Cars We Love: 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III

1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III

The Lincoln Continental Mark III was a personal luxury car based on Ford’s Thunderbird. By sharing parts with the T-Bird and building the Mark III on the same assembly line, Ford lowered its development costs to a minimum, ensuring a healthy profit on Mark III sales. By outselling its arch rival, the Cadillac Eldorado, the Continental Mark III transformed the Lincoln-Mercury Division from a money loser into a profit center that, in its best year, earned Ford Motor Company almost a $1 Billion profit from Lincoln alone.

Continental Mark III – A car for the Seventies

The Lincoln Continental Mark III was a car that hit the market at the perfect time – it could have only been successful in the early to mid-seventies. The Mark III was a personal luxury car that could seat four comfortably, but it was a two-door car that was eighteen feet long, weighed a little over 5,000 pounds and, powered by a 460 cu. in. V8, got 10.3 miles per gallon. To give you a meaningful comparison, the Mark III was almost ten inches longer than a 2014 Excursion, Ford’s heavy-duty extended-length SUV.

The Mark III for 1971 came loaded with standard features, such as power steering, power brakes, power windows, concealed headlamps, a split-bench power seat, a Cartier brand clock, radial tires, a padded vinyl roof, and 150 pounds of sound deadener to provide the occupants with all of the comfort and quiet of home. Also standard were automatic climate-controlled air conditioning, tinted glass, and an anti-lock brake system. Lincoln made sure that every comfort and convenience feature was available to the prospective Mark III owner – after all, the cost of a new Mark III in 1971 was $8,421 at a time when the average cost of a new car was $3,560.

Continental Mark III design

The design of the Mark III was polarizing, even within the Ford organization. After reviewing a few of the original clay mock-ups, Ford’s leaders agreed it look too much like the Thunderbird and needed changes that would give it a different look with more pizazz. It was Lee Iacocca, then the Group Vice President of the Car and Truck Group, who came up with the idea of adding an upright, imitation Rolls-Royce grille on the front and reviving the Continental Mark II’s rear deck treatment with the spare tire hump.

Few within Ford design liked the new look and it was not one of the chosen preferred designs of a Lincoln-Mercury consumer marketing clinic. But the two people who mattered most, Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford II, loved it and it was greenlighted for production. The Mark III was produced as a 1969 Model and was well-received by the buying public. It sold 23,858 units in 1969; 21,432 in 1970; and 27,091 in its final year of 1971.

Some of you might be thinking: “Hey, wait a minute. Wasn’t there a Continental Mark III back in 1958?” Yes, there was. To understand how there could be more than one Continental Mark III model we must take a peek back at the Continental’s history.

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The First Lincoln Continental

The Lincoln Continental name goes back to the late 1930s when Edsel B. Ford, then Ford Motor Company president and the only son of Henry Ford, (and, yes, after whom the Edsel was named), asked Ford designer Eugene T. “Bob” Gregorie to build a prototype for an upscale personal luxury car that Edsel could take on his annual vacation to Florida. Based on the Lincoln Zephyr, Gregorie’s first Continental design was an instant success. Edsel called from Florida to report that so many people were asking where they could buy the car, that Gregorie should begin another prototype with an eye toward production.

Production of the new Lincoln Continental began in time for the 1940 model year and continued until 1942, when all car production was halted during World War II. Continental production resumed in 1946 and continued until 1948. All of the first generation of Continentals are now considered to be genuine classics, a tribute to the design tastes of Edsel Ford and Bob Gregorie.

The Continental Marks of the Fifties

Ford Motor Company launched another attack on the ultra-luxury car market in the mid-1950s with the Continental Mark II. The car was not marketed as a Lincoln, but simply as the Continental Mark II. The 1956 Mark II had a conservative, tasteful design, unlike many other cars of the fifties, and was extremely well made. This quality was reflected in the price – the Mark II sold for $10,400, at the time the cost of a new Rolls Royce and twice the cost of a new Cadillac. Only about 3,000 Mark IIs were sold and it was discontinued at the end of the 1957 model year.

This is where our Continental Mark name takes a wrong turn.

Someone in the Lincoln hierarchy had the idea that attaching the Continental Mark name to Lincoln’s top-of-the line model would somehow transfer the cachet of the Mark II to Lincoln. So for 1958, the top Lincoln was the Continental Mark III; in 1959 the Continental Mark IV; and for 1960, it was the Continental Mark V. The strategy didn’t work. The ’58 to ’60 Lincolns had some of the most extravagant designs ever made, appearing to totally lack any design strategy or continuity. The Continental Mark series name then disappeared from Lincoln. Later, design experts dubbed this series of cars the “phony Marks” and even within Ford, many did not consider them to be part of the genuine Continental heritage.

The Mark III’s place in Ford history

In the history of Ford Motor Company, the Continental Mark III is an enigma. It continues to polarize car buffs, with some seeing it as a gaudy, overdone luxury car with tacky styling cues, and others seeing a car that accurately reflects the times in which it was built and gives owners a sense of pride. It’s highly unlikely that time will ever confer a ‘classic design’ label on the Mark III as it has on the original Continental. With the up-and-down financial histories of the Lincoln brand and Ford Motor Company, however, there can be no doubt that the profits generated by the Mark III assisted mightily in keeping both endeavors afloat.




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Photos by: Alf van Beem, Kaz Andrew (1), (2)

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