formula was pure Continental. Indeed, the Mark’s hood was said to be the longest ever on an American production car – just over six feet.
The car’s weight matched its hood length. The Mark weighed in at a hefty 4,866 pounds. It was 216.1 inches in length and had a wheelbase of 117. 2 inches. The Lincoln was 79.4 inches wide and stood 53 inches high. It was not a small car.
The new Mark was powered by a 460-cubic-inch V8 and ran with a 10.5:1 compression and four-barrel carburetor. All of that power was stopped by power-assisted 11.7-inch front disc brakes and by enormous rear drum brakes.
Although the Mark’s performance was approaching the domain of the late 1960s muscle car culture, its suspension was deliberately soft so that the car floated over the most difficult of road surfaces while the driver and passengers were ensconced in a cocoon of Detroit-style luxury.
The Mark’s standard equipment included power steering, brakes, windows, the already-mentioned “vacuum activated concealed headlamps”, and split front electric seats.
The instrument panel and trim on the doors was adorned with fake wood – you could order either English Oak or East-Indian Rosewood.
Eventually a Cartier-branded clock became standard equipment.
Upholstery was either the standard vinyl with cloth inserts, or optional leather.
Also optional was a vinyl roof, but very few customers didn’t opt for the vinyl roof.
Also available was air conditioning, even more power adjustments for the front seats, a more elaborate radio with an eight-track player, tinted glass and power door locks.
Cruise control was an option, as was an automatic headlamp dimmer. The headlights would dim for oncoming cars without the driver’s intervention.
All of these options added up, and were almost pure profit for the Ford Motor Company.
But that aside, the new Mark III was a very well built car. It was assembled at Ford’s plant in Wixom, where all of the Lincolns, along with the Thunderbird, were assembled. Wixom was the first plant to receive Ford’s E-coating technology, and the cars that rolled out of that plant were among the best to be offered by the Blue Oval.
Ford executives were ecstatic with the success of the Mark III. Cadillac for 1967 had briefly stolen the spotlight with its delightfully new front-wheel drive Eldorado, but right from the start Lincoln sold more Mark III’s than Cadillac sold Eldorados.
Never one to be modest about his accomplishments, Iacocca later had this to say about the new Lincoln: “We brought out the Mark III in April 1968 and in its very first year it outsold the Cadillac Eldorado, which had been our long-range goal. For the next five years (Marks III and IV) we had a field day, in part because the car was developed on the cheap. We did the whole thing for $30 million, a bargain-basement price, because we were able to use existing parts and designs.”
Iacocca would later suggest that the Mark III was his biggest automotive success, a remarkable statement when one considers his considerable achievement with the Mustang and Chrysler minivan.
Nevertheless, the Mark III did represent a landmark for the Ford Motor Company. It showed how a new product could be brought to market with very little development costs, and with dozens of optional equipment offerings, and make the company a boatload of cash.
In the decade that followed, Ford followed this pathway religiously. Many of its cars would be offered as basic models, but could be loaded up with various options, all of them priced to offer the company maximum returns. Thus a Mustang II could be tarted up with a Ghia package and sold for much more than a basic model, as could a Ford Granada.
Mark III sold well in 1968. It had a six-month start on the other 1969 models, and sold 7,000 units through to Dec. 31, 1968. During the balance of the model year, another 23,858 Marks were sold, for a total that crested beyond the 30,000-unit mark.
A curiosity of the ’69 Mark III was the fact the early models came with no headrests, but were fitted with such as of Jan. 1, 1969 because of new federal mandates that required headrests on the driver’s and front passenger’s seats.
The 1970 model offered only subtle changes, and Ford sold 21,432 units.
The vinyl roof was made standard, and the wheel covers were redesigned. The windshield wipers were concealed for the first time, and Michelin radial tires became standard equipment – a first for an American automobile.
Another federal mandate came in – a locking steering column and ignition switch assembly that replaced the dash-mounted ignition switch.
Yet another federal mandate required red reflectors on the rear bumper and yellow reflectors to the front parking lamp assemblies. These were seamlessly incorporated into the Mark III’s design.
New to the options list for 1970 was a sunroof.
