By Brian Earnest
Dan Staehle owns arguably one of the sportiest Lincolns ever built. There is no doubting the 1952-54 Capris’ peformance pedigree – the early 1950s “Road Race Lincolns” famously dominated the Carrera Panamerica Mexican Road races of the era.
The early Capris were undeniably handsome, plenty nimble and went like crazy — a muscle car before the term was invented.
But for all its “un-Lincoln-like” personality traits, Staehle found his high-octane Capri did share something in common with every other Lincoln he had ever been in. “I swear, you cannot feel a road bump,” he says with an incredulous laugh. “You can be on the roughest road, and it will just be as smooth as can be! It’s just hilarious!”
With that combination of great looks, hot performance and a pillowy ride, Staehle figures he’s got the best of all world’s with his Lincoln — and his Capri is an amazingly low-mileage car to boot. Only 14,003 Capri coupes were built for 1954, and it’s a good bet not many of them have fewer than the 48,000 original miles that are on Staehle’s odometer.
Truth be told, Staehle didn’t even know what a Capri was when he first heard about the beautiful, black 1954 coupe that he wound up buying. “A woman I used to work with inherited it,” he recalled. “When she first told me in ’88 that she had gotten this big Lincoln, I asked what kind of Lincoln is it and she said it was a Capri. I thought she’d say something like a Continental or something like that, because that’s what we associate with Lincoln. I thought, ‘Capri?’ So I went to the library and I did some research from these cars.”
It didn’t take long for Staehle to dig into the Capri’s performance history, and read up on how the Lincolns cleaned up in the Panamerica race from 1952-54. The races lasted five days and covered 1,908 miles, and established the Lincolns as some of the hottest street cars of the decade.
Prior to 1952, the Cosmopolitan was Lincoln’s top tier, but that changed when the Capri was unveiled for the ’52 model year. All three body styles — two-door coupe, two-door convertible and four-door sedan — used 123-inch-wheelbase chassis. Some major styling changes that gave the ’52 Lincolns a leaner, less-rounded profile. The headlights protruded slightly in front instead of being recessed, and there was “wraparound” glass in both the windshield and back window.
A new ball joint suspension system and refined power steering complimented the Lincoln’s classy looks and helped provide a quite, luxurious ride — nothing new for a Lincoln. But it was in the drivetrain where things really got interesting and set the Capris apart and gave them their wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing persona.
A new 317-cid engine for 1952 was Lincoln’s first foray into the world of overhead-valve engines, and while the company was scrapping its L-head design, it also decided to swap the Holly two-barrel carburetor for a four-barrel version in 1953. That kicked the Capri’s horsepower rating up to 205.
The fact that the early-’50s Capris packed a wallop certainly didn’t hurt when it came time for Staehle to pull the trigger on buying one.
“I had told the lady that owned it all about (the Capri’s racing background), and I gave her a packet with a bunch of information about the ‘Road Racing’ Lincolns,” said Staehle, a resident of Browsville, Wis., “I was very impressed with that, and it’s a great-looking car. I had mentioned to her at that time that, ‘If you ever decide to sell it, let me know. I’m not saying I’m going to buy it, but we’ll see.’ Then we didn’t talk about the car again for 10 years!
“Then one day after she retired, she still had it in the neighbor’s garage, and I got a letter out of the blue, and she says, ‘Danny, Sonny and I are moving to Florida, we can’t take the Lincoln, our son doesn’t want it, our daughter doesn’t want it … You were third in line, and I told you I’d let you know if we were going to sell it. Well, I’m letting you know now.’
“So, we drove down to Illinois, she lived in Arlington Heights, Ill, We drove down there and I saw it parked out in front of her house and I knew it had to be mine.”
The car had been rarely driven in the previous decade and remained in remarkably good shape. It needed a little bit of body and paint work, new wiring and some beautifying in the interior, but its overall condition reflected the low mileage on the odometer.
“The woman that I bought it from had a brother who owned the car, and he died in ’88,” Staehle said. “And so she got the car and had it for 10 years parked in the next door neighbor’s garage. She and her husband just took it out on Sunday afternoons to roll down the windows and air it out, then they put it right back in the garage! They were deathly afraid to drive it. It had rusted quite a bit in the gas tank and the gas wasn’t very good, and they were just a lot of variables — they just didn’t wait to take it out. The car just didn’t get driven.
Staehle says he now drives the gorgeous Lincoln about 500 miles a year, mostly to shows. He jumps in a Lincoln when he wants to go “retro” and jumps in his 1966 Pontiac GTO when he wants a little rougher ride. “That’s my rowdy car!” he says.
Staehle isn’t kidding when he says you can barely hear the Capri run. It’s almost impossible to hear idling unless you are standing close and the hood is up. "Yeah, people always tell me that — you can’t even hear it!” he said. “But it’s starting to show some signs that maybe it’s time to rebuild it.”
Staehle’s car is one of only 14,003 Capri two-door hardtops produced for 1954. The cars carried a base price tag of $3,869 and tipped the scales at 4,250 lbs. He says he doesn’t run into to too many other ’54 Capris during his travels, which makes the car a bit of a conversation piece among Lincoln buffs when it arrives at old car events.
“Yeah, it gets plenty of ‘oh wows, that’s pretty cool,’” he said. “I’ve had quite a few people try (to buy it), but that’s not even a thought for me.
“I did al the work on it … and when you all the work yourself, it grows on you. It’s something I did, I really like the car, and I want to keep it.”
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