Lincoln Zephyr - East Valley Tribune: Business

Lincoln Zephyr

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Posted: Monday, May 7, 2007 12:00 am | Updated: 5:41 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Drastic times called for drastic measures, at least as it pertained to an automobile industry mired in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Drastic times called for drastic measures, at least as it pertained to an automobile industry mired in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

With billions of dollars lost on the stock market, there just wasn’t the kind of cash floating around that there once was. To survive, management at Ford’s upscale Lincoln division — traditionally driven by affluent buyers — had to rethink the product line and adapt to the new reality of leaner days ahead and lower sales volume.

The result was the Lincoln-Zephyr, a luxury car created to serve the needs of buyers whose economic circumstances had forced them to consider more modest forms of four-wheeled transportation.

Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, had good reason to be concerned. Back in 1922, he had convinced his father to purchase Lincoln. As head of the division, it was Edsel’s job to bring in the cash, not a simple task considering the stock-market crash in late 1929. As the only son and heir-apparent of the vast Ford empire, the weight of the world was on Edsel’s shoulders.

To weather the economic storm, other manufacturers were devising new models that were less expensive to build and, therefore, sold for less. Many premium brands soldiered on as if it were business as usual. Most went under.

For Edsel Ford and Lincoln, salvation arrived in the form of a young designer, Tom Tjaarda, who was working for Briggs Manufacturing, a Lincoln coachworks supplier. Tjaarda’s new sketches showed a streamlined body sporting a unitized (frameless) chassis with an independent suspension and a Ford V8 positioned behind passenger cabin.

Edsel Ford liked the concept so much that he commissioned a trio of prototypes to test public reaction. His father, however, was skeptical. Henry Ford was not accustomed to rushing headlong into change (he had refused to change the Model T despite a growing number of competitors building better machinery) and refused to approve this newfangled car. He instead insisted on a front-engine design, solid front and rear suspension and mechanical brakes. In hindsight, Henry Ford was probably correct to stick with the tried-and-true approach since there was less financial risk.

The new model, available as a two-door coupe or four-door sedan, was dubbed the Lincoln-Zephyr (the word zephyr means “a gentle breeze”).

Although most of Tjaarda’s original design was left intact, the front sheet-metal was remade (larger) to accommodate a traditionally positioned V12 that, to keep costs in check, was based on an existing Ford V8.

The 267-cubic-inch motor made 110 horsepower, 40 fewer than the V12 used in the larger and pricier Lincoln Model K. Still, with a top speed of more than 90 m.p.h., the Zephyr could hold its own against the competition.

Other pluses included a spacious interior, quiet, comfortable ride and solid fuel economy. The L-Z even boasted an optional twospeed rear axle that allowed drivers to cruise at a lower and more efficient r.p.m. range.

Edsel Ford unveiled his prize at the New York Auto Show in November of 1935 to thunderous applause. Not only were the “ship’s prow” front end, teardropstyle rear deck and power impressive, but the sub-$1,200 list price was much less than any other Lincoln model.

Following a strong first-year run of close to 15,000 copies, fully 80 percent of total Lincoln sales, the L-Z line was expanded in 1937 to include the stretched Town Limousine and two-seater threewindow business coupe, followed a year later by both two- and four-door convertibles. Despite engine reliability problems, the Zephyr continued to sell well and contended against Cadillac’s midpriced LaSalle and Packard One Twenty competition.

The Lincoln-Zephyr remained in production through the Second World War, albeit with numerous styling and mechanical upgrades, for a total of 10 model years before finally retiring in 1948.

Keenly aware of its own rich 100-year-plus heritage, Ford attached the Lincoln-Zephyr nameplate to a new 2006 model that paid homage to a car with elegant good looks and superior power.

It’s the vehicle that kept the company’s first-class division in the game during hard times.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications’ chief road tester and historic writer. Wheelbase is a world-wide supplier of automobile news, reviews and features.

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