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Continental hit the mark
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Owning part of a giant automaker that has your last name goes a long way toward making your own car. So there was little resistance when Bill Ford, Henry Ford II's younger brother, decided to build what has been the last virtually hand-built car from a big U.S. automaker.

The car was Ford Motor's 1956-57 Continental Mark II two-door coupe. The limited production 1956 Mark II cost $9,695, which would have let you buy two Lincoln Premiere luxury convertibles and have several hundred dollars left. With air conditioning, the price was $10,430.

The Mark II's base price made it the most expensive American car, and it was a picture of refinement and taste. It contrasted sharply with the heavily chromed, finned autos of that era.

The new car was introduced in October 1955 at the Paris Auto Show, and later that month at Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. It was greeted with acclaim and wonderment from the media and public on both sides of the Atlantic. Celebrity buyers included Elvis Presley.

The Mark II had its own manufacturing facility, where nuts and bolts were hand-torqued to aircraft standards. More time was spent in the Mark II's metal-finishing and painting than typically was needed for the completed assembly of other high-quality autos. And each Mark II was shipped in its own fleece-line cover to dealers.

Powering the 115-mph Mark II was a big 368-cubic-inch V-8 that produced 285 horsepower in 1956 and 300 in 1957. It was a Lincoln engine that was disassembled, minutely inspected and reassembled after being individually hand-balanced. It then has connected to a specially tested "Multi-Drive" three-speed automatic transmission.

Surprisingly, despite all that, Continental Mark IIs were valued only in the low- to mid-$20,000 range until recently. A Mark II in excellent condition now is valued at $86,100, while one in good shape is worth $41,000, says the Collectible Vehicle Value Guide. Watch for prices to climb much higher.

As fortune would have it, the Mark II was overshadowed in 1957 by the low-volume flashy, gimmicky, outlandishly priced $13,074 Eldorado Brougham from General Motors' Cadillac division.

The Eldorado Brougham only lasted through 1958, partly because by then it had helped Cadillac make its point that it was still the top-dog luxury car producer, at least as far as sales volume was concerned.

Despite their high prices, Ford lost $1,000 on each Mark II and GM lost $10,000 on each complicated Eldorado Brougham.

Only 1,325 Mark IIs were sold in 1956, and 444 units found buyers in 1957, when the car cost $9,996. Cadillac sold just 400 Eldorado Broughams in 1957 and merely 304 in 1958.

No matter how much each car contributed to its builder's prestige, no auto could survive very long as such a money loser.

It's rumored that Cadillac built the Eldorado Brougham to outdo the Mark II. It looked that way to some, because everyone in Detroit knew Ford Motor was bringing out an ultra-exclusive model. But it took at least three years to develop a new car because no computers existed to speed things along. Cadillac thus couldn't have introduced its Eldorado Brougham in time to compete with the 1956 Mark II.

Besides, it was common then for automakers to bring out limited-production cars that would lure buyers to showrooms, where nearly all ended up buying regular models. Also, the Mark II and Eldorado Brougham were radically different. The Mark II was understated and elegant, while the Eldorado Brougham was brash and overstated.

Few were surprised to see that the Continental Mark II was gorgeous. After all, it revived the famous line of glamorous Lincoln Continentals of the 1940s. That car began life as a 1939 custom body Lincoln for artistic Edsel Ford. Edsel was Ford Motor president and the son of company founder Henry Ford I, who wasn't artistic and pretty much ignored the Continental.

Edsel's car got so many compliments that Ford Motor made it a low-volume model. The 12-cylinder auto was unofficially called the Mark I, and was built from 1940 until 1942, when World War II interrupted production. It returned as nearly the same auto from 1946 to 1948 and set the stage for the Continental Mark II. The 1940s Continentals had low sales, but drew lots of showroom traffic and led Lincoln dealers to shout for a successor. However, once-struggling Ford Motor didn't have enough profits to begin developing such a car until 1953.

The Mark II technically wasn't a Lincoln because Bill Ford saw to it that Ford Motor set up an exclusive Continental division separate from the Ford, Mercury and Lincoln divisions. Naturally, Bill Ford headed the new division, which had a star-studded lineup of engineers and designers.

Among new Mark II items developed was a chassis that dipped low between the wheels and allowed comfortable, chair-high seats without the need for a high roofline.

The Mark II contrasted sharply with glitzy mid-1950s cars because it was a sleek, clean, low coupe with little chrome and no fins. It had the original, clean Continental's styling theme: long hood, short rear end -- and a "Continental" tire outline on the trunk. Even the bumpers were elegant, and taillights were neatly inset.

The Mark II's interior was starkly elegant, inspired by aircraft and locomotive designs. It contained top grain leathers and expensive fabrics, and there were even dual heaters.

The equipment-loaded Mark II looked trim and fast, but was large and weighed a hefty 4,800 pounds. It thus had average acceleration, although it wasn't slow.

The Mark II vanished all too quickly. Its demise for a time broke the heart of Bill Ford, who had planned a line of Continentals, including convertible and four-door models. After the Mark II was dropped, he was said to have little interest in any Ford Motor auto.


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