The Mark III’s competition against Cadillac’s Eldorado continued, in the boardrooms of both Cadillac and the Ford Motor Company, but also publicly on the pages of Motor Trend. The magazine pitted both personal luxury cars against each, and rated them for performance, luxury, braking, handling and a myriad of other benchmarks. The Mark won the competition, but only barely, yet it was enough to give Lincoln bragging rights over its Detroit rival.
The 1971 model year would be the final year of Mark III production. Sales were lofty at 27,091 but little was changed. Tinted glass became standard, as did the automatic climate-controlled air conditioning and the anti-lock brakes. The Mark’s high-back seats became standard and, for the first time, buyers could opt to purchase a floor console. That special order, however, was exceedingly rare.
Horsepower remained unchanged at 365 hp, and with the 460-cubic-inch engine.
As a side note, the Mark’s gasoline economy was rated at 13 miles to the gallon, which was probably a pipedream. It was likely well below 10 miles to the gallon, given the weight of the car and the performance offered by that big engine.
Ford had big plans for its all-new Continental Mark IV, introduced as a 1972 model in late 1971. The Mark III had shown the corporation how to make money by selling oodles of options on a luxury car. The Mark IV would allow Ford to fully exploit that concept, even in the face of rising energy costs.
The new Mark was bigger than its predecessor. It was 228.1 inches long and its wheelbase was now 120.4 inches. It was much heavier, at 5,264 pounds, but only slightly wider at 79.8 inches.
As can be expected, the new Mark IV continued to be equipped with Ford’s monster 460-cubic-inch engine, along with a four-barrel carburetor. But its previous rating of 365 horsepower was lowered to a relatively anemic 212 horsepower because of changing EPA emission regulations. Ford sought to comply with those regulations by reducing the engine’s compression ratio.
The new Mark, however, was arguably more attractive than its predecessor. The car retained its traditional “Continental” look with a long hood, short deck and wide C-pillar. The Continental spare tired decklid was also retained, as was the Rolls-Royce Corniche inspired grille – although the grille had by 1972 become so strongly linked to the Lincoln brand that its origins were mostly forgotten.
To save money, Ford shared even more parts with Thunderbird. This wasn’t a bad thing. Both cars were produced at the Wixom plant and both cars were premium automobiles. As a consequence, Mark IV and Thunderbird shared the same roofline, doors and inner body panels but were obviously given different outer body panels below the roofline.
Sales were incredibly strong for the 1972 Mark IV. Lincoln sold 48,591 units, and at a hefty price tag – $8,640 in US funds.
The 1973 model would be even more popular. The cost of purchasing a new Mark IV would rise to $8,984, but Lincoln would sell almost 70,000 units – 69,437 to be exact.
Became of even more federal mandates, all American cars for 1973 required bumpers that could withstand a five-mile-per-hour collision. And so all of the Detroit-based companies altered the front bodywork of their automobiles to allow for these new and larger bumpers.
Just as conspicuous on the new Mark was a design feature that would become a cultural icon for the Seventies. It was the so-called opera window. The oval-shaped window in the car’s broad C-pillar gave the car added elegance and created a stampede of copycats with the other companies and their personal luxury cars. Only Thunderbird would be as bold as to use an oval-shaped opera window, and that was because it shared the same roofline stamping with the Mark.
Why it was called an opera window is anyone’s guess, but it was probably an adman’s idea to add a patina of distinction to the Mark IV and the Thunderbird.
The Mark IV continued through to 1976 with very little revision to its design. Despite the Energy Crisis, which began in November 1973 and continued through to the end of the decade and into the early Eighties, those who could afford the price of admission to owning a Lincoln Continental Mark IV ponied up the cash and didn’t worry about the luxury coupe’s poor fuel economy.
By 1974, the Mark IV cost over $10,000 to purchase in American funds, an incredible amount of money for that era. By 1975 it was over $11,000.
The hefty sticker price didn’t deter those who wanted the Lincoln. Although 1973 was the peak year for Mark IV sales, 1974 still saw sales of 57,316. For 1975, sales dropped to 47,145 and then rebounded for 1976 to 56,110.
The 1976 models were unique because of its Designer Series. Four designers lent their name to the Mark IV, each signing off on a particular design and colour scheme.
Lincoln would dramatically change its personal luxury car for 1977, calling it the Mark V.
Thereafter, there would be a total of seven generations of the personal luxury car, the last one being built for the 1998 model year.