Design Detail: The 1961 Lincoln Continental

By Craig Metros.

After World War II the design, engineering, and manufacturing of automobiles in the United States reached new heights. American soldiers returned home in search of the American Dream. The dream was an aspiration to obtain a family, a home and among other things, an automobile. To respond to the increasing demand, American car manufacturers began introducing new models on a regular basis. Major changes were made every two or three years. Minor modifications were made every year. This quick turnaround of model change kept large teams of designers and engineers very busy. To stay ahead of the trends, designers often looked beyond the auto industry for aesthetic inspiration. After the war, a majority of servicemen studied design and started new careers as industrial designers working in the auto industry.  War planes and aviation mixed with Art Deco and the Streamline era were a big design influence during this time.

General Motors Firebird lll

General Motors Firebird lll

As the Jet Age became popular in the mid-1950s design influences shifted. Vehicles started growing fins. Graphic gestures of the jet stream interpreted through dimensional chrome ornamentation ran along the never-ending body sides. Tail lights were looking more like aircraft wing tip running lights or jet engine afterburner ducts. American vehicles from this era, especially the full size luxury cars had grown in size. Fins were getting taller. The chrome was oozing and the term ‘fuel economy’ was non existent.

1959 Cadillac Cyclone

1959 Cadillac Cyclone

This era of superfluous design reached its peak in 1958-59 with cars, such as the Chrysler Imperial and the Cadillac Fleetwood with the infamous twin bullet shaped tail lamps that cantilevered off the rear edge of those massive fins. Just when you thought styling of the production cars might have been over the top, many show cars or concept cars that debuted at motor shows during this period didn't hold back. The Lincoln Futura, the Cadillac Cyclone and the General Motors Firebird lll to name just a few, pushed the boundaries of the jet stream influenced aesthetic.

Ford Terra Cobra

Ford Terra Cobra

With a new decade around the corner, the days of the Detroit studios trying to out-fin each other came to an end. Public tastes were shifting toward a cleaner and more understated look. Fashion, furniture, appliances and architecture were all becoming less decorative. The ‘less is more’ philosophy behind the modern design movement was becoming more popular with American mainstream consumers.

Lincoln Futura

Lincoln Futura

The car that led this simplified design approach in Detroit was the 1961 Lincoln Continental. It was in sharp contrast to the 1958-60 Lincolns. Not to mention, it instantly dated its larger and over styled predecessor. The all new Lincoln was lower, narrower and 380mm shorter than the outgoing Continental. It's understated elegance and refined surfaces with details such as the mesh grill, a subtle kick-up at the beltline just before the C-pillar, and the wrap-around tail lamp were all reminiscent of the 1956-57 Mark ll. However, with it's shear body sides, a thin chrome blade that capped the top edge of both fenders and doors tip to tail, and a simple green house shape with curved glass, the Continental looked very modern and appropriate for the new and exciting decade ahead.

196 Llincoln Continental

196 Llincoln Continental

The new Continental's most recognized feature was the rear-hinged rear doors, commonly referred to as ‘suicide doors’. This made for better rear seat ingress and egress, and allowed for the handed exterior door handles to be evenly spaced on either side of the centre opening cut line in the middle of the ultra-clean body side.

Elwood Engle was the designer of the all new Continental. The design originally started out as a 1961 Thunderbird proposal but senior management deemed the concept too premium and elegant for a T-bird. Engle was requested to turn the T-bird concept into a Lincoln by stretching, slightly altering, and adding two more doors to the T-bird proposal. Engle was also responsible for the interior design. His idea for the instrument panel was to group the air-conditioning, heater, and radio controls between two rectangular pods housing the instruments on one side and the glove box on the other. The armrest on the door trim panels ran laser-straight and parallel to the ground. The instrument panel, glove box and door panels all featured matching walnut panelling. Front and rear seats were based on architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair. The stately, well appointed interior with straight feature lines and simple geometric shapes complemented the exterior seamlessly.

Elwood Engel

Elwood Engel

Upon it's release, the ‘61 Lincoln Continental was very well received by critics for its simple execution and elegant presence. It offered a host of features and engineering improvements to make it a luxurious, quiet and dependable automobile. To simplify production, the '61 was offered only as a four door model with two body styles; a sedan and a convertible. Car Life magazine awarded the Lincoln Continental its 1961 Engineering Excellence Award and the Industrial Design Institute gave it an award for its overall appearance and execution.

Except for a grill and headlamp bezel change for 1962, the '61 through '63 Continentals essentially stayed the same. Changes were introduced in 1964 including a longer cabin, and new instrument panel. The curved side glass was replaced by flat glass to reduce cost. Though, the slab sided design and suicide rear doors on the sedan persisted until 1969, the purity of the original '61 was gradually diluted by years of annual facelifts and multiple detail revisions.

1961 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet

1961 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet

The Kennedy Car

The 1961 Presidential Lincoln Continental became a symbol of an optimistic and exciting future during the President Kennedy administration. It was also seared into world wide consciousness as the car JFK was riding in when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. Today, it's commonly referred to as the 'Kennedy Car'.

As John F Kennedy was inaugurated the 35th President of the United States in January 1961, fabrication work was progressing on an all new presidential parade car. The new limousine started life as a stock '61 Continental Convertible. It was manufactured by the Lincoln-Mercury Division of Ford Motor Company at its Wixom assembly plant, northwest of Detroit. Hess & Eisenhardt of Cincinnati, Ohio was responsible for customising the car to function as a presidential parade limousine. It was literally cut in half, reinforced, extended by 109cm in length and modified numerous other ways. Ford Motor Company and Hess & Eisenhardt collaborated on the engineering and styling. The car debuted at the White House in June 1961. It remained the property of the Ford Motor Company which leased it to the Secret Service for the nominal price of $500.00 per year. The Secret Service code named the car X-100.  

Some of the vehicle's special features included:

-Removable steel and transparent plastic roof panels

-Hydraulic rear seat that could be raised 270mm to elevate the president

-Massive heating and air conditioning system with auxiliary blowers and 2 control panels

-Dark blue broadcloth lap robe with tray plush lining and-embroidered presidential seals in special door pockets

-Four retractable steps for Secret Service agents

-Flashing red lights and siren

-Two flag staffs, two spot lights

-Auxiliary jump seats for additional passengers

-Two radio telephones

-Interior flood lights


In 1963, the car's front grille and headlamp bezels were updated with 1962 model year components. Trunk lid grab handles for Secret Service agents were affixed as well.

The X-100 was impounded for evidence in the weeks following the assassination. Soon after, the car was revamped and returned to Washington D.C. May, 1964. The X-100 underwent major modifications again in January 1967. These were also completed by Hess & Eisenhardt and included:

-Complete re-armouring of rear passenger compartment

-Addition of non-removable top to accommodate transparent armour

-Replacement of engine, providing approximately 17 percent more power

-Revision of air conditioning system for greater cooling capacity

-Stripping entire body to bare metal in order to remove dents, repair body, and repaint black

Although other presidential parade cars were built in 1968 and 1972, the X-100 was used occasionally by Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. It remained in service until 1977. The car is now exhibited to the public at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 13.