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Car of the Week: 1948 Lincoln Continental convertible

Sometimes it was just meant to be. One man's dream Lincoln Continental found its way to him while he was in the right place at the right time.
Car of the Week 2020
McCarthy and his prized '48 Lincoln

McCarthy and his prized '48 Lincoln

John McCarthy is a Lincoln lover. Almost any year or flavor — he pretty much likes them all.

But only one Lincoln automobile qualifies as a “Holy Grail” car in McCarthy’s book. He dreamed about it for years, and now he’s got one.

“You go to a national Lincoln meet and see these there, and I call them ‘The Queens,’ says McCarthy, gazing at his glorious 1948 Continental convertible. “This is the first gen of the Continentals. I’m a Lincoln collector, I’ve had a number of them, but I’ve never had one as unique and special as this one. They made about 450 of these in ’48 and they made about twice as many coupes, and they’re very hard to find.” 

 Not that he ever gave up hope, but McCarthy never expected to own one of the post-war Continentals that he covets so much. He figured if he kept his eyes open and never quit looking around, he might get lucky. It finally happened in the summer of 2020.

 “I found the car actually on Facebook, and I had been looking for one,” he says. “It was at a price I could afford, which normally I can’t with these. I had to be in the right spot at the right time. And I was. “What really sold me was the color, Grotto Blue. I just love the color, and the car was just so structurally sound and good and straight that I bought it.” 

“Continental kit” in full view

“Continental kit” in full view

McCarthy found the car in Macomb, Mich. The man who had owned the Lincoln for many years had passed away and his widow decided to part with it. That meant McCarthy had to make the tough decision to sell off a ’36 Lincoln sedan to make room for the Continental in his garage. 

 “I loved that car, but I always wanted to have an open classic Lincoln,” he says.

 McCarthy had plenty of questions about the car’s history, and he got some answers with the help of the Benson Ford Research Center. 

“You can write to them and give them your serial number, and they will give you what they call a build card, which is similar to a build sheet. And that told me a lot about the car,” he notes. 

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He discovered the car had been sold at a dealership in Oklahoma and was equipped with a radio and antenna, and was originally painted the same blue color. He also got some information from the widow who was selling the Continental. 

“She and her family and kids knew about the car for many years and it was a favorite of her late husband. It was restored, I was told, in the early 1990s, maybe middle 1990s. Before that it was owned by a pilot and it spent decades in an aircraft hangar in Oklahoma. For many years it sat and then this fella purchased the car in the ‘90s and had it restored and then passed away at the end of ’18.” 

 McCarthy was also able to track down the son of the man who restored the car. He remembered the Lincoln and confirmed it was very authentic and unmolested. 

“He confirmed that the car was built just the way you see it.” 

EDSEL’S BABY 

The Continental traces its roots back to 1939 when Lincoln built a special Lincoln Zephyr convertible for Edsel Ford, who over the years had several one-off vehicles built for himself that he used as vacation cars and PR vehicles to show off new ideas and drum up interest in new company designs. The impressive 12-cylinder machine, with teardrop headlights, long hood and long, low profile was apparently a hit with Edsel’s well-healed friends, who inquired about getting one for themselves. A production version was born in 1940 and dubbed the Continental. It was designed by famed Ford stylist Bob Gregorie. 

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Edsel died in 1943, and when Gregorie left the company in 1946, the Continental began to lose steam with the Ford brass and disappeared following the 1948 model year, but not before becoming what many people consider to be the first American-built personal-luxury car. The first hand-built Continentals were based on the Zephyr, but with some noteworthy design changes, including a lack of running boards and a lower hood height that was almost level with the fenders. The passenger area was pushed rearward, reducing the size of the trunk and pushing the spare tire above the rear bumper. The 292-cid V-12 was the same as was used in the Zephyr. Styling updates during the Continental’s production run came a little at a time, including a boxier-looking body in 1942. A 306-cid, 130-hp V-12 took the place of the 292 that same year. Gear changing was done through a three-speed many shifter on the column. Few cars on the market could match the Continentals elegance or its list of amenities, which included fender skirts; power windows; whitewall tires; bumper guards; luxurious upholstery and the calling card “Continental kit” rear spare assembly. Production was halted in 1943 due to World War II, but the Continental made another big splash in its return after the war when Henry Ford II piloted one at The Brickyard as a pace car for the Indy 500. Only 446 Continentals were built in ’46 (201 cabriolets and 265 coupes) before production picked up slightly in 1947 when more than 1,500 were assembled. The following year proved to be the classic Continental’s swan song, when 847 coupes and 452 cabriolets were built. It remains the last time an American-built car carried a V-12 when it left the factory. 

ROADWORTHY AGAIN 

McCarthy said he wasn’t worried that his Continental had been sitting idle for quite a while before he found it and brought it home. He says he was actually looking forward to digging into the car and finding some things to fix and update. 

 “A lot of things mechanically, electrically and hydraulically did not work,” he said. “So thanks to COVID, I spent a lot of time in the past year in my garage. When I got the car, the turn signals, fog lights, radio, antennal, windows — none of those were operable, which is OK, I love to fix things, so it gave me joy to turn all those things around and make them operable.” 

The radio takes up quite a bit of real estate on the dash.

The radio takes up quite a bit of real estate on the dash.

Fixing the radio, however, wasn’t as much fun as some of the other tasks. 

“Yes, that was very frustrating! I’ll tell you, taking the radio out of this car is a job and a half,” he added. “It’s the size of a bread box and probably weighs 10 or 12 lbs., and to fish that up in there and have it set with the retaining bolts, it’s incredible. I don’t know how they did it. It became so complicated because there was no room on the dash that I removed the dash and wound up taking it all apart and bench testing every system and putting it all back together. It would be torture to try to restore all those things and keep the dash in the car.” 

 McCarthy planned to spend this winter ironing out a few more bugs with the big convertible to make sure it runs as good as it looks — which is saying a lot. First on the list is tinkering with the overdrive, which doesn’t quite kick in as it should. 

“But that’s electrical, and I’ll take care of that,” he says smiling. 

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Plenty of the surviving Continentals from the 1940s have been restored to near perfection, which largely takes them off the road. McCarthy’s car would be a great candidate to become a No. 1 condition car, too, but he has no desire to go to extremes with another restoration. He’s very certain that he doesn’t want a garage princess. 

“If I can put 1,000 miles a year on it, I’ll do it. I intend to drive it, definitely,” he says. “I bought this to drive and put miles on it — especially with the top down! “It just floats. It handles remarkably easily considering its weight. It steers well. The brakes are from 1948 so you’ve got to keep that in mind … I would take the car anywhere. It drives beautifully. The seats are extremely comfortable. It’s a delight. I just need to get more miles on it and I’ll take in anywhere. These cars were meant to be driven.” 

The Continental sports fender skirts

The Continental sports fender skirts

McCarthy almost takes some extra satisfaction in knowing that his ’48 will not be one of the cars vying for the biggest trophies and 1,000-point scores at big national shows. 

“It’s a really nice ‘driver’. That’s what it is. At some shows it might be a show car, but at the LCOC — the Lincoln [national meet] — no, it probably wouldn’t score very well. It’s got some flaws in the paint and all, but that’s fine with me. “I’m still learning about the car, but it gives me a great sense of joy every time I drive it, and of course it’s a magnet for people. It’s exciting. I never thought I’d own a car this beautiful. I’ve had a lot of nice cars over the years, but nothing like this. This one my kids will fight over. "

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