By Angelo Van Bogart
A lot can happen in less than 50 years. Governments can rise and fall. Large companies can go from blue chip to bankrupt. It all makes longtime Old Cars Weekly reader Jerry Michalak’s 50 years of ownership of a rare 1939 Lincoln-Zephyr convertible sedan that much more impressive.
“I bought it in the fall of 1961 from Dr. Lyman Smith,” Michalak said. “He had it as a ‘silly car’ and I paid $420 for it. He lived in an uppity area of Chicago called Barrington and pioneered Chemonucleolysis.
“In the late ’50s and early ’60s, you could get a really nice car for a couple hundred dollars. I was 20 years old at the time and drove it home and used it as it was until 1965.”
His purchase of a Ford Motor Co. product would have surprised Michalak’s family and friends. Until the Lincoln-Zephyr, Michalak was something of a General Motors man.
“At that time, I used to be into Cadillacs,” he said. “I had limos, and I was looking for a big convertible car. I always liked four-door convertibles and I was hunting around for Buicks and Cadillacs when I bumped into this.”
Michalak found the Zephyr while looking at a collection of Peerless automobiles that had been saved from the scrap drives of World War II.
“We were out at Rosco Stelford’s home in Pingree Grove [Illinois],” Michalak said. “I was looking at his cars and his kid came over and said, ‘My dad has a car for sale,’ so I went and found a 1938 Packard Twelve convertible coupe there. The Packard was rough and I actually liked the Zephyr. Stelford had gotten it in a trade with Lyman Smith and he said in two months I could have the car when his two new Buicks arrived.”
The wait was worth it and Michalak picked up his prize just months after Kennedy was in the White House and a chimp was flown into space aboard the Project Mercury capsule. In a time when the world so mesmerized by the future, a Lincoln-Zephyr was a dated machine compared to the Avantis, Valiants and even the new Lincoln Continentals on the streets around Michalak’s Chicagoland home — or anywhere else. As new cars hit the streets with four- and six-cylinder engines, the 1938 Lincoln-Zephyr’s L-head V-12 was a symbol of a bygone era. Even with its dozen cylinders, the 267-cid engine was smaller than most V-8s of the time (and even some sixes), and its 110-hp rating had the equivalent power of the straight-six of an early-1960s Ford. Although the Lincoln-Zephyr was probably considered a mechanical dinosaur when Michalak bought it, the car’s styling emanated an aura and elegance that couldn’t be matched on any new-car showroom in the early 1960s.
“I used to work at an airport when you could drive up to the gate and the pilots would always ask, ‘Whose car is that?’” Michalak recalled.
From its introduction on Nov. 2, 1935, for the 1936 model year, the Lincoln-Zephyr was ahead of its time in streamlining and atop the field in looks. While Chrysler Corp. had already fielded streamlined vehicles, the Zephyr successfully merged sleek styling features from a pointed grille to a slick body shape without offending the public’s conservative taste in automotive styling. Credit for bringing the futurist styling features to the Lincoln-Zephyr goes to designer John Tjaarda and Howard Bonbright of the Briggs Manufacturing Co., who completed the design under supervision of Edsel Ford. The design was finally revised for production by E.T. “Bob” Gregorie and initially offered on four- and two-door sedans at $1,320 and $1,275, respectively. Compared to $4,300 for the least pricey Lincoln K sedan, the Lincoln-Zephyr’s price put it bumper to bumper in cost with the Buick Roadmaster Series 80.
Ford Motor Co.’s goal for the Lincoln-Zephyr was to make a Lincoln available at a lower price point than the ultra-luxurious and expensive Lincoln K-series. Surprisingly, each offered a V-12 engine, a powerplant usually reserved for such cars as the K-series Lincoln’s competitors (Packard, Cadillac and Pierce-Arrow). Ford Motor Co. targeted Buick, LaSalle and smaller Packards as its competition for the Lincoln-Zephyr. With the V-12 engine, and the car’s advanced exterior styling, the Zephyr stood apart from the crowd.
The interior design of the Zephyr was equally modern, with chrome-framed tubing serving as framework for the seats in a fashion similar to the Airflow Chryslers and De Sotos and even the exotic Bugatti Type 57. An advanced design needs an advanced name and Ford christened the new Lincoln a Zephyr after the Burlington Silver Streak Zephyr, widely considered the first streamlined train. The sophistication of the Lincoln-Zephyr continued under its skin with a fully unitized structure. Under the body were steel frames that acted as trusses for the body. These trusses were welded to the chassis trusses to form a singular and strong unit.
With no Zephyr models to sell in 1935, Lincoln moved just 1,400 cars, all K-series models. In 1936, K-series production was only 1,515 cars, approximately one-tenth the number of Lincoln-Zephyrs sold.
