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The earliest Lincoln Continental was the automotive equivalent of Catherine Zeta-Jones -- it ought to have come with a warning label that read "May Cause Shortness of Breath." Based on the Lincoln Zephyr, the Continental got its start as a one-off drop top commissioned by Edsel Ford in the late 1930s. Serving as his vehicle of choice during his annual jaunts to Palm Beach, the car's exquisite shape generated so much buzz that Lincoln decided to put the Continental into production. Available as both a cabriolet and a coupe, the Continental debuted in 1940.
World War II and other events resulted in stops and starts in the car's production over the next decade or so, but by the mid-'50s, the Continental was back -- this time as its own brand. That arrangement didn't last (the Continental brand was folded back into the Lincoln marque in 1957), but the Continental did. For more than two decades, it served as Lincoln's flagship model.
As a recipe for ailing sales, the Lincoln Continental was redesigned in 1961. Now available as either a sedan or a four-door convertible (the nation's first in more than a decade) it was hailed for its clean good looks and winning performance. That era's photogenic First Family was often snapped riding in the Continental; it came to be known as the "Kennedy Lincoln" and enjoyed a wave of popularity. Another redesign took place for 1966 and again in 1970, which left the Continental with a blocky, more formal look (highlighted by hidden headlamps and a larger grille) and a coil-link rear suspension.
Fuel economy and emissions regulations forced Lincoln's hand, and the Continental was given makeovers in 1980 and '82. The car rode on a much shorter wheelbase, and offered improved gas mileage. In 1988, the car was given a new platform -- one shared by the midsize Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. This Continental was the first Lincoln to offer front-wheel drive and a fully independent suspension.
Unfortunately, this move to front-wheel drive eventually doomed the Lincoln Continental as it progressed through the end of the 20th century. Late-model Continentals didn't exactly crackle with the same desirability as that very first model, as consumer tastes had moved away from the soft-riding big-car brand of luxury that was the Continental's stock in trade. Even more notably, foreign rivals such as BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz had eclipsed the car in performance and refinement and had become top choices for shoppers in this segment. Dogged by weak sales, Lincoln's big sedan was retired in 2002.
Most Recent Lincoln Continental
The most recent generation of the Lincoln Continental luxury sedan got its start in 1995. This version distinguished itself from its predecessor with a sleeker, more upscale exterior designed to shed some of the sedan's stodginess and attract younger buyers. Other changes included a new suspension and a more powerful 4.6-liter V8 engine.
Sometimes luxury meant not having to worry about petty details, like, say, selecting a trim level for your mansion-on-wheels. Lincoln kept things easy for buyers by offering the Continental in just one trim level, which came with standard features like keyless entry, leather upholstery, full power accessories and an AM/FM/cassette audio system. The options list allowed drivers to raise the level of coddling with features like Alpine audio, heated seats, auxiliary steering-wheel audio controls, a CD changer and a power sunroof.
Literally keeping up with the Joneses wasn't a problem, thanks to the Lincoln's capable engine -- its 4.6-liter V8 brimmed with 260 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque. Sending this power to the front wheels was a four-speed automatic transmission. The Lincoln Continental also featured an air-spring suspension and an available Driver Select System that came with variable-rate steering assist and electronically adjustable shock absorbers that could be set for plush, normal or firm ride control. The air springs are known to wear out, so pay particular attention to the car's suspension during inspection.
Lincoln gave the Continental a few useful tweaks during these years. A 1998 refresh gave the luxury sedan a more streamlined look, with smoother lines, wraparound headlights and a new grille. This refresh also gave the Continental a nicer cabin, set off by elegant bird's eye maple wood trim. Audiophiles should choose models made in 1999 or later, since these Continentals were endowed with an improved sound system. The V8's output also increased slightly this year to 275 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque.
Safety took a step up in 2000, when Lincoln's sedan gained standard side airbags, along with an emergency trunk release and child-seat anchor brackets. In 2002, its final year, the Continental got an optional (and now defunct) Vehicle Communications System that included hands-free cell phone communication.
Our editors appreciated the fact that this Lincoln offered a wealth of gadgets and features to use and enjoy. Strong acceleration was another impressive point. Still, this big car had its flaws. In reviews of the Lincoln Continental, we criticized its lack of maneuverability and dearth of interior storage. The sedan's gravest shortcoming, though, was its lack of refinement relative to its competitors. Though the Continental was perfectly adequate, cars in this price range from Germany and Japan offered a driving and ownership experience that was more polished and engaging.
Past Lincoln Continental Models
The previous-generation Continental ran from 1988-'94. The car was less grand than later-model Continentals -- not surprising, since it shared some design cues with its platform-mate, the humble Ford Taurus. As this generation drew to a close, power was provided by a 3.8-liter V6 good for 160 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque, with two trim levels being offered -- the Executive and the top-of-the-line Signature. Those looking for trademark Continental opulence are advised to skip this model for more recent versions of the sedan.