Iacocca’s Lincoln: The Inside Story of the 1969-71 Continental Mark III

Lee Iacocca is remembered as the father of the Ford Mustang and the Chrysler Minivan, but there was another Iacocca vehicle that changed the Motor City: the Lincoln Continental Mark III.

In auto industry lore, the design studio guys hate it when the people from upper management start fooling around with their work. Nothing good can come from that, or so the story goes. But there’s at least one instance that cuts against the grain of that familiar Motor City tale. It was Ford senior executive Lee Iacocca who originated the two signature styling features of the Lincoln Continental Mark III: the classic stand-up grille and the faux tire bustle in the deck lid.

It’s no exaggeration to note that these visual features created a design theme and defined the Lincoln Mark Series brand for decades. Years later, lead designer L. David Ash would recall that neither he nor Styling VP Gene Bordinat had conceived these two now-famous design gadgets; no, in fact it was all Iacocca. “Neither one of us would have done it on our own, I’m sure,” Ash remembered. “I have to give Lee credit for that.”

As vice president of the Ford Motor Company’s car and truck group—top product boss, among other duties—Lido Anthony “Lee” Iacocca had at least two problems on his plate in the autumn of 1965. First, sales of the Ford Thunderbird had flattened out after a promising start years earlier. Meanwhile, Ford’s flagship Lincoln division wasn’t setting the world on fire, either. While the Elwood Engel-designed 1961 Lincoln was a style maker of the decade, it was nearing the end of its product cycle. Actually, Lincoln was a perennial problem for Ford senior management. According to Bordinat, it had never turned an actual profit since Henry and Edsel Ford acquired the company from the Lelands in 1922.

So a plan was hatched to build a new, small Lincoln on the same platform as the Thunderbird, which was switching to body-on-frame construction for 1967 (in part due to limited production volume). This would help the Thunderbird fill out production capacity at the Wixom, Michigan plant, and it would give Lincoln an entry in the rapidly expanding personal-luxury category, joining the Buick Riviera, Cadillac Eldorado, Olds Toronado, et alia.

The original body design by Ash and his staff, at one point named the Lancelot, was clean and elegant but lacked visual punch, one could argue. Iacocca’s fake-Rolls grille shell and spare-tire bump fixed that, creating a distinctive and memorable look. It was said that the chrome grille shell was the most expensive such piece in the industry, with a unit cost nearing $200. Ash and crew completed the theme by hiking up the rear quarters and deck lid two inches, scrunching the roof down into the body for a classic ’30s profile.

From its exterior appearance, you might never know that the finished design shared its greenhouse with the Thunderbird coupe, or its floorpan, black metal, and 117.2-inch wheelbase with the T-Bird four-door. When Henry Ford II saw the clay model in the studio, he reportedly said, “I’d like to drive that home.” With the Ford family’s seal of approval secured, the new car was christened the Continental Mark III, establishing its lineage with Edsel Ford’s original 1939 Continental and the Continental Mark II of 1956-57. At that point the previous Mark III, IV and V models of 1958-60 were conveniently forgotten—today it would be called a reboot.

Introduced in April 1968 as a 1969 model, technically (Lincoln division downplayed model year designations, trying to present the car as “timeless”) the Mark III was panned by the critics but embraced by the car-buying public. “The buffs may not like it but the people with money will,” Bordinat wisely predicted. The Mark wasn’t big for an American luxury car at just over 216 inches long and 4,800 lbs, but it was big enough, with solid road manners and a comfortable ride. Interior specialist Herman Brunn covered the seats with rich, pre-creased leather, like the easy chairs in a men’s club. Noteworthy technical features included an all-new 460 CID V8 and Sure-Track, an early form of antilock braking developed by Kelsey-Hayes.

With a base price of $6,758 compared to $4,807 for its Thunderbird cousin, the Mark III was quite a moneymaker for the Motor Company, spawning an even more popular and profitable successor, the Mark IV (shown with Iacocca below). The Mark series, which comfortably outsold the Eldorado and effectively doubled the Lincoln division’s volume at times, continued on all the way to 1998 and the Mark VIII, and Iacocca would to on to further glories, including the Chrysler Minivan.