MotorCities National Heritage Area
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By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of Ford Motor Company, St. Louis Car Museum, and Barrett Jackson
Published 4.15.2020

Development of the 1965 Continental with Harley Copp William Clay Ford Gordon Buehrig 1Development of the 1956 Continental with Harley Copp, William Clay Ford and Gordon Buehrig (Ford Motor Company Archives) 

In 1956, Ford Motor Company had a great sales year. Their automotive designs that year were beautiful for the consumer market. For example, the great looking 1956 Continental Mark II was the heaviest American vehicle made that year. The Mark II weighed in at 4,825 pounds with a price tag of $9,695, which exceeded the $10,000 mark when sales taxes were added in most of the country.

William Clay Ford standing with a 1956 Continental Ford Motor Company Archives 2William Clay Ford standing with a 1956 Continental (Ford Motor Company Archives)

Since 1948, Lincoln dealers had asked for a successor to the earlier beautiful looking Continentals that were seen as some of the greatest styled models from Ford Motor Company in the 1940s. The idea for the Continental Mark II began in 1953, when William Clay Ford was placed in charge of the “Special Products Division” to come up with a great and unique design for the program. Henry Ford, II had called upon five outside automotive consultants to share their ideas for how the model should look. A Mark II retractable hardtop was designed and proposed for management, but that idea was shelved. After more design proposals were created and more engineering ideas developed, the 1956 Continental was introduced to the consumer market in 1955.

1956 Continental parked in front of the Continental division building Ford Motor Company Archives 31956 Continental parked in front of the Continental division building (Ford Motor Company Archives)

The Continental Division was headed by William Clay Ford, who was very concerned about shapes and proportions and how the 1956 Continental models would look for the consumer market. At the beginning stages of development, Harley Copp, chief engineer, designed high seating for the interior along with a low roofline design for the body.

The 1956 Continental at the Paris Auto Show Ford Motor Company Archives 4The 1956 Continental at the Paris Auto Show (Ford Motor Company Archives)

Other automotive designers involved in the styling of the models included Gil Spear, Bob Thomas, Bill Schmidt, Don DeLaRossa and the rest of the talented design studio. The 1956-1957 Continental was designed and manufactured for those who could afford the finest in automobile luxury. They were introduced in October, 1955 at the Paris Auto Show, along with many other cities across America.

1956 Continental Mark II parked by the ocean Ford Motor Company Archives 51956 Continental Mark II parked by the ocean (Ford Motor Company Archives)

Some automotive historians said that the 1956-57 Continental Mark II models were great looking designs but cost too much for the consumer market. In addition, there was a 1957 Continental convertible that was custom built for the personal use of William Clay Ford. Conflicting accounts from automotive historians said that there were either one or two models constructed.

Ad for the 1956 Continental Mark II Ford Motor Company Archives RESIZED 6Ad for the 1956 Continental Mark II (Ford Motor Company Archives)

Some automotive historians said that the 1956 Continental Mark II created quite a commotion within the automotive press because of its great styling features which most consumers also thoroughly enjoyed. However, some automotive critics said that the trunk space and rear seating were too small. The designers offered both great looking front-end design and classic rear end styling. The models also offered a 368 cubic engine.

Front end of the 1956 Continental Mark II St Louis Car Museum RESIZED 7Front end of the 1956 Continental Mark II (St Louis Car Museum)

When the Continental models were introduced for 1956 and 1957, only 3,012 units were manufactured. Although they were great looking cars, the model was abandoned by Ford Motor Company after two years. In contrast, Ford had introduced the great looking Thunderbird in 1955, which was big news all over the world and became a huge success story for the company in 1958.

1956 Continental Mark II interior Barrett Jackson RESIZED 81956 Continental Mark II interior (Barrett Jackson)

Some automotive historians have said that Ford Motor Company lost $1,000 on every Continental Mark II sold. The model was looked upon as a prestigious automobile that only certain consumers could afford.

In later years, the classic elegance would make the Continental Mark II a highly preferred automobile among collectors and automotive enthusiasts around the word. Today, these models for 1956-1957 are very expensive to purchase and have become valuable collectors’ models.    

Bibliography

Dammann, George H. “Fifty Years of Lincoln Mercury.” Crestline Publishing, 1971.

Godshall, Jeffrey/Auto Editors of Consumer Guide. “From Drawing Board to Driveway.” 2005.