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Lincoln V12 (1939 -1946)

Henry Ford must have received some special satisfaction on February 4, 1922, because on that day he purchased the Lincoln Motor Company, which was being run by his long-time nemesis, Henry Leland. Some two decades before, Ford and Leland had their first run-in.

On the strength of his racing exploits, Ford was a principal participant in the founding of The Henry Ford Company, a successor to the Detroit Automobile Company that had been on of the first Michigan-based firms to enter the car manufacturing business. Soon after he was named chief engineer of the company that bore his name, the board of directors hired Henry Leland as a consultant.

Leland was a name to be reckoned with in early Twentieth Century Detroit. One of the most skilled industrial engineers of his time, Leland had cut his teeth working for Samuel Colt in his firearms factory. There he learned the crucial lesson of building parts to such close tolerances that they were "interchangeable." (Until Colt's monumental industrial achievement, parts were individually fitted to the product, so, for instance, a rifle stock of an individual gun might not fit another gun of the same type.) After leaving Colt, Leland set up his own machine shop, Leland and Falconer, and the firm entered the automobile business by building engines for Ransom E. Olds and his Oldsmobile.

Certainly, Leland had impressive credentials, but Henry Ford was a man with his own ideas, and the last thing he wanted was Henry Leland hanging over his shoulder. A boardroom brouhaha ensued, and Ford decided to take his dreams elsewhere. With a $900 settlement in his pocket he took his good name and good ideas on the door and formed Ford Motor Company. Meanwhile, what was The Henry Ford Company renamed itself Cadillac Motor Car Company with Henry Leland at the helm.

While Henry Ford was building the unsophisticated Model T into the sales success of the century, Leland's Cadillac enjoyed success at the upper echelons of the American market. He used the concept of precisely crafted, interchangeable parts to capture the Dewars Trophy for automotive excellence, and later his company introduced the first commercially successful V-8 engine and the first commercially successful electric self-starter.

After Cadillac was acquired by William Crapo Durant as part of the newly organized General Motors Corporation, the meticulous Leland ran afoul of the somewhat more speculative members of GM management. Soon Leland left to found Lincoln Motor Company, named after his personal hero and, coincidentally, the first president he had voted for.

Leland's new company immediately embarked on the production of Liberty aircraft engines. Then, with World War I over, Leland decided to re-enter the luxury automobile business.

His first model, the "L," was introduced to the public to great fanfare in 1920. As one had come to expect from Leland, the car was a superior product. Its 60-degree V-8 engine was very probably the most technically advanced American engine of its era, and the rest of the car was equally well-designed and crafted.

Leland's mistake, however, was timing. Soon after his first Lincoln came to market, the market started going away. America was going through a post-war boom-and-bust cycle, and Lincoln was whipsawed. By New Year's Day 1922, Lincoln Motor Company was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Who was there to pick up the pieces? Why, Henry Ford, who at the urgings of his 25 year old son, Edsel, decided to invest some of his company's huge profits in the failing luxury car maker. Under a picture of Honest Abe himself, the principals signed a deal in which Ford Motor Company acquired Lincoln Motor Company for the sum of $8 million on February 4, 1922.

By June of that year Edsel Ford, who was already the titular president of Ford Motor Company, also became head of the Lincoln division, and the division would remain his corporate plaything until his untimely death in 1943. Edsel Ford's goal for Lincoln was to add some sizzle and spice to the top-notch Lincoln chassis and drivetrain. Top-of-the-line models went directly to custom coachbuilders, who dressed them in 1920's finery. Lincoln also gained a reputation for speed. During Prohibition both bootleggers and the cops who chased them favoured Lincolns for their uncommonly good performance, reliability and handling.

When the stock market went south in 1929, Lincoln sales suffered, but the division could rely on the mighty strength of Ford Motor Company to see it through financial doldrums. In response to the Depression, Edsel Ford followed the classic "K" line of Lincolns with the less-expensive Zephyr, named after the wildly popular streamlined train run by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.

Introduced in 1936, the Lincoln Zephyr was a study in contrasts. Begun as a wildly experimental concept by Dutch-born John Tjaarda that anticipated the rear-engined Tatra 77, it wedded at fairly sophisticated 267 cubic inch (4.4-liter) V-12 engine to a rather mundane chassis, complete with transverse leaf spring suspension and beam axles front and rear. But, largely due to Edsel Ford's influence, the Zephyr was a good-looking vehicle that offered the right amount of luxury at a price that was less than half what Lincoln charged for its essentially dead-in-the-water model K.

The Zephyr was successfully launched, and it was even able to win the grudging acceptance of the European press and automotive establishment, at least for its leading edge bodywork. Edsel Ford made the segue to what was to become the Continental after an off-hand conversion with the chief stylist E.T. "Bob" Gregorie. Speaking of potential future projects, Gregorie mentioned the Zephyr V-12 and the availability of space in the old model K facility. With Edsel's encouragement, Gregorie is said to have come up with the lines of the Continental convertible in about a hour by putting a piece of tracing paper of a blueprint of the Zephyr and then sketching in changes.

In this manner, the hood grew longer and lower, the front fenders got longer and, of course, at the rear, the shorter trunk was accompanied by an integral, exterior-mounted spare tire. When Edsel Ford saw the sketch he was ecstatic and ordered Gregorie to proceed without any alterations.

After viewing a scale model, Ford is said to have commented, "Let's not change a thing. I wouldn't change a line on it." He also made it clear he wanted a running version of the new car in the garage of his winter home in Hobe Sound, Florida, in time for his March 1939 vacation.

With that kind of order from the boss, Lincoln workers began scurrying to hammer together what they believed to be a one-off custom job for the "big guy." The Lincoln craftsman assembled the unnamed car by hand and it was delivered to Florida on time. Within a couple of weeks, Edsel cabled back to Dearborn that the new styling was so well-accepted by the moneyed set that he could sell a thousand of them.

During the course of 1939, some two dozen of the newly named Lincoln Continentals were meticulously assembled by Lincoln craftsmen. Even the 400 or so that were put together as 1940 models had hand-hammered body panels, since real body dies weren't added to the process until 1941. After Pearl Harbour, production of the Continental production ceased until 1946, and the models that were built between then and its demise after 1948 were more chrome-laden that the earlier version.

In any case, the casual whim of Edsel Ford, combined with some inspired tracing by Bob Gregorie turned into one of the most beautiful cars that the automotive world has seen.

In 2002 Ford announced plans to suspend the building of Lincoln cars.