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Henry Leland could be considered the father of the two longest-lasting luxury makes in the U.S. In 1902, Leland founded Cadillac and remained as that company's general manager, after it became part of General Motors. Then, in 1917, Leland left Cadillac and established the Lincoln Motor Company. Initially, Lincoln produced aircraft engines for the military. As the World War ended in 1919, Leland aimed his recently-formed firm toward the luxury automobile market.
Model L was introduced in September 1920, and placed on sale the next year. Powered by an 81-horsepower V-8, that first Lincoln cost a whopping $4,600 in touring car form. Failure to attract sufficient interest led quickly to financial ills and looming bankruptcy. In February 1922, Ford Motor Company purchased the ailing Lincoln organization for $8 million.
Before long, Lincolns were attracting celebrities as well as affluent businessmen, who might otherwise seek a Cadillac, Packard, or Pierce-Arrow. Moving into the "classic" era, Lincoln introduced its massive KB Series in 1932, fitted with V-12 engines. Lincoln turned away from ultra-luxury as the Great Depression gathered force. Priced at a moderate $1,275, the 1936 Zephyr, powered by a V-12 engine derived from Ford's V-8, was created to attract a broader group of customers.
Zephyrs helped keep the Lincoln marque rolling. They also served as a foundation for what many see as Lincoln's brightest-shining star: the 1941 Continental. One of the most striking designs of all time, the classic Continental coupe and convertible were designed by Eugene Gregorie. In addition to a curvaceous body, the Continental's foremost feature was a spare tire mounted vertically at the back of the trunk, which opened from the top. In later years, add-on spare tires for other cars were known as "Continental kits." Continental production ended in 1948.
Like most makes, Lincoln saw a massive redesign for 1949. Now powered by a flathead V-8, Lincoln adopted a heavy look with sunken headlights. Available for the first time with Hydra-Matic in 1950, a Lincoln placed ninth in the Mexican Carrera Panamericana race (won by an Oldsmobile 88). Two years later, a totally reshaped Lincoln captured the first five spots in that 2000-mile endurance trek.
Lincoln revived the Continental nameplate for 1956-57 with an elegant Mark II coupe, including a simulated spare tire. A far different Continental Mark III debuted for 1958, with the biggest and bulkiest unibody ever.
No major manufacturer had offered a convertible sedan since the 1951 Frazer, but Lincoln created an open four-door for 1961-64. Slab-sided and massive, the eye-catching Continental convertible was beautiful in its own way, especially with that big fabric top lowered.
Cars were growing smaller in the late 1970s, and in response, Lincoln issued a four-door Versailles, intended to rival Cadillac's "bustleback" Seville. Mammoth, plush Town Cars were a Lincoln mainstay, starting in 1980. Redesigning for 1990 gave the Town Car an especially distinct appearance, truly looking the part of a near-limo people-carrier. Two more reworkings came, but in 2011 this long-time favorite of chauffeurs faced extinction.
Starting in 1984, Lincoln produced a Mark VII sedan, followed by a Mark VIII. A more modern LS near-luxury sedan debuted for 2000, related to Jaguar's S-Type.
Lincoln's full-size Navigator SUV first appeared for 1998, ready to challenge Cadillac's Escalade for utility-wagon extravagance. Perhaps Lincoln was right about pushing the Navigator, because the smaller Aviator SUV didn't last all that long. Neither did the innovative but inessential Blackwood luxury pickup, based on Ford's F-150 SuperCrew, nor Lincoln's Mark LT car/pickup of 2008
Borrowing a model name from back in the Thirties, Lincoln introduced the front-drive Zephyr sedan for 2006-its smallest model ever. That Zephyr nameplate didn't last long, as Lincoln elected to adopt three-letter model designations: MKZ instead of Zephyr, followed by MKS for the new "flagship" full-size sedan, MKX for Lincoln's first car-based SUV (related to Ford's Edge), and MKT for the large-midsize crossover derived from Ford's Flex.
Even in the best of times, Lincoln never quite caught up to Cadillac as a "must have" luxury automobile. Neither has Lincoln been able to establish the premium-motorcar qualities exhibited by Mercedes-Benz, BMW, or Lexus. TV commercials featuring John Slattery, from the popular, retro Mad Men series on AMC cable, have attempted to reestablish the Lincoln pedigree. How to make that quest succeed is one of Ford Motor Company's prominent challenges in the near future.