In 1937, the Lincoln-Zephyr changed little. The sharp, leaned-back V grille, sleek tear-drop body profile and headlamp fairings in the leading edge of the fenders continued. Body style selection improved with the addition of a coupe. Interiors also became more intriguing as the instrument panel saw the gauges centralized in an art deco panel that streamed from beneath the windshield to the floor.
The modern interiors returned for 1938, but the exteriors of the Lincoln-Zephyr were significantly freshened. While the basic body shells remained similar, the front of the Zephyr received headlamps fully incorporated into the more substantial and bulbous front fenders. The grille was also removed from the peaked Zephyr nose, replaced by two low grilles that flanked the prow. In addition to updating the appearance of the Zephyr, the changes allowed the engine, transmission and front axle to be moved forward in order to provide more front floor space.
Lincoln also expanded the model lineup for 1938. The four-door sedan, coupe and two-door sedan (called the Sedan-Coupe beginning in 1937) were joined by three wind-in-your-face models: three- and five-passenger convertible coupes and a convertible sedan. All of the convertibles retained the sleek Zephyr profile when the tops were raised.
At this time, the Zephyr was on a two-year styling cycle, and styling changes were minimal from 1938 to 1939. The low grilles of 1938 saw the chrome-plated bars move from a horizontal direction to a waterfall in a vertical direction as the 1939 grille’s bars crept upward, toward the hood. This styling feature wasn’t available on the three-passenger convertible coupe, as this model had been discontinued before the end of the 1938 model year. Notably, all Zephyrs finally received a hydraulic brake system from Lockheed and lost their exposed running boards.
Zephyr convertibles were always rare, and just 461 convertible sedans were built in 1938 — not bad for such an expensive body style during this period. However, that figure dropped by more than one-third in 1939 to 302 convertible sedans. Given the amount of work it took to make the convertible Zephyr models, it’s surprising they were offered at all.
“I met old Lincoln dealers that said they never had one of these [convertible sedans] in the showroom,” Michalak said. “They had them on the books and you could order one.”
Michalak said the convertible sedan is actually based off a production sedan modified by a body maker.
“They were enclosed cars to start with,” he said. “Briggs [Mfg. Co.] beefed up the frame of a sedan and put a round steel beam between the doors, across the back seat, to keep the body stiff. It doesn’t crack, squeak or rattle when I drive it. It’s well made.”
Michalak would know. In the 50 years he’s owned his Zephyr convertible sedan, he’s added 32,000 miles to the odometer, bringing its total to 58,000 miles. The car has never been completely restored and wears a couple cream-colored repaints over the original burgundy paint. The engine has been rebuilt and the Lincoln has a new top, but much of the leather interior remains original. When Michalak has replaced parts, he’s only used authentic components and his efforts have clearly paid off.
“I’ve never had the car let me down,” he said. “I average around 650 miles per year. My family and I had many happy and memorable driving experiences with the Zephyr, mostly with the top down. I usually put the top down in late May and it stays down until early October — it’s a two-man manual top.
“It runs real good and smooth as silk,” he added. “These Zephyrs were way better than people gave them credit for. Properly maintained, they are great.”
In all his years of driving around Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan, the original V-12 engine has never run hot, a characteristic some say is common to the powerplant.
“I only use distilled water in the 26-1/2 quart cooling system, which I drain and flush with 50/50 anti-freeze prior to winters,” Michalak said. “Over winter, I leave it empty with the petcocks open. It has 165-degree thermostats and we advanced the timing somewhat, and in all the years of driving in summer heat and long parades, it never overheated.”
Although Michalak purchased the popular Columbia overdrive rear end to help increase the Zephyr’s fuel mileage — as much as 30 percent — he’s never installed it. While he may not be maximizing the car’s fuel economy, there are benefits to the low rear end.
“It has a 4.44:1 rear end and it gets moving quickly, but the engine gets humming at 55-60 mph,” he said. “Whoever originally bought it was well-heeled — it was $1,800 without options and he didn’t get a Columbia — so I think it was a city car.”
Without the Columbia rear end, Michalak said his extensive records show the Zephyr has delivered as much as 14.5 miles per gallon, but it usually gets in the range of 11 or 12 mpg. Although those fuel consumption figures aren’t impressive compared to 2012 models, it’s never stopped Michalak from using the Zephyr on pleasure cruises or fishing excursions with his family.
“She drives and handles very well for a rather large, heavy car,” he said, noting the Zephyr’s nearly 4,300-lb. weight. “It still moves out well and handles like a much lighter coupe. I still drive it with bias-ply tires and it doesn’t seem to drift.”
After 50 years, Michalak isn’t about to stop his fun with the Zephyr. Although it won’t win best of show at a concours, he’s clearly excited about the next opportunity to drive the Zephyr once the snow melts.
“I’m not in the shiniest tie rod contest and she’s good enough,” he concluded. “What else can anyone ask for?”
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