Lincoln Continental Concept: A grand dame, reimagined

Sidle past the drunk 1950s – when US car culture cultivated tailfins and chrome by the acre – and you might think that design departments in the early 1960s would suffer from tank-size hangovers.

Not so. Sobriety in that new decade birthed the seminal 1961 Lincoln Continental, a car as finely honed and effortlessly cool as the era’s bossa nova soundtrack and soft-focus cinema. The ’61 Continental’s crisp creases echoed the tapered legs and pencil-thin ties on television, and the stemware under each martini.

Over 50 years later at the 2015 New York auto show, Lincoln has lifted the veil on an imposing super-luxury statement that neatly side-steps the retro trap, even though it goes by the name “Continental Concept”.  

Lincoln needs it badly. For real success in the US, Lincoln must sell more than the 94,500 cars it moved in 2014. In fact, the Ford Motor subsidiary is targeting 300,000 global sales by end of decade. Expectations are high, and are certainly not lost on Lincoln’s design director, David Woodhouse.

“With the Continental name comes a lot of standards and expectations,” Woodhouse says. “The relevance and heritage attached to the 1961 Continental is about beauty and elegance.”

The Continental Concept breaks from recent Lincoln design tendencies by jettisoning the split-wing front end. Instead, the bow is dominated by a large grille opening, sized and placed akin to the current Jaguar XJ’s grille – admirable geometry to punch the wind. There is also a bit of street theatre on start-up. The five-segment LED headlight quadrants and daytime running lamps illuminate in a sequenced, flowing fashion, as do the taillamps.

In profile, the Continental reads decidedly British. It hints strongly at the classic Anglo convention of emphasizing the front end in such a way that the car evokes a motorboat coming on plane. The side surfaces have no sharp radii, yet they give a crisp nuance. Power is suggested by the up-kick over the rear wheel arches. No concept car is complete without highly stylised wheels, and while the Lincoln’s 15-spoke alloys are borderline fussy, evoking  a turbocharger’s vanes, fussy might just work in juxtaposition with the softer, simpler body sculpture.

Connections to the Continental’s heritage seem broadly drawn here – and that’s by design.

“Proportion is one thing,” Woodhouse continues, “but for me it is about gesture, not so much about specific cues. And the blue we chose is what I call a default Lincoln colour. If you look at some of the grand cars in our history, they actually wore blue.”

Ample chrome and polished aluminium ride along low at the rocker level, around the side windows and then as accents at the front door-to-fender junction. Winglet-like chrome handles open the sizable doors with a light touch. Large rear doors would be right at home on Park Avenue, the Champs Élysées and outside the various parlours of luxury in China’s urban centres – where Lincoln expects to reap thousands of sales in coming years, having opened shop there in late 2014. Though the Continental’s rear is perhaps its sleekest section, it also strongly evokes Audi’s A9 Prologue Concept. It may not use concave rear glass like the Prologue, but taillamps, rear body shape and exhaust feature placement (though not exhaust detail) all suggest familiarity.

Lincoln has gone to great lengths to create a calm, serene interior, and made generous use of pleasing materials. While the tonnage of brightwork might not make production, most of the thinking around materials should.

Seats coddle passengers to the tune of 30 different variations, including a synchronized gyration programme that inflates and deflates certain air bladders to facilitate entry and exit. The glass roof turns opaque from clear at a finger tap’s command. Lambswool shearling carpets are plush enough for sleeping on. Tally up the detailed chrome and aluminium, the rich use of colour and the car’s overall haute comfort, and the Continental cocoon seems beguiling enough for far loftier segments

While the Continental is still a concept, there are strong indicators that a production version will be gracing a motor-show stage in the next year or so. Built on a stretched version of the platform underpinning the Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ sedans, the concept also makes use of the EcoBoost V6 engine family that has proliferated across Ford Motor’s lineup.  

If nothing else, the Continental Concept demonstrates that there are strong signs of life in a grand old brand, and the company is eager to broom out any vestiges of the old, dreaded Parthenon grilles from the ‘70s. While more retro-minded designers might have pilfered the past with less restraint, that does not appear to be Lincoln’s, or this Continental’s, way.  

In Lincoln’s case, the future is forward.